Linda Lighton sculpture

Lithuania Proves a Creative Challenge for This Artist

The Kansas City Star Sunday
October 16, 1994
by Laura R. Hockaday

Linda Lighton faced hardships on six-week bone china study.

When sculptor Linda Lighton accepted a six-week study project at a bone china factory in Lithuania, she knew she was in for a challenge. She had lived a month in neighboring Latvia on the Baltic Sea last year, working in a similar program. She had dealt with the chronic absence of heat, water, soap and medicine. But in Lithuania there wasn't even enough clay for artists to get carried away.

"You couldn't get enough clay to make large pieces," said Lighton, whose lawn in the Rockhill area is filled with her larger-than-life human figures.

"But I was very excited to be going to Kaunas (a city of 500,000 people inside Lithuania), because it has one of only about five bone china factories in the world. It was the opportunity to learn how to work with bone china, which is very thin and translucent. And it was a chance to meet other artists from around the world. Often we had five countries represented in one taxi cab."

She said the theme of the symposium was Unusual Teapots. It struck a familiar chord; she often lectures on the philosophy of the Japanese tea ceremony. One of the teapots she made shows people holding hands around the exterior. Flames are shooting out of the top, indicating the world's many trouble spots, but a porcelain fence encloses all in a bond of brotherhood.

"This is a global community, but there are still so many things to work out," Lighton said. "I don't think we'll ever get it tied up in a neat, tidy package, but it's worth a try, isn't it? It's worth our best shot. In earlier days, people looked at the art of a nation first. Politics came second. Borders, which are always changing, can be forgotten when you look at the art people produce. The visual arts can transcend language and politics. When I was a little girl, I couldn't understand why a tree wasn't a tree in any language, but I was thinking visually."

Lighton has worked in ceramics more than 20 years. Her sculptured flowers and other works are owned by collectors in Kansas City and elsewhere. To expand her creative horizons and learn how her art is accepted by others, she joined the symposiums in Latvia and Lithuania. On both occasions she was one of only two Americans participating. Her Latvian experience was a good prelude for Lithuania, which was a tougher challenge.

Undaunted and Diligent

Lighton said she never realized the importance of words such as "on," "in," "before," and "after," until trying to communicate with people in Lithuania. Sign language was often the best solution. The bone china factory she worked in was an hour walk from the housing project where she lived. Directions for public transportation were difficult to comprehend.

"You had to walk through some dark alleys to get to a bus from the factory; electricity was at a premium," she said. "The cost of electricity is 10 times more than it was last year. At the bone china factory, no one wanted to turn on the lights, but I finally did to see what I was doing."

"Life is lived without any excess. You sleep in a small space -- on a couch similar to a futon that folds up, you eat on a small surface, and the factory work space was tiny compared to what I'm used to. Everyone lives in the projects, usually two families in three rooms." At first Lighton lived with an older couple. The husband, like many Lithuanians she met, was still very bitter about the Russian occupation of World War II.

Many Lithuanians had been sent to Siberia and forced to work in labor camps for years. Their anger, still fresh, was clearly understood in spite of the language barrier. "My host was a medical doctor who had been sent to Siberia to do logging for 10 years," Lighton said. "When he returned, it was hard to reestablish his practice. For so many people their careers were wiped out."

"Today young people are trained for one job only, which doesn't afford much opportunity for mobility. The average salary is $25 to $35 a month and 55 percent of it is spent on food. The national food seems to be marijuana butter - butter cooked in marijuana seeds. Everyone has a garden with marijuana growing in it, but people aren't really smoking it. They make hemp out of the stalks and use the seeds for making butter."

Lighton said there are restaurants in Kaunas, but no one is in them because it's too expensive to eat out. Zeppelinas --deep-fried dumplings shaped like dirigibles -- are staples of nearly every meal. Smoked lard and black bread are delicacies, as are chocolate bars accented with bananas and kiwis.

"Public trash cans, which are very small, are full of banana peels all over town," she said. "I think they must be a sign of liberation (from Russia) because bananas have to be imported. They signal Lithuania's new link with the outside world, which was cut off for so long by the Russians. No wonder no one speaks English; there was no need to learn it because there were no visitors."

To transport some of her bone china pieces back to Kansas City, Lighton collected any trash she could find to pack them in. "There were no Styrofoam bubbles or peanuts around," she said. "I collected old egg cartons. Some of them still had remnants of broken eggs inside."


©2019 Linda Lighton, all rights reserved.
All photos and content are copyrighted and may not be used without permission in writing from the artist.