Lighton program makes ambassadors of artists by ALICE THORSON, The Kansas City Star, July 1, 2011.

Kansas City artist Asheer Akram traveled to Pakistan last year with a grant from the Kansas City-based Lighton International Artists Exchange Program. Inspired by the artfully decorated cargo trucks he encountered throughout the country, Akram plans to transform a 1952 Chevy into a “Midwest meets Pakistan” version of a cargo truck. (photo Rich Sugg)

The last thing Kansas City artist Asheer Akram expected when he arrived in Lahore, Pakistan, was to find the city’s National College of Arts ringed with barbed wire and protected by armed guards.

Asheer Akram

It was May 2010, and he was scheduled to be an artist-in-residence at the college, but … .

“It took me two days to get in to talk to the administration,” Akram said. “There had been a bunch of bombings, and they said that they had put the residency on hold, fearing Americans and foreigners could be targets and put other students in jeopardy.”

Akram’s trip to his late father’s homeland was financed by a grant from the Lighton International Artists Exchange Program, established by Kansas City artist Linda Lighton in 2002 and administered by the Kansas City Artists Coalition.

Janet Simpson, the coalition’s executive director, said she was concerned for Akram’s safety when she read his application for the trip but felt better about it when she learned he would stay with relatives there.

That was another eye-opener for Akram. “Staying with family was a little like being in jail,” he said. “You have to ask to leave the house, and the oldest adult decides what you do and don’t do.” He conceded that one of the reasons they were so protective was his being American.

Akram made his escape from his aunt’s house when his brother arrived and the two connected with cousins who lived in another city.

Although the residency fell through, and his Lahore sojourn felt like “lockdown,” Pakistan turned out to be a goldmine of artistic inspiration for Akram. He was stunned by the beauty and craftsmanship of the Pakistani cargo trucks that he encountered at every turn.

“They were the most amazing thing I saw,” he said. “Like galleries without walls. In the system they use there, the more decorative the truck, the better jobs you get. Drivers put their life savings into making their trucks beautiful.”

Pakistani Trucks

Akram is repurposing a 1952 Chevy into a “Midwest meets Pakistan” version of a cargo truck.

“The dream is to take it from coast to coast,” he said.

The 2007 Kansas City Art Institute alum is one of 86 artists, roughly half of them from Kansas City, to receive funds from the Lighton International Artists Exchange Program, which to date has spent almost $350,000 to send artists to 37 countries.

A big slap in the head

An eye-opening trip to Latvia inspired Lighton, a well-known ceramics artist, to establish the program. It was 1993, and the country had recently gained its independence from the Soviet Union.

Life there was complicated, she said.

“Things started crumbling slowly apart as there was no protocol for how to operate. There were no banks, no credit cards or checking accounts.”

Despite the upheavals in everyday life, an International Artists Symposium in Jurmala, Latvia, went off as planned. Sixty artists from around the world gathered to exchange ideas. Lighton attended as a United States representative, with sponsorship from the Chicago-based Lakeside Art and Culture International. For two months she lived and worked at the Latvian Artists’ Union. She didn’t know the language but quickly picked up on the status and respect enjoyed by members of the artists union.

“I made great friends,” she said, “(but) it was tough.”

Lighton described her Latvian experience as “a big slap in the head, a wakeup call.” That, and subsequent trips to Japan, Lithuania and a return visit to Latvia, got her thinking about how to give other artists the opportunity to travel internationally.

Following the death of her father, former Woolf Bros. chief Alfred H. Lighton, in 1999, she created the Lighton Fund of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation to give travel grants to artists.

Its aim, posted on the foundation’s website, is simple: “The Lighton International Artists Exchange Program works to make the world a smaller place by giving artists of different cultures the opportunity to work together in the hope that lasting friendship and understanding will develop.”

The grants, which range as high as $5,000, do not require artists to make anything during their foreign sojourns. “I do require that you spend time in another culture and make friends,” Lighton said.

Lighton is idealistic about the program’s broader impact.

“We are making peace with these friends, one person at a time,” she said. “We are putting a face on America that is not what is seen in the news. Artists are great ambassadors, speaking this language without words.”

She is also pleased with the way the grants have “really pumped up people’s careers,” especially those of her Kansas City colleagues.

A grant enabled puppet master Paul Mesner to attend a workshop at El Institut International de la Marionnette in France in 2008, sparking a series of invitations to perform in Europe, including the world puppet festival in France and engagements in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

“It absolutely led to greater exposure,” said Diane Barker, executive director of Paul Mesner Puppets.

Grantee Susan White is headed back to Japan for a show, following her 2010 Youkobo Artist Residency in Toyko. The trip had a profound impact on White. “The experience seeps into your bones,” White said, “and affects the way that you move without your realizing it.”

Akram, who spent the second leg of his trip in Armenia, placed a large sculpture at the Modern Art Museum of Armenia in Yerevan. He created the piece during a four-month artist residency at the Art and Cultural Studies Laboratory in Armenia, where the process was recorded in an award-winning documentary by Armenian filmmaker Gor Baghdasaryan.

Taking its title, “Moving a Mountain,” from Akram’s sculpture, the film also registers Akram’s thoughts about Armenian democracy and the country’s difficulties. It recently won the best documentary film award in the FiLUMS International Film Festival in Pakistan and has been nominated for several other awards. Akram is thrilled with the exposure.

Kansas City Art Institute faculty member Steve Mayse also left a sculpture in the wake of his Lighton-funded trip.

In 2007, Mayse traveled to the Czech Republic to work at the Bubec Sculpture Studio in Prague. After realizing that the studio had no working power tools, Mayse decided to keep it simple. He bought lattice strips from a lumber place and “accepted the challenge of having no tools,” working with his hands, string and glue to create an 18 by 10 foot boat form that he suspended from the ceiling and lit from within.

Mayse said he’d planned to burn the piece before he left, but “an architect came through and said he had a place for it in town square.”

It now hangs in the community center of the small village of Lustenice. Mayse said he didn’t speak Czech but managed to communicate — from ordering french fries to getting the lighting elements for his sculpture — by drawing. “I communicated through pictures,” he said. “The language of drawing is very important.”

There is a certain risk

Foreign countries pose unforeseen challenges.

“It’s not always walk up the beach,” said the Artist Coalition’s Simpson. “There is a certain risk involved. We’ve sent people to Vietnam, Tanzania — places that can be a little sketchy.”

New York artist Steve Mumford, well-known for his vivid pen-and-ink drawings and watercolors of the war in Iraq, made his fifth trip to the country thanks to a Lighton grant. During a monthlong stay in 2007, Mumford recorded death and suffering at the Baghdad ER military hospital and life along the city’s violent Haifa Street.

One of the most popular destinations to crop up in proposals is the Arctic Circle, Simpson said.

“We get 10 a year now, and we’ve funded two people.”

One of them is Brooklyn-based Jessica Segall, who received a 2011 grant for an Arctic Circle Residency that will include sailing in a historical tall ship along the coast of the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Circle Other 2011 grant recipients are going a more conventional route. Kansas City artist Anne Lindberg will go to Norway, where her work will be featured in a drawing exhibit at the Tegnerforbundet in Oslo; artist-musicians Mark Southerland and Beau Bledsoe will research and perform flamenco in Andalucia in Spain.

Kansas City Art Institute faculty member Miguel Rivera is currently in Buenos Aires, where he is working in the International Contemporary Center for the Graphic Arts program.

Perhaps the most fascinating project financed by this year’s grants comes from New York-based Liliya Lifanova, whose plans include collaborating with a Russian performance team in Moscow and St. Petersburg. She will also visit the Russian province of Kaluga to research folkloric Cossack culture, which has been vigorously revived by Putin as a symbol of Russian strength.

Lighton said she’d like to be able to raise the current $5,000 grant limit to $10,000.

“I’ve started a new fund at the Community Foundation where anyone who wants to can donate. All donations will be used for granting to artists.” From her own experience and what she hears from grantees, Lighton is sold on the importance of giving regional artists the opportunity to gain “perspective and understanding of how to relate to other cultures.”

“I think travel opens your eyes,” she said. “These people need to get out.”

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