In Memoriam: Laura DeAngelis (1973-2022)

Laura DeAngelis with “Eagle” at Johnson County Community College (photo by Bret Gustafson)

The main purpose of her art, said Laura DeAngelis, was to reveal “the workings of our inner worlds and in turn, the visible reflection of that which is invisible.” The accomplished Kansas City artist, who passed away April 25 in Purcellville, Virginia, wanted her art to probe “the ancient and mysterious connection between humans and animals.”

DeAngelis’ ceramic depictions of various creatures combined the zoological with the mythic in a dazzling variety of sculptures, including notable public installations in the Kansas City area.

DeAngelis was born in Virginia and graduated in 1995 from the sculpture department at the Kansas City Art Institute. Her first major art commission, for Art in the Loop, was the 2008 “Celestial Flyways and Star Disk,” an interactive kinetic artwork that she designed and constructed with the Zahner company for the Oppenstein Brothers Memorial Park at 12th and Walnut. Besides sculptures of 15 native birds and numerous handmade tiles, DeAngelis fabricated “Star Disk,” the world’s largest known modern re-creation of an anaphoric clock, an ancient astronomical machine that reveals the exact position of 457 stars and constellations overhead when the date and time are set. She also asked her friend Peregrine Honig to contribute drawings of animals for the project.

Laura DeAngelis, “Keeper” (2012), ceramic, encaustic, freshwater pearls, 11 x 9 x 11” (collection Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas / photo by E.G. Schempf)

“Laura was a great natural storyteller,” Honig remembers. “She had tremendous sensitivity and an extraordinary creative compass. Everything she touched turned to gold. Everything was meticulously considered, like the greatest of Renaissance artists.”

The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College also owns two DeAngelis works. DeAngelis was deeply concerned with environmentalism and animal abuse. “Keeper,” a clay sculpture of an opossum from 2012, is deliberately scary. Its teeth and nails are prominently displayed as it rips open a pomegranate to discover a pearl, and hundreds of pearls are embedded in the fruit and the opossum’s stomach. A true masterpiece, its disturbing realism is heightened by an encaustic coating so that the little beast almost glows in the dark.

DeAngelis knew that historically, opossums are often depicted as representations of vigilance, or during times when “sin plays dead.” In the Old Testament pomegranates symbolize righteousness, as they are thought to contain 613 seeds which correspond to the 613 commandments of the Torah. DeAngelis wrote that pearls, which come from the massive farming and harvesting of oysters, represent “the struggles, triumphs, cruelty, and beauty that accompany this arduous seeking of the rare and the strange — gems born out of hardship.”

Laura DeAngelis, “Hybrid Vigor” (2012), ceramic, encaustic, freshwater pearls, 16 x 9 x 11” (courtesy Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art / photo by E.G. Schempf)

Her other commissioned artwork for Johnson County Community College is “Eagle,” an outdoor memorial for Johnson County police officers killed in the line of duty. DeAngelis researched the art deco ornament on Kansas City’s downtown architecture, which includes portrayals of the feathered American icon, for inspiration. While “Eagle” references those designs, her depiction, sculpted meticulously from white clay, feather by feather, is also close in sentiment to Indigenous peoples’ belief that the eagle is sacred and a messenger from God.

There is also work by DeAngelis in the permanent collection of the Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom, and in numerous personal collections here and across the country.

At the end of her life DeAngelis was living in Virginia, close to family, where she often took long walks in the woods with four goats she had raised since birth.

As a result of a car accident decades ago, DeAngelis struggled with physical health problems along with bipolar disease. At the age of 48 she died by suicide.

Her family requests that donations be made to suicide prevention centers and helplines in her memory.

Peregrine Honig has been working with the Kansas City Art Institute to establish a special fund in Laura DeAngelis’ name to help students with mental health issues. If you would like to contribute, please visit donate.kcai.edu. Click “Give” in the top right corner and select the “In Honor/Memory of” Fund on the left-hand side. Enter the amount you wish to donate, and in the “Additional Details – MY GIFT IS IN HONOR/IN MEMORY OF:” section, type Laura DeAngelis. If you prefer to donate by phone, please call 816-802-3465. If you have any questions, please email advancement@kcai.edu.

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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