Tom Eblen

Artist who usually helps others shows own work

Bruce Burris is best known in Lexington for helping other people create art — and for pushing the boundaries of what art is and who artists are.

He directs (with Crystal Bader) the Latitude Artist Community on Saunier Street, which for nearly a decade has helped people with disabilities express themselves through visual art. Latitude artists' work has been displayed at galleries in New York and Paris, France.

Burris started ELandF Gallery, a "small-projects accelerator" for art in public spaces. It has sent poets to read in nursing homes and on LexTran buses. And it has paid small honoraria to people who wrote winning essays about why they wanted to watch clouds or read a book while sitting in a streetside parking space.

At the height of the controversy over Dudley Webb's now-stalled CentrePointe development, Burris paid performance artists to publicly "mourn" the demolition of the block's old buildings and to walk Main Street as "town criers," giving dramatic readings of a defensive speech that Webb made to the Urban County Council.

Away from Lexington, Burris has gained notoriety for his own art. He has had solo exhibitions in San Francisco, Philadelphia and cities in California and Michigan, but never in Lexington. Until now.

"Nobody really knows about that aspect of his personality," said Phillip March Jones, who organized Burris' first solo show in a decade, which opened Thursday at Institute 193 and continues through Feb. 20.

Jones opened Institute 193 last fall at 193 North Limestone. It is a little gallery with big ambitions: to showcase the work of this region's unsung contemporary artists.

"Everything with Bruce is about Latitude or ELandF, but it's never about him. ... His own art never gets presented," Jones said. "And, for me, it's some of the most interesting stuff he does."

The show is called We Will Someday, Someday We Will. The name was inspired by this season of New Year's resolutions, when we all promise to become better people.

Burris' sculptures, drawings, paintings and installation pieces use humor, irony and parody to comment on and raise questions about community dynamics and cultural stereotypes. He wants his art to promote activism and awareness of regional issues including poverty and mountaintop-removal coal mining. His art isn't intended as decoration; he wants it to make viewers think.

One piece, Welcome to Lonely Mountain Community Center, is a bulletin board filled with fictional news and notices that speak to issues, concerns and cultural conflicts in contemporary small-town Appalachia.

Burris is as much a storyteller as an artist. He densely weaves words and messages into his paintings and drawings, some of which are reminiscent of funk-art album covers from the 1970s.

"What really carries the work is this text," Jones said. "He's dealing with the very problems we're dealing with every day. These are serious issues, but he deals with them in a visually lighthearted way to get people into them."

I met Burris for lunch at Third Street Stuff on a cold, snowy day. The first thing he wanted to do, before talking about himself, was to show off drawings and paintings by Latitude artists on the wall behind our table.

Burris, 54, grew up in Wilmington, Del., seeing art in everyday life. His mother was constantly taking him to museums and cultural events, "which, of course, I didn't appreciate at the time," he says.

He also was influenced by a boyhood neighbor, the famous artist and illustrator Frank Schoonover, who was well into his 80s but still painting and teaching. "He had an open studio where neighborhood kids could wander in," Burris said.

"I grew up feeling like the visual arts were an approachable thing," said Burris, who studied at San Francisco Art Institute. "But the better way for me to make art is not in an isolated environment. Collaboration and community and support; it's a very natural thing for me."

That belief, and a public service ethic picked up while attending Quaker schools, led him to a career that has combined art, community and social work — working with homeless and abused children in San Francisco and with disabled artists in Kentucky.

Burris moved to Lexington 16 years ago with his wife, Robynn Pease, who came to the University of Kentucky to earn a doctorate. She is now UK's director of work life, teaches sociology and social work, and was elected last year as staff representative on the university board of trustees. They live near Southland Drive.

Originally, Burris thought he would be here three or four years then move back to San Francisco. "So I stored all my unimportant stuff in a friend's garage," he said. "I hope he's had a big yard sale by now."

After his last solo show a decade ago at a major San Francisco gallery, Burris said he ran out of steam and stopped creating work for several years. He resumed only recently, sparked by concern about mountaintop-removal mining and other issues he saw around him.

Burris' art, like the projects he sponsors through ELandF, are reactions to what he sees around him.

"I like all the projects I've done, but I know in my heart that they're not innovative enough," he said. "I don't always feel like taking risks in this environment. You won't see people taking these risks here; it's a small town. But we should take risks."