Lexington artist hires an apologist for urban sprawl, Louisville Courier- Journal 2005

The Louisville Courier-Journal March 20, 2005
Mourning walk
Lexington artist hires an apologist for urban sprawl By Katya Cengel

How do you go about hiring a mourner? Do you ask friends for references wait for a sign from above or place a classified advertisement in Lexington-area newspaper ACE Weekly? If you are Bruce Burris, you do the latter. For several weeks this year, the artist from Lexington ran a classified that offered applicants $100 to "mourn for loss of natural habitat, meditate on the reasons for its destruction, apologize for our culture's behavior and offer prayers of healing.

"More than 30 people, mostly women, applied. Some sent poems, some sent manifestos -- way over the 100 words Burris requested -- and some asked paranoid questions, like "Who are you working for?" Then there were those, like Annette, who sent resumes."When I looked into it, it is a profession, and I thought he's paying me to do a service so I'll apply with a resume," said Annette, a 47-year-old Lexington-area administrative assistant. On it, she listed crying and gnashing of teeth, wailing and indignation (as needed) and outrage (as warranted) as her qualifications. Under "experience," she mentioned mourning the loss of a loved one and sprinkling wildflower seeds on an industrial park."Like you would hire a maid to clean out the fireplace, they are hiring me to perform a service," she explained.Putting tree hugging and sorrowful silence on a resume is usually not advised.

But then mourning the loss of natural habitat near an office complex is not a usual job description. And deciding to offer a mourner's job after noticing a sad circle of grass while driving to the dentist is even less run-of-the-mill. But then Burris, 49, who co-owns an art program and is a founding member of the environmental arts collective EcoLifeForce, never claimed to be typical. He also never claimed to be a great environmentalist -- his family is in the construction business -- or a spiritual guru. But that doesn't mean he can't apologize for urban sprawl -- or at least hire someone to do it, he says. Someone like Annette, whose resume showed a mix of hilarity and sensitivity that Burris said, was perfect for a mourner hired to apologize to and mourn for the Earth."I hope there is this possibly larger force -- which I don't believe in -- that's going to feel somewhat better about the people that have harmed it," said Burris.

Although Burris hired Annette to mourn the 54-acre Beaumont Circle -- a patch of land soon to be developed near the Beaumont Centre, a residential, retail and commercial complex in Lexington -- he said the ritual could have been done almost anywhere."Whoever is developing it doesn't seem to be any better or worse than the rest of us," said Burris.Actually, Haymaker/Bean Commercial Real Estate, which is developing the area, was recognized by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County government two years ago for improving the local environment. "I've developed this whole 705 acres (Beaumont Centre), and I'm very conscious of the environment," said Haymaker/Bean agent Tim Haymaker. "We've planted seven or eight thousand more trees than were here when we started."Haymaker said Beaumont Circle would be filled with office buildings, townhouses, restaurants and plenty of pedestrian walkways, similar to one that now stretches around the circle.

The one Hook, Burris, his 6-year-old son, Doug, and his wife, Robynn Pease, walked around on a recent windy and cold Saturday morning. But before setting out, Hook transformed herself into "Ash the Weeping Woman." In the parking lot of the shopping complex, a Supercuts hair salon in the background, Hook slipped fingerless black lace gloves over her hands, then placed a black hat and a black mourning veil over her short dark hair. From head to toe, she was dressed all in black -- her blue eyes barely visible under the veil."I was trying to find something Victorian, because Victorians were obsessed with death," said Hook. "But many Victorian outfits tend to drag, so I went with Edwardian, because it's rainy."Although hiring people to mourn has been typical of various cultures at different times, it is hard to find examples of people being hired to mourn a piece of land bordering a strip mall and office complex. Hook looked, she said, but the paid mourners she read about were mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman society and in the Bible -- long before office complexes and Applebee's restaurants existed.In some cultures, Hook said, mourners were paid to mourn in public, while the family mourned in private. "One reference I read said you could call it performance art," she said.That is probably what you would call Hook's half-hour-plus walk. It began around noon with Hook boldly striding across the street to reach the island of land for which she was mourning. A few minutes later a young EcoLifeForce member wearing Ugg-like boots and carrying a video camera ran circles around Hook, documenting her performance.

"Some cultures believe when a strong spirit passes that it takes a strong wind to carry the spirit away," said Hook, the wind whipping her veil around her face. "So I find it rather fitting that this wind came up about the time we decided to do this." She took a few more steps."I'm trying not to step on worms," she added. The life of an environmental mourner is filled with obstacles.As Annette finished, her head bowed toward a cluster of what looked like sewer pipes on the grass, she uttered one last silent prayer, then left to buy her husband lunch.