copious notes

Artist and arts activist Bruce Burris is leaving Lexington, but his presence will remain

Artist and arts activist Bruce Burris is moving away, but his presence will remain

Herald-Leader Culture ColumnistMarch 17, 2013 

Bruce Burris, an artist and co-founder of Latitude Artist Community, whose artists painted this mural on Third Street Stuff 10 years ago, is leaving Lexington for Oregon, where his wife has a new job.

RICH COPLEY — Lexington Herald-Leader Buy Photo

Lexington artist Bruce Burris keeps Independent Film Channel's Portlandia in mind when he is doing his work.

The show from Saturday Night Live star Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein lampoons its Oregon title town as a hotbed of artsy, hipster earnestness.

"The work that I'm doing could be so easily caricatured, and rightfully so, in ways very much like that, that I have to think about what it is that I'm doing," Burris, 57, says. "So I have to make sure that I feel good about this sort of action, that there is something deep and pervasive and right about it. I also know that there is a comic element to everything I do."

Burris will be moving closer to the source of that satire this summer when he joins his wife, Robynn Pease, in Corvallis, Ore., where she has taken a job as work-life coordinator at Oregon State University.

That will conclude two decades in Lexington, where Burris has been expanding the concept of arts, primarily through Latitude Artist Community, which he founded with Crystal Bader, and ELandF Projects, which has created provocative events such as the mourner at the CentrePointe block and people reading books in downtown parking spaces.

Burris is reluctant to take credit but happy to see a cultural community much more active than when he came here.

"It used to be you could scan a bulletin board and a couple of sign posts and have a sense pretty much of most everything that you'd want to see," he says. "It's well beyond that, and obviously that's a positive thing. It's the kind of thing we were all hoping for."

One of Burris' major accomplishments was making people who might have been marginalized as disabled part of the mainstream art scene in and out of Lexington.

Latitude is similar to many arts programs for people with disabilities, but Burris notes some major differences that have helped it expand its reach.

He says most programs have stronger internal exhibition components, meaning work is displayed and sometimes sold on site.

"What we try to do is place the work that has a cultural zing to it in environments that exist without us," Burris says. "We forge relationships between galleries and exhibition spaces with the artists at Latitude."

So works have been seen in local venues such as Third Street Stuff, Institute 193 and out of town at places like New York's Outsider Art Fair.

Burris uses the term "people thought to have disabilities," saying, "We don't think there's anything wrong with our artists."

Despite that, Latitude bills Medicaid for its services, which he says wore on him and Bader.

"Placing the artwork and dealing with galleries was easy," Burris says.

One of the proudest achievements for the group, he says, which last year won the Community Arts Award from the Governor's Awards in the Arts, was raising accessibility awareness that influenced Lexington's recent streetscape redesign.

Last year Bader, who started Latitude with Burris when she was in her early 20s, said she wanted to work on something new. With Burris' family life changing, they decided to sell the business, and Burris says he is very happy with the new ownership and management.

Similarly, Burris has given oversight of ELandF Projects to similarly community- oriented artists Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova, whose latest initiative is the Lexington Tattoo Project.

But Burriss also is taking ELandF west, already working on his first Oregon project, finding a person to draw five breaths in succession near a proposed coal train route in Albany, Ore. The project, he says, is designed to highlight controversy over pollution-producing trains that bring coal from mines in interior states to the West Coast for shipment to China.

Burris will keep his hand in the area arts scene with projects such as Height1000, which highlights ideas and achievement in disability culture.

And Burris has his own work, highlighted in 2010 with his first solo exhibit in more than a decade at Institute 193.

Burris says he declined to have a going-away party, opting instead to make his going-away event a repainting of the Latitude mural at Third Street Stuff in May.

He expects to leave July 1, which is 20 years to the day after he moved to Lexington.

But Burris' work will continue to reverberate here. He says his new home might be more attuned to his sensibilities, but he'll also tune in to that show that reminds him to be self-critical.

Reflecting on projects such as those with mourners and drawing breaths of coal dust, Burris says, "I really have to be aware of my own motivations, so when I am written off, I can say to myself, 'No, this was the right thing to do.'"

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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