“I’ve been retired for four years. I miss the excitement and enjoy the freedom,” says Steve Abend, an award-winning architect known for such high-profile projects as the Whittaker U.S. Courthouse building in downtown Kansas City, and the renovation and expansion of the Liberty Memorial.
The word “relax” is not part of Abend’s vocabulary. Retirement means more time to focus on his longtime passion for collecting art and a chance to explore new creative pursuits.
Beginning in 2012, Abend designed and built seven Zen gardens in the backyard of the Ward Parkway home he shares with his wife, Barbara.
“The garden is designed as a sequence of events,” Abend explained during a recent walk-through. “There are seven islands. Every island has a separate design.”
Varying in shape and size, each island features a different variety of Japanese maple — Crimson Queen, Burgundy Lace, Oregon Sunset — and assorted low plantings ranging from spiky black mondo grass and rubbery sedums to fern-like leptinellas and creeping phlox.
Massings of rhodendrons, azaleas, daylilies and hydrangeas join imaginary streams created from Mexican beach pebbles. Partially buried stones connote disintegrating paths. A pile of stones at the base of a tree is meant to evoke workers who tired and left them there.
It’s all part of what Abend describes as the “cerebral aesthetic” of Zen gardens.
“Part of it is mystery,” he said. “You can’t see it all at once. It lets the imagination wander. Scale is important; (so are) lines that disappear and go beyond your line of sight. In Oriental design, odd numbers are better than even.”
Years ago, at Harvard, Abend took a course in Japanese garden design, but he received less than an A-plus when he asked local Japanese landscaping expert Koji Morimoto to grade his current efforts.
“Morimoto diplomatically let me know it could be a lot better,” Abend said. “It was a team effort to make it better.”
A focal point of the garden is an arrangement of large black rocks that serve as benches in the largest island. Abend purchased them online from a quarry in Wisconsin, which sent pictures, “lining up the boulders like a chorus line.”
Abend has placed the boulders in a grassy plaza that surrounds a colorful sculpture by noted California assemblage artist Robert Hudson.
“Part of the design was to create a place for people to enjoy the piece,” he said.
The Hudson work is just one of the sculptures Abend has sited around the property. A Jun Kaneko dango (named for the Japanese word for dumpling) nestles beneath two trees along a path leading to the house.
“I think it’s animal-like,” Abend said. “The way the curved forms warp the stripes to the shape like a zebra.”
A glade at the end of the driveway provides an aptly jungle-like setting for a figurative ceramic work incorporating skulls, cut-off heads and tigers that Abend has nicknamed “Apocalypse Now.” Korean born-ceramic artist Sunkoo Yuh created the sculpture; Abend designed the elegant, minimalist geometric base out of recycled slate roofing.
The front yard contains big statements, including “Under the Forest,” a grouping of five graceful 8-foot-tall ceramic forms suggesting twisting tree trunks or human limbs by noted Chilean artist Fernando Casasempere.
Abend bought the work at auction three years ago, following an exhibition of the piece in the Jerwood Sculpture Park on the grounds of Ragley Hall, a historic estate in Warwickshire, England. Before the sculpture arrived at his house, Abend experimented with where the forms should go, using cardboard boxes as stand-ins. He eventually decided on a site along a drive at the north end of his property.
The most recent addition to Abend’s outdoor art gallery is a graceful attenuated sculpture of a heron created from tree saplings and wire ties. Titled “Poised,” the 20-foot-high work was created by Mythmakers, the artist team of Donna Dodson and Andy Moerlein from Boston. After the piece was installed amid a stand of pines at the end of last summer, Abend found a note in his door. “It was on beautiful stationery,” he said, “saying how much the writer enjoyed the work.”
Living along such a well-trafficked thoroughfare as Ward Parkway, Abend is aware that his yard is also “the public’s living room.” He loves providing “an opportunity for people to get close to art and (perhaps) take a chance and do it themselves.”
Heading toward the house, one encounters a signature figurative sculpture by Steven De Staebler and one of Kansas City artist Russell Ferguson’s sculptural constructions in wood.
Inside, a colorful, impastoed painting by Dutch artist Karel Appel, a founder of the avant-garde Cobra movement, arrests the eye.
“He was one of the first artists I became interested in,” Abend said. “I was an undergrad at Washington University, and I picked up an art magazine in the library. I didn’t know anything, but when I saw Karel Appel, that got me.”
The Appel painting hangs over the couch in a room notable for its grouping of Navajo Yei masks, made of deerskin and used in a ceremony for health and welfare, and a quietly insistent canvas by Claudia Bernardi, an artist known for works memorializing victims of political violence in her native Latin America. Abend bought the painting at the Byron Cohen Gallery.
Over the years, Abend has patronized almost every gallery in Kansas City — including Dolphin, Sherry Leedy, Myra Morgan, Jan Weiner — in addition to buying at auction and working with New York galleries like Sean Horton. Horton handled Abend’s commission of the enormous Keltie Ferris abstraction that hangs over a staircase. The painting was so big, he said, that Ferris had to modify the spray booth in her studio to make it.
The paintings in Abend’s collection must share the walls with the work that captured his imagination from the first: ceramics.
“The first piece of art I bought was a big ceramic platter by Paul Soldner,” he said. “When I first got out of school, I did five buildings at the Kansas City Art Institute. When I did the ceramics building, I met the faculty. There was something about all that clay I was drawn to.”
That first Soldner platter is part of a “Wall of Heroes” display that Abend has created on the lower level. It includes early and late plates by Peter Voulkos and Jim Leedy and a circa 2000 plate by Paul Allen.
Abend has collected multiple works by Ken Ferguson. Four of the artist’s “Adam and Eve” platters hang on either side of the doors in an eating nook off the kitchen. Abend developed a passion for platters, even from artists not known for them, like George Timock, who obliged when Abend approached him and said, “I want a plate by you.”
The Timock plate is part of a grouping in the dining room that includes a four-part wall plaque by B. Bennett Bean and an exquisite 1987 Ruth Duckworth plate with a geometric design in soft earth tones. The three works fill the wall above a muscular Wendell Castle sidetable, with a stairstep design and rowdy rutabaga-inspired legs that continue upward past the table top.
It’s hard to think of a ceramic artist, local or national, that Abend has not collected. A Jesse Small porcelain work is mounted on a shed outdoors. Abend has bought Chris Gustin in depth and also owns works by Dan Reitz, Rudy Autio, Michael Lucero and Viola Frey.
“Viola Frey did lots of plates before she started her big figures,” Abend said. “The self-portrait plates (I have) are typical works of the late 1970s, incorporating her hand, her face. One is called ‘Raindrops’ after the globs of colored clay.”
Abend’s ceramic holdings are international, with pieces from England, Spain and Japan, including works by Japanese folk potters in Onda. His collection includes a striking platter on the theme of a cockfight by Lucio Fontana. “ It has some of the same slashing energy as his paintings,” Abend said.
The Abends have always been fairly private about their collection, but they recently agreed to a visit from the Kemper Museum’s Collectors Forum group of connoisseur and patron level members.
If the weather is fine, they are likely to enjoy a moment in the garden, which will mean a bit of work, beyond planning refreshments.
Although the design work is done, those seven plots require constant attention, which has Abend thinking.
“I’m going to find another project to justify getting someone else to pull the weeds,” he said. “The more experiences in life, the better.”
To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4763 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The other side
This is the final part in a series of stories looking at “the other side” of eminent professionals in the art world and how they channel their creative energy in other endeavors. Read our previous profiles of city art administrator Porter Arneill and John O’Brien, owner of Hammer Out Design, at KansasCity.com.