Art can be odd.
Take Sarah Gross, for example. She spends hours turning wet clay into perfect pieces of geometry only then to stab and carve them repeatedly with a knife.
“That probably lends itself to a fair amount of amateur psychology,” Gross says with a laugh.
But it may not even be the oddest part about the scene. Gross is doing all her work in the ceramics studio of the Lawrence Arts Center. The molding, the shaping, the stabbing is in preparation for the largest show of her life — opening June 18 and running through July 16 — and it will be in Lawrence.
Odd only because Gross is from Manhattan — the Big Apple, not the town just west of here. Gross, the Arts Center’s ceramic artist in residence, left New York to come to Lawrence to boost her art career.
Does that seem right?
“When I first got this opportunity,” Gross recalls, “I thought ‘Hmm, Lawrence. I don’t know what that is going to be like.’”
Come to find out, not as odd as you would think.
“This has just been great,” Gross said of her year-long residency. “Lawrence is such a diverse community. It prides itself in supporting the arts, almost to the point that it is a civic duty.”
A national destination
Arts Center leaders are betting Gross’ scenario may seem less odd in the future.
The Lawrence Arts Center is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year with several events that will look back on the history of the organization that started out at Ninth and Vermont streets and was led for decades by local art champion Ann Evans.
But leaders of the center also are looking ahead.
“We’re already becoming known as a community where art is really a part of our identity,” said Susan Tate, executive director of the center. “I think we can really build on that.”
Tate has a vision of turning the arts center into a national destination for artists — and particularly art educators — who want to immerse themselves in a discipline for a few weeks or a few months at a time.
Much like how Iowa City has created a famed workshop program that makes it a haven for aspiring writers, Tate believes Lawrence can be a place where art educators come to hone their skills or recharge their batteries.
“As I’ve said before, we already have in place everything that money can’t buy,” Tate said. “We have a creative community, an artistic community, people who are absolutely devoted to teaching the arts.”
Kansas University’s fine arts program and its school of education also could be valuable pieces of infrastructure for a future program, Tate said. For the last seven years, the Arts Center also has had year-long residency programs for its ceramics and print-making programs. Each residency — which pay artists $300 a month and also gives them teaching opportunities — attracts 20 to 30 applicants a year.
Business and tourism types in Lawrence are seeing the potential. Jane Pennington, director of Downtown Lawrence Inc. and also a board member of the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission, said talks are serious about creating a formal arts district for downtown. And she thinks Lawrence’s central location could make the community accessible on a nationwide basis.
“We have a lot of advantages,” Pennington said. “I think there is a lot of potential around the arts as an economic development tool. Certainly, I think the Arts Center is one of the best economic development opportunities we have downtown.”
Arts leaders think the center can enrich the community in other ways too.
“It is usually very surprising to people who come to the center for the first time to see all that we have,” said Marilyn Dobski, a former board member and an organizer of the 35th anniversary celebration.
The center has seven visual arts studios that are open to the public to use. Those include two painting studios, a photography studio, a digital media lab, a jewelry and metal studio, a ceramic studio and a print making studio. Two dance studios also are part of the facility, and a 300-seat auditorium. The center also offers an arts-based preschool that serves about 150 children per semester. And of course there is gallery space that has hosted shows from artists ranging from intensely local to widely international.
Tate said the center’s main goal in the future will continue to serve as a crossroads-type of location for the community.
“We try very hard to be an intersection of the things that people in Lawrence care about,” Tate said. “I would include in that scholarship, education in the arts, social mission and really a sense of civic responsibility.
“I think the Arts Center really confirms what Lawrence believes about itself and markets itself as: Lawrence is a place that values creativity.”