Linda Lighton sculpture

Artists in Latvia Get By With Few Amenities, Meager Provisions

The Kansas City Star Sunday
November 28, 1993
by Laura R. Hockaday

This Thanksgiving has been a special time of reflection for Kansas City artist Linda Lighton, who spent a month in Latvia, where people have learned to live with very little.

"People there are so gaunt, I can't help but think they are hungry," she said. "When I asked them if they were hungry, they said Americans were so fat because they ate food with 'all those preservatives.'"

"I'm used to drinking eight glasses of water a day, but water there is so polluted that even Latvians must boil it before they drink it. Heat and hot water are scarce. Money has been devalued 100 per cent."

"An artist I met who had saved enough money to live comfortably for the next 10 years, now can barely pay a month's rent. Telephones don't work. If you want to make a phone call overseas, you pay in advance and wait hours for the call to go through."

"And getting a traveler's check cashed was near to impossible. I was told there were 600 banks in Riga, the capital of Latvia, but that only one would cash a traveler's check. I was sent to five offices within that bank. Where I had to sign a lot of papers and turn over my passport for a while."

In spite of all the frustrations, Lighton wants to go back next summer -- to the neighboring Baltic nation of Lithuania. She has been invited by the female director of a bone china factory in Kaunas, a major city in the former Soviet republic. It will be another chance to learn about a culture that has been virtually closed to foreign visitors for so long.

Last summer, Lighton, 45, the daughter of former Woolf Brothers chief Alfred H. Lighton of Mission Hills and the late Jean Lighton, was one of two people from the United States to attend an artists' symposium in Latvia. She lived for a month in Jurmala, a city on the Gulf of Riga, 20 minutes by car or train from the Latvian capital.

Sixty artists from throughout the world attended the exchange program, sponsored by Lakeside Art and Culture International, based in Chicago. Artists lived and ate at the Latvian Artists' Union, which was operated like a hotel. Studios were available next door.

"It was a fantastic opportunity to exchange ideas with great minds from all over the world and to learn new ways of doing things," said Lighton, who has been working in ceramics more than 20 years. "It was a chance to be with enamelers, textile, and ceramic artists. Artists are revered in Latvia. People there know about Jim Leedy and (the late) Dale Eldred from Kansas City."

Art a Way of Life

If Latvian artists can join an artists' union, they are given a stipend, said Lighton.

"Union membership is very competitive, and the stipend is small by our standards," she said. "Union artists receive 30 lats a month. A lat is equivalent to about $1.60. Art and artists are appreciated because during the Russian occupation, people didn't go to restaurants or shops -- there weren't that many -- they went to art shows. People over there are so cultured. You can split hairs with a cab driver over an aria."

Lighton said that eating was as vital as learning for craftsmen from Riga who were invited to join the 60 visiting artists for a symposium in Jurmala.

"They were all on time for meals, and they were savoring the heat and hot water in Jurmala, which were not available at the time in Riga. There was plenty of food at the artists' union where we were staying, but I had a distinct feeling that any food going back to the kitchen was being recycled. At one point local artists left the symposium to go home and pick apples to save for winter."

"In the morning we'd have a large meal of porridge, pancakes, salami, cheese, and tea. The dairy products were very good. For lunch we had a broth or soup of some kind, bread with good real butter, meat and mashed potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes, and a compote of fruit. No caviar or fish were served, which seemed strange because we were on the water. I think the whole Baltic Sea must be polluted, but the beaches are beautiful."

"We had lunch about 2 o'clock and a light supper around 7 o'clock. People smoked cigarettes made in Poland but they had names like Kansas, State Line, and Cowboy."

"A young Latvian boy from Riga, who joined our group, was hit by a car hauling a trailer with no lights and had to spend nearly 15 days in the hospital. He had a crushed elbow. He got out near the end of the symposium and said that because both his parents were doctors, he was told to go around the hospital and give shots to patients. He said there were four people to his hospital room, that it stank and was filthy, but that he was able to eat regular meals."

Lighton went to Latvia prepared for anything. She took a portable water purifier, washing liquid for clothes, and antibiotics.

"I gave all my antibiotics to an Estonian artist who was sick during most of the symposium. She had a horrible tooth problem; her mouth was very swollen. Everyone has bad teeth there."

Lighton said that although she was in Latvia at the time Moscow was under siege and Russian leader Boris Yeltsin was in trouble, people in Jurmala were not concerned.

"People in Latvia were very pro-Yeltsin," she said, "but in general, Russians are hated in Latvia. I was told during the Russian occupation that 500,000 Latvians were marched to Siberia. In the daily paper there is a 'Russia Watch,' that tells how many Russians are leaving and entering the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Fifty-seven percent of the people living in Latvia are Russian. Many are retired military. They can become citizens if they learn to speak Latvian."

Because many Latvians do not speak much English, communicating with people wasn't easy, but Lighton said the people were warm and willing, "They were great hosts and were very receptive to what we wanted. They loved learning about America. I was interviewed nearly every day by the local media."


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