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An Exploration of the Lighton International Artists Exchange Program

By BJ Alderman
ART TIMES online 2010

During a recent interview with Kansas City ceramic artist Linda Lighton, I heard about the Lighton International Artists Exchange Program (LIAEP). Wanting to know more, I subsequently talked with a handful of artists who’d received grants for overseas residencies and research. I was curious to know if the program was fulfilling the mission for which it was created. I told the artists that I wanted to hear about both the highs and lows of their experiences.

LIAEP is administered by the Kansas City Artists Coalition {KCAC; Janet Simpson, director). Grants are offered twice a year: the first of March and September. A panel of artists and others interested in global relations decide which applicants receive funding of up to $5,000. Over the past eight years, seventy-six artists have packed their bags and headed off to practice their art and expand the scope of their creative endeavors in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Spain, France, and the back of the beyond.

The Lighton/Simpson partnership was born soon after the women met. It had been a dream of Simpson’s to create an artists’ residency program in KC. She shared that idea with Lighton. They put their heads together and created the LIAEP concept after discussing how much travel abroad had changed not only their individual art but themselves as human beings.

During our interview, Simpson laughed as she explained that just like grant recipients, the program “needs to stay flexible in order to grow.” LIAEP began as a way to encourage mid-career visual artists in Kansas City and the Midwest to expand their horizons by going abroad to interact with foreign artists and cultures. The initial Program concept quickly evolved as younger artists came banging at the doors of the KCAC, clamoring to be included. As they also proved to be well served by LIAEP grants, the range of potential recipients was again broadened from the Midwest to visual artists from all parts of the US. The latest change includes visual artists from various countries to come to the US as well as to residencies outside of the US, connecting artists around the world in ways far beyond Lighton and Simpson’s initial concept.

During the award process, priority is given to artists who wish to travel to countries as far removed from the US as possible. Craig Subler, a Kansas City printmaker, painter, and creator of collage-like drawings, purposefully chose a residency in a small village in Mali, West Africa. “I wanted to stand out from other grant writers who were applying for European and Asian residencies,” Subler chuckled. Because he was not familiar with traditions of his chosen destination, Subler reports that he “surrendered to being the village idiot. A lot of villagers laughed with good humor at my expense which turned out to be fun. I felt like I paid them back for their generosity with that laughter. If you go, give yourself over to the experience. You can’t help but be changed by it. Soak it up; let it work on you.”

Isadora Leidenfrost traveled to Northwestern India after being awarded a degree in documentary film-making and textiles in Rhode Island. One contact slowly led to another after she arrived. “I made mistakes,” Leidenfrost noted. “India is an experience in humility. It taught me to be patient, how to connect with people without talking. I learned how to approach potential contacts; that Indian sweets were a good gift to take.” Perseverance led Leidenfrost to her chosen destination. Time and her ability to adapt opened the way for her to study the textile tradition of a Chitara community in Gujarati. There she met women who create textiles of Mata Ni Pachedi (Cloth of the Mother Goddess).

Artists often spoke of how traveling outside of their comfort zones changed them and their art. Leidenfrost and Subler both described their experiences as giving them permission to grow. “India gave me permission to do what I do,” according to Leidenfrost, who creates documentaries about how spirituality is manifested in the world. For Subler, his West Africa experience “provided an epiphany. It gave me the courage to evolve from two dimensions to three, to put color in my creations.” All of the recipients I spoke with grew as a result of their opportunity, have been renewed and invigorated.

According to Lighton, there have been only four instances where either the residencies or the artists didn’t work out as well as expected. Simpson elaborated by revealing that a couple of residencies accepted artists during the off-season when no other artists were on hand, defeating the main purpose of the grant - interaction with foreign artists. Columbia, Missouri potter Bede Clarke spent ten days alone with his clay in a Spanish residency, or filled his time exploring the village. He then flew to Denmark for a conference “which was the highlight of the entire trip,” Clarke reported. Upon his return to Spain, he didn’t return to the residency but spent a week wandering in the Pyrenees where he discovered a deep connection with those mountains, which turned out to be an unforeseen source of artistic inspiration.

Simpson explained that as the years have passed, she and Lighton have “gained a sense” about proposed residencies that enables them to determine the times of year that the facilities are active and therefore viable for the program. They do some digging, contact artists in the vicinity to check out those with which they aren’t familiar, advise grant proposal writers of the best times to schedule their visits.

Several artists interviewed made a point of comparing the relative riches in the US and the need for diplomacy abroad where facilities are often primitive. During residencies that range from a minimum of three weeks to two or more months, LIAEP grantees encountered as many as twenty additional artists from a wide variety of countries, many working alongside the grantee for weeks. Other artists – often local - pop in for weekend retreats. Ceramic artists may share a residency with painters, writers, printmakers, and documentary film-makers. Often, those connections result in invitations to exhibit in the home countries of artists with whom they have shared the facilities.

Painter Julie Hudspeth participated in what proved to be a personally challenging residency at the Milkwood International in the Czech Republic. “Though daily frustrations made the residency, at times, feel like it was a matter of survival, the eventual accomplishment was satisfying,” she wrote in her required final report to the Program. As testament to how this challenge became a very rich experience for her, Hudspeth later taught an international oil and acrylic painting workshop at Milkwood that featured visits to local artists’ private studios.
Meredith Morten, a sculptor in Boston confessed to some anxiety and trepidation during her research residency in Hungary, when it came time to “traverse the space between the safety of the museum and that of the studio.” Like most recipients of the grants, she did not speak or read the local language. She’d gone to Hungary to study pottery of Neolithic and Bronze Age peoples in the Carpathian Mountains. “Don’t go expecting it to function the same way life functions here,” she emphasized.

Several grant recipients found that they hugely underestimated the cost of shipping artwork home. Several recommended that applicants speak with local museums about the ins and outs of overseas shipping, to educate themselves about costs, regulations, and what to expect before finalizing their proposed budgets.

At the end of each interview, I asked artists what advice they might offer to future LIAEP proposal writers. The same themes that I noted as they described their experiences kept coming up. Be flexible. Have a good sense of humor. Be patient. Do a lot of homework before you go, and keep an open mind. Persevere through difficulty because life often happens in spite of plans. Good advice for anyone seeking to expand their horizons.

Simpson encourages grant writers to contact her to discuss what they have in mind before fully developing their proposals. “We want to help artists submit winning proposals so I encourage them to call.” Go to KCAC’s website and click on the Grants page to find information about the LIAEP and application form. Director Janet Simpson can be contacted at 816-421-5222 or at kansascityartistscoalition.org.

(BJ Alderman is an arts and history writer living in Kansas City. She is the author of a popular history, The Secret Life of The Lawman’s Wife, published by Praeger, about the nearly 250 years that families moved into county jails when a family member became sheriff or jailor in order to tend to prisoners.
Note: Janet Simpson’s dream of establishing a Kansas City residency is currently being realized. Spiritually energized by LIAEP’s success but not funded by that Program, KCAC has acquired space across the hall from its gallery in downtown Kansas City. The space will be transformed into a large, airy facility for visiting artists from both the US and abroad.)