Art Here, Art Now: Private Moments of Joy and Pain

During the 2019 Benefit Art Auction, we partnered with the Department of Art History at the University of Kansas to provide background and insight on participating artists and their work. David Cateforis, Department Chair and Art History Professor, led students through the selection, research, and writing process for the Art Here, Art Now blog series. We would like to thank these students for sharing their unique perspective on the art that appeared in the auction, and will continue to share their essays in the weeks ahead.

Aubrey Burgess, Senior Design Major at the University of Kansas, on Elizabeth Layton

The first time I encountered Elizabeth “Grandma” Layton was at a garage sale on a rainy day in Lawrence, Kansas. Layton died in 1993, 26 years prior to my walk up a damp driveway and into a warm garage shelter. Digging through a pile of clothes, I came across a strange t-shirt with a wobbly drawing of an older woman, pulsating with vitality, adorned in a multitude of buttons. Who was she? I was drawn to the image and its accompanying text, “Her strength is in her principles.” I later came to find that this drawing, entitled Buttons, was a self-portrait of Layton—a local celebrity and nationally celebrated artist who overcame her depression through blind contour drawing. When utilizing this technique, an artist sketches the outline and shape of their subject, oftentimes without looking at the paper or canvas, attempting to draw directly what they see.

Sharing private moments of joy and pain as well as presenting ideas and posing questions on controversial issues, Layton’s art conveys her unique voice. She tackled subjects such as capital punishment, hunger, aging, and women’s rights. Her 1982 lithograph Cinderella, included in the Lawrence Arts Center Benefit Art Auction, centers on a personal narrative. The artist depicts herself disappointed and detached when her expectations about marriage fall short of a fairy tale ending. Layton’s elderly prince sits on a maroon throne merely inches away, but he ignores her. His tall crown is branded with a large KC. Under the prince’s embellished jacket, viewers catch a glimpse of a cursive o and y. Any local would recognize the prince’s apparel as Kansas City Royals merchandise. Commanding the prince’s attention is the broadcast of a baseball game.

On her website, Layton writes of this composition, “Fairy tales end. ‘Cinderella and her prince get married and live happily ever after.’ Not necessarily so. He sits there, glued to the television set. She pouts, feeling neglected. She consoles herself with chocolates, romance novels, and the thought that she is a pretty little thing whose tiny pink foot slips easily into the treasured glass slipper.”