Artist Rita Blitt made a significant gift to the Mulvane Art Museum in Topeka, Kansas — a bulk of her life’s work, an estimated 2,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures and film, as well as archival material. It represents preserving a legacy and a lifetime of giving.
Inside Jewish Family Services of Greater Kansas City's new facility on East 63rd Street, Blitt’s brightly colored paintings and black and white drawings line the waiting room and hallways — upstairs and downstairs.
"We have well over 60 pieces and this is one of her beautiful bigger pieces," said Don Goldman, executive director and CEO, as he stood in front of a large oil painting called The Courage to Hope. The work features a blue background, wispy clouds and a light yellow sun in the center.
When JFS made plans to open in a two-story building in East Brookside, with a food pantry, counseling and employment services, Blitt donated her artwork.
Inside a children's therapy room, Goldman described an acrylic and pastel work on paper called Caring: "It looks to me at least, or looks to us as we were designing this, as a mother and a child. And so we thought that was perfect and really helps to define the space."
He added, "For a lot of our clients, they don't see a lot of art in museums. This is a great way to experience art in a living space, in a working space, not just in a museum."
Rita Blitt was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1931, and she’s been making art since she was a child. She took classes at the Kansas City Art Institute starting at the age of 10, and returned in the 1950s to earn a painting degree.
Blitt's had dozens of solo shows and public installations of monumental sculptures, up to 60 feet tall. Her work is in private and museum collections. And she’s donated a lot of artwork.
So this latest gift, of about 2,000 works to Mulvane Art Museum at Washburn University in Topeka, isn’t out of character.
"Well, I have been gifting for a long, long time," said Blitt. "It’s my particular joy to give my works to people that otherwise would not have the joy of art around them."
For years, Blitt said she began her day by letting spontaneous lines flow. She described it like “dancing on paper.” These lines turned into paintings and sculptures.
"I see my work evolving from my love of music and dance and caring and love," Blitt said. "So to me, it's kind of all one part of a whole."
Choreographer David Parsons, founder of Parsons Dance, is based in New York, but he's also a Kansas City native. Parsons met Rita, and her husband Irwin Blitt, more than 40 years ago, when he was a student dancer.
"And Rita opened my eyes to the arts as a young man in Kansas City," said Parsons. "So it wasn’t just a dance. I mean I got to know her and her artistic sensibilities, and spent time with her, learning about painting and sculpture."
Blitt has collaborated with Parsons a handful of times over the last three decades. Their most recent collaboration, Finding Center, for Parsons Dance premiered in 2015 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, and went on to the Joyce Theater in New York.
Blitt’s oval series of pastels and paintings from the 1980s was projected 26-feet tall behind the dancers – in constant motion.
Parsons says Blitt continues to create, but she’s also looking back.
"I definitely think she’s working on her legacy," he said. "It’s extensive. It’s important."
Blitt’s gift, her legacy collection, to the Mulvane Art Museum ranges from archival material, early childhood drawings, to more recent paintings and sculptures.
"It’s going to be an exciting addition in the ways that we can engage the students and the faculty and the community in that space," said Director Connie Gibbons, who adds that the new gallery connects to the concert hall, providing a link from the performing arts to the visual arts.
Blitt says the works she donated to the museum were ones she’d tucked away.
"The Washburn collection started with my very favorites that for some reason or an other I’ve been saving and refusing to sell ... I wanted them to live together," said Blitt. "Not that I haven't sold a lot of my work, but I have just created so much, particularly since I have let these works flow from me, starting in the 70s."
Rita’s husband, Irwin Blitt, a retired commercial property developer, championed her work – and made sure the collection would stay together with a contribution for the new gallery and sculpture garden. But he died at age 89 on Oct. 24, the week before it opened.
Blitt says her husband of 66 years is still very much with her in spirit, and his advice is, too.
"Whenever I wondered if I should do something like that, or I worried, questioning," she recalled, "and he looked at me, and said, 'Get to Work. You’ll find the answers.'"
Creating art, said Blitt, is her joy, and she plans to get to work.
Rita Blitt Gallery & Sculpture Garden, Mulvane Art Museum, north end of the Washburn University campus, in Topeka, Kansas.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.