Making the World a Better Place…One Playground at a Time: Artist Lawrence Stueck

There are people who create art in order to make money or to get noticed and fill the emptiness inside of themselves with the praise of others. And then there are artists, people who have to make art in order to make the world a better place. Dr. Lawrence Stueck is an artist. For a little background, Lawrence Stueck was born in Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. He attended college at Miami of Ohio, beginning in 1969, then set out building playgrounds out of old barns. He left Ohio in 1976, moving down here to Athens, earning a Masters Degree in Sculpture in 1981, and later a doctorate in 1992, after having been talked into it by the great Bob Clements. Stueck has been here in The Classic City, teaching at UGA and Athens Academy and creating political, interactive art on a grand scale ever since. – Bowen Craig

“Early on, I went to art school at Miami University (in Ohio). It was around the time of the Kent State shooting. At the time I thought only the bourgeois could buy art, that art was selling things to high-end people in big cities. I didn’t want to go that route. Those were the people in the magazines. I used to walk the stacks in the Miami library, and gravitated toward a magazine called Art and Society, about artists who wanted to make a difference in society as opposed to selling.” 

That’s Lawrence Stueck.

When forced to categorize himself as an artist, Stueck will say he’s a Constructivist, an idea that came about largely from the one year in early Soviet history when the people actually were in charge, and they looked to their artists for inspiration as to where society should go next.  

“I just wanted to do art that made a difference. And I wanted to do BIG art.” For Stueck, this meant building playgrounds. There was a transformative idea.

In the 1970s this was called, the Adventure Playground Movement, an idea that Lawrence embraced wholeheartedly. “It started in Britain after World War II. The adults were too busy rebuilding society, so the kids played in the rubble.” Part of this deceptively simple idea was that the kids who will play there should be a part of building their own play spaces. “We tore down barns, took the wood and built these things with the kids. My first group was a bunch of fifth-graders, designing a playground for kindergarteners. We’d build a floor, then some legs, then another floor.” Eventually there was a magical area built in part by the very kids whose imaginations were to be fueled by the structure they helped design and create. 

“I always thought my playgrounds were learning environments. Not knowing what a four-year-old needs, you give them lots of options. We gave them place to dig, with big piles of dirt, cities made out of cardboard. Everybody had their own jobs, and lots of fun. A lot of the kids who were unruly in classrooms blossomed.”

When they were able to get outside and get their hands dirty, these “misfits” found their niche. The Movement arrived in Athens around 1976, the same year that Lawrence arrived. Coincidence? Remember, this was a time of coming together in America. “The schools (in Athens and the South) were really just fully integrated in 1969, so there were actually more even racial numbers then.” This was before the White flight of the early 80’s, where white families fled to the suburbs and enrolled their kids in the racially-coded segregationist idea of private, often religious, schools. Before that, for a brief moment in American history, the air was tinged with the scent of possibility. With the kids themselves involved in the creative process, it became a community event. “It was kind of like a barn raising. Every school had a unique playground,” says Stueck.

Think about that for a moment. Since all of us are so heavily influenced by our early childhood experiences, we don’t even notice how much of our adult thinking was shaped by experiences we had as four- and five-year-olds. Big thinkers, long-term philosophical artists like Lawrence Stueck do think about this, but artists have always been the exception to most societal norms. He vividly remembers one day in an art class, when a precocious child builder turned to him and asked, “Dr. Stueck, why are you just staring at us? Aren’t you supposed to say nice things about our work from time to time?” Coming from the educational school of Harry Potter and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, where the goal is to encourage children to find themselves on their own, much like the Montessori philosophy, Lawrence was never a standard teacher. That would defeat the point.      

Sometimes artists like Steuck had to be a bit sneaky with “…getting this into the curriculum, adding things like maps and color wheels,” all to spark kids’ imaginations. “Sometimes we’d call it Art Disguised as Everybody Objects.” 

Stueck designed one of the many Athens artistic bus stops which dot our local landscape. “Artists need to be involved in city planning.” Think about it. “Everybody’s got fire hydrants.” In Athens, we make the functional, fantastic. “I’ve been to cities where they paint the transformer boxes. The city does a lot better than the university with having artists working, doing useful things. It’s just an attitude. You have to think you’re an artistic town.” Athens does this well. We’re not alone. Madison, Wisconsin, Greenwich Village, Provincetown. “People want to go there and catch it. It’s contagious that way. Positives and negatives are both contagious.” Needless to say, Lawrence prefers the positive.

Stueck’s MFA work from the 1980s:

After talking to Dr. Lawrence Stueck for a few minutes, it’s hard not to wonder why everyone doesn’t seem to want to live in a society which nurtures creativity, one that recognizes that when one of us rises, we all rise, a society which sees education as more than free babysitting served with a side of indoctrination. What happened? “Everything kind of went to beige,” he says. Lawrence traces this large-scale societal change for the worse back to the famous McDonald’s lawsuit, where a woman who spilled hot McDonald’s coffee on herself sued the fast-food chain for not warning her that her hot coffee was going to be hot. She sued McDonald’s…and won. There are and will always be some parents who just instinctively get what artists like Lawrence are trying to do, but due to the McDonald’s Effect, it has become more difficult in America. “The dominant culture didn’t really want inventive, autonomous creative adults, so we ran into that wall.” Still, Lawrence Stueck has a life mission. People with missions don’t let temporary nonsense like the recent spread of the Culture of Fear stop them. Anyone can have a job. Jobs come and go, even for artists. Life missions, on the other hand, stick around.   

The good news is that we don’t have to stick in this Risk Management-dominated mindset. “In the 70’s, my art was more about perception. At the UGA Gallery, I made a big, interactive installation called Ceiling-Floor, so that people could climb INTO the art and look at it from different angles. It had stairs, rope beds and a telescope at the bottom so that people could look up at the boards. So much of what I was doing was about how you perceive the world.” He did another big installation like this at the Piedmont Park Arts Festival in Atlanta and has made more than his share of UGA campus art.

Lawrence describes himself as a political artist. “I do political work, but not many artists do now. People don’t tend to like political work. Ecology and Social Justice are my main topics. I do a lot of installations about population.” Population underscores Ecology and Social Justice. He’s talking about the obvious, but rarely-discussed, 20th century explosion in the number of people living on earth, and how it ties into social injustice, an unequal division of resources, hunger, poverty, and almost any other social issue you can think of. 

As his work, and larger life mission, pertains to the current pandemic moment in time, he says, “We weren’t paying attention to things we should’ve been paying attention to. We should have been prepared and put things in place. Everybody was busy with the new iPhones or something. If they’d put the amount of money into developing a vaccine that they spent on making Game of Thrones…” He trailed off, but his point was well-made. “Our priorities have really been skewed.” However, one silver lining of a massive tragedy like this is that it often changes people’s minds in a way that nothing else can. “It might change people’s perspective right now.”

And changing perspective is what Lawrence Stueck has been working on his entire life. “Why are schools they way they are? Why would you keep building schools that look like chicken houses? People who go into education here tend not to be our brightest people. When you study Finland, they end up with great teachers and the best kids, because that’s what they want. They build small schools. All of the research says that small schools are better. In America we build big schools, because we don’t want creative adults.” Redesigning schools in order to foster curiosity and self-directed intellectual growth is easily doable in the richest country on earth. “For that matter, why do we segregate children by age?” 

Why? Because “bureaucracies default to boring to avoid any risk exposure,” he says.

That may be the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. 

But, even with these realizations, Dr. Lawrence Stueck’s life mission remains in tact. He remains optimistic about our future.

“The last learning environment I made was about the Seven Elements of Art, 2016,
a one school year interactive installation in the gallery at Athens Academy.
Leonard Piha helped with Form made with cardboard furniture, Lorraine Thompson with the Texture.
this photo shows the Color wheel house and the Space element. Line kept changing it was yarn on 200 nails on the wall and Shape was a converted former sculpture called High School Identity Triangulation.
guess it was my “last playground.”
  • 1. Plastic Pontoon Party Raft made by UGA students (2018), plastic (good and bad) awareness festival at Lake Harrick.
  • 2. Gyroscope House – East Athens Park with map of Athens-Clarke County on floor it is about location and agency of individuals, made with Leonard Piha.
  • 3. The Great Acceleration Model proposed for bridge near art school at UGA. Designed to increase conversation about planet earth and what we all need to do to make it a success for all.
  • 4. Thicket, loft made by first graders at Barrow Elementary when it had high ceilings in the 1970’s made with “free” saplings and plywood with hand tools 5′ high floor with desk looking over room.
  • 5. Earthworks, two hundred ton late 1970’s educational learning environment at Barnett Shoals Elementary classes took turns going out and digging and playing in the dirt for about one month, until it was too packed down to dig. (plus the parents had washed enough clothes)
  • 6/7. Mezzanine, 3rd grade classroom transformation putting all the desk upstairs looking over a central courtyard. Underneath were reading areas and small group gathering areas. Loved the fact the kids could look down on the teacher and they had the big open center to gather, bonus were the tall walls surrounding the courtyard.
  • 8/9/10. Mini City, Super City and Littletown (70s/80s), built and run by three third-grade classes over the course of their school year. I helped the teacher Dolly Davis direct the building at Barnett Shoals Elementary over the course of a few years. These were designed to embed the skills and information lessons we wanted the students to learn in the context of real life. Of course, the future writers had a newspaper, the business folks had a toy factory and store, the busybodies ran the government, and the educators had a school, etc. We all had great fun and still can’t believe we got away with it three times.