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Ousted Champion Of STL Teen Artists Looking To Relocate — Or Leave Town

Artist William Burton Jr. looks around in his former gallery in North City's Crown Square.
File Photo / Stephanie Zimmerman / St. Louis Public Radio

Originally published Tuesday, May 13. Updated Friday, May 16 to include audio from Cityscape. Look for more STL Art Game-Changers in an upcoming series.

St. Louis artist and activist William Burton has a history of helping teenagers from unstable environments. Now Burton’s own outreach efforts are facing homelessness.

For nearly two years, Burton has provided a space for teen artists to work, enjoy mentoring and find respite from their often chaotic lives at 14th Street Artist Community Gallery, 2701 N 14th St.

He and his business partner Robert Ketchens have occupied the space rent-free from building owner Peter Sparks, in exchange for Burton’s filling the walls with art and furthering its goals of serving the local community.

Last week, a difference of opinion between the Burton-Ketchens team and Sparks led Sparks to give them until the end of May to pack up and go.

“I was accused of turning the gallery into my own personal vision,” Burton told St. Louis Public Radio.

Keep the Momentum Going? Maybe Not

The sticking point is a Saturday food outreach program run by a small church group and allowed by Sparks to operate at 14th Street. Burton said the gathering was not taking place when he and Sparks agreed on Burton’s role.

Inside 14th Street Gallery
Credit Stephanie Zimmerman

According to Burton, the church affiliation of the Saturday group is in conflict with the bylaws of the nonprofit Raw Canvas art school he runs on the premises. The issue came to a head, Burton said, when one of the women brought grandchildren with her.

“The children were running their cars and playing with their toy trucks on our artwork,” Burton said.

Sparks called Burton “an outstanding artist who really deserves national recognition.” But, “We just had different ideas about how to run the building,” he said.

Sparks is expanding his own efforts at what he will continue to call the 14th Street Artist Community. He's planing a summer sewing camp, dance classes and a culinary arts program.

Burton, a member of the recently formed Alliance of Black Art Galleries, has been looking at other properties in north St. Louis, including three elementary schools, for possible relocation. Last week, he was hoping to move into a new space by June 1.

“I really don’t want the momentum to start fizzing out,” Burton said.

Now, however, a more discouraged Burton is talking about leaving St. Louis altogether.

"I don't think people are really interested in reviving communities. It sounds and looks good on paper, but no one is REALLY into doing what it takes," Burton wrote in an email.

Harlem Renaissance Photo Touches His Heart

When Burton was a child, his strong reaction to a single photograph inspired his vision for helping other kids. When he first saw the 1958 photo “A Great Day in Harlem,” he couldn’t help but notice the famous faces, including Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie.

Credit Stephanie Zimmerman
"A Great Day in Harlem"

But Burton’s eyes quickly went from the musicians, poets and visual artists straight to the bottom row, to a group of smaller figures. “Who are these children and who did they become, ultimately, because of the influence they were around?” he wondered.

Ten years ago, he stumbled upon a book containing the photo. He picked it out of a trash can while working in maintenance at an apartment complex. Now, he looks at it almost every day. And with those dozen kids on the curb in mind, Burton began his 14th Street effort to encourage young artists.

“It’s all about giving back to our youth,” Burton said.

In his own youth, Burton graduated in 1985 from Central Visual and Performing Arts High School and attended the Kansas City Art Institute. After returning to St. Louis, he airbrushed clothing at a local store and attended the Regional Arts Commission's Community Arts Training Institute, which supports arts-based community programs.

While running 14th Street, Burton and his business partner Ketchens have earned some income from teaching next door at St. Louis ArtWorks, partnering with other institutions including the St. Louis Art Museum and renting out the space for select events. They also hold paid classes in connection with Raw Canvas.

But there’s been no charge for young people to bring in their artwork to be critiqued, obtain supplies — or just hang out.

“They can sit here and vibe off the energy, and create artwork,” Burton said. “We’re very interested in teenagers’ portfolios and prepping them for college.”

‘Something … to Put All That Anger and Stress Into’

(left to right) William Burton III, Josiah Burton, William Burton Jr.
Credit Stephanie Zimmerman
(left to right) William Burton III, Josiah Burton, William Burton Jr.

Burton knows a thing or two about teenagers. He has a pair of his own — 19-year-old William Burton III is an artist, and Noel, 17, is into creative writing — plus 10-year-old anime and graffiti artist Josiah and 4-year-old Judah who “draws on the walls.”

They’ve grown up around their parents’ musician friends, their mother’s crocheting and their father’s woodworking and other art. Inspired by his dad to become an artist, the younger William Burton now often outsells his father at the gallery.

Burton III uses his drawing and painting as a repository for teenage angst, something he wishes all teens could do.

“It’s an outlet. It gives us something other than being violent or lashing out to put all that anger and stress into,” Burton III said.

Too often, African-American kids are pigeonholed into sports or music, his father said. “But not everyone wants to be an athlete. Not everyone wants to be a rapper,” Burton Jr. noted.

Painting of a jazz musician by Robert Ketchens
Credit Stephanie Zimmerman

As we talked, Burton, Jr.’s partner Ketchens put finishing touches on a painting. Much of Ketchens' work depicts African-American faces as blue. It's “a reaction to a culture that divides us according to shades of black,” he said. During and between exhibits, adult patrons as well as teenagers often stop by just to watch the progress, sometimes putting down-payments on work before it’s finished.

In his 15 years of artistic outreach, Burton Jr. figures he’s influenced more than three-dozen kids, of all races. He’s seen creativity transform young people beaten down by abuse, neglect and violence.

“With art, there’s no right or wrong,” Burton Jr. said. “There’s no one to say, ‘Hey, that’s not right. You can’t paint that grass that way. You can’t make that tree bend that way.’ Because they can. In art you can do it all."

Burton Jr. talks about his mission in this video, recorded before he was asked to leave the 14th Street Artist Community Gallery space.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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