Linda Lighton sculpture

The Long & Winding Road — To Her Art

Kansas City Home Design Magazine
p. 60-65, Sept. 1999

by Roderick Townley

Pale pink and palest yellow, the ceramic leaves twist upward from a dark gunmetal pot. On closer view, the container appears to be bursting apart, as bulging tubers push their way out the sides. The work is dramatic, sensuous, quietly violent -- an emblem of irrepressible force breaking free of its confines.

Linda Lighton, a local ceramic artist with an international reputation, displays a pair of these sculptures in her living room on either side of the fireplace, as if to remind herself of the tortuous emergence of her own talent.

As was common in households during the turbulent 1960s, Lighton turned her back on the generally proscribed route expected of a daughter of a prominent Kansas City family and became absorbed in the counterculture. Linda wanted to be an artist. "It was all I ever wanted to do," she says.

She tried college at a liberal arts school in the East, but the school had an anemic art department, and Linda dropped out after one year. She started hanging around galleries in New York City, soaking up the excitement of the emerging Pop Art movement. She married young and was living for the moment.

The moment was 1967, and the 19-year-old bride and her new husband, Joseph Dergan, lived briefly in Lawrence and published an underground newspaper. Soon they migrated west to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury scene, cradle of the hippie movement, then north to Seattle, where Linda's daughter, Rose, was born in the Year of Woodstock, 1969. Linda was not yet 21 years old. Not long afterwards Joe Dergan was killed in a car wreck, and suddenly Linda Lighton, daughter of prominent and wealthy parents, found herself a single mother trying to stretch welfare checks. "I just starved for years, and did what I wanted." What she wanted to do above all was make art.

For several of those lean years she lived on an Indian reservation in eastern Washington. "I was 80 miles from the grocery store," she remembers, "with a kid and a dirt floor." Why did she do it? "Adventure," she answers, giving one of her big laughs "To be a pioneer. I was curious."

Curiosity insatiable in her case, did not kill this cat. Lighton went to bed hungry some nights, but she thrived. The back-to-the-land movement was in full swing, and she proceeded to build a house, using only standing dead timber and no nails, only notches. "I mean, real insanity. Just myself, these hands, these muscles." Later she moved with her daughter to Idaho, which she describes as the last frontier of the beautiful and remote in America.

The person who emerged from these adventures possessed a strong will, but with the added blessings of exuberance, open-heartedness, and undiminished curiosity about how other people think and live. Ultimately that drive to connect would lead her to Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, wherever true artists were doing engaging work.

Completing the circle and back in Kansas City, Lighton is established as an artist of note and doing well. And at age 51, Lighton is attentive to her own legacy -- the body of work she will leave behind.

Never during her Wanderjahre had she stopped studying and perfecting her craft. During the '70s she studied at the Factory of Visual Arts, an alternative art school in Seattle; then at Western Washington State, and at the University of Idaho, among other places. In 1989, she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts (with honors) at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Lighton's education has never stopped. She continues to pursue her many passions as fervently as ever. One of the strongest is Japanese culture, which she has studied for more than a decade. The Japanese tea ceremony particularly fascinates her. It is nothing at all like a tea party in the West. "Every move is planned for the host and the guest. You can't just go and have tea: you've got to know how to move, how to dress, how to smell." Nor is ordinary tea used. It is powdered tea called macha, of the highest grade, taken from 40-year-old plants.

It's intriguing to realize that someone who spent her youth living out the rebellious dream of freedom should be so attracted to the exacting discipline of the tea ceremony. But when you look at Lighton's work, particularly the spectacular delicacy of her ceramic flowers, some with tiny maps of the world on the petals, you realize the painstaking precision of her craft.

And everything she learns she immediately wants to share. She has brought sculpture workshops and even the tea ceremony to Kansas City school kids through her long association with Young Audiences, where she serves on the board. She has also done the ceremony for the Japanese Festival as well as for Young Friends of Art, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

In 1993, she was invited to attend an artists' symposium in Latvia, where she had an intense exchange of ideas. She showed her hosts slides of American art she was interested in, and was taken aback when the Latvians asked. "Why is all this work so ugly?" Life in the former Soviet Bloc country is so lacking in amenities that beauty is supremely valued. And Lighton realized she felt the same way. "I think we have gotten away from beauty in this country," she says. "Why isn't beauty legitimate? Why does it have to be ugly or off the cuff? Why can't we have a sincere emotion? I love beautiful things!"

Strange and beautiful objects fill her house, and some 20 years ago she found someone as unconventional as herself to share them with. She met Lynn Adkins when he was a school psychologist in Idaho. He had also been, at various times, a bail-bondsman and a Realtor, but Lighton discovered he was really good at restoring old cars, building boats, and fixing up airplanes. They married, lived in Idaho a while, then came back to Kansas City for good in 1982, ultimately buying a spectacular, but rundown house in the Rockhill neighborhood. They have turned the house into a showplace, doing most of the work themselves.

With the Rockhill house as home base and a spacious sculpture studio at 31st and Holmes, you'd think Lighton could settle down to an easy life. But that would be too hard. Having seen life from both sides now she could never be satisfied with just one side, or one style of art. To look at her ceramic flowers and bulbs, you'd think she was one kind of artist; but then you glance out the window and see rough-hewn, eight-foot naked figures leaping across the lawn and you realize this is someone not so easy to categorize.

She shows the same resistance to pigeonholing in her social relations. "She can wear an Armani suit and be a society matron," says longtime friend Richard Nadeau, "when it comes to raising money for Young Audiences and her other causes." But most of the time you'll find her in messy blue jeans, up to her elbows in clay making sensuous, even sexy art.

"I'm into passion," says Lighton with a smile.

She's also into helping others realize their own passions. She recently set up an endowment to support an annual cash prize "for artists in Young Audiences who are doing good innovative work." The idea is to offer fine artists the encouragement and support that Lighton herself failed to receive when she was starting out.

"Isn't it nice to give a prize to artists in our own city just for doing something good?" she says, then breaks into vigorous applause. "Brava!"


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