Bruce Almighty! Lexington’s Bruce Burris is This Year’s Model Citizen

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Bruce Almighty
Lexington Artist Bruce Burris is this Year’s Model (Citizen)

“It’s almost as though consumers have moved on because mainstream media has abdicated its responsibility…What are we, canaries? Is that another human? Ow, my head. Who in their right mind is going to be entranced by their own image when walking by a newsstand? Wait… Soledad…? Soledad…?”
– The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart on Time Magazine’s “YOU!” person of the year cover

 Sorry, this isn’t Time Magazine. No bright, shiny foil on this week’s cover; no cowardly, pandering, abdication of choice — “You” are not the “Person of the Year.”

No offense, but Bruce Burris is. He’s earned it. Arts, accessibility, community gardens, slow food, parades — if you love it in Lexington, odds are Bruce has had a hand in it.

While everyone seems to be on the Downtown Lexington bandwagon these days (there’ll soon be enough hip, urban loft space constructed in the area to give one to each man, woman, child, and dog in Fayette County) — Lexington’s “downtown resurgence” makes newspaper headlines at least once a week — Bruce Burris has been a pioneer here for too long to count.

In 2003, he told Ace, presciently and pragmatically, as he was preparing to host a community gardening/public art summit, “For too long, Lexington has left these decisions/opportunities to appointed panels, politicians and developers. What these folks have yet to realize is that a bustling, diverse downtown, a downtown that, by the way, they will benefit financially from — occurs when everyone feels they have a stake in a downtown they see as their own.”

As Lexington Vice Mayor-Elect Jim Gray puts it:

“Patiently but persistently, Bruce Burris pedals his way toward making Lexington better…through projects that rarely announce themselves as significant…but always are.”

And when the new Urban County Council is sworn in on December 31, one can only hope that each and every one of them takes the time to beat a quick path to Bruce Burris’s doorstep. Burris lives and breathes the visionary qualities of what the future of Lexington could be. An advocate and activist in the best sense of the word, he’s paid his dues in helping to make Lexington what it is today.

A renowned and award-winning visual artist himself, Burris spearheaded the Minds Wide Open project (once located in Victorian Square) and went on to create Latitude with partner Crystal Bader (his “day job,” although his “workday” appears to extend into nights and weekends and holidays…)

Latitude’s mission: “We believe in the potential of all people. We believe that the field of Social Services and our community in general need a broader perspective of the potential of those thought by some to have disabilities. We believe in our community, and in strong community collaborations. We believe that caregivers can be valued, properly trained, and adequately paid. We believe that people thought to have ‘disabilities’ are not ‘less fortunate,’ but are people who with appropriate supports, will contribute to the greater good of the community.”

LexArts’ Jim Clark invited Burris to put together a studio showcase in 2004 at ArtsPlace, which included the work of Jessie Dunahoo, an artist both blind and deaf, who was characterized by artist Arturo Sandoval as “a genius.”

Before that, he launched, Radical B.U.G.S (an Urban/Community Gardening initiative).

More recently, Burris made headlines this past summer for his work with the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery Club (advocating for the humane and respectful treatment of the remains discovered there).

Last winter, he organized a forum to educate the public about their right to use “public access” television, and con/temp’s “Community Conversations,” a made-for-Lexington Public Access Television program, aired Spring 2006.

On September 28, 2006, the LFUCG declared by proclamation Lexington’s first Accessibility Awareness Day; a rally was held at Triangle Park, and citizens were encouraged to take an “Inaccessibility Tour” of downtown Lexington.

In his free time, Burris launched a conversation group to examine how Lexington’s annual downtown July 4th parade could better represent the city.

Sure, it all sounds good, but maybe you want to know, hey, what has he done for us lately? Glad you asked.

Eastern State Hospital Cemetery Club

Since meetings began in June 2006, the group created a public awareness of the scope of this tragic story. Burris reports, “researchers have created a list of approximately 250 names of people we know are buried on hospital grounds. This is 247 more than we knew of in June. This is of the utmost importance to those who may have known or are related to these people. The true scope of the burials is difficult to comprehend but we estimate that there are at least 10,000 as as many as 50,000 buried in unmarked graves throughout the hospital grounds.”

ESH grounds are close to downtown and the state is currently talking to the city about transitioning this property to the city. Burris says, “This is something we were totally unaware of when we began the hospital club, but as you can guess, city officials, developers and the like have a keen interest in these grounds. We feel very fortunate that we have been able to bring some attention to the cemetery because if we didn’t, chances are it would’ve been swept under the rug.”

He adds, “since we began advocating for the ESH Cemetery, a group recently formed to do similar work for the Western State Hospital Cemetery.”

The next meeting of the ESH Cemetery Club will be 7 pm on Wednesday January 10, 2007 at Latitude, 167 Saunier Street. The agenda will include the Election of Officers, a draft of proposal for Cabinet of Health and Family Services (this may include plans for appropriate landscaping, access by public to cemetery, memorial market, preservation of site and documentation of those buried there).

Project Easy Access (PEAL)

The September 28, 2006 rally brought attention to the accessibility difficulties endured by those with disabilities. The group helped to create the LFUCG Commission of Disabilities which has been approved by council and will hopefully be appointing members in January 2007.

The LFUCG approved funds to finally make its own building accessible.

Plans are underway to fund a study to see what surfaces would work best for paving downtown sidewalks, etc.

More conferences and rallies are planned for 2007, which Burris says “may be even more spirited! We can’t wait!”

Guerilla Gardener

When Burris was launching Radical B.U.G.S and a mural Art Summit  in 2003, Kris Kimel, the man behind ideaFestival, originally launched in Lexington, told Ace:

“The art park and community garden are important developments in Lexington’s ongoing quest to expand its ‘creative culture.’ It has become increasingly clear that areas that are diverse, high energy, and offer a multiplicity of creative experiences for its people are the ones that will prosper and thrive in the years ahead.”
–ideaFestival founder, Kris Kimel

The ideaFestival relocated to Louisville this past Fall and has now increased its frequency to every year instead of every other year.

Burris has always been pragmatic in his approaches, realizing that the productive use of community space also satisfies a city’s capitalist impulses by creating a citizenry of “investors.” As he put it at the time, “Community space such as murals and gardens offer all of us a share in the use and look of downtown space.”

Today, three years later, he says, “There is finally a real push to create community gardens throughout Lexington. Recently, a group called ‘The Food Sustainability Team’ was created; members include reps from UK, the Lexington Farmers Market, Fayette County Extension, Fayette County Schools, Jim Embry, Latitude, and others. We are currently working on a plan to include District Community Gardens as a part of the City’s Comprehensive Plan. Additionally, Latitude, The Lexington Senior Center, The Arboretum and others have created the ‘Lexington Community Garden’ which is located at the Senior Center at the corner of Alumni and New Circle. We are looking for people who would like to care for their own garden space there.”

There is a Community Garden meeting at the Senior Center on Friday, January 19, 2007 at 1 pm — everyone is invited. Info, communitygarden @ yahoo . com.

Con/Temp and S.E.A.P.

Burris says that while con/temp is temporarily on hiatus, he and Kurt Gohde (also from con/temp) teamed up with Ben Fryman and created S.E.A.P. (southern evolution of artistic perspectives) an artist’s collective — to, among other things, explore southern culture.

SEAP exhibits work during gallery hops at the “ELandF Gallery” which is located in the bathroom at Latitude.

Burris says, “One of the problems we hope to address through both con/temp and SEAP is the utter lack of space in this city which is usable to artists who work in ‘installation’ or any interesting media for that matter. Next Gallery Hop, Ben Fryman will be exhibiting his graphic novels — which will be printed on toilet paper and read off the rolls.”

Love a Parade?

Well, Bruce Burris does too, but disenchanted after what he describes as “another parade debacle this past 4th of July,” he went to work to change it, and a committee’s well on its way. He says of their work, “Our immediate goals seem to be to make the parade more environmentally friendly, encourage more community participation, and to reduce the commercial clutter — such as vans and trucks in the parade which have no 4th of July decorations — but do have advertising for various commercial interests.”

The next 4th of July Parade Committee meeting is on January 14 2007 at Third Street Stuff at 2 pm and is open to everyone.

As Bruce told Ace in a 1995 interview with Ruthie Maslin, “The philosophy behind art is nothing high-faluting or spiritually transcendent… We’re trying to piece our lives together and trying to piece together the communities all around us. Art is just a vehicle to express how we all fit.”



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