'Spheres' sculptures installed at Performing Arts Center

slinn@thetribunenews.comJanuary 14, 2014 

Three stainless steel spheres are the first permanent pieces of public art to grace the broad, sweeping plaza in front of the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo.

Installed Monday, the sculpture group “Spheres” was formally presented Tuesday afternoon to Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong by Portland, Ore., artist Ivan McLean, local arts patron Patricia Kohlen and her family, and representatives of the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center. Also in attendance were San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx, members of the San Luis Obispo City Council and Cal Poly faculty members and graduates, among others.

Praising the dedication of Kohlen and her late husband, Cal Poly architecture professor Ken Kohlen, Armstrong described “Spheres” as “a fitting way to honor Ken and to also complement this wonderful facility.”

Commissioned by the Kohlen family, “Spheres” features five- and seven-foot-tall spherical sculptures to the left of the plaza and a 10-foot sphere to the right.

They’re the latest in a series of sizable donations to the PAC by foundation members, foundation Executive Director Heather Cochrane said; past gifts include the Forbes Pipe Organ, a state-of-the-art Constellation sound system and a high-definition projector.

Patricia Kohlen and her family have been PAC supporters from the start, she said.

“We also feel very proud and very grateful to Cal Poly,” Kohlen said, for “providing our family with an excellent education which then provided (us) with excellent career opportunities.”

Kohlen, who earned her master’s degree at Cal Poly, spent 27 years as an elementary school teacher for the Atascadero Unified School District.

Her husband, who taught at Cal Poly for 28 years, earned bachelor degrees in architecture and architectural engineering at the university. And her daughter, San Luis Obispo dietitian Corinne Kohlen, received all her higher schooling there.

To show their gratitude, Patricia Kohlen and her husband made a provision in their trust in 1992 to bring art to the PAC plaza, with the gift scheduled to occur after their deaths. But Kohlen decided to set that plan in motion early, in part so she could participate in the selection process.

“I thought, ‘Why wait?’” she explained.

It took about 18 months and three committees to select a sculptor and settle on a piece, said Kohlen, who also consulted with PAC Managing Director Ron Regier and Mark Hunter, Cal Poly’s associate vice president for facilities. (Kohlen gave the funding for “Spheres” to the Foundation for the Performing Arts, which then donated it to Cal Poly; she declined to say how much the sculptures cost.)

“I wanted pieces that were noncontroversial, non-gender specific, non-racial-non religious, not too abstract nor too formal nor too classical,” Kohlen said, ideally abstract, nonfigurative pieces with universal appeal.

She found what she was searching for in McLean’s clean, sophisticated sculptures.

A native of Point Reyes Station, McLean earned a bachelor’s degree in farm management from Cal Poly before eventually branching into furniture making and sculpture.

“I really learned to be a decent welder at the farm shop on the campus there,” said McLean, who credits his time at Cal Poly with giving him the confidence to launch his artistic career. “I really owe a big debt of gratitude toward the school.”

McLean crafts his spherical sculptures by welding together two to six-inch-long pieces of three-eighth-inch round steel rods. A 10-foot sphere, which takes about four weeks to finish, features roughly 2,200 feet of rod.

“It’s just amazing how much work goes into them,” said McLean, whose spheres can be found at private homes and corporate campuses across the country, including the San Barbara headquarters of software company QAD.

In February 2013, he brought three sample spheres as well two other sculptures — the kinetic, doughnut-shaped “Reinvention” and a cluster of towering poles — to the PAC plaza to see which would fit best.

Once she saw the spheres, Kohlen said, “I was blown away.”

With “Spheres,” McLean said he wanted to capture the connection, energy and vibrancy of a dance troupe. He compared the lively patterns created by the interlinked rods to the movements of a school of fish.

According to McLean and Kohlen, “Spheres” is intended to complement the PAC’s graceful curves, not compete with them.

Ideally, Kohlen said, “the spheres will encircle the plaza, and it will create a more intimate, hopefully warm, place where people may want to linger a little more.”

“It’s just going to make a wonderful thing hopefully a little more wonderful,” she added.

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