There’s a scene in the extraordinary Jon Jost film All the Vermeers in New York in which a stressed-out stockbroker solemnly claims that if he hadn’t been able to gaze regularly at Vermeer’s timeless paintings, he “would have gone off the deep end a long time ago.” The statement is less movie fiction than life fact. A ten-year study conducted by a Swedish university discovered that, regardless of economic status or education, people who attended cultural events on a regular basis lived longer than those who seldom or never attended. My own informal 44-year study indicates that people who set aside a part of their lives to experience the arts tend to have a better grasp of the world and humanity, including themselves. Certainly they’re more interesting conversationalists.
But the arts are not only good for society’s mental, spiritual and physical health. They’re also good for society’s bank account. A Deloitte and Touche study found that in 2000, local arts directly contributed more than $281 million to Kansas City’s economy. Indirect contributions are difficult to measure but likely total hundreds of millions of dollars more. And the cultural-arts industry ranked among the metro area’s top ten employers — excluding its volunteers, who donate more than 220,000 hours of service. The arts also were a significant force in attracting workers and businesses to the area. Local, state and federal governments, however, seem perennially distrustful of the arts because of their open critique of society’s ills and their power to affect public sentiment. Many politicians appear unable to comprehend the arts’ beneficial role to society; governmental sources provided only 7 percent of the $47 million total contributions to Kansas City cultural organizations.
The majority of outside financial support for the arts comes from the private sector, foundations and endowments — from influential Kansas Citians with knowledge of art economics. Some art aficionados, such as Dick Belger, CEO of Belger Cartage and secretary of the John and Maxine Belger Family Foundation, and Myra Morgan, deputy director of the UMKC-Belger Arts Center, also have foresight — a deeper understanding of how the creative process is valuable not only to artists but to businessmen and politicians as well as everyday people.
“We believe that, as time goes on, we’re all going to have to be a lot smarter and creative in the way we approach problems,” says Belger. “As we’ve looked at a specific artist’s work over a period of time, it becomes clear that creativity is a problem-solving process. And theoretically, if it’s a process, then at least parts of it can be learned and taught.” And not just to other artists. Belger says society puts too much emphasis on producing and has become risk averse. “That’s what’s wrong with our political process,” he says. “No one wants to fail; everyone wants to succeed.” As a result, progress stops.
One way the UMKC-Belger Arts Center hopes to induce an atmosphere of risk-taking is by acquiring and exhibiting an expansive body of artwork produced over many years by prominent artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Stackhouse and Renee Stout (to name only a few). Another is by developing technically equipped workshops where visiting artists can open dialogue with other artists and experts in fields such as literature, music and science, for example. Belger, Morgan and others hope that one of these workshops will be a collaboration between the Center and the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, which held its annual conference in Kansas City in March.
While he was in town, NCECA president Steve Reynolds approached Belger to discuss the possibility of creating an international exchange. He envisioned ceramic artists from countries such as Korea, Hungary, Denmark, Norway and France, and from Eastern Europe, coming to Kansas City. “What Myra and Dick have done is given us 6,400 square feet of raw space, and so we have to determine how we will begin to outfit it with the uses we have defined internationally,” Reynolds says. “Kansas City could not be a better location for the exchange, due to the impact the Kansas City Art Institute has had on thinking, [in addition to] the collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and local venues like Leedy-Volkous Gallery and Red Star Studios. Everyone benefits if we can put this together and make this happen.” Reynolds intends to dedicate the next two years toward that end.
Belger agrees. Besides being a centrally located city with a booming arts scene, Kansas City boasts a wealth of scholars, entrepreneurs and corporate executives who would also benefit from a thoughtful interchange of ideas and cultures. Belger says the Center would try to help develop an exchange any way it could.
In the meantime, the Center has contributed to public awareness of ceramics by hosting three major exhibitions: Confrontational Clay: The Artist as Social Critic; Male-Female: Works by David Furman and Linda Lighton; and New Territory, curated by Cary Esser. Like many of the ceramics exhibitions before, during and after the NCECA Conference, these exemplify clay’s versatility when it comes to expressing ideas beyond those traditionally expected of ceramics. As its title implies, the works in New Territories testify to clay artists’ willingness to venture into unpredictable frontiers, combining the medium with other materials or various incarnations of itself.
Jesse Small’s installation, “Fence,” falls into the former category. It reads like a memorial, a lament to humanity’s inability to rise above its basest instincts. The fence is constructed of 38 blackened steel cutouts of machine guns poised on their bayonets and linked with blackened steel rods. They form a U-shape into which the viewer may walk to inspect more closely the “finials,” which are United Nations military helmets made of ghostly white unfired porcelain. Each helmet is crudely carved with graffiti: flowers, peace signs, words (“clone” or “deadeadeadead”) or illegible scribbles. A few helmets have holes in them, as if a bullet has passed through and into the peace-keeper’s skull. The identifying cross on the medic’s helmet has broken inside its etched outline, implying that there is no way to heal the wounds of war. Leaning against the fence is a porcelain tire cast from a real Cooper Cross-Country military-issue tire. And stacked behind the fence are twelve more tires, cracked or shattered, useless. They seem to represent the wheels of progress come to a halt — after all, we have not evolved enough to avoid wars fought over the earth’s natural resources. We’re like three-year-olds fighting over a toy truck.
Marilyn Lysohir’s “The Tattooed Lady and the Dinosaurs” uses only clay to tell her multilayered story, but because the main sections of the work are so distinct from each other, the installation resembles mixed media. Amid a pile of clay dinosaur bones stand six pairs of enormous legs festooned with tattoos, which read like a collection of alchemical, botanical, entomology and zoology prints: stripes, scarab beetle, rose, snake, bird. The legs are hollow, slick white thighs opened like beautiful rain barrels awaiting the next storm. They appear simultaneously compatible with and incongruous to the crusty dinosaur bones, some of which are also “tattooed” with colorful patterns. Likewise, the wall behind the legs and bones is hung with ceramic tiles that combine resplendent songbirds with abstract color fields and text into a visual mystery. Enigmas multiply into a complex epic when all sections in Lysohir’s installation are read as one, and what is at first intellectually confounding becomes at least emotionally concrete, much in the way a symphony is understood more by the heart than the head.
This is the fourth and final article in a series on ceramic art.