UPDATE: National exhibit suggests art for anxious America

Thursday, May 5, 2011 | 5:50 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Suggesting art as therapy for an anxious America, a national project kicking off this week aims to get people talking about the country with the help of myriad forms of creative expression, including oil paintings and etchings, film and poetry, food and conversation.

"America: Now and Here," which begins its inaugural three-week run Friday in Kansas City before heading to Detroit and Chicago, is centered on the theme of America since Sept. 11, 2001. It started as an idea several years ago when painter and sculptor Eric Fischl became discouraged by the rancor that marked his discussions with family and friends.

The talks "turned unsettled so very quickly, no matter what we were talking about," the New York-based artist said. "Everything immediately turned to anxiety."

That acrimony also seemed to extend to the nation as a whole, he said, and while it's "not some reflex of Americans to turn to their artists and say, 'Can you help us out with this by giving us some art,'" Fischl said he felt art had a role in bringing the conversation back to more civil tones.

Results of that effort will be on display in Kansas City's Crossroads district, an area near downtown filled with restaurants and galleries, including the Leedy-Voulkos gallery, where much of the event is centered. The two-room gallery features several works, including an American flag etching by renowned painter Jasper Johns, and large wall sections containing a 540-line collaborative poem, or "renga," that begins with a piece from poet Robert Pinsky.

Also on display will be work from about 100 local artists who contributed plays, poetry, paintings and puppet shows. In Detroit, Chicago and wherever the project goes next, local artists will be included to create "focus, a local voice that gets heard on a national stage," Fischl said.

Events in Kansas City run the gamut, including workshops on hip-hop music and comic books, surprise performances from area actors, gallery shows and a lunch with farmers, restaurateurs and members of food policy organizations. Another will be a discussion of American art with Fischl and Julian Zugazagoitia, new director of the city's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Participants will be able to create their own art at several events, most of which are free.

"I want us to use art as another language, that is to say, different from the media and different from religion. Use the language and experience that art provides as a way of trying to change the conversation in this country," Fischl said. "The thing about art is it's something that is nuanced, and I'd say anything but black and white. It insists on interpretation."

"So it's all about people connecting to each other through their interpretations," he also said.

Fischl reached out to artists and pitched the idea as a catalyst for a dialogue about the U.S. He thought it would be difficult to get artists to donate pieces, but when he asked them to create or contribute work specifically about America since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, most of them gladly obliged.

Other contributors include painter Robert Rauschenberg, playwright Edward Albee and performance artist Laurie Anderson.

"What I was really turning to them for was to share their insight, wisdom and talent," Fischl said. "Pretty much everybody who hears about this really wanted it to happen."

The vision for "America: Now and Here" is for artwork to be put on specially outfitted trucks that travel the country and park in a city, town or military base, and "like a Transformer" open to become a mobile art gallery with an adjoining event space, Fischl said. The trucks are scheduled to begin rolling next year.

Kansas City was selected as the opening venue in part because it was the first city to "step up to the plate to say we want you here and have been actively raising money," Fischl said. The area, home to the beginning of the Oregon Trail, "also has this great tradition of journeys starting off from there," he said.

"We feel that it's time for another great journey that will inspire and influence Americans as individuals and as our society," project director Dorothy Dunn added. "And this one is to be led by America's artists."

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