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Bruce Burris is an artist, but his real passion is to provide encouragement and support for others who may not have had the opportunity to create their own art.

It's work that has spanned nearly four decades, and has taken him from coast to coast.

His goal, he said, is to provide support in the arts for "people who generally haven't had any."

For the past two and a half years, Burris has been the director at CEI ArtWorks, where he runs a studio program and gallery in downtown Corvallis. Collaborative Employment Innovations (CEI) links employers with job seekers to promote social and economic empowerment for people with disabilities. ArtWorks runs in conjunction with CEI.

Burris has helped artists, including Patrick Hackleman, Kurt Fisk, and others to exhibit their works at The Arts Center and at Oregon State University, the Portland Art Museum and galleries around the country.

"You're supporting people who have always made art their entire adult lives, and they are working whether you are there or not," Burris said. "The art component is how to support people professionally."

That's where he comes in, helping these individual artists create websites, and networking opportunities and building connections for them.

Burris said there are other artists who are in his program for a variety of reasons, and never had the opportunity to just make things in a studio.

He also gives his time and encouragement to these artists who are interested and happy to create.

But Burris has a more personal role in a pair of new shows opening next week. He has a solo art exhibit, "Superegional," opening Feb. 5, at OSU's Fairbanks Gallery. He is also co-curating a group art show with Hackleman called "Storming the Academy." It opens the same day in a new exhibition space called "Woodshop Projects" in the basement of Fairbanks Hall. 

'Cuckoo's Nest'

Burris, a native of Wilmington, Delaware, said he was lucky to have a mother who took him to museums as a child. He also benefited growing up in the 1960s and had good teachers and art classes in school.

Burris said he never thought about pursuing art professionally.

After two years of college, he took a break and eventually dropped out. Burris worked in bottom-rung jobs at various institutions and in social service positions, while he spent time with art major friends.

"So, I began making things as an artist independent of university," Burris said. "I was encouraging others to make it as well in sort of a haphazard fashion, but consistently."

He ended up working as an attendant at Delaware State Hospital in his early 20s. The experience sparked his interest in providing others with the materials and encouragement to create art.

Burris said the ward was like the set in the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." There was a nurse's station in the middle of the floor and two long corridors with TVs at each end where people would congregate and smoke all day.

"That was the day. That was it, except going to the nurse's station for medication, but more importantly cigarettes and coffee," he said.

Burris noticed a man who would sit alone drawing pictures. They were sequential drawings that always involved whiskey bottles, knives and pistols in different arrangements. Burris started spending more time with him, getting him paper and encouraging his practice. Others began to join them.

Before he even understood what was going on, "We had this ongoing workshop. That's when I realized, this was a thing you can create."

Burris said the mental health experts, psychiatrists and others on site took note of what was happening.

"Once they saw this activity occur, they got into the mix and encouraged it further until there were wild plans for outdoor sculpture gardens," he said, and laughed.

But by that time, Burris had already moved on.

Burris began to exhibit his mixed-media artwork in the late 1970s at The Janet Fleisher Gallery in Philadelphia. At the time, his style of art was considered folk or outsider art, and that movement was starting to take off. 

Folk art is characterized by a naive style, where traditional rules of proportion and perspective are generally not used.

Outsider art is defined as art produced by self-taught artists who are not part of the artistic establishment.

"I'm definitely comfortable in that ballpark, because I'm super-influenced by the artists who I work with and support," he said.

While in his mid-20s, Burris moved to the Bay Area, where he met his wife, Robynn Pease. Both worked in the Tenderloin area of downtown San Francisco as youth programming counselors at the YMCA.

Burris belonged to the city's Braunstein/Quay Gallery for many years, which is where he was introduced to an exhibition by artists from Creative Growth.

Creative Growth in Oakland is a program similar to what Burris runs today at CEI ArtWorks, he said.

"It was founded in the early 1970s and was the first program in the United States specifically founded to support those who have learning differences," Burris said.

He filled in at the nonprofit organization as an intern. It has since served as the model for all of his art programs.

Burris and Pease lived in San Francisco for a decade, before moving to Lexington, Kentucky, where they stayed for 20 years. While in Lexington, Burris co-founded The Latitude Artist Community, an art studio that serves all people, with an emphasis on those with a disability. 

The two have lived in Corvallis the past five years. Pease works at Oregon State University.

Burris also writes grant requests for Cornerstone Associates Inc. in Corvallis. It's a nonprofit organization that provides employment and community involvement opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In addition to writing funding requests for everything from mowing equipment and walk-in freezers, the grants support the cultural aspirations of the organization's associates, he said. This has included the creation of a community pop singing program and a poetry project, based upon the work of Corvallis poet Charles Goodrich.

"This year our wood products company will host an artist in residence, and we are working on another singing program, which will use Renaissance chant as a point of departure," Burris said.


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