NEA chair visits with young artists during Lawrence tour

Chesney Buck, an Arts Train apprentice artist at Van Go Inc., left, demonstrates how to score and cut pieces of glass to National Endowment for the Arts Chair Jane Chu, as the two worked on a piece of artwork Monday, April 11, 2016, during Chu's stop in Lawrence. Van Go is an organization that provides arts-focused job-training for under-served youths.

National Endowment for the Arts chair Jane Chu ended her trip to Van Go Inc. by donning a pair of safety glasses and joining young artists in the creation of a piece of glass art.

Monday’s stop at the nonprofit organization, which provides arts-related job training to underserved teens and young adults, was part of a daylong visit to Lawrence, where the NEA head also toured the Lied Center and engaged in private talks with local arts leaders.

“One of the things I really like that’s going on in Lawrence is the ability to collaborate,” Chu said after learning how to cut and score colorful pieces of glass from a table of Van Go apprentice artists.

“When you collaborate, you start moving away from the feeling that there’s a zero-sum game,” she said. “Lawrence has shown that they collaborate very, very well in different projects, and that’s a wonderful way to be.”

Chu, who served as CEO and president of Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for Performing Arts before her appointment to the NEA in 2014, spent Monday morning watching Lawrence students participate in Third Grade Theatre Arts Day. The annual program, which provides district students with hands-on education in everything from acting and movement to lighting and sound, is a joint effort between the Lied Center, Theatre Lawrence and the Lawrence Arts Center.

Lawrence was selected for the NEA visit by the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission. Peter Jasso, KCAIC director, also attended the site tours.

“People say art is transformative or that art saves lives, and I think this,” he said, referring to Van Go, “is a great example that it very clearly does that in a unique way.”

At Van Go’s East Lawrence headquarters, 19-year-old apprentice artist Emily Laughlin shared her own story with the NEA leader as she led Chu and other visitors — including Jasso and Mary Kennedy, CEO of the Mid-America Arts Alliance — on a tour of the facility’s wood shop and kiln room.

As a kid, Laughlin never felt validated at school, where her struggles in math and science classes led to struggles with self-doubt.

“And then I came here and I got to show off my real talent, and it’s just boosted my confidence so much,” she told Chu, with Van Go director Lynne Green at her side. “It’s just awesome to see something you create go out into the world.”

Now, Laughlin plans to pursue a career in art therapy — a trajectory she’d never imagined for herself before becoming involved with Van Go last September.

Just before leaving Van Go, Chu said she’d seen a bit of herself in the creative young people she’d met that day.

Born in Oklahoma to Chinese-immigrant parents, Chu found a “soothing” form of expression in music growing up in Arkadelphia, Ark. She eventually earned bachelor’s degrees in piano performance and music education from Ouachita Baptist University as well as master’s degrees in music and piano pedagogy from Southern Methodist University.

“The arts allowed me to be able to express myself beyond just the use of linear conversation, and by doing that it opened a world for me to belong,” she said. “I know that’s the case whether we’re at museums or on a stage or we’re developing glass pieces here — it’s tapping into our creativity and helping us bring out the best we can be.”