Van Go to celebrate young artists, successful endowment campaign at Saturday's What Floats Your Boat

Emily Laughlin was only 12 when she first learned of Van Go Inc., the social service agency that provides arts-based job training to at-risk teens and young adults in Douglas County. She wasn’t yet old enough to take part in the program, but Laughlin, now 19, remembers the “beautiful” bench Van Go apprentice artists created in memory of her late mother, who had recently died from breast cancer.

She’s not sure if the bench — it was adorned with a pink ribbon, the symbol for breast cancer awareness — remains at the cancer ward of Lawrence Memorial Hospital, where it originally sat. Nearly a decade later, though, Laughlin is sure of herself and the career path she’s embarking on with the help of Van Go.

“I found that I really enjoy it and that I’m good at it,” the aspiring art therapist says of metalsmithing, one of the many previously untapped talents she’s discovered in her time at Van Go. “It’s also made me realize what I want to give to the world and the future.”

Laughlin is one of many young artists whose work will be auctioned at Saturday’s 13th annual What Floats Your Boat. Slated for 7 to 11 p.m. at Clinton Lake Marina, the event is Van Go’s biggest fundraiser of the year, with proceeds — the goal is $80,000 this time around — going toward job-training programs for youths as well as operational costs for “keeping the lights on, the doors open and the phones on,” says Van Go development director Eliza Nichols.

“It’s not the most glamorous thing to fundraise for, but somebody has to do it,” she says. “It’s fairly easy to find funders to pay for art supplies or food, but the building itself — we have to be creative in our approach to that.”

Maya Frazier, 15, of Lawrence, holds up a large patio umbrella as she shows it to the crowd gathered during Van Go's annual What Floats Your Boat fundraiser Saturday, June 20, 2015, at the Clinton Lake State Park marina.

Maya Frazier, 15, of Lawrence, holds up a large patio umbrella as she shows it to the crowd gathered during Van Go's annual What Floats Your Boat fundraiser Saturday, June 20, 2015, at the Clinton Lake State Park marina. by John Young

This year’s “approach” includes about a dozen pieces crafted by Van Go’s apprentice artists, who range in age from 14 to 24. As in previous iterations of the event, much of Saturday’s auction will be devoted to upcycled outdoor furniture painted in “retro” shades like turquoise, lime green and bright orange. Local artists Dave VanHee, Kristin Moreland and Stacey Lamb — along with Van Go apprentice artist Jordan Wittbrod are also pitching in with their colorful “art bikes,” another from years past.

The event — which will treat partygoers to dinner by Ingredient and McGonigle’s, live jazz by Blueprint and dancing under the stars with DJ Johnny Quest — will also celebrate the successful completion of Van Go’s two-year, $750,000 endowment campaign. The agency recently surpassed its goal with an extra $15,000 in tow.

“We’re really thrilled with the community support, and feel grateful and so humbled that the community supports Van Go,” Nichols says of the campaign. “It will allow us to be around for a long time.”

The money will go toward a safety net in case of emergency or sudden grant cuts, says Nichols, to ensure opportunities for young artists like Laughlin for years to come.

She’s shadowing an art therapy intern (it’s an internship within an internship, she jokes) at Van Go this summer, and will take her first steps toward an art therapy degree at Johnson County Community College in the fall.

“I didn’t believe I could,” she says of imagining an artistic career for herself back in high school. “They’ve boosted my confidence and made it seem possible for me to do that.”

Tickets for What Floats Your Boat range from $87.50 all the way up to $700, for a table of eight. They can be purchased at www.van-go.org or by calling 842-3797.

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