Nerman Museum exhibition highlights works by local artist Elizabeth Layton

Don Lambert and Mary Frances Ivey. Photo by Lauren Erickson

The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College is hosting an exhibition of Elizabeth Layton’s work, Drawing as Discourse, on view through July 28, 2024. To celebrate this exhibition, the Nerman Museum is hosting a talk on March 28 at 6 p.m. between Don Lambert, Layton’s advocate and friend, and Mary Frances Ivey, the exhibition’s guest curator. Ivey is a PhD Candidate, Kress Department of Art History, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, and a Sarachek Curatorial Fellow for Wiggins Studies, Wichita Art Museum, KS. 

As Ivey explains, “Elizabeth ‘Grandma’ Layton (1909–1993) began a contemplative drawing practice—coming to terms with her body, sense of identity, views, concerns, memories, and experiences—in 1977 at the age of sixty-eight. In the sixteen years of her artmaking, she returned to self-portraiture repeatedly. She centered her dimpling cellulite, accumulating sunspots, and wrinkling skin in numerous drawings—examining her appearance and exposing the onslaught of cultural commentary that scrutinized her and other senior women’s bodies. In other images, she harnessed drawing to process contemporary ethical discussions and unthinkable tragedies by imagining, for example, being a resident of an assisted living facility or suffering from fetal cocaine exposure amid the crack cocaine epidemic. And in gripping pictures of the throes of clinical depression, she depicted the isolation of suffering from mental illness and promoted mental healthcare.” 

Elizabeth Layton, Untitled (Censored), 1989, Lithograph, 33.87 x 26.25″, Collection Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art 

She would look into a mirror and draw what she saw and felt, often without looking down at the paper while drawing–a technique called “blind contour drawing,” which was taught to her at Ottawa University, KS, by art teacher Pal Wright. Layton used this technique for all her 1,000 drawings, including 11 of herself showing wrinkles, sags and age spots. At the same time, they were also about nearly all the issues facing us today: women’s right, racial prejudice, gay rights, the environment, etc. By learning to draw, Layton ended her 30-year depression. 

Don Lambert “discovered” Layton’s drawings in 1977 when he was a 27-year-old reporter for the Ottawa Herald. Lambert began his “crusade” to get her drawings shown. As Elizabeth once said, “the drawings don’t do any good if they are under the bed or in the closet.” He arranged for her one-person shows to be at 150 museums and art centers across the country. Most notably, she had a one-person exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. Using his experience as a journalist, Don placed stories about her in publications such as Life, People, Parade, Time, and the National Public Radio. New York Magazine said “Considering her background, I’m tempted to call Layton a genius”. 

Layton decided not to sell any of her drawings. ”Learning to draw was a miracle,” she once explained, “you don’t sell a miracle.” However, often through Lambert’s advocacy, Layton’s drawings did make its way to several collections not only in Kansas, but at the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, the Art institute of Chicago, The Saint Louis Art Museum, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Phoenix Art Museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and numerous others. 

Elizabeth Layton: Drawing as Discourse installation view, Jan. 25-July 28, 2024, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas. Photo: EG Schempf 

The dialogue between Lambert and Ivey will occur on March 28 at 6 p.m., both in person and online. A reception will follow the in-person talk. For those who’d like to watch the livestream, they can RSVP online to receive a link to the talk. 

Elizabeth Layton: Drawing as Discourse is on view in the Nerman Museum’s Kansas Focus and Oppenheimer New Media galleries January 25 through July 28, 2024. The exhibition brings together 30 of Layton’s drawings and highlights the enduring legacy of her work. Taking cues from the artist’s interest in the power of art to inform, disarm, and engage, this exhibition presents Layton’s work as a space for discourse. This is Layton’s first major exhibition in more than 10 years. 


The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College (JCCC) serves as a cultural leader, facilitating deeper understanding of our world and contemporary issues through their exhibitions and permanent collection. The collection focuses on international, national, and regional contemporary artists, with an emphasis on diverse practitioners and educational access. In addition to gallery spaces within the Nerman Museum, over 300 works from the collection are installed across campus, integrating art into the daily lives of the JCCC campus community as well as greater Kansas City area residents and visitors. 

The Nerman Museum is located on the JCCC campus at 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, KS. It is open to the public on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on Sundays, from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information about the museum, call 913-469-3000 or visit nermanmuseum.org

Amanda Rehagen

Amanda Rehagen is web designer for KC Studio.

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