Oh, the Places You'll Go for Art
You may have crossed paths with Karen Lauseng and not realized it. Perhaps you rubbed shoulders with this multi-talented woman at a thrift shop, or competed with her to snap up bargains at a weekend rummage sale or flea market. Maybe you spotted the Silver City artist prowling the aisles and admiring the widgets at a hardware store or building supply center.
"You name it and I am out there Saturday mornings at 7 o'clock, on the beat," says Lauseng, with a laugh and a playful toss of her dark hair. "You'll find me running around trying to find things that I haven't had before and trying to think of ways to use them."
Fishing lures, golf tees, toothpicks, paper clips, cotton swabs, milk jugs and many other non-traditional doodads have found their way into art objects created by Lauseng in her Silver City studio. Imagine a tiny book made out of colored toothpicks or a purse fashioned from a car-wash mitt.
"It's fun to make pieces from things you would never expect to find in them," says Lauseng, whose whimsical works contrast sharply with the stunningly elegant jewelry she has made and sold for years. "When you're an artist," she shrugs, "you flip the channel quite a bit, looking for new things all the time."
But whimsy and sophistication aren't the only facets of Karen Lauseng's personality. She is also a detail-oriented, no-nonsense bureaucrat.
"I'm the coordinator overseeing implementation of Silver City's recently completed Arts & Cultural District Plan," Lauseng explains, during an interview at an office in the City Hall Annex where her grandchildren's own artwork is on prominent display. "We're starting with pretty much a blank slate."
Formally endorsed in August by the municipal government, the wordy document is nearly the size of the Las Cruces phone book and lays out a plan "to establish a pathway for development, support and promotion" of the already formidable Silver City arts community. The initiative is a collaboration involving the state's departments of tourism and economic development as well as the Town of Silver City, Silver City MainStreet Project (which hired Lauseng), Mimbres Region Arts Council, Silver City Gallery Association, and other local entities.
Lauseng, hired half-time last spring, describes Grant County as "full of talented, helpful people" engaged in the making and presenting of high-quality visual, performance and audio art, as well as music, poetry, prose, theater and dance. "I just know," she enthuses, "the right people will come forward and help [implement the plan] in areas for which they have the greatest skill. And I'm really excited about the prospect of meeting them."
The plan's release follows a yearlong appraisal by dozens of business owners and activists, artists and cultural entrepreneurs, university officials and local residents, government leaders and consultants from nonprofit groups. Its stated goals include the launch of an informational website (www.silvercityacd.org) and arts directory, creation of an events calendar and promotion network, and expansion of "sharing and appreciation" of the arts locally across cultures, languages, economic classes and age groups. Benefits are expected to accrue not only to residents and artists, but to businesses, visitors, schools, nonprofit organizations and local government agencies. The Silver City plan is one of two pilot programs — the other is in Las Vegas, NM — expected to help create a statewide model for other cities.
"I like to think of our [plan implementation] as a major community art project that is in its beginning phase," says Lauseng. "I believe anything that invites creativity is an art project and we certainly want everyone to help with this." To wit, the coordinator ticks off "providing details to add to our forthcoming directory of arts and cultural organizations" and "specific information about venues where people can schedule cultural events, arts classes and similar types of activities."
Lauseng explains that while the arts district has specific geographic boundaries within Silver City, the "cultural plan extends to the broader Grant County area." The latter also stresses a multicultural approach that will include the publication of materials in Spanish as well as English.
"We also want to cut down on conflict between competing events in the region," she says. "If we get people looking ahead at certain scheduling dates we can. . . see whatever everybody else is doing. Part of community involvement means sharing information about what's going on."
Sharing images of "what makes Grant County unique or authentic" is another undertaking helmed by Lauseng through her office's Big Picture Project. Photos submitted by local residents are showcased at a website, www.bigpicturesilvercity.com, under three categories of cultural significance: objects, activities and places. Contributions continue to be welcomed as long as they represent something that still exists in the county.
Yet another initiative involves making greater use of Silver City's local TV outlets, distributed via cable and a low-power TV station, to showcase the work of area artists as well as art-related events. "We are encouraging this," Lauseng says, "as a way to give more exposure to the interesting things people here are doing."
The team of consultants that helped to develop the new Arts & Cultural District Plan highlighted several areas of particular concern. These included a "pressing need for a community cultural center," the desire for "a stronger connection between Western New Mexico University and downtown," upgrading of "signage guiding travelers," possible development of the Big Ditch as a "pedestrian-oriented connector for arts and cultural venues," and adoption of a proposed "Artist Live/Work ordinance" to legalize the practice of artists living in downtown studio spaces. The same study concluded, in Lauseng's words, "that there are a lot of tight-knit groups here as well as isolated groups and individuals. We want to connect them more, because a lot of people don't know what's available or how they can work together with others."
Lauseng hesitates to generalize about what draws creative types to Grant County — "Everybody makes a decision based on his or her unique desires or dreams" — but her own experience is illustrative. After growing up in Watertown, South Dakota, and living for many years in Manhattan, Kansas, she and her husband, a retired Kansas State University art professor, went "town shopping" in the Mountain West. Apparently, they'd had enough cold winters and flat horizons. They considered various other states — and parts of New Mexico — before driving into Silver City on a rainy July afternoon in 2003.
"From the day we arrived," Lauseng remembers, in a wistful tone, "this seemed like the perfect place for us. [The qualities that] made it attractive were the small-town atmosphere, friendly people, wonderful climate and beautiful sunsets." The couple moved permanently to Silver City less than two months later and still rave about the town: "We just absolutely love being here. It feels like home."