Legacy collection: an interview with Rita Blitt

Artist Rita Blitt
Artist Rita Blitt

Local artist Rita Blitt has works all around Kansas City—on the Plaza, at Truman Medical Center and at the Kansas City Public Library, to name a few spots. An artist of international renown as well as around K.C., Blitt has spent a lifetime creating drawings, paintings, sculptures and films. Now you can see the arc of her career in her private collection turned public: In November 2017, the Rita Blitt Gallery and Sculpture Garden opened at Washburn University’s Mulvane Museum in Topeka, the result of Blitt giving her private collection of work to the museum. Kansas City Spaces caught up with Blitt to find out all about her life’s work and what the new museum additions entail.

Kansas City Spaces: Tell us a little bit about your artistic background.

Rita Blitt: My earliest memories of drawing are age 3, when I echoed the lines made by my grandfather at the bottom of his letters, and being praised by the art supervisor in first grade. At age 10, I received a scholarship for Saturday classes at the Kansas City Art Institute. I won a statewide greeting card design contest in high school and loved making quick lines in my college figure-drawing class.

After two years at the University of Illinois and graduating from the University of Missouri Kansas City, I continued studying painting with Wilbur Niewald at KCAI. This was followed by a lifelong devotion to creating drawings, paintings, sculpture and films inspired by my art.

KCS: What motivated you to give your collection away?

RB: I was thrilled to be invited to gift my legacy collection to the Mulvane Museum. Showing my work in a new gallery connected to their concert hall is perfect for my art, which is so often inspired by music and dance.

KCS: What does the collection entail?

RB: My legacy collection includes my archives, films, over 1,000 drawings, about 200 canvases and almost as many sculptures. A new sculpture garden for my larger sculptures is attached to the Rita Blitt Gallery.

KCS: The collection shows your progression as an artist—was that part of the reason for donating the collection? How is it shown?

RB: I wanted to share my life’s works and to ensure their proper care. It has been exciting to gather and review these works created over so many years with love, dedication and courage. The collection progresses from the 1930s, with my childhood greeting cards, through recent years—all revealing my value of honesty and love of movement.

My professional period began in the 1960s with canvases inspired by what I saw, not yet painting in an abstract manner until it developed honestly. After creating sculptures based on shapes alone and the relationship of shapes, I began experimenting with abstract painting.

My early sculpture experimentation in the 1960s started with 3M metal shapes hanging from the ceiling of a mall. That was exciting, but then I missed painting, so I covered the metal with canvas and suspended the forms from the ceiling, painting them as they whirled in space.

The Hallmark Gallery on the Plaza showed my suspended, painted sculptures in an exhibition called “Canvas in Space.” This led to my being accepted for a 1969 sculpture show in New York City. But I suddenly became dissatisfied with my canvas sculpture and discovered acrylic sheet, another material with which I could make sculpture. After experimenting, I created “Orblitts,” a 1969 New York exhibition, showing my transparent acrylic sculpture suspended from the ceiling. The stories surrounding this exhibition were so dramatic that I spent the next year writing a book inspired by the experience.

As my art progressed in the 1970s, I daily created nonobjective abstract drawings made with one hand or two at once. Some of these works have been chosen for sculpture fabrication, becoming monumental sculptures up to 60 feet tall and now seen in many countries. I also experimented with creating found object sculpture and later music sculpture.

The Mulvane collection also includes my black box sculptures as well as large canvases, music-inspired works on paper, and my award-winning films, including those with Parsons Dance Company. Seen now in my Mulvane exhibition is the film Finding Center, a Parsons dance inspired by my pastel and oil ovals, most recently performed in Italy where it was filmed by a French company showing it throughout Europe.

KCS: What are your favorite pieces in the collection?

RB: Many of my favorite works are displayed in “Moving Stillness,” the opening exhibition of the Rita Blitt Gallery and Sculpture Garden:

• Celebrating Dorianna, a large canvas painting created with intense joy after the birth of my granddaughter. I only intended to dance across the canvas when I painted, never dreaming that a hint of a child would appear.

• Round and Around, which I painted in the afterglow of creating Celebration.

• Dance of Destiny, a found object sculpture named after the title of an 1844 French print seen in the New York Times three days after the creation of the sculpture. The print is mysteriously reminiscent of this wild sculpture.

• Lunarblitt, 1975, affectionately referred to as my yellow ball sculpture, is my first sculpture made from one of my spontaneous drawings.