Wichita artist Janice Burdine Thacker
Janice Burdine Thacker at an Art That Touches Your Heart installation ​​at the southwest corner of 13th and Erie streets. The organization chose “VIP” to show that “everyone is important, and that ties the community together,” she said. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Since she retired in 2005, Janice Burdine Thacker has continuously reinvented herself. 

The septuagenarian spent seven years as a touring road artist, showing and selling her work all over the country, including at the massive international art fair Art Basel Miami. 

After leaving the road, she launched an annual art show during Black History Month, a program she called Art that Touches Your Heart. Since 2015, the exhibition has included a combination of work by Black local and touring artists alongside artwork made by Wichita students from kindergarten to 12th grade. 

The combination is designed to inspire children, create networking opportunities for local artists and expose them to artwork from people across the country. Artists outside Wichita have traveled a collective 75,000 miles to participate.

“Sometimes, if you stay in your own backyard, you think you’re great,” Thacker said. 

With the help of a board of directors, Art that Touches Your Heart has grown into a nonprofit organization focused on Black arts and culture. The organization hopes to open a permanent center made of shipping containers near 13th and Grove streets in northeast Wichita. 

Thacker moved to Wichita when she was 3 years old. Her mother, Ruby Burdine, was single and worked two jobs, so Thacker lived in the Phyllis Wheatley Children’s Home until sixth grade. She earned a bachelor’s degree in art education from Wichita State University and a master’s from Emporia State University. Thacker has taught art education and worked as a counselor in schools in Wichita, New York, the Kansas City area and on a U.S. military base in Italy. 

She is also working on yet another project — a three-volume history of Boley, Oklahoma, which is a historic Black town and her birthplace. 

The Wichita Beacon asked Thacker about her career, Art that Touches Your Heart, creating Ruby’s Culture Campus and what it’s like to be a Black artist in Wichita. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

When and how did you start your career as an artist?

My mother was an artist. She always provided me with something to do, so we were either making puppets or sewing doll clothes. Then I had an uncle who was an artist, and so he taught me how to draw comic books. So I guess I’ve been an artist my whole life. 

I started a studio practice when I retired. I was working on a book of illustrations made with cut paper, and that’s how I started making the kind of pieces that I have here in town. I started out with the paper, the concepts of history, and especially with Kansas being a pivotal point in American history — all of that ties together. So there’s a love for history and also love for art, so I call myself an archival artist. 

How has mentorship played a role in your career as an artist?

My mentor is Frank Frazier, out of Dallas, Texas. He’s been a road artist for 40 years. We would go to Miami, to Dallas, to Washington, D.C., and all the way up to Harlem, New York. It’s important to see other professional artists who are out there selling their work, because they don’t teach that in school, and you can’t read about it in a book. 

What motivated you to start Art that Touches Your Heart? How did the program begin?

As a former high school counselor, I understand the psychology of art, and how it becomes a healing mechanism, not only for that individual, but for the community. Art connects people. When kids get it, they don’t say a word — their eyes just get real big, and then you know that you’ve touched them. Grownups will get that same look, too. 

We started with an annual show for Black History Month. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Wichita State gave us an in-kind donation of the space on the whole second floor (of the Rhatigan Student Center). Kids could come in to see the art on field trips, and we’d have a program in the evening for the Black Educators Hall of Fame, which we did so the teachers would also be included. 

How has the program changed over the last seven years?

I think it’s only gotten better. We joined the Harlem Fine Arts Show virtual show this year. We sent student work to New York so it could be seen online. We now show work in the (Kansas state) capitol, and we have a school in Topeka that shows at the capitol with us, and we have had artists come down from Kansas City to the capitol. So we just keep expanding. 

An artist rendering of Ruby’s Culture Campus, a project at the intersection of 13th and Grove streets to highlight African American art, literature and music. (Image courtesy Empowered)

The next big expansion is Ruby’s Culture Campus. Tell me about the status of that project and what it will look like.

We have a diverse group of board members that run the organization, so we decided to call this a culture campus, because you may not be into art, but there may be something else there for you. 

What we have right now are six shipping containers (near 13th and Grove streets), but we need about 20 more. The area’s already zoned commercial, so we can have shops there. We need a parking lot, so we’re trying to work on that as phase one this summer. (Art that Touches Your Heart board member) Sheila Kinnard wants to make sure the community has access to books, so one of the first shops will be an African American book shop called Books and More. 

I really think the ultimate goal is for the students in the community to have a share in this space so they help take care of it. 

Is Wichita a good place to be a Black artist?

It wasn’t, but it’s becoming. We just had to have the exposure, which is part of why we bring in outside artists. I was Anthony Joiner’s mentor for three years, and how he has (Mulberry Art Gallery). So it catches on, but people have to ask themselves if there’s something they’re not looking at. Sometimes you just have to know what else is out there.

What still needs to happen for the city to be a better place for Black artists and artists of color?

I think we really need to get (Ruby’s Culture Campus) open because people won’t have to wait once a year, or for a few things to come in. Then other artists will start to come here. That’s gonna give the city a new vision. That’s why this (project) is a new frontier — but Kansas has always been a place of change and growth.

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Emily Christensen is a journalist based in Wichita who writes about arts and culture, in addition to running a freelance writing and editing business. Follow her on Twitter @SchmemilyEmily.