Interview With Laura Burton From The Center For Safety And Empowerment

As part of the 10 Question Series in honor of this years 10th annual Concealed Revealed art auction, Laura Burton from the YWCA’s Center For Safety And Empowerment asked me about my current work, the Topeka art scene and why I donate. This is my response.

How long have you been creating art?

My grandma tells a story about how I returned from a visit at Worlds of Fun and drew a dolphin. I think I was about three years old and she still has that hanging on her fridge to this day. My mother was really influential. From the time we were old enough to hold a brush or a needle and thread, me and my brother Greg, were making watercolors and piecing quilt pieces together. I decided in 2009 to really pursue a career as an artist, painting murals.

How has your art changed over the years?

I think I have taken a different direction the last few years. I am influenced by my work as a muralist. The murals I do are highly collaborative community projects. It’s sort of allowed me to adapt and connect with a bigger community outside of visual artists and art institutions. Through our research and interactions with people on these mural projects many issues can arise. The mural then becomes a healthy way to address these differences and people can begin to really discuss them on a different level. It allows us to learn from each other’s unique backgrounds and vantage points. Watching people’s reaction as participants in this process gives me purpose and helps me understand how important this type of civic participation is. So a combination of this sense of purpose as an artist in the greater community and hearing some of the challenges people are facing has led my work in the direction of activism. The last continuing series I’m working on has to do with reproductive justice. It’s a bit of a counter attack to our current Kansas elected officials ideas about women.

I think that I have been for years searching for something like this. Before I began my work as a muralist I helped to start an art collective, community garden, and cooperative bicycle shop.  So it’s been the perfect fit for me. It’s very rewarding for me.

What’s your favorite medium and why?

I will just say that I love to draw most of all. I like to use stencils and spray paint too. It is one of the most accessible types of printmaking because you don’t need a press or many tools and it can be used on just about any surface.

Of all of the art you’ve created, is there a piece you’re most proud of?

I am most proud of the mural, Reanimating The Arts In Topeka, which was completed in 2011 on the Great Mural Wall Of Topeka. I had been working there as an assistant for two years prior to leading this project so it was really special for me to see all of that hard work and education culminate in this visual representation of a celebration of the arts in Topeka. The subject was timely as with the current state that our Governor has put us in. I am proud to have been able to do a mural at that time that expresses Topeka’s appreciation for the arts and determination to keep going regardless.

 Who helped you become an artist?

Defiantly my mother. My mother can do or make just about anything. She is the most creative person I know. Her appreciation of art and music (record collection) and her persistence to detail and meticulous handling of craft has all really influenced me. I’ve realized lately that I come from a family of artists. My mother and her sisters and my grandmother over the years have all designed and sewed their own clothes. My mother encouraged me at a young age to quilt, draw, sew, build things, and make water colors. My grandmother most recently at age 80 has taken up embroidery. My aunt Hannah is an amazing seamstress. My aunt Linda makes beautiful and creative crocheted things. Linda’s biological son my cousin Peter who I just connected with for the first time this past year is a successful visual/performance artist based out of San Francisco. My brother is a furniture maker. Although I associate my dad more with sports and gardening when I was little I remember he could draw me anything I wanted him too and most recently he has taken up the banjo.

In your opinion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Topeka’s art scene?

We have a strong group of artists and more people branching out into the arts. We have a great museum in the library. We even have new gallery spaces and an arts district. I think what we are lacking is more interactions more crossings of culture between people in the art world and other folks who might not be inclined to go into a gallery or a museum. I think The Sabatini Gallery at the TSCPL is Topeka’s most accessible gallery. This is a good example of an interaction like this were people might not expect to encounter art but it’s there and they feel welcome because it’s in a place they go on a regular basis. It takes the intimidation out of it. Plus they sometimes have work stations that coincide with an exhibit where people can sit down and explore a little. Still I lean toward other forms of art that leave the gallery or museum completely. A mural is accessible on all levels. It is outside where folks stumble upon just walking by. It is also usual involves the direct participation of people who are not self proclaimed artists but rather are connected in someway to the place it is being created or the topic or theme it is addressing.

It’s interesting because as you know I’ve been working a lot out-of-town. So I feel like that’s given me some perspective.  I feel like Topeka is similar to many others towns across the country, in which artists struggle to start and maintain a career. I feel like art over the years has moved away from the artists and the work itself. For most it just seems like a nice excuse for people to drink wine and mingle and maybe create more business for bars and restaurants. In our current political situation in the state of Kansas we have eliminated our responsibilities to the artist completely. In the current plan for the Creative Industries Commission the allocated funding for the arts is not going to artists or arts organizations. It’s going to businesses in the guise of art. Art is attached to a lot of projects these days. In Kansas now you will have do be doing economic development in order to receive grants for the arts. I’m worried how that’s going to affect our state in the years to come. Everyone, artist and otherwise I’ve met over the past two years has guaranteed to steer clear of Kansas. And I heard someone at a meeting in Johnson County the other day refer to Kansas as a cultural wasteland. How will we attract new creative thinkers?

There are some great grass-roots projects happening in our city, including the Topeka Community Cycle Project. I would like to see Topeka explore more of these collaborative community projects that have real impact and welcomed change. Anyone who’s worked on a community mural project or garden project and participated in a bicycle cooperative knows that these are the kinds of arts and culture activities that brings diversified groups of people together in real civic participation and that is what makes a lasting impact on a city or a community.

Most of the communities I’ve visited are not unlike Topeka in many ways they may have similar challenges. All of them are looking towards the arts to overcome some of these problems. And many of them have instated a type of cultural arts district or center that is intended to spark renewal and development.  So far many of the places I’ve visited have been doing a pretty good job interacting with the neighborhood and outreaching to people who already live in these places to know that they are making real lasting and welcomed change. I would advise Topeka’s Arts District, NOTO to do the same. As they continue to develop this project to not forget the many residents who live in the district or once lived in the places that are now studios, galleries, antique shops, entertainment venues and the like.

You’re well-known in Topeka for your work on the Great Mural Wall, why is that project important to you?

The Great Mural Wall Topeka is where I learned all about the mural movement and launched my career as a muralist. It’s also how I met my partner Dave and my mentor KT and worked with over three hundred or so fellow Topekans. I also believe that it’s a Topeka gem. It has given a voice to and represented a great deal of Topeka’s residents. It tells stories about our past, our current place and our aspirations of the future. It’s a true collaborative full community endeavor. Anyone can participate, everyone no matter how old or small has an equal voice. Its true democracy in action and it’s happening in my hometown where I grew up thinking things like this were not possible.

What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?

My partner is doing a Rocket Grant project right now called Give Take Give. It’s about a gift economy that revolves around a dumpster in Lawrence, Kansas. So it’s been on my mind that the best gifts are the one’s I receive daily from my friends and family in the form of mutual aid and support.

What’s your favorite place to relax in Topeka?

I usually visit the big field of tall grass along the tree line behind the grounds of the old State Hospital. It’s a place where I can relax and my dog Mojo can roll around.

Why do you choose to support Concealed Revealed?

I think that the services provided by the Center for Safety and Empowerment are essential. I think that there should be no question about whether or not services like these get funded by our state and federal government. For political reasons I suppose this is not always the case.

Challenges facing women is a focus for me. For all that we have accomplished through the years the rights of women continue to be questioned continually. I think that until our representatives acknowledge these issues are affecting all of us and until we as women and children as well have obtained full rights and citizenship in our culture in this country we must keep up the fight. Concealed Revealed is a crucial component of that battle. Participating in the art auction and working with the Survivor Art Night group have reinforced for me the wealth of benefits that these programs provide.

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