“My paintings tell stories. They are the stories of people who feel disconnected and powerless. They are stories I have heard at work, or in the newspaper, on TV, or from friends. You have heard these stories too. I try to repeat them as directly and honestly as I can. It somehow seems important to do this.”
-Bruce Burris, 2003 Ace interview
Artist and activist Bruce Burris might not be the mother of all arts and accessibility movements in Lexington, but he has definitely been the midwife. Arts, accessibility, community gardens, parades, murals, safer sidewalks and streetscapes — if you love it in Lexington, the odds are good that Bruce Burris was at least there coaching the birth of it. When he leaves Lexington this summer for his new home in Oregon, he will join a long list of Lexpatriates who’ve made Lexington better in the time they were here, and then moved on. But he has touched more lives than most.
As Jim Gray put it in 2006 when he was a vice-mayor elect, “Patiently but persistently, Bruce Burris pedals his way toward making Lexington better…through projects that rarely announce themselves as significant…but always are.”
Over a long chat last week at Third Street Stuff, he talked about his path here over the past two decades, and what might be next for Lexington? Always a visionary, always able to see what others couldn’t, what might he imagine for Lexington’s destiny? Where has it been and where is it going?
“Mass. That is what we finally have downtown,” he says. “It creates its own energy after awhile.” Twenty years ago, he points out, “nobody was talking about downtown.” But he adds candidly that Lexington has taken a pretty predictable urban path to get where it is now. “Downtown follows a model, and it’s happened so often now it’s boring. First come the community gardens and then you get the urban chicken coops and then come the donuts and the sidewalks and the bike trails and the tattoos and the food trucks. And next, it will be the goats.” He says, “this cookie cutter hipster template has been stamped out and downtowns have followed it everywhere — and don’t get me wrong, I still remember when we had to explain what a community garden was — but that model has been so successful it is kind of boring.” He describes the model arts program that Latitude was based on, which originated in California, “but we adapted it, we fine tuned it, and we made it better. Lexington can do that.”
He points out, in Lexington, “we live in the suburbs.” (He and wife Robynn just sold their home in the Southland neighborhood.)
“More of us live [in the suburbs] than live downtown, and more of us always will. This is where Lexington could get ahead of the curve, where it could be visionary. That model has not been stamped out for us. How do we re-imagine life in the suburbs? It is where we live, so how do we live well there? We surely have more to offer the world than strip malls and franchises, don’t we? How do we do that?”
He says that there are some dividends to the persistence he’s been a part of and a witness to over the past 20 years. He laughs, “there are a lot of hipsters who apparently have a lot of time on their hands who are benefiting from the determination, the stick-to-it-iveness” of those who came before. He says, “when I came here 20 years ago, Van Meter Pettit was already in the middle of his Town Branch Trail project, and it is gonna happen. His work will pay off, and everyone will benefit.” He talks about first meeting ideaFestival founder Kris Kimel, “before there was an ideaFestival” and now it is an annual conference (though it did relocate to Louisville).
“More people support the arts now,” he says. “There are more people contributing directly and participating directly. It’s more fashionable than it used to be,” he says. (Though not enough proportionate to a city this size, he notes.) He mentions the Lexington Tattoo Project, organized by Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova, who will continue to collaborate with him on ELandF Projects. Avenues like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo offer more prospects for seed money that wasn’t available decades ago.
Support was “dicier 20 years ago, and harder to come by.” He says now you can see an environment that’s more willing to show up for “an Institute 193 or a Land of Tomorrow or a Ben Sollee or a Broke Spoke [community bike shop].” Asked if social media has played a role in this, he smiles reassuringly when he says, “oh you can fail just as easily today, it’s just that there are more avenues open, if something doesn’t work the first time. In the past, A and B might not have worked, and they would have been closed off anyway. Now there’s C and D and E. More avenues, more paths, more routes.”
Burris has come a long way — from his early work founding ARTREE and Minds Wide Open before Latitude — to his current omnipresence as a persistent voice for “those considered to have disabilities” (he doesn’t label anyone disabled) and as an activist for the arts. Has Lexington?
The streetscapes might be a little safer than the days when he and the “Brick Squad” provided inaccessibility tours of Lexington. But he remains passionate about how far Lexington has to go. He tasks anyone to try to really navigate Victorian Square or UK’s Singletary Center from the perspective of a wheelchair. Where do you see steps and stairs? Where do you see signage directing you to accessible doors and elevators? Or an entrance that can easily accommodate a wheelchair?
“Lexington is a pretty generous place for making your voice heard,” he says. “Citizens can play a role in taking UK and LFUCG to task and forcing them to do a better job.” Without naming names, he says, “When Crystal and I started Latitude, with the idea of developing creative potential, [the city] could not have been less interested. It wasn’t even part of the conversation, and it is now.”
He says Lexington will always be Lexington though, and not, for example, Santa Cruz, “where everybody has a voice and everybody knows they have a voice, and…” he laughs, “your councilperson walks into council with a guitar, and it all breaks down from there.”
“It’s a small thing and you could miss it, but it means something to me. The Eastern State Hospital Cemetery. Protecting it is important. And it is still at risk. Thousands of people are still buried in unmarked graves. And we always hoped to educate people about how recent the poor treatment there was.” He adds, “the sorry history of Eastern State shouldn’t be forgotten. There’s a role citizens can play in taking the city and the state and UK to task and make them do a better job. There is a role for citizens to take in improving things, even when they’re not sure of their own expertise.”
In 2012, Burris received the Governor’s Award for the Arts for his work with Latitude Artist Community, which he co-founded with Crystal Bader more than a decade ago. He says, “it’s no surprise to me that people can flourish when they are supported.” He tells the story of when he was a young artist, doing exactly what he was told not to do, and walking into what is now the Fleisher/Olman Gallery in Philadelphia, with his art. They not only accepted his art, they provided a stipend for his work. He says that “although it was a generous thing, it was not a crazy thing.” He is not surprised that artists from Latitude exhibit in New York and Paris and Moscow. That’s easy, he says. The rewards, at Latitude, come when you work with a person all day and they have constructed “a pile of dust bunnies and pennies” into something. Then the case has to be made (to Medicaid) that “that person is also flourishing.” He’s disheartened that within social services, “there’s still surprise that people can succeed. There is a problem when you’re still looking at that success as the exception.”
He adds, “it comes back to you, whatever you invest. We’re not begging people for charity. By making it easier to create, what you’ll get back is a hundred times what you put in.”
On May 18 and May 19, 2013 there will be a celebration with Bruce at Third Street Coffee with live music, pop-up performances, art and more. Full lineup will be updated at the ace online calendar.
A shorter version of this article appears on page 11 of the May 9, 2013 print edition of Ace.
Bruce Burris moved to Lexington from San Francisco two decades ago. He began his arts and advocacy work in earnest in Lexington in the early 90s with projects like ARTREE and the Minds Wide Open Art Center (Arc of the Bluegrass). In 2002, he co-founded Latitude Artist Community with Crystal Bader. He is also known for his work over the past two decades as a founder or co-founder of the Theater of PossAbilities, the Mayor’s Commission on Disabilities, Project Easy Access Lexington, the Mayor’s Commission on Citizens with Disabilities, the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery Project, and ELandF projects, Radical B.U.G.S (a community gardening movement). In 2012, he and Latitude received the Governor’s Award for the Arts.
Latitude Co-Founder Crystal Bader says…
“Bruce was instrumental in bringing people considered disabled out of the shadows by showcasing their artistic abilities and shedding light on their right and desire to be contributing citizens. Additionally, he dared to question the processes and programs that devalued them. I was honored to partner with him to create Latitude and bring such an outstanding community model to Lexington. His undying drive for social change and dynamic energy will be greatly missed, leaving a gaping sinkhole in both Lexington and Kentucky’s disability culture.”
Solstice Memories of Denny’s with Bruce Burris
by Kremena Todorova
Kremena Todorova and Kurt Gohde are “inheriting” the ELandF small projects accelerator when Bruce Burris relocates to Oregon this summer, and the three artists will continue to collaborate. (Todorova and Gohde are the artists who orchestrated the Lexington Tattoo Project.)
My favorite memory of Bruce has to do with a story he told during the second annual ElandF celebration of the winter solstice at Denny’s on Nicholasville.
But before I share the story, I must tell you that I love informing people that every year I celebrate the winter solstice at Denny’s. “I am busy celebrating, starting at midnight,” I tell them. “You, too, can join me at Denny’s.” This is the only time each year that I make a trip to Denny’s. You could call it my yearly pilgrimage.
The first year of this solstice celebration there were only five of us. Bill Santen was the host and, I suspect, like the rest of us he had no idea what to expect. At the time, I didn’t know Bruce very well, but I was intrigued by him and by the stuff he came up with. So I joined Kurt at Denny’s, not knowing if anyone else, besides Bruce, would be there. Whatever Bruce had in mind (I am convinced that most of the time what he has in mind is creating an environment for people to meet face-to-face and talk), we ended up talking about experiences we had had celebrating the winter solstice before. We also drank some hot chocolate and ate too-heavy Denny’s desserts. We were gone by 2 am.
Kurt was asked to host the gathering the following year. That was the year a tradition was born: the host would determine a topic and ask everyone to prepare a story about that topic (this was modeled on Yalda, an Iranian tradition to celebrate the winter solstice). I no longer remember what exactly the topic was (something along the lines of the longest day of one’s life), only that when Bruce’s turn came, he brought out a hand-made poster and told a story involving his childhood home in Delaware, a robber, a policeman, and a whole lot of verbal enactment of what had happened many years before. We were all laughing with tears in our eyes while Bruce was telling his story. It probably took him 20 minutes to tell it and I realized that I was in the presence of an expert story-teller, one who could enhance his stories with funny poster drawings too. Bruce put us all in his little pocket with his story.
In the years that followed (last December was the 5th winter solstice gathering, I believe), I joined Bruce at Denny’s zealously. My family arranged our Christmas out-of-town trips around the schedule of these gatherings and I looked forward to them as the rest of the world looked forward to gifts under the Christmas tree. I will miss Bruce tremendously when he leaves. Bruce made Lexington the kind of place where people look forward to celebrating the winter solstice with stories told over a cup of hot chocolate at Denny’s, strangers listening keenly. And I am glad Bruce’s spirit will live on in a city now used to telling stories in late December, stories to pass the longest night of the year, each year.
Selected Ace Archives about Bruce Burris
Performance Art and Ritual in Lexington 1.24.2013
LifeLab Mentoring at Latitude 1.13.2011
Shadows of Eastern State Hospital 12.23.2010
Power to the People 11.06.2003
Slow Food Simmers in the Bluegrass 6.19.2003
Social Activist Bruce Burris Develops Art Programs for Marginalized Communities by Ruthie Maslin 2.1.1995