In 1953, Manassas wasn't exactly a mecca for modern art -- or any other type of art.
That's when Manassas native Joseph Henry Lonas, a young sculptor, College of William and Mary graduate and World War II veteran, took his talents and ambitions to Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship.
Lonas stayed there and devoted his life to art, rising to fame over the years for his innovative, thought-provoking abstract works. Today, Lonas is 79, and nearly a dozen of his pieces are on display in Berlin. Others can be seen in Paris and in Wolfsburg, Germany.
This week, Lonas's work will debut in Manassas.
"Synthesis & Innovation" opens Wednesday at Old Town's Center for the Arts, and will feature 10 sculptures, 12 acrylic paintings and 10 of Lonas's early charcoal drawings and watercolors, among other pieces. It runs through Oct. 29.
Lonas and his wife, Edith, and her brother, Gunther Wieneke, are expected to return to Manassas in time for the opening.
"I'm happy that the center is going to exhibit my work," Lonas said in a telephone interview from his home in Berlin. "I'm happy in a way that it will be shown in my hometown."
Center for the Arts officials said the exhibition will be the city's first international art show. Manassas is only the second U.S. location to feature Lonas's work.
"We're involving our region with art that they're not necessarily used to seeing on a daily basis," said Anna Lippert, director of the center's Caton Merchant Family Gallery. "And they can come in and ask us about it. And we want them to come in and ask us about it."
Lonas's art is best known for blending nontraditional, organic shapes with rigid, straight forms, Lippert said.
His work "Sundial" is an upright sculpture consisting of two jagged, rough pieces of bronze connected by two long, straight strips of bronze. Another, smaller strip rests on top of one of the bronze forms.
"Of course my art is mostly abstract; it's called aesthetical comprehension," Lonas said. "And some of it is more meditative. That is you can look at some and meditate, but it has to do also with tension."
Several art experts said Lonas was the first artist to create sculptures that can be physically rearranged by observers.
"It's three-dimensional," Lonas said of such works. "To change the space and manipulate the space, I think that's an innovation from me. It's not like Legos, because most of these pieces don't have the same form. . . . My experience is that some people have twisted them around into shapes that I've never seen myself."
He is also known for incorporating into his sculpture an eclectic mixture of materials, including aluminum, glass, Plexiglas, steel, polymer and concrete.
"He started working with concrete at a time when nobody used concrete," Lippert said. "He was also doing something that no one has done together, blending art and architecture."
One of Lonas's sculptures functions as an air duct for the building it sits besides. It's a large, green, industrial-style work with inconspicuous holes that serve as vents.
Miles Chappell, chairman of the art and art history department at the College of William and Mary, called it "ingenious."
Lonas "seems to think of pieces that demand their own space and demand our respect for them," Chappell said. "He creates a kind of language of his own that's very abstract and very elegant."
Lonas has been right there, moving in line with all the developments of modern art from the 1940s onward, Chappell said.
"When the predominant interest was in abstraction, here was Joseph Lonas," he said.
Lonas, who gained fame in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, is not widely known in this country, several art experts said.
Part of the reason is that Lonas has never been one for self-promotion. He considers himself modest but not shy.
"I think my work will show what I am," he said. "I don't have to make a big splash about myself."
Mary Weston, a close friend who, along with her husband, cares for Lonas's works in the United States, is gladly helping out in that department.
"I think that honestly, everyone underneath wants to be recognized and appreciated," said Weston, who lives in Prince William County. "But he's not a person who would hire a bunch of people to push his work and tell them how great he is. That's something that I really admire about him. He's such a pure artist."
Weston set up a Web site for Lonas's work, www.josephlonas.com, and is looking to arrange exhibitions elsewhere in the United States.
Up until now, the College of William and Mary was the only other place in the United States to feature Lonas's work. The school's Muscarelle Museum of Art keeps more than 50 of his pieces, including two sculptures that are on permanent display there.
"He has always wanted to get his works back into the country. He didn't want to leave them in Germany," Weston said. "Our main interest is to try to get [his work] exhibited so people will appreciate it."