Linda Lighton sculpture

Working to Build Bridges

Linda Lighton





from Kansas City Jewish Life,
Spring 1997, p. 24-28
article by Joshua Rose, photo by Scott Irwig


At 708 E. 31st St. in the neighborhood of Kansas City's historic Hyde Park stands an old brick building bearing only a garage door and the painted letters "Allsman CORP." As traffic passes back and forth between the street's parked cars, Lynn Adkins is in the garage patiently restoring a beautiful '51 Chevy truck. Upstairs, Linda Lighton, his wife, is building bridges to a new day.

Lighton, who, incidentally, knows almost nothing about the Allsman sign outside, is not worried about labels. She grew up daughter of Al Lighton -- "Mr. Woolf Brothers" -- yet pursued a career as an artist. When she became old enough to fend for herself, she left her comfortable home in Kansas City to explore the northwest United States, moving in and out of different towns. With her boyfriend, Lighton eventually moved onto an Indian reservation, where running down to the grocery store meant a 50-mile drive.

"The Indians refused to talk to me for a long while," Lighton said of the experience. "But, eventually, I made them accept me."

As an artist, Lighton believes bridging gaps is essential in her work. She lives according to the principle that every friendship we make makes a difference in the struggle for world peace. Lately, Lighton has represented the United States in places such as Latvia and Japan, where she participated in international arts symposiums. She now is preparing to journey through Mexico with her sights on the museums and the archaeological digs of Vera Cruz.

I would like to reach many people with my art," Lighton said, " not just Americans."

"I am very much interested in people coming together and being able to relate. I think even one person going abroad and being nice is a big political stroke."

At the same time, Lighton is constantly working to bring the arts to local communities. Soon after her trip to Mexico, the artist will find herself at the remote Niagua School in southeast Missouri, where she will teach children who possibly never have been exposed to art. During her month-long stay Lighton will introduce a ceramic program in which she will encourage her students to create images from their dreams.

Children throughout the Kansas City area also are benefiting from Lighton's commitment to arts education. In particular, Lighton is very active in the local chapter of Young Audiences, which she described as "a cutting-edge program for coordinating arts in school and in the curriculum." According to Lighton, the Kansas/Missouri chapter is the strongest of the national organization.

As a representative of Young Audiences, Lighton teams up with local teachers to demonstrate in the classroom the awesome instructional capacity of art. She often has found that those seemingly "impossible" students light up when their creativity is encouraged.

"There are more ways to learn than just through lectures," Lighton said. "We learn through smelling and feeling what we're talking about."

Such is the approach of Mind's Edge, a summer camp held at Paseo Middle School for all the children in the Kansas City area. Lighton initiated this program two years ago and continues to teach at the camp, where dance instructors teach history and weavers teach math classes. This free program targets not just artistic children but draws anyone with a hungry mind. Admission is granted to any youth who has the courage to interview.

"The camp is not specifically for artists," Lighton said. "It's about opening our eyes as to what art is about. It's about living life -- giving life a capital L."

Lighton knows that sometimes children can be much more open-minded than their parents about the value of art. Since 1980, when she permanently moved back to Kansas City, Lighton has begged, borrowed, and raised money however she could to support initiatives such as the KC Contemporary Arts Center (now as Leedy-Voulkas Gallery). She worked on the 1 percent for the Arts Project and was on the board at the Nelson-Adkins Museum of Art for many years.

In the past 17 years, Lighton has witnessed a growing appreciation for the arts in Kansas City. She has personally held dozens of successful exhibitions and now can point to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Design as the culmination of local activism.

But all of these efforts can't compete with the respect shown artists throughout the world, she said. Lighton remembered being trailed in Japan by the media for days on end. When the exhibition finally opened, members of the local audience examined every piece for 20 minutes. She also recalled how grateful people in Russia were to have any kind of beauty reintroduced into their lives.

Of course, her travels also have revealed critical global issues such as starvation and religious intolerance. In Latvia, the Estonian representative for the arts stood before her audience and delivered an anti-Semitic monologue about doctors and lawyers. Symbolically Lighton declared through an interpreter, "I am Jewish." Nobody would speak to her after that.

And then there is the discrimination that some women artists encounter right here in the United States. Lighton said colleges virtually exclude women from teaching art and that women have a tougher time procuring exhibitions, where they get paid less than men.

Much of Lighton's art deals with feminist issues as well as political and spiritual unions.

Perhaps the most recognizable figure of Lighton's collection is a bridge formed by two people joining hands above their heads and giving their weight to one another. One visitor in the last exhibition interpreted this balanced form as a physical struggle, but Lighton took no offense.

"I just kind of thought it looked like a bridge," she laughed.

Lighton's open mind is reflected in her range of styles, which take observers from downtrodden earth figures to a variety of vibrant flowers. All of her work is done in clay, which is a perfect medium for her fluid approach to art.

"Clay has a mind of its own," she said. "It demands that the artist be willing to adapt."

One of the pieces she is working on is a bald-headed Japanese man striking a meditative pose. The figure might appear complete, but Lighton is considering whether or not to sit him on a skyscraper. Why not? She's turned the heads of businessmen into office buildings and dressed various forms of architecture in judges' gowns. In these instances she is just basically poking fun at institutionalized thinking.

"Sometimes you'll see a businessman discover something that works," she said, "and then, he'll do it over, and over, and over again."

Much of Lighton's work represents an interpretation of a basic Zen Buddhist principle: "As soon as anything becomes defined, that thing has lost its power. So, the natural response is to go with the flow, to be willing and able to change."

Maybe Zen philosophy can explain why Lighton sometimes takes a 2 x 4 to a block of clay. In order to communicate the roughness of life -- and, in a sense, to keep herself honest -- she creates symbols of human survival without ever touching the clay. Whacking with lumber at a shape and whittling with a knife, in this case, results in powerful representations of morality.

The artist also creates inspired work from personal experiences such as death and separation. But sometimes, Lighton admitted, she needs a relief from such heavy subject matter. Consequently, she creates sculptured flowers, which can be breathtaking because of their lively detail and spirit. Her subjects have included an echinacea, peony and begonia.

Lighton has devoted her life not only to art but to demonstrating its educational and political promise.

Joshua Rose is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan and a free-lance writer.



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