Linda Lighton sculpture

Artist Linda Lighton's porcelain works illuminate the connection between earth and sky

By ELISABETH KIRSCH, Special to The Star

Linda Lighton's exhibit "Luminous" is part sanctuary and part Vegas lounge act. But that's normal for this Kansas City artist with a long and colorful family history, who typically combines the sacred and profane in a manner both ethereal and exhilaratingly earthy.

The show consists of 70 pale porcelain chandeliers, or light sculptures, that hang in seven groupings from the 16-foot ceiling of the Greenlease Gallery at Rockhurst University.

Depending on your viewpoint, the ceramic forms, each different, can appear phallic or resemble upside down blossoms, claws or bird beaks. A soothing glow emanates from within and without the thin-walled lamps, thanks to special LED lighting. To heighten the environmental ambience, Lighton had some of the walls painted a midnight blue.

She then researched music that reinforced her theme of "luminous." She focused especially on the expressive work of Paul Rudy, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music, who was recently awarded the Elliott Carter Rome Prize in musical composition. His music plays continuously in the space, along with selections by other composers.

There is a bench in the center of the one-room gallery where one can sit, listen and contemplate.

Lighton is a ceramic artist who has exhibited throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and Israel. Three of her porcelain sculptures, inspired by her trademark references to flora and fauna, were recently featured in the Nelson-Atkins Museum's "Magnificent Gifts" 75th anniversary show. The exhibit included one of Lighton's gigantic flower forms and two fantastical plant pieces that incorporate male and female anatomical references.

A graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute's ceramic department, Lighton has consistently combined the delicate elegance of porcelain with a strong whiff of the baser stuff. In other words, her work is pretty sexy.

With her passion for organic forms, a clear feminist impulse runs through Lighton's work. But her art involves much more than gender issues.

"My work," she states repeatedly, "has always focused on the life-force."

Two years ago, her major exhibition "Boundless Joy" at the Carter Art Center at Penn Valley Community College was an explosion of colored porcelain sculpture inspired by marine life forms that are hermaphroditic and startlingly shaped. Like all her best work, it was scary, fearless and beautiful.

She next decided to pursue a long-time dream: to explore the concept of the "luminous."

Luminosity, to Lighton, means "light from within." With this new body of work, she decided: "I am going for a different kind of stature, less drama, more grace, a last soft breath, a graceful exhale. Perhaps for the earth." Lighton began by making her own clay, combining specialty powders and chemicals to an exact consistency. She then poured the clay into molds made for each piece.

"This part was very, very tricky," Lighton says, "because these forms are big for porcelain."

After removing the forms from the mold, Lighton had to open each one, pare it down and/or add petals. Thirty pieces collapsed in the kiln at one point, and she had to start again.

She learned to wire them herself, as she experimented with many different ways to hang them. The whole process took two years. "In the end," Lighton says, "the pieces are kind of human because they all have some flaws."

Lighton has always charted a unique course in the art world here, no matter that her work has made some uncomfortable. Her tenacious personal vision might owe something to her family history, which has been a force for more than 150 years in the Kansas City area.

Her two great-great uncles started a store where they made shirts in 1860 in Leavenworth, selling to the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok. Their store eventually became the nationally known fashion emporium Woolf Brothers, located in downtown Kansas City and the Country Club Plaza.

Growing up, Lighton worked in the back room there and in her grandmother Gertrude Jean Lighton's shop, the Lighton Studio on Main Street.

"My grandmother was intimidating but interesting," Lighton recalls. "In 1938, she started the first contemporary art gallery in Kansas City on the West Side. She bought a whorehouse, moved out all the girls, had art downstairs with a tea room, and artist studios upstairs. She gave Thomas Hart Benton his first show in Kansas City. It was considered scandalous, but it was the hot place to go. All the socialites showed up in their chauffeur-driven cars.

"During World War II, she closed the gallery and donated the building to the Mattie Rhodes Foundation. She later opened the Lighton Studio in midtown.

"She also was one of the founders and the first treasurer of the Friends of Art at the Nelson Museum," Lighton says, "was good friends with Laurence Sickman" — the Nelson's longtime director — "and traveled with him to Asia."

Lighton has vivid memories of her grandmother's treasures.

"She was quite the connoisseur," she says. "She owned the biggest collection of pewter in the world. She also had 360 sets of fine dishes. And she brought back major artifacts from Tibet."

In good family fashion, Lighton has lived out her own wild-child side. She moved to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in 1968 and was living in Seattle at age 21 when her daughter Rose was born.

The two of them lived for a while on the Colville Reservation in Washington, where they experienced a true back-to-nature lifestyle. She started studying ceramics when she lived in Seattle.

Linda Lighton, Luminous show at Rockhurst, Kansas City, MO

For her exhibit at the Greenlease Gallery, Linda Lighton had the walls painted midnight blue. Music by UMKC Conservatory composer Paul Rudy and others plays continuously in the space.

Linda Lighton, Luminous show at Rockhurst, Kansas City, MO

It makes sense to Lighton that she inherited her grandmother's love of porcelain. She also has great respect for her grandmother's Tibetan Buddhist art, some of which is installed in her own home.

The mind/body dualities that still exist in Western culture are foreign to Tibetan Buddhist belief systems. The famous Buddhist "yab-yum" sculptures of couples in complete embrace, which represent the union of compassion (the female) with that of wisdom (the male), represent the ultimate spiritual goal of enlightenment.

Lighton's sculptures in "Luminous" attempt something like that, as they merge the feminine aspect of earth with the masculine quality of air, resulting in light-giving art.

"I just love it," Lighton says, "that I've finally managed to get part of the earth permanently in the air."

Source: Kansas City Star

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