Restored Gratz Park ‘kids’ return to James Lane Allen fountain

June 24, 2015

After a seven-month, $57,000 restoration, the bronze boy and girl who have graced the Gratz Park fountain since 1933 returned to their granite perches Wednesday.

Amanda Matthews and Brad Connell of Prometheus Foundry in Lexington did a major conservation of the statues, which have been damaged and improperly repaired many times.

“Everything went great with the repair,” Matthews said. “They should be good for another 100 years.”

A crane lifted the granite base and statues back into place, and Connell reattached a restored plaque stating that the fountain was a gift to the children of Lexington from author James Lane Allen.

The city and the Gratz Park Neighborhood Association financed conservation of the statues and reconstruction of the fountain, which had many structural and plumbing problems. The fountain, which cost $154,800 to rebuild, is expected to reopen in early July.

Amanda Matthews of Prometheus Foundary, right, and Rick Deaton of American Industrial Contractors discussed how to reattach the girl's statue in the James Lane Allen fountain at Gratz Park on Wednesday. The statues, erected in 1933 with a legacy left by Lexington author James Lane Allen, received a seven-month, $57,000 restoration at Prometheus over the winter.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Amanda Matthews of Prometheus Foundary, right, and Rick Deaton of American Industrial Contractors discussed how to reattach the girl’s statue in the James Lane Allen fountain at Gratz Park. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Brad Connell, left, Amanda Matthews and Keith Spears of Prometheus Foundary on Wednesday replaced the refurbished plaque to author James Lane Allen on the Gratz Park fountain, which is nearing completion of a $211,840 restoration. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Brad Connell, left, Amanda Matthews and Keith Spears of Prometheus Foundary replaced the refurbished plaque to author James Lane Allen.

Amanda Matthews, left, and Brad Connell, right, of Prometheus Foundary reattach the refurbished statue of the boy on the fountain at Gratz Park, which is nearing completion of a seven-month restoration. The fountain, built in 1933 with a legacy from Lexington-born author James Lane Allen, includes statues of a boy and girl symbolizing the wonder of youth. Allen donated money for the fountain in honor of the children of Lexington. At center is Mike Franz, operations manager of American Industrial Contractors. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Amanda Matthews, left, and Brad Connell, right, reattach the refurbished statue of the boy on the fountain.

Staff members of Prometheus Foundry and American Industrial Contractors reattach the refurbished boy's statue on the James Lane Allen fountain in Gratz Park. Left to right are Mike Franz, Brad Connell, Amanda Matthews and Keith Spears. The fountain and statues, erected in 1933 with a legacy gift from author James Lane Allen, have received a seven-month restoration paid for by the city and the Gratz Park Neighborhood Association.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Staff members of Prometheus Foundry and American Industrial Contractors reattach the refurbished boy’s statue on the James Lane Allen fountain in Gratz Park. Left to right are Mike Franz, Brad Connell, Amanda Matthews and Keith Spears.

Mike Franz and Amanda Matthews helped reposition the girl's statue on the Gratz Park fountain Wednesday after Matthews and her partner, Brad Connell, restored the circa 1933 bronze statues.  The restored fountain is to reopen in early July.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Mike Franz and Amanda Matthews helped reposition the girl’s statue on the Gratz Park fountain.

Amanda Matthews of Prometheus Foundry inspected the girl's statue after it was reattached to the James Lane Allen fountain in Gratz Park on Wednesday. Matthews and her partner, Brad Connell, of Prometheus Foundry, restored the bronze statues, which had been damaged and "repaired" several times since being installed in 1933.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Amanda Matthews of Prometheus Foundry inspected the girl’s statue after it was reattached.

Anthony Williams, project manager with the City's Parks and Recreation Department, and Amanda Matthews of Prometheus Foundry inspected the reinstalled statues of the boy and girl on the James Lane Allen fountain in Gratz Park on Wednesday. Matthews and her partner, Brad Connell, removed the statues in November for refurbishing. They were erected in 1933 as part of a legacy gift to the children of Lexington from author James Lane Allen.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Anthony Williams, project manager with the City’s Parks and Recreation Department, and Amanda Matthews of Prometheus Foundry inspected the reinstalled statues of the boy and girl on the James Lane Allen fountain in Gratz Park.


Photos: Crane removes statues from Gratz Park fountain for repairs

November 25, 2014

141125statues-TE0034AA crew from Prometheus Foundry and American Industrial Contractors on Tuesday removed the children’s statues from the  fountain in Gratz Park. They will be repaired  while the fountain is rebuilt. Left to right are: Tim Moberly, Brad Connell, Amanda Matthews, Rick Deaton, Greg Fitzsimons and, in the crane, Bryan Arbogast. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

The statues of a playful boy and girl on the fountain in Gratz Park were removed Tuesday so they can be repaired over the winter while the fountain is rebuilt.

The fountain was built in 1933 as tribute to the city’s children from a bequest by Lexington-born author James Lane Allen. But it has been experiencing crumbling concrete and broken plumbing in recent years, and there was concern about possible deterioration inside the bronze statues by sculptor Joseph Pollia.

Brad Connell and Amanda Matthews of Prometheus Foundry in Lexington worked with a crane crew from American Industrial Contractors to carefully detach the statues from granite rocks in the fountain and lift them to the ground.

Connell and Matthews will refurbish them and repair a few cracks over the winter so they can be returned to the park when the fountain reconstruction is finished in May. They said the statues appeared to be in better shape than was feared.

The only serious problem they saw was deterioration in and around a post holding the girl in place. That may have been the result of repairs made after vandals pushed the girl’s statue into the fountain in 1969 and again in 1983.

“Otherwise it looks pretty good; I see no signs of ‘bronze disease’,” Matthews said, referring to deterioration that can be caused by poorly allowed material. “A good bronze alloy can last 10,000 years.”

However, refurbishing the statues will be complicated because the bronze alloy’s high lead content will require strict environmental and safety procedures, she said.

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The story behind Gratz Park’s bronze kids, soon headed for repairs

November 21, 2014

141111GPFountain0032Author James Lane Allen’s will left the city $6,000 to build a fountain dedicated to Lexington’s youth. Installed in 1933, it will get a much-needed makeover this winter.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Like horses, stone fences and antebellum homes, the bronze boy and girl in Gratz Park have become frequently photographed symbols of Lexington.

But early this week or next, depending on the weather, a crane will carefully remove the life-size statues from their perch on the fountain across Third Street from Transylvania University.

The kids will spend the winter at Lexington’s Prometheus Foundry for repairs and refinishing. If all goes well, they will return to the park in May after the fountain’s crumbling concrete and Depression-era plumbing are replaced and the stone and brick surrounds are restored.

The fountain “is just falling apart with age,” said Michelle Kosieniak, superintendent of planning and design for the city’s Division of Parks and Recreation. “We figured that since we were moving the statues anyway, we should take a look at restoring them, too, and hopefully get them ready to be enjoyed for another half-century.”

There is an interesting story behind these playful children and their fountain that says a lot about Lexington’s history of tension between progressive thought and conservative religion. But it has nothing to do with the statues’ lack of clothing.

141111GPFountain0024James Lane Allen was born near Lexington in 1849 and graduated with honors from Transylvania University in 1872. After a few years of teaching, he pursued a writing career and moved to New York City.

Allen became one of America’s most popular novelists and short-story writers in the 1890s. His tales, written in a flowery style popular in the late Victorian era, were often set in Kentucky and featured characters taken from early Bluegrass history.

One of his most famous tales, King Solomon of Kentucky, told the true story of how William “King” Solomon, an alcoholic vagrant, became a hero during Lexington’s 1833 cholera epidemic by staying to bury the dead while almost everyone else fled.

Novels such as A Kentucky Cardinal and The Choir Invisible became national best-sellers. But Allen’s 1900 novel The Reign of Law created controversy in Lexington because its protagonist accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution instead of a literal interpretation of the Bible’s creation story.

The Rev. John McGarvey, president of what is now Lexington Theological Seminary, castigated Allen in a widely publicized sermon. The Lexington Herald heaped on, opining that “dirt and dust” were “ruining the author’s mind.”

The criticism stung Allen, who wrote that Kentucky “never did appreciate its best people.” He never returned to Lexington — not even when the Lexington Public Library dedicated a portrait of him in 1916.

“My returning now would seem like vainly attempting to pass over into a vanished land,” Allen wrote his lifelong friend, M.A. Cassidy, the superintendent of Lexington’s public schools.

But Cassidy kept the author connected to his hometown. During the last decade of Allen’s life, Lexington schools celebrated his birthday each Dec. 21 and children would write notes and telegrams of good wishes.

Allen was touched, and he always sent thank-you letters. He ended a 1922 interview at his New York home with a journalism student from Lexington by saying, “Give my love to the Kentucky children.”

When Allen died in 1925, his will left his entire estate to Lexington to build a fountain dedicated to the city’s children. The estate was originally thought to be worth $12,000 — a lot of money in those days. Officials planned to build a swimming pool with a fountain in the middle.

But by the time the city actually got the money, Allen’s estate had shrunk by half because of the stock market crash and waning royalties as his books lost popularity. Lexington’s children had to settle for a fountain and statues.

The statues were sculpted by Joseph Pollia, an Italian-born artist in New York who had a distinguished career creating war memorials.

His sculpture depicts a boy showing his homemade boat to the girl, who expresses delight. The statues symbolize “the spirit of youth, with its tender dreams and delicate and beautiful aspirations, which found so much appreciation in the poetical soul of the author,” the Herald wrote when the fountain was dedicated Oct. 15, 1933.

But time and vandalism have aged those kids. The girl was pushed off her granite pedestal in 1969 and again in 1983, cracking her leg. Although the cracks were repaired, there is concern the statues may have corrosion inside.

“It has been likened to a muffler,” said John Hackworth, president of the Gratz Park Neighborhood Association. “It looks all right from the outside, but if you kick it, it might just disintegrate.”

Restoring the statues will cost $57,000 because their high lead content will require complicated safety procedures. The neighborhood association has given $30,000. Councilman Chris Ford recommended $150,000 in city funds for the rest of the work and restoration of the fountain with a new pump system.

The goal is to have everything finished by Gratz Park’s annual Mayfest celebration on Mother’s Day weekend.

“It’s a symbol of Lexington,” Hackworth said of the fountain, “It’s worth being preserved.”

141111GPFountain0008The fountain stands near Third Street across from Transylvania University’s Old Morrison Hall.


Sculptor seeks more statues of notable Kentucky women, minorities

July 25, 2015
Sculptor Amanda Matthews and her husband, sculptor Brad Connell, operate Prometheus Foundry on their farm outside Lexington. They posed in their studio with a commissioned statue of early Kentucky aviator Solomon Van Meter, the inventor of the backpack parachute, and a personal sculpture Matthews is creating.  Photo by Tom Eblen

Sculptor Amanda Matthews and her husband, sculptor Brad Connell, operate Prometheus Foundry on their farm outside Lexington. They posed in their studio with a commissioned statue of early Kentucky aviator Solomon Van Meter, the inventor of the backpack parachute, and a personal sculpture Matthews is creating. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

A bronze statue of Catherine Spalding, a Catholic nun who led the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in creating early schools, orphanages and hospitals in Kentucky, will be unveiled Sunday outside the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville.

It is the first public statue honoring a woman in Louisville, and one of only a few in Kentucky.

In the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort, there are no statues of women or minorities. There are statues of five white men there, although officials are discussing whether to evict Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

In 2010, Gov. Steve Beshear and the Kentucky Commission on Women announced a 10-year project to add two statues of women in the rotunda. The effort was to begin with a feasibility study.

But when Amanda Matthews checked on the progress of that study last year, she was disappointed. She decided to launch her own effort to show that statues of notable Kentucky women are feasible — and to start creating them.

Matthews, majority owner of Prometheus Foundry in Lexington, has formed the non-profit Artemis Initiative to sponsor creation of such statues for display in public spaces throughout the Commonwealth.

“Because of historical gender inequity, women’s history just doesn’t have the depth and breadth of men’s history,” Matthews said.

To help demonstrate feasibility, Matthews has created a model for a statue of education pioneer Nettie Depp. She was elected Barren County’s schools superintendent in 1913, seven years before women were allowed to vote.

Depp’s four years in office revolutionized that school system. She renovated schools and built new ones, created libraries, improved curricula and a tripled enrollment by aggressively enforcing truancy laws.

Sculptor Amanda Matthews' model for a statue of Nettie Depp. Photo by Tom Eblen

Sculptor Amanda Matthews’ model for a statue of Nettie Depp. Photo by Tom Eblen

She was one of 40 Kentucky women profiled in the film “Dreamers and Doers,” which Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding produced this year for the Kentucky Commission on Women. It is now showing on Kentucky Educational Television.

Matthews said she chose Depp as her example because she had access to family photographs. Depp was her great-great aunt — a relationship she shares with actor Johnny Depp.

“But the entire idea behind the sculpture of Nettie Depp has very little to do with Nettie Depp,” Matthews said. “It has everything to do with me as a sculptor and us as a foundry showing people that it’s feasible to create statues of women.”

In studios at their small farm on Russell Cave Road, Matthews and her husband, sculptor Brad Connell, create their own work, cast other artists’ sculptures into finished bronzes and repair statues. They were recently in the news for restoring the bronze children on the James Lane Allen fountain in Gratz Park.

“Foundry work is a very male-dominated industry,” Matthews said. “It has not been without its challenges to be a female owner of a foundry.”

The Artemis Initiative, named for the goddess of ancient Greek mythology, has formed a board of directors and received non-profit tax status. Matthews said she soon hopes to get state approval to begin fundraising.

The organization’s goal is to fund proposals for creating public art in Kentucky that “elevates the status of women, children, minorities, nature and animals.” Matthews believes that public art creates conversations and that a broader representation in that art will lead to improvements in Kentucky society.

“So many under-represented groups of people have contributed to the rich history of Kentucky,” she said.

Kentucky has only a few public statues of notable women. Among them: Alice Lloyd, on the Knott County campus of the college named for her; riverboat pilot Mary B. Greene on the Riverwalk in Covington; Mary Draper Ingles, a pioneer woman who escaped Native American captivity, outside the Boone County Public Library in Burlington; and educator Elizabeth Rogers in a Berea park.

There are many Kentucky artists capable of producing this work. For example, there are two noted Louisville sculptors: Ed Hamilton, famous for his statues of great African Americans; and Raymond Graf, who created the Spalding and Lloyd statues.

Matthews emphasizes that she isn’t pushing for a memorial to her relative; it is just an example of what can be done.

“My involvement has only been to say that there are people in Kentucky, like myself, and there are businesses in Kentucky, like Prometheus Foundry, who can absolutely make this happen.”


A short walk shows Lexington’s Civil War divisions

May 29, 2012

 

I first became fascinated with Civil War history as a boy in the 1960s, soon after the centennial celebration.

Many of the books I found in the Lexington Public Library — then located in the Carnegie building in Gratz Park — made that history seem remote. They told of epic battles in Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania. They showed pictures of Atlanta, Charleston and Richmond — the one in Virginia, not the one down the road.

I had no idea then how much Civil War history lay just beyond those library walls.

America is now in the midst of a more nuanced commemoration of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. There is less focus on gallant cavaliers and more reflection on the causes and legacies of that terrible, transformative war.

That makes this the perfect time to take a short history walk through downtown Lexington. There are no forts or battlefields to see. But it would be hard to find another few blocks of American soil so intimately associated with the Civil War’s key political figures, central issue and deep divisions.

Begin your walk in Gratz Park at the James Lane Allen fountain. This is where Transylvania’s main building stood in the 1820s when Jefferson Davis was a student. After a couple of years, Davis transferred to West Point. He later became a U.S. senator from Mississippi and the only president of the Confederate States of America.

Transylvania’s main building burned in 1829. Years later, former student Cassius M. Clay revealed that the mysterious fire was started by his slave, who fell asleep with a candle burning while polishing his master’s shoes. Clay, the son of one of Kentucky’s largest slaveholders, became one of slavery’s most outspoken critics. In the 1840s, he published an abolitionist newspaper, The True American, from an office on Mill Street near the corner of Main.

Walk through Gratz Park to the corner of Market and Second streets. There is the Bodley-Bullock House, an 1814 mansion that served alternately as Union and Confederate headquarters when each army occupied Lexington during the Civil War.

Walk across the park to another 1814 mansion, at the corner of Second and Mill streets. It was the home of Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a cavalry raider known as the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy.” It is now a museum owned the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. (Hours and information: BluegrassTrust.org.)

Before proceeding on Second Street, look down Mill Street toward First Presbyterian Church. It surrounds a small brick building that was the law office of Henry Clay, America’s most influential politician of the early 19th century.

Clay negotiated political compromises over the expansion of slavery that delayed the Civil War for nearly four decades. (Learn more about Clay at his Ashland estate: HenryClay.org.)

At the corner of Second and Broadway, you will see a parking lot that was the site of Transylvania University’s renowned medical school, which closed in 1857. The building burned in 1863 while being used as a Union Army hospital.

Look down Second Street and you will see a marker outside the last home of John C. Breckinridge, whose career illustrates how the Civil War divided the city and the nation. This Lexingtonian was the 14th vice president of the United States, then a presidential candidate in 1860. When war came, Breckinridge sided with the South, becoming a Confederate general and secretary of war.

Walk down Broadway toward Short Street. You will see the Opera House, built in 1886. Before the Civil War, this was the site of a business operated by W.A. Pullum, one of the city’s many “negro dealers.” Lexington was one of the South’s biggest slave-trading centers.

Take a right on Short Street, past Saints Peter & Paul School and St. Paul’s Catholic Church, and you will see a marker noting the birthplace of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln. Her grandmother, Eliza Parker, lived next door. Neither house remains.

Lincoln visited his wife’s family in the fall of 1847. The man who would later abolish slavery was then a freshman congressman from Illinois, just beginning to grapple with the issue. That visit to Lexington might have given Lincoln his most close-up look at the South’s “peculiar institution.”

From the Parker house, historian William Townsend wrote, Lincoln easily could have looked past the spiked fence into Pullum’s compound, which had rows of eight-foot-square slave “pens” and a whipping post.

Follow Short Street to Jefferson Street, turn left and cross Main. The Mary Todd Lincoln House museum in a restored home where the future first lady lived from 1832, when she was 13 years old, until she moved to Illinois in 1839. (Hours and information: MTLHouse.org.)

That’s a lot of Civil War history in less than a mile.

The Fountain of Youth, a gift to the city from the estate of the writer James Lane Allen, is on the north end of Gratz Park on the site of the original building of Transylvania University.  Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, studied in that building in the 1820s before transferring to West Point.  Photos by Tom Eblen

A groundskeeper last week prepared for Transylvania University’s graduation. In the foreground is Gratz Park, the former site of Transylvania’s main building, where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, studied in the 1820s.

 

 

The Bodley-Bullock House, built in 1814, served as headquarters for both Union and Confederate armies when control of Lexington changed hands during the Civil War. The house is across Gratz Park from Hopemont, home of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan.

Hopemont, built in 1814, was the home of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a notorious cavalry raider.

Hopemont was saved from demolition by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation in 1855 and is now a museum.

Transylvania University’s Medical Hall stood where this parking lot is now at the corner of Broadway and Second streets. The building was being used as a Union Army hospital during the Civil War when it burned in 1863.

The Lexington Opera House, built in 1886, on Broadway just north of Short Street, stands on the site that in the 1840s was Pullum’s slave jail. Abraham Lincoln’s closest personal exposure to slavery may have been seeing Pullums while visiting his wife’s grandmother, who lived on Short Street adjacent to the jail.

A plaque noting Mary Todd Lincoln’s birthplace stands outside her former home on Short Street. The house in the background replaced an earlier one that was home to her grandmother, Eliza Parker.

The Mary Todd Lincoln House is where Abraham Lincoln’s wife lived from 1832, when she was 13, until 1839, when she moved to Illinois, where she met Lincoln. The house, originally built in 1806 as an inn, is now a museum.

 


Is Lexington the Literary Capital of Mid-America?

February 11, 2012

Tens of thousands of Kentuckians were focused last Tuesday night on cheering for the Wildcats as they thrashed the Florida Gators.

Still, a few blocks away from a packed Rupp Arena, the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning also was filled to capacity. The standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 was there to cheer for local writers. Basketball isn’t the only pursuit where Kentuckians play at the top of the game.

Ed McClanahan read a hilarious tale of adolescent angst from his new retrospective collection, I Just Hitched in from the Coast. Bobbie Ann Mason read from her new novel,The Girl in the Blue Beret. Nikky Finney read from her new poetry collection, Head Off & Split, which recently won the National Book Award. Before the all-stars took the microphone, several aspiring writers read from their work.

Finney’s National Book Award — and the viral Internet video of her amazing acceptance speech — could not have come at a better time for a new Carnegie Center initiative. Neil Chethik, the center’s new director, has proclaimed Lexington as the Literary Capital of Mid-America and the Carnegie Center as its statehouse.

“It’s not as if we’re trying to be something we’re not,” Chethik said. “We are the literary capital and have been for many years. Half the job is marketing what we already have, and the other half is using that energy to create more.”

Many states have rich literary traditions. But few can top what writers who were born in or moved to Kentucky have produced — and are producing.

Robert Penn Warren was the nation’s first poet laureate, as well as the first writer to win Pulitzer Prizes in more than one literary genre. William Wells Brown was the first published black novelist. Hunter S. Thompson helped create a new genre of first-person narrative, “gonzo journalism.”

Wendell Berry, whose environmental writing has attracted an international following, was selected last week to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture on April 23 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. It is the federal government’s most prestigious honor for intellectual achievement in the humanities.

Eastern Kentucky’s mountains have produced, nurtured and inspired many outstanding writers, including James Still, Jesse Stuart, Harriette Simpson Arnow, Harry M. Caudill, Gurney Norman, Janice Holt Giles, Verna Mae Slone, Elizabeth Madox Roberts and Silas House. Western Kentucky’s great voices have included Mason and Irvin S. Cobb.

Central Kentuckians James Lane Allen and John Fox Jr. were national best-sellers a century ago, just as Kim Edwards, Sue Grafton and Barbara Kingsolver are today.

Elizabeth Hardwick and Cleanth Brooks were two of the 20th century’s most influential literary critics. Other notable Kentucky writers from the recent past include Thomas Merton, Allen Tate, Gayle Jones and Guy Davenport.

Among today’s heavy hitters: Sena Jeter Naslund, Frank X Walker, Maurice Manning, Richard Taylor, Chris Offutt, C.E. Morgan, Crystal Wilkinson, Jane Gentry Vance and Erik Reece.

Despite a deep streak of anti-intellectualism, Kentucky has always nurtured great writing. But why? Some say it is the state’s location. Kentucky was the first Western frontier, a Civil War border state and a place always in the midst of transition, migration, clashing values and regional tensions.

“Conflict makes for great stories,” Chethik noted.

“I think it’s because we like to talk so much and tell stories on one another,” McClanahan said. “It’s so much a part of life. Maybe it’s in the water.”

It is not the water, but the land, said Finney, a South Carolina native who has lived in Kentucky for two decades. “Our greatness as writers has to do with the land. Our connection to it,” she said. “We don’t really own the land. The land owns us.”

More than anything, Finney said, it is Kentucky’s mountains: “We never credit the mountains enough for helping shape who we are, for giving us a specific lens through which to see the world, a lens to nurture what we have to say about our human presence in it.”

Writing is a solitary endeavor. But writers need a supportive community, and Kentucky has it. You see it in the attendance at huge annual book fairs in Frankfort and Bowling Green, at bookstores across the state and at events such as the monthly Holler Poets reading, which packs Al’s Bar on North Limestone Street.

You also see it in the attendance at classes and events at the non-profit Carnegie Center, housed in a beautiful old building in Gratz Park that used to be the Lexington Public Library.

“This is a sacred space; a nurturing space for writers,” said Finney, who wrote much of her book,Rice, in one of the center’s study carrels. Mason has taken French classes at the center since 2006, and they helped inspire her to turn her father-in-law’s experiences as a World War II bomber pilot into her latest novel.

The Carnegie Center will have a public forum Thursday at 6 p.m. to gather ideas for this initiative. But Chethik already has some: a marketing campaign, literary conferences and more events that combine literature, music and visual art. Kingsolver is the keynote speaker for the center’s first Books in Progress Conference for authors and aspiring authors, June 8-9.

“There is something going on here,” Finney said. “There is a community hungry for good books and good words. And it has been for a long, long time.”

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Neil Chethik writes new chapter at Carnegie Center

September 4, 2011

Neil Chethik had been a newspaper reporter and a syndicated columnist, but he dreamed of writing a book. He knew he needed some help, so he went to the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

The first person Chethik met when he walked in the front door was Jan Isenhour.

“She was so welcoming!” he said. “I hope I can continue to project that for the Carnegie Center.”

On Tuesday, Chethik succeeds Isenhour as executive director, a post she has held since 1998. She is retiring after 19 years at the center to focus on her own writing, including her first novel.

Since coming in for help that day 14 years ago, Chethik, 54, has been a constant presence at the Carnegie Center. He joined the non-fiction creative writing group, and after finishing his first book, FatherLoss, he started leading it. He has been the center’s part-time writer-in-residence for six years and chairman of the fund-raising committee for five.

“Having worked with Jan for so many years, I have a trust in the direction we’re going,” he said. “We have an extremely firm foundation, and we are ready to launch from that foundation.”

Chethik plans to continue the center’s adult writing and language workshops, and literacy and arts engagement programs for youth, adults and families. Among other things, the center provides free individual tutoring after school for 140 children, many of whom are from low-income families.

He also envisions the center playing a bigger role in developing Kentucky’s great writers of the future. “There’s something about Kentucky that has always produced great literature,” he said. “Part of what I want to do is understand that and help drive it.”

The Carnegie Center is named for its 106-year-old building in Gratz Park, which was one of more than 2,500 public libraries that industrialist Andrew Carnegie funded around the world from 1883 to 1929. After Lexington’s main library moved to a new and bigger building on Main Street in 1989, the building was renovated and reopened as the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in 1992.

Chethik had moved to Lexington a year earlier when his wife, Kelly Flood, became minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church. (She is now an educational fund-raiser and, since 2009, a state representative. Their son, Evan, is a senior at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts at Lafayette High School.)

Chethik, a native of Ann Arbor, Mich., spent a dozen years as a newspaper reporter in Tallahassee, Fla., and San Jose, Calif. When he moved to Kentucky, he wanted to focus on his own writing projects.

He wrote a syndicated newspaper column about men’s issues for several years, then he started thinking about his first book, which grew out of his and his father’s experiences after the death of his grandfather. The 2001 book FatherLoss was recently adapted into a PBS documentary. His second book, VoiceMale, was published by Simon & Shuster in 2006.

In addition to practical advice about writing and publishing, Chethik said, his instructors and fellow students at the Carnegie Center provided a supportive community.

“For writers, it can be a lonely existence because we have to be alone when we’re writing,” he said. “Having a community of writers breaks that isolation and helps give us perspective.”

The Carnegie Center has become a magnet for many of Kentucky’s best-known writers, who teach, take classes and participate in readings and conferences. Chethik hopes to expand that community by involving more writers, would-be writers, professors, publishers and booksellers.

Chethik says he thinks the Carnegie Center should become a sort of capitol for literary arts in Kentucky, a state that has always seemed to have more than its share of great writers.

Think about it: Kentucky produced the first African-American novelist (William Wells Brown), the writer of the first American novel to sell a million copies (John Fox Jr.), the first writer to win Pulitzer prizes in more than one literary genre (Robert Penn Warren) and one of the pioneers of “new” journalism (Hunter S. Thompson).

The list of great Kentucky writers is long: James Lane Allen, Jesse Stuart, James Still, Harriette Arnow, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Hardwick, Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan, Bobbie Ann Mason, Sue Grafton, Richard Taylor, Barbara Kingsolver and many more. “And now we have this whole new crop of writers, such as Frank Walker, Erik Reece and C.E. Morgan,” Chethik said.

The Carnegie Center recently received a grant from the Lucille Caudill Little Foundation to have its first “books in progress” conference, in the spring. Among its goals, Chethik said, is to bring New York publishers to Kentucky “so they can see what we have and publish more of us.”

As a transplant, Chethik said, he marvels not only at Kentucky’s literary tradition but at how it keeps reinventing itself with such groups as the Affrilachian Poets and Holler Poets.

“There’s something about Kentucky,” he said. “There’s incredible natural beauty, a fascinating history and a sort of conflict about who we are. There are people all over Kentucky writing about who we are, and I think the Carnegie Center can be a home for them.”

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