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Pet Milk: a new type of collaborative art project

Sitting on the floor of Kelli Burton's small third-floor apartment in the funky part of town, a huddle of Lexington artists makes sure the Elmer's rubber cement holds the CD sleeve to the inside back cover of the oddly sized, oddly named upstart literary magazine.

This is a “help me” party for a Lexington art project so large and so community-based it should rightly be called “help us.” But it was Burton's idea, so it's Burton's apartment and Burton's paycheck that's covering the shortfall.

It's also to Burton's credit that this whole thing has come together.

No wonder she got to name the collaborative art-music-and-literature event that comes Saturday to ArtsPlace whatever she wanted. She is calling it Pet Milk, after Stuart Dybek's acclaimed short story published in 1984 in The New Yorker and the canned dairy creamer her grandmother loved.

But the name has a way of hugely underselling it.

Burton's Pet Milk: A Collaborative Creative Exchange has a chance to be the fiercest piece of performance art conceived in these parts in a long time.

That's because at the show, writer Bob, for example, will talk about artist Susan's collage, which was inspired by Bob's poem, which also served as a reference for musician Harry's music. But the attendees get to participate, too. That means we all get to explain and argue about art for the low admission fee of $5. And this whole intellectual group grope will be repeated by 25 more three-artist groups throughout the night for the pleasure of any and all who want to be included.

Or maybe Pet Milk has the chance to the best party game ever invented by Lexington's artistic literati. (Guess which piece of visual art goes with which poem or short story in your handout booklet. Now name that tune.)

Or, alternatively, Pet Milk could lead to fisticuffs. (Art is not without its critics.)

In any case, it probably will not be the typically languid launch of a literary magazine — which it is billed to be — because more than 75 artists in Lexington have willed it otherwise.

The ground rules

The whole thing took eight months to plan. To be a part of Pet Milk, the artists only had to agree to Burton's terms: The writing came first.

The writers' work was then handed off for inspiration to artists and musicians, who would create works based on the writing. For the artists and musicians, once handed a piece of written inspiration, there was no trading it in. No cheating or looking at other works unless it was your partner piece. And no peeking at the visual art pieces until the final reveal, on Saturday.

The bonus would be the cross-pollination of all those minds.

Burton, 32, says she knew within three hours of making the first phone call in March that the idea would work. Everybody she asked to participate said yes. She turned no one down.

Why?

Because “the written word, visual art and music,” Burton says in her rhapsodic way, “might be the three highest forms of communication.”

Loose or literal

At Sunday's “help me” party, volunteers inserted 300 freshly burned CDs into sleeves while listening to Burton's all-time favorite singer, Cyndi Lauper, belt out a few. The whole thing had a good vibe, says artist, architect and musician James “Honey” Johnson, who took on the task of visually representing one written piece and working on the music for another.

“What made the project so interesting is you're given some information, but how do you interpret it?” he says. “You are given these parameters, and you draw these borders around them. You can be as loose as you want or as literal as you want.”

Now here's where the conversation so promisingly started to prelude Saturday evening's.

Writer and musician Andrew English says he thinks “there doesn't have to be any obvious inspiration between the pieces. There was no need to decipher anything. It was much more about how the writing feels to you. What's great is two pieces wouldn't exactly exist without what you did. That's interesting to think about.

“What's better is 75 created things we know have seen the light of day because of a little bit of effort of a lot of people's part. The collective hours is probably a really big number. The written word multiplied.''

True, but first each artist had to sweat.

From solid to liquid to gas

Musician Ben Allen, who works as a writer at Kentucky Educational Television, says that at first he was just plain baffled by what to do. Being handed another person's idea simply was not the way he goes about writing music or lyrics, he says as he begins talking about the creative process in a whole new way. He says it was like having a solid and transforming it into a liquid, and he imagined the visual artist having to take it another step to a gas.

How to do that? Allen said he wrote the words of the poem he was given, composed by Chuck Clenney, over and over. He read them over and over. He posted them at work and at home. He dissected the poem line by line.

“It went from having a jazz rhythm to having a pop or disco measure for me,” he says of his song. “I think the poet will be surprised. It has some velocity to it.”

Slowly, Organic Life Inevitable had yielded. There was the pleasure. And the musical version of Organic Life Inevitable, track 17 on the Pet Milk CD, was born.

At Sunday's party, everyone drinks warm apple cider and imagines for a minute what artist Lina Tharsing has done to represent Organic Life Inevitable visually.

'Wild creativity on the loose'

Whatever the outcome, the consensus in the room seems to be that Big Idea Burton has done something big enough to fit the art scene here. That's because they like to think that Lexington has a chance to be a nurturer of the arts, even with its demolished downtown block and hard economic times. They like to think that Lexington is going to get the reputation that Austin, Texas, has long enjoyed and that Madison, Wis., earned. They think Lexington could have it if people could just see what's here.

“She made us do it,” Johnson says admiringly of Burton.

Says Burton: “One of the most intriguing things to watch is that wild creative energy on the loose. I want to live in a community that fosters and encourages that type of growth, a community that doesn't bury its creative class but lifts them up instead.”

A long time ago, Burton put her dog in her first communion dress and organized a successful dog wedding for the kids in her neighborhood. Some skills never leave you.

Like the ability to know when something needs to be encouraged and when it needs to be recast in a new light and when it needs to be celebrated and how.

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