Creating a city where people want to move, natives want to stay

March 29, 2014

In a 21st-century economy where jobs often follow people instead of the other way around, what assets help a city prosper?

That question has led researchers, civic and business leaders to focus on things previously considered nice but not essential: arts, culture and a sense of place that make people feel engaged and invested in their community.

Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, a dance choreographer-turned-urban planning researcher, has studied one variation on this phenomenon called “creative placemaking.”

She was here Thursday to speak at the annual Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues put on by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. It was co-sponsored by LexArts, the McBrayer law firm, the North Limestone Community Development Corp. and Commerce Lexington.

Nicodemus has researched the economic and social vibrancy created when various community sectors — government, business, non-profit organizations and citizens groups — come together to use arts and culture to strategically shape the physical and social character of a city.

That kind of development has been happening organically in many parts of Lexington in recent years. “Lexington has become a place that people are excited about,” said Steve Kay, an Urban County council member. “This conversation couldn’t have happened five years ago.”

Three recent examples were discussed at the seminar. The first is Walker Properties’ redevelopment of National Avenue, a former light industrial street east of downtown, into a mixed-use retail, restaurant and arts district.

The second was Jefferson Street, which has blossomed into a restaurant district thanks to early investments by Wine + Market, Stella’s Deli and West Sixth Brewery. The brewery’s four partners played a big role in that, because they chose to buy a 90,000-square-foot former bread factory, now called the Bread Box. One of their challenges was figuring out what to do with all of that space.

Rather than just try to rent to other commercial tenants, Ben Self said, they wanted to foster a community of people, businesses and organizations that shared their values and vision for creating a vibrant community. He added that city regulators helped the partners cut through red tape to make it all work.

In addition to the brewery and tap room, the Bread Box now houses a non-profit bike shop, a coffee roaster, artist studios, a restaurant and an urban agriculture non-profit that grows fish and greens for the restaurant. “It just felt like the right way to do it,” Self said. “It’s a development that has a heart to it.”

Later this year, the Bread Box also will house an expanded Plantory, which has co-working space for non-profit organizations. The Plantory has outgrown its space in the Community Ventures Corp. building at East Third Street and Midland Avenue.

A third example in Lexington is the North Limestone neighborhood, where young entrepreneurs have been restoring century-old homes and commercial buildings and starting new businesses.

The North Limestone Community Development Corp. recently won a $425,000 grant from Artplace, a consortium of private foundations, banks and federal agencies that is investing in creative placemaking efforts around the country.

The money will be used to begin renovation of a former factory and 40 old shotgun houses to create studios and homes for artists and craftsmen. The idea is to turn a neighborhood liability — old buildings needing rehabilitation and occupants— into a cultural and economic asset.

An important key to creative placemaking is that, in addition to economic activity, it creates a sense of place that people find attractive. It makes a city a place where natives want to stay or return, and others want to move to.

“What we’re seeing now is a tying together of the economic and the sentimental,” said Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority. “That’s what’s exciting.”

For creative placemaking to reach its full potential, civic and business leaders must make sure public policy supports it and strategic thinking helps small initiatives add up to something bigger.

“It’s about bringing disparate groups together to make something special happen,” LexArts President Jim Clark said. “There is no cookie-cutter way to make a creative place. But you recognize it when you see it.”


Lecture highlights camera club that produced photography stars

March 13, 2014

Coke1Van Deren Coke (1921-2004) made this photo in 1952 in Lexington’s old Union Station, which was on Main Street where the Helix garage, Lexington Police Department and Fayette County Clerk’s office are now located. Photo: UK Special Collections.

 

Before there were pixels and iPhones, back when photography required film, darkrooms and chemicals, almost every American city had a camera club. Most members were hobbyists who wanted to learn how to make pretty pictures.

The Lexington Camera Club was different.

From its founding in 1936, Lexington Camera Club members, who included doctors, lawyers and businessmen, were unusually serious about developing their craft and exploring artistic expression.

By the time the club disbanded in 1972, it had produced two major figures in the art photography world and many more accomplished photographers.

James Birchfield, the retired special collections curator of rare books at the University of Kentucky, will give a free lecture about this remarkable camera club at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Presidents Room of UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts.

“It was not a provincial outlook,” Birchfield said of the club. “It was a big vision of the history of photography and what contemporary photography was doing. This particular cluster of people seemed to generate an extraordinary flowering of fine photography.”

Birchfield’s lecture is in conjunction with an exhibit at the university’s Art Museum of prints from an impressive photography collection it has assembled since the 1990s, thanks to one of the camera club’s members.

When Robert C. May died in 1993, he left the museum 1,200 of his own photographs and his collection of original prints from some of photography’s greatest names. He also left a substantial bequest so the museum could purchase more photography and create an annual lecture series that brings major photographers to UK’s campus. Eugene Richards, the noted documentary photographer, speaks at 4 p.m. Friday in Worsham Theater in the UK Student Center.

The museum exhibit, Wide Angle: American Photographs, continues through April 27 and features prints by famous photographers including Ansel Adams, Elliott Erwitt, Edward Weston, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, Russell Lee, Doris Ulmann, Robert Frank, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman.

The exhibit also includes nine photographs by Lexington Camera Club members, including its two biggest stars: Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) and Van Deren Coke (1921-2004).

140316CameraClub-a2The club began in 1936 with monthly meetings that included formal critiques of each member’s prints. Guest speakers included Ansel Adams, America’s most celebrated landscape photographer.

Many early club members were interested in landscape and travel photography, while others focused on historical and documentary pictures. Among the documentarians was lawyer and historian J. Winston Coleman, who photographed throughout Kentucky and collected nearly 6,300 historic images that are now at Transylvania University.

The club took an artistic turn under the leadership of Van Deren Coke, who was then president of his family’s Van Deren Hardware Co. on Main Street. Coke’s early photographs of Lexington scenes soon gave way to abstract, artistic images.

Coke got to know many celebrated photographers and became one himself. After graduate school, he went on to be photography curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and director of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.  He taught for many years at the University of New Mexico and started its art museum.

Meatyard was an optician who joined the club in 1954. He became famous for his unusual photographs, which often involved people wearing masks or posing in abandoned Central Kentucky farmhouses.

Over the years, his images were acclaimed for their unique expression. He also was a major influence on other club members who became well-known photographers, including Robert May, James Baker Hall and Guy Mendes.

Meatyard was president of the club when he died of cancer at age 46 in 1972. The club disbanded within a few months.

“Meatyard fostered exploration and discovery within the Camera Club,” May wrote in a 1989 essay. “As photographers, the members did not look just for new things but for new ways of seeing.”

Meatyard’s photographs are still published frequently in books, and his prints command big prices at galleries and auctions. As recently as 2005, the International Center of Photography in New York mounted a major retrospective of his work.

Mendes was one of the club’s youngest members when he joined in 1968. A retired producer for Kentucky Educational Television, he remains an active photographer.

In an interview last week, he recalled that writer Wendell Berry introduced him to Meatyard. “Gene was something else,” Mendes said, adding that Berry’s young son told him: “He makes really strange pictures.”

Mendes accompanied Meatyard and May on weekend photography outings in the countryside around Lexington. He said they and other club members showed him how photography could do more than record reality; it could express feelings and be a medium for artistic experimentation.

“They taught me lessons I still use today,” Mendes said. “For all of the changes photography has gone through, the basics are still the same.”

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Honored to be honored at Arts Day in the General Assembly

January 28, 2014

14012ArtsDay0011Governor’s Arts Award winners stood in the back of the Senate Chamber (above) and the front of the House chamber to be honored by their legislators Tuesday during Arts Day in Kentucky. Photos by Tom Eblen

You know it’s a cold day in Frankfort when a journalist is applauded by the Kentucky General Assembly. But I had that honor today as one of nine recipients of the 2013 Governor’s Awards in the Arts.

Gov. Steve Beshear presented the awards in the Capitol rotunda last Oct. 29, and our legislators gave us shout-outs and certificates today on the House and Senate floors. I was humbled by the honor of this year’s Media Award. Thanks to the Kentucky Arts Council, Gov. Steve Beshear and to state legislators for all of their kind attention today.

The honorees are:

Milner Award
Oakley and Eva Farris
Covington

Artist Award
Laura Ross
Prospect

Business Award
21c Museum Hotel
Louisville

Community Arts Award
International Bluegrass Music Museum
Owensboro

Education Award
Lexington Children’s Theatre
Lexington

Folk Heritage Award
Edward White
Louisville

Government Award
Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea
Berea

Media Award
Tom Eblen
Lexington

National Award
Actors Theatre of Louisville
Lousville

14012ArtsDay0016The bluegrass band Kentucky Wild Horse performed at a reception in the Capitol for Arts Day. Left to right are: Don Rogers, Jessie Wells, Roddy Puckett (hidden) and John Harrod. 


Warwick: historic Kentucky home meets a scholar’s imagination

January 18, 2014

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Clay Lancaster lived in the circa 1809 Moses Jones house at his Warwick estate. The small but elegant house was built by a successful merchant along the Kentucky River in Mercer County. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

SALVISA — Warwick, the 205-year-old brick cottage that architectural historian Clay Lancaster restored and embellished with “folly” structures from his rich imagination, will be open Sunday afternoon for a rare public tour.

The open house is being given by the non-profit Warwick Foundation, which Lancaster created before his death in 2000 to care for the property and promote his many interests, which included historic preservation and cross-cultural understanding.

140116Warwick0053In additions to tours of his home, drawings gallery and two “folly” buildings, visitors can buy copies of some of the more than two dozen books Lancaster wrote. They include everything from scholarly tomes to illustrated children’s books on subjects ranging from early Kentucky architecture to Asian philosophy.

The event is the first of several the foundation plans this year to help more people appreciate Warwick and Lancaster’s brilliant legacy as a scholar, writer, artist and Renaissance man.

“He had so many interests,” said Paul Holbrook, the foundation’s president and a friend of Lancaster. “He was driven by his interests.”

Lancaster was born in Lexington in 1917 and grew up in the Bell Court neighborhood, where his father built two homes. They sparked Lancaster’s interest in bungalow architecture, which led to his book The American Bungalow (1985).

He studied at the University of Kentucky before moving to New York, where he taught at Columbia University, Vassar College and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also was curator of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

140116Warwick0083Lancaster wrote about architecture in Brooklyn and on Massachusetts’ Nantucket Island, where he restored an 1829 house and lived for several years. He became an influential advocate for historic preservation, both in the Northeast and in Kentucky.

The New York Times said his book, Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb, “provided the historical and intellectual ammunition for the successful argument in 1965 that Brooklyn Heights should become the city’s first historic district.”

Lancaster is best known in Kentucky for his photographs and research documenting antebellum homes. His meticulous scholarship added immeasurably to public knowledge of and efforts to preserve Kentucky’s outstanding early architecture. His books on the subject are the authoritative reference works: Ante Bellum Houses of the Bluegrass (1961), Vestiges of the Venerable City(1978) and Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky (1991).

When a friend, architectural historian and retired Herald-Leader reporter Bettye Lee Mastin, notified Lancaster in 1978 that the Warwick property he had long admired was for sale, he bought it and moved back to Kentucky.

The property along the Kentucky River in Mercer County includes a brick cottage of superb craftsmanship built by Moses Jones, a pioneer entrepreneur, between 1809-1811. The house’s elaborately carved woodwork includes basket-weave patterns on the mantels that were inspired by Jones’ 9-year captivity as a child among the Chickasaw tribe in Tennessee.

Lancaster meticulously restored the Moses Jones house and added a wing for his bedroom, kitchen and library. He furnished it with Kentucky antiques, as well as art and furniture from Asia, a place he never visited but studied and wrote about in such books as The Japanese Influence in America (1983) and The Breadth and Depth of East and West (1995).

Lancaster was a vegan, a yoga enthusiast and a convert to Buddhism who, nevertheless, delighted his many friends each year with whimsical Christmas cards he illustrated.

Thanks to a windfall from the sale of farmland inherited from his father, Lancaster built two architectural “follies,” fanciful structures he had delighted in drawing since childhood. The first was Warwick Pavilion, a small, elegant Georgian tea room connected to a stockroom for books he wrote and published.

The second folly is a three-story, octagonal guest house, modeled after the 1st Century BC Tower of Winds in Athens, Greece. No more than 25 feet at its widest point, the tower is a masterpiece of compact design with three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen, studio, winding staircase and elegant, elliptical parlor.

The guest house, meticulously built by Calvin Shewmaker and other local craftsmen, is now used for visiting scholars, including UK’s annual Clay Lancaster Scholar.

“It’s such an interesting collection of buildings and a lovely setting,” Holbrook said. “We’re trying to figure out how to get more people there to see it.”

If you go

Warwick Foundation open house and book sale

When: Noon — 4 p.m. Jan. 19.
Where: Warwick is on Oregon Road about six miles off U.S. 127 near Salvisa.
More information: (859) 494-2852, Warwickfoundation.org

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MLK Day speaker, singer a voice of civil rights for four decades

January 14, 2014

821024BerniceReagon003Bernice Johnson Reagon, right foreground, speaks during a performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock at 50th anniversary festivities for the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn., on Oct. 24, 1982. Other members of the a cappella ensemble performing that day were Yasmeen Williams, right, and, hidden behind her, Evelyn M. Harris, Ysaye M. Barnwell and Aisha Kahlil, Yasmeen Williams. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

When Bernice Johnson Reagon thinks back on her childhood in segregated southwest Georgia, she recalls a force more powerful than injustice: music.

“I was born in a culture where music was breath,” she said in an interview last week. “If you start to sing as soon as you start to talk, then there’s no separation between talking and singing.”

Reagon will be doing a lot of both Monday, when she is to be the keynote speaker at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. program at Lexington Center’s Heritage Hall. And that’s a good thing.

In addition to being a much-honored scholar, historian and social activist, Reagon has provided one of the most beautiful and powerful voices of the civil rights movement for 53 years.

Reagon, 71, was born outside Albany, Ga., the third child of Beatrice and the Rev. Jessie Johnson.

“If we weren’t in school, we were in church,” she said, describing how she and her young friends sang grace at lunch and games on the playground. “Music was everywhere in the culture I was born into.”

Bernice Johnson Reagon: singer, civil rights activist. Photo by Sharon FarmerIt was only natural that music would play a central role in the Albany Movement, an anti-segregation coalition that in 1961 focused national attention on racial discrimination in her hometown.

While in high school, Reagon was secretary of the junior chapter of the NAACP. She later participated in some of the first civil rights demonstrations in Albany, which got her expelled from Albany State College and put in jail.

She joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and became a member of the famous Freedom Singers, a touring quartet formed by Cordell Reagon, the man she would marry.

“I didn’t go back to complete college until after my second child was born,” said Reagon, who graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta and earned a doctorate in history from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

“But I continued to do the work that got me put in jail,” she said. “I didn’t have to change who I was to do that.”

In 1973, while a graduate student and vocal director of DC Black Repertory Theatre, Reagon formed Sweet Honey In the Rock, a black women’s a cappella ensemble that has toured the world and has made acclaimed recordings ever since. Reagon led the group until her retirement from it in 2004.

“I came out of the civil rights movement with an understanding of and a respect for strong-harmony, unaccompanied singing,” she said. “And singing that in terms of text spoke to injustice and the importance of believing that you can change the world.”

Reagon is a history professor emerita at American University in Washington D.C. and curator emerita of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Her scholarship has focused on American black music traditions.

She was the principal scholar and host of Wade in the Water, a Peabody Award-winning series produced by the Smithsonian and National Public Radio in the 1980s. She was the score composer for Africans in America, a PBS documentary film series in 1998.

Reagon has been a music consultant, composer and performer for several film products, including BelovedEyes on the Prize and We Shall Overcome. In 2003, she wrote the music and libretto for Robert Wilson’s production, The Temptation of St. Anthony, which has been performed around the world.

Reagon’s many awards include a MacArthur Fellowship (1989) and a Presidential Medal for contribution to public understanding of the humanities (1995). She has a long list of solo and ensemble recordings. She has collaborated with many other musicians, including her daughter, Toshi Reagon.

Although much progress has been made since she began working in the civil rights movement more than a half-century ago, Reagon sees many challenges of injustice, imbalance and inequity, such as environmental justice and the very survival of the planet.

“My sense of injustice is much broader now,” she said. “I’ve found myself pulled to listen and learn, and I think that has kept me true to the young girl who was the secretary of the first junior chapter of the NAACP in Albany, Ga. I guess I’m describing a great life.”


Clay Lancaster’s Warwick open Sunday for a rare tour

January 14, 2014

Warwick1Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate. Photo by Helm Roberts/Warwick Foundation.

 

There is a special place in Central Kentucky that I have wanted to visit for years. I will finally get a chance Sunday, and so can you.

Warwick, on Oregon Road in Mercer County, is an estate near the Kentucky River where Moses Jones built a brick house in 1809. In more recent years, it was the home of Lexington native Clay Lancaster, a noted architectural historian, prolific author and all-around Renaissance man.

Lancaster (1917-2000) spent much of his career in New York City, but he moved back to Kentucky in 1978 when a friend, former Herald-Leader reporter Bettye Lee Mastin, let him know that Warwick was for sale.

Lancaster had always loved Warwick, and he bought it, restored it and moved there.

Lancaster

Clay Lancaster at Warwick’s Guest House.

Warwick has Lancaster’s library, as well as two “follies” he built: the Tea Pavilion, which has 18th-century architectural features and a large banquet table, and the Guest House, a three-story octagonal structure modeled after the first-century B.C. Tower of Winds in Athens, Greece.

Lancaster wrote more than 20 books and 150 articles, from scholarly tomes to children’s books. His books include, Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb, which the New York Times said “provided the historical and intellectual ammunition for the successful argument in 1965 that Brooklyn Heights should become the city’s first historic district.”

Lancaster is best known in Kentucky for his photographs and research documenting antebellum homes in the Bluegrass. His scholarship added immeasurably to public knowledge and efforts to preserve Central Kentucky’s pre-Civil War architecture.

I never got to meet Lancaster, but I have read several of his books. I use them frequently as reference, especially these three: Ante Bellum Houses of the Bluegrass (1961), Vestiges of the Venerable City (1978) and Antebellum Architecture of Kentucky (1991)

Lancaster grew up in Lexington’s Bell Court neighborhood, where his father built two homes. They helped spark Lancaster’s interest in that era of residential architecture, which led to his book The American Bungalow (1985).

In 2007, James Birchfield at the University of Kentucky put together Clay Lancaster’s Kentucky, a book of Lancaster’s photos of historic Kentucky homes, many of which are no longer standing.

Lancaster’s wide-ranging scholarship included 19th- and 20th-century architecture in Kentucky, New York and Massachusetts. His other enthusiasm was art and ideas from the Far East. His 1983 book, The Japanese Influence in America, remains a classic. He taught about art and architecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Columbia University, Vassar College, UK, the University of Louisville and Transylvania University.

After Lancaster’s death, the Warwick Foundation was formed to manage Warwick and perpetuate his legacy of education, cross-cultural understanding and advocacy for historic preservation.

The foundation will open Warwick for a free open house, tour and book sale from noon until 4 p.m. Sunday. Warwick has rarely been open to the public in recent years, but foundation members hope to change that with several events in 2014.

Warwick is on Oregon Road, about six miles off U.S. 127 near Salvisa. For more information about Sunday’s event, email jkl@qx.net or call (859) 494-2852. For more information about Warwick, go to Warwickfoundation.org.

 

 


Berea College archive preserves the sounds of Appalachia

December 29, 2013

131120Eblen-Berea0006

Renfro Valley radio show cast at the old barn stage in the early 1950s. Left to right are Ray Sosbyee, Linda Lou Martin, Claude Sweet and Glenn Pennington. Photo courtesy Berea College Special Collections and Archives.

 

BEREA — As soon as sound recording equipment became small enough to fit in a car trunk in the 1950s, academics began racing around the mountains, trying to preserve the music and stories of a disappearing Appalachian culture.

Now archivists at Berea College are in another race against time: to preserve those old recordings for the 21st century and beyond and make them more widely available through the Internet.

Over the past eight years, sound archivists John Bondurant and Harry Rice have digitized more than 3,000 hours of recordings. Bondurant figures they are about halfway through the archives’ current holdings.

Some of that material, as well as a more limited collection of digitized video and photos, can be seen and heard on the archives’ website:Libraryguides.berea.edu/soundarchivesguide.

131120Eblen-Berea0001The collection includes an impressive array of traditional Appalachian music, oral-history interviews, ballads, folk tales, old radio programs and black and white religious music. Plus, there are recordings of events, speakers and performances at the college going back to at least the 1960s.

Many of the recordings came from a collection started by Loyal Jones, who from 1970-1993 headed the college’s Appalachia Center, which is now named for him. But, over the years, many more collections have been donated to the college, providing a rich tapestry of authentic, one-of-a-kind sound.

The Appalachian music archives includes collections of fiddle, banjo and dulcimer tunes, band performances and recordings of Berea’s annual Celebration of Traditional Music, which began in 1974. Several collections focus on religious music, from Old Regular Baptist hymns to gospel music radio performances and Sacred Harp singing in rural black churches.

The archives also include broadcasts of John Lair’s Renfro Valley Barn Dance and related radio programs, which were broadcast between the late 1930s and the late 1950s on Cincinnati’s WLW-AM, Louisville’s WHAS-AM and the CBS Network. Although less famous than the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s WSM-AM, the shows had a huge impact on the development of country music.

131120Eblen-Berea0002Much of the radio collection was donated to Berea in the 1980s, when WHAS changed ownership and moved studios after the breakup of the Bingham family’s Louisville media empire.

“They called here and offered us these, implying that if we didn’t take them they would be thrown out,” Bondurant said. That archives included 1,500 16-inch transcription disc from the 1930s through the 1950s that were meant for short-term rebroadcast or advertiser verification.

“Like most media, it was never intended to be saved,” Bondurant said, so the transcription discs have been a challenge to copy before they disintegrate. “For most of these old programs, these are the only copies that exist.”

Those discs included episodes of Circle Star Ranch, a children’s radio show from the 1940s that featured a cowboy singer and the predecessor of WHAS-TV’s famous kids’ show, T-Bar-V Ranch, which had a loyal following among Louisville baby boomers.

Bondurant works in a tiny studio with a reel-to-reel tape player and a specially a specially modified turntable with a variety of sizes of phonograph styluses. Both are hooked up to a computer with digital sound software.

“Some of these materials, you have one shot; we play it to copy it and it should never be played again,” he said. “I’m trying to get the cleanest signal so it sounds like the original document.”

Bondurant, an amateur guitar player, worked in music licensing for Broadcast Music Inc., better known as BMI, in Nashville before earning a master’s degree in library science at the University of Kentucky.

Bondurant said the digital technology he uses to copy archival recordings has improved dramatically since he joined Berea College in 2005. And, unlike other preservation methods, digital copying makes it safe and easy to share material with researchers and other interested listeners more widely.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that digital technology is changing so fast, it will be a constant challenge to keep material preserved and accessible.

“The digital life cycle is a lot shorter than the analog life cycle,” Bondurant said. “We can still play recordings that are century old easier than we can play some DAT (digital audio tape) recordings from the 1990s that have essentially erased themselves.”

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Lexington has come a long way in just a few years

December 2, 2013

Lexington changed a lot between the time I went away to college in 1976 and returned in 1998. But I think it has changed even more profoundly since then.

The earlier changes were mostly physical — vast tracks of rural land turned into subdivisions and strip malls. Recent changes have been more about attitudes.

Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., talked about some of those attitudes in his interview with Tom Martin. They discussed how Lexington can attract innovative talent for the 21st-century economy.

Kimel understands the power of innovation and ideas better than anyone I know. If you haven’t read the interview yet, grab a highlighter and mark the attitudes he mentions.

Here are some I noted: Self-starter. Creative problem-solving. Imagination. Tolerance for risk and failure. Embracing diversity.

Lexington isn’t as open to new ideas as it needs to be, but it has made considerable progress. This city is less buttoned-down than it was just a few years ago, and that has made it a much more interesting place to live, work and play.

I don’t know why it happened, but I have a few hunches. One is that technology has empowered more people, making it easier for them to innovate and succeed. At the same time, social media has made it easier for them to connect with one another.

Technology has made the structures of Lexington power and influence younger and more diverse. People feel less pressure to conform, less need to seek “permission.” This is especially true in arts and culture, which are leading indicators of social and economic shifts.

131108Mural0025For example, consider the positive buzz created recently when a Brazilian artist was invited to paint a giant, psychedelic Abe Lincoln mural on a big blank wall downtown. It is an amazing piece of art, sure to become a Lexington icon.

Had that happened a decade or two ago, many of Lexington’s powers-that-be would have scoffed. Most likely, such a mural would never have happened at all.

The mere suggestion of it would have spawned high-level discussions where caution would have outweighed creativity. If anything at all resulted, it would have been a “safe” mural that would neither offend nor inspire anyone — perhaps a pretty field of horses, none of which would be blue.

A Lexington Tattoo Project in the 1990s? No way.

Lexington’s economic creativity can be found in low-rent office space all over town. For example, there are dozens of innovative technology companies such as Cirrus Mio, Medmovie and Float Money, plus biotech firms whose market niches are as hard to understand as their names are to pronounce. There are two tech startup incubators on Main Street, Awesome Inc. and Base 163.

Of course, all innovation isn’t high-tech. Sometimes, it’s simply looking around at what makes a place unique and wonderful and finding new ways to develop and market it. Alltech gets it. So do chef Ouita Michel and the “Kentucky for Kentucky” guys. The once-stodgy bourbon industry has become a hotbed of innovation, and business is booming as a result.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of new Lexington creativity:

Four young entrepreneurs wanted to start a craft brewery. But they didn’t just want to sell beer; they wanted to build community. Their West Sixth Brewery has been wildly successful by breaking all of the old “rules.”

Rather than locate in an affluent suburb, they bought an abandoned 1920s bread factory in a transitional northside neighborhood. An old-style developer would have bulldozed the factory and built a faux-fancy brewpub. Instead, these guys hired Lexington developer Holly Wiedemann, a master at turning old buildings into cool, functional spaces.

The once-abandoned factory, now called The Bread Box, houses West Sixth’s brewery and pub, plus other tenants including artist studios, a nonprofit bicycle shop, a coffee-roaster, a women’s roller derby team and a seafood restaurant.

Smithtown Seafood gets some of its fish from Food Chain, an urban agriculture nonprofit that raises them in tanks in the next room. Brewery waste is fed to the fish and fish waste fertilizes greens grown under artificial lights and served in the restaurant. Win, win, win.

The Bread Box is an example of innovative talent in action, and it creates the kind of community where innovative, talented people can see there is opportunity to realize their own dreams.  


John Egerton chronicled the South, from civil rights to barbecue

November 23, 2013

For a young Southern journalist getting started in the 1980s, there was no better role model and mentor than John Egerton, who died unexpectedly last Thursday at his home in Nashville. He was 78.

I got to know John while I was covering Tennessee for The Associated Press. When I started traveling the upper South for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he became a friend and valuable resource.

As a freelance journalist since 1971, John’s award-winning books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles chronicled in-depth so many things that fascinated me about Southern history, culture, politics and food.

I often called John for information and advice, which he modestly dispensed in a soft drawl. And I knew that if he was in town whenever I came to Nashville, he would take me to some memorable hole-in-the-wall for a delicious breakfast or lunch.

JohnEgerton-webJohn was born in Atlanta but his family soon moved to Cadiz, Ky.. He graduated from the University of Kentucky, which inducted him into its Journalism Hall of Fame and Hall of Distinguished Alumni. UK Libraries honored him last April with its Award for Intellectual Achievement.

I first knew John through two of his early books, A Mind to Stay Here (1970) and The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America (1974). When we met he had just published Generations: An American Family (1983), the engrossing story of nine generations of Kentucky’s Ledford family.

The book that made Egerton famous was Southern Food, a combination cookbook, travel guide and social history that was named the 1987 book of the year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

John had spent more than a year eating his way across the South without adding much weight to his tall, lanky frame or, he said, raising his cholesterol. His book chronicled the evolution and role of food in Southern culture, including the substantial contribution of black culture.

I wrote one of the first articles about the book, for the Journal-Constitution. We met for the interview at Hap Townes, a long-gone Nashville “meat and three” where musicians, executives and factory workers sat elbow-to-elbow enjoying house specialties that included stewed raisins.

“If I had been braver, I would have called the book The Stomach of the South; I think W.J. Cash would have understood,” he told me, referring to the author of the 1941 classic, The Mind of the South.

John followed Southern Food with, Side Orders: Small Helpings of Southern Cookery and Culture (1990). He helped start the Southern Foodways Alliance, and he edited the first volume of Cornbread Nation 1: The Best of Southern Food Writing (2002). But John was always amused at his fame as a food writer, claiming his only culinary expertise was eating.

He published several other books: a history of Nashville, an exploration of Tennessee’s 19th century utopian communities and a collection of his magazine essays that explored the South’s complexity.

His masterpiece was the 700-page book Speak Now Against The Day: The Generation Before The Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994). It drew on his nearly three decades of reporting on Southern race relations, beginning in 1965 for the magazine Southern Education Report. It won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and it deserved a Pulitzer Prize.

John’s soft voice, gentle humor and modest demeanor masked a moral compass that compelled him to speak out against things he believed were wrong.

When the Tennessee Valley Authority condemned his Trigg County farm and others in the 1960s to build the Land Between the Lakes outdoor recreation area, John became the lead plaintiff in a federal court battle. With Justice William O. Douglas dissenting, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

In 2006, John wrote a book of political satire, Ali Dubyiah and the Forty Thieves. He described it, only half seriously, as his only work of fiction.

John’s most popular writing celebrated what was good about the South, but his biggest contribution as a journalist and historian was his examination of what held the region back: race, class, poverty, inequity and corruption. He was a masterful storyteller who had the courage to not only report facts, but explain what those facts added up to.

 


UK historian Ron Eller leaves big shoes to fill; who will?

November 13, 2013

Ronald Eller, a University of Kentucky history professor and outstanding writer who has focused on Appalachia, was honored last Friday as he donated his papers to UK Special Collections in preparation for his retirement at the end of the year.

ellerEller came to UK in 1985, succeeding Harry Caudill, the Eastern Kentucky lawyer whose 1962 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, focused national attention on the exploitation of Appalachia. Eller picked up where Caudill left off, analyzing the forces that have shaped Appalachia’s evolution.

Eller’s 1982 book, Miners, Mill hands and Mountaineers: The Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A 2008 book, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, is the best book I know of about the region’s modern history.

No word yet on the Appalachian scholar UK will hire to succeed Eller in the history department, but he or she had better be good. We cannot really understand modern Kentucky without understanding Appalachian history.


A beautiful state, forever challenged to live up to its potential

September 28, 2013

Indian Fort Mountain, Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

The view from Indian Fort Mountain near Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Every state is unique. So what makes Kentucky so special?

To begin to answer that question, you must go back to 1750, when the first land-hungry white Virginians crossed the Appalachian mountains to see what was on the other side. What they found created quite a buzz.

John Filson, who published the first book about Kentucky in 1784, boasted that it was “the new Eden … like the land of promise, flowing with milk and honey.” A frontier preacher is said to have explained heaven to his flock as “a Kentucky of a place.”

Of course, this was long before strip mining and strip malls.

Still, people continue to be awed by Kentucky’s beauty: lush mountains, rolling meadows, scenic rivers, vast limestone caves and manicured horse farms.

Kentucky’s fertile land has always made it an agriculture powerhouse. The Bluegrass region’s karst geology and calcium-rich soil is the foundation for two signature industries: strong-boned horses and pure water for bourbon whiskey.

Originally, Kentucky was considered the West. When the Civil War came, this citadel of slavery remained in the Union. Once the Union won, many Kentuckians sided with the Confederacy. Go figure.

But Kentucky has often been a paradox. For example, 95 percent of all bourbon whiskey (and, really, all that’s worth drinking) is made in Kentucky. Yet, you can’t legally buy it in more than one-third of the state’s 120 counties. Of course, that doesn’t mean a lot of it isn’t consumed there.

Kentuckians love to eat, too, from spicy Western Kentucky barbecue to the delicately flavored cucumber spread of Louisville known as benedictine. Ask people on the other side of the world what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply: “Ah, Kentucky Fried Chicken!”

Kentuckians tend to be friendly, independent, fun-loving, stubborn and resistant to change. The local cultures we have created vary widely from the Cumberland mountains to the Jackson Purchase. The common denominator seems to be a passion for basketball.

Unless we are from one of the state’s larger cities, Kentuckians tend to identify themselves by their native county. And we have more and smaller counties than almost any state.

But we still love our little towns. We have given many of them colorful names, such as Red Bird, Hi Hat, Cutshin, Mousie and Fancy Farm. Occasionally, imagination has failed us and we have copied the names of European cities, but we have insisted on pronouncing them differently.

During its first decades of statehood, Kentucky was often a national leader and innovator. But the state seems never to have fully recovered from the Civil War and the human slavery that caused it. For a century and a half, Kentucky’s progress has always seemed like three steps forward, two steps back.

Still, some of us think Kentucky is capable of being a national leader rather than a persistent laggard. Kentuckians are hard workers, blessed with a central location, abundant resources and a beautiful place to live — when we don’t insist on messing it up.

The name Kentucky is derived from languages of the American Indian tribes we took this land from, but nobody is sure what it really meant. Some say it meant “dark and bloody ground.” Others say, “the land of tomorrow.” While a lot has happened to support the first theory, I choose to believe the second.

Now, would somebody please pass the barbecue and freshen my bourbon? We have a lot of work to do after dinner.

 


Smiley Pete’s Crave festival a bid to expand its business model

September 16, 2013

Covering the local culture scene has long been an important part of the business model for alternative publications. But many are now finding they can make more money by actively nurturing that culture scene.

The classic example is a music festival the Austin Chronicle started in 1987. It attracted only 700 people the first year, but South by Southwest is now the world’s largest multi-venue music festival. It and affiliated SXSW digital media conferences have an annual economic impact on Texas’ capital city region of $190 million.

Other small publications in cities such as Toronto; Portland, Ore.; and San Jose, Calif., also have found success by organizing festivals. So why not Lexington?

cravelogoThat’s the thinking behind the first Crave Lexington food and music festival, Sept. 21 and 22 at the MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheater at Beaumont. It is being organized by Smiley Pete Publishing, which produces the community magazines Chevy Chaser, Southsider and Business Lexington.

The festival includes a diverse array of local food and drink vendors, demonstrations of cooking and food preparation and concerts by a variety of musicians and bands.

“We see opportunity,” said Chuck Creacy, who with business partner Chris Eddie started the Chevy Chaser 16 years ago next month. “It has worked in other markets. Whether Lexington is big enough is a question. But people in this town love to eat and drink outdoors, that’s for sure.”

Crave is the biggest event Robbie Morgan has organized since she joined Smiley Pete two years ago as director of events and sponsorships.

“Part of the reason they brought me on was to expand our reach in the community,” said Morgan, an Anderson County native who moved back to Kentucky from Toronto five years ago.

Morgan has organized several small-business development seminars under the Business Lexington flag. And she created Tadoo Lounge, a series of free, early evening events the first Thursday of each month at Smiley Pete’s Old Vine Street offices that featured local musicians, food and drink.

The Tadoo Lounge events, which were designed to introduce a different slice of Lexington to the growing late-night local club scene, made enough money to pay the bands, Morgan said.

Crave Lexington’s goal this year is to establish a brand, show people a good time, break even and offer guidance for profits in the future.

In conceiving Crave, Morgan wanted to bring together the diversity of Lexington cooks and musicians for a family-friendly event. Special emphasis was given to exposing people to local resources they might not know about.

The venue — the MoonDance amphitheater — was a practical choice because of its good facilities. But she also noted that while downtown may be the hot entertainment spot these days, much of Lexington’s increasing ethnic and cultural diversity has settled in the suburbs.

On the food front, that meant a range of options. On the low end, Crave has assembled local food trucks with items costing as little as $1. On the high end, there is a 10-course, five-hour dinner Saturday night featuring Kentucky Proud food and drink prepared by local chefs including Ouita Michel, Jonathan Lundy, Toa Green, Rona Roberts and Jeremy Ashby. Tickets are $175 each.

“We have all this culture; how do you create opportunities to bring everybody to the same kitchen?” Morgan said, explaining the concept behind Crave. “Kitchens are where the best parties happen.”

On the music side, Morgan lined up 10 acts for the Crave stage, with an emphasis on local talent many people don’t know about. One example: the Pandya Family, a group of Indian musicians who Morgan said has played before 10,000 people in Chicago but has never done a show in Lexington, where they live.

Morgan said 10 percent of the proceeds from Crave will be donated to Food Chain, a Lexington non-profit focused on urban food production and preparation.

“This is a new role for local publications,” Creacy said. “But Chris and I decided sometime back that we wanted to move our business toward doing things that make Lexington the kind of place where we want to live.”

If you go

Crave Lexington

What: Inaugural food and music festival featuring local food and drink vendors, demonstrations of cooking and food preparation and concerts by Vandaveer, 23 String Band, Pandya Family, Kelly Richey and others. Organized by Smiley Pete Publishing.

When: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sept. 21; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sept. 22

Where: MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheater, 1152 Monarch St. at Beaumont Cir.

Admission: Free, but there is a charge for food and drink tickets. Some meal events also require tickets.

Learn more: Cravelexington.com


New book showcases Kentucky’s antebellum decorative arts

September 15, 2013

Gigi Lacer

SIMPSONVILLE — When journalists Genevieve Lacer and Libby Howard began collecting Kentucky antiques more than a decade ago, they were surprised by how little information was readily available.

A few monographs had been written and some museum catalogs published. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., had collected some scholarship. The Magazine Antiques had featured Kentucky pieces in special issues in 1947 and 1974.

But there were no comprehensive books about Kentucky-made furniture, silver and textiles, even though they were some of the finest produced anywhere in antebellum America.

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Libby Turner Howard, left, and Genevieve Baird Lacer. Photo by Tom Eblen. Photos from their book by Bill Roughen.

What the friends soon discovered was that considerable scholarship had been done on early Kentucky decorative arts, but most of that knowledge resided in the heads and notebooks of a few dozen passionate collectors.

That prompted Lacer and Howard to write and publish Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860. The 360-page book is detailed and exacting, yet readable and beautifully designed, with 600 illustrations by Lexington photographer Bill Roughen. State historian James Klotter wrote the forward.

“The book gives you a visual entryway into things you’ll never see, because they’re in private homes,” Lacer said, and only a few pieces from historic house museums are included “because we literally ran out of room.”

The book’s 270 “subscribers,” who paid $275 early in the process to get leather-bound special editions, receive their books Sunday at a private reception. A $75 “collector’s” edition goes on sale Monday at bookstores and antique shops around the state (for more information, go to Collectingkentucky.com).

Lacer, who lives in Shelby County, wrote an award-winning 2006 biography of Swiss artist Edward Troye, who painted America’s greatest racehorses in the mid-1800s. Howard, who lives in Henry County, is a former editor of Kentucky Homes and Gardens magazine.

In approaching their book project, Lacer and Howard wanted to document Kentucky antiques and explore their histories, relationships and craftsmen. They also wanted to explain the goals and objectives of serious collectors they knew about, all of whom live in Kentucky.

“These are people who have spent 30, 40, 50 years refining a viewpoint about their collections,” Howard said. “They all have a focus. We became fascinated with how, visually, they are telling the story of antebellum Kentucky as they understand it.”

Book Jacket w-flaps_cmyk.inddTen major collections are profiled in separate chapters. Objects from 40 more private collections are gathered by object type in an 83-page “archive” at the back. Between each chapter is a small essay that tells an interesting story about an object, its maker or the time and place in which this work was created.

Only one collection is identified with its owners’ names, because it is the only major collection now in the public domain. Over three decades, Garrard County natives Bob and Norma Noe assembled one of the most impressive collections of early Kentucky antiques. They recently donated it to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville.

The Speed is now closed for a major renovation and expansion. But when it reopens in 2016, the Noe Collection will be the foundation of a new Center for Kentucky Art, the first permanent museum space devoted to Kentucky works.

Bob Noe encouraged Lacer and Howard to write Collecting Kentucky as both a primer and a reference book, and he said in an interview that he is pleased with the result.

“I think the book will do wonders to add context in an area too often neglected,” Noe said. “Kentuckians need to know more about our early culture.”

The six decades covered in this book were exciting times in Kentucky. After statehood in 1792, Kentucky transitioned from America’s frontier to being a prosperous and influential region of agriculture and trade.

Prosperity created demand for decorative art and utilitarian items that were both beautiful and functional. Because Kentucky had little colonial tradition, early decorative arts often featured motifs of patriotism, and native flora and fauna.

Craftsmen in all parts of Kentucky produced remarkable work. Some, such as silversmith Asa Blanchard and cabinetmaker Porter Clay (brother of Henry), created pieces as fine as anything then being made on the East Coast.

The book features many outstanding examples of chests, cupboards, desks, case clocks, tables and chairs made of native cherry and walnut with poplar inlay, as well as imported mahogany. The authors tried to pull together available research on the craftsmen who made these items, linking pieces to regional styles.

Early Kentucky silver, often made from melted coins, has long been prized. Lacer said one of the most fun experiences in compiling the book was when several collectors brought more than $1 million worth of silver to her home to be photographed. Roughen was able to create images comparing large groups of work that had never been brought together before.

The book includes a section about one of Kentucky’s most famous products of the era: the long rifle. Kentucky rifles were not only accurate and dependable weapons; they often were highly decorated works of art.

Lacer and Howard said they hope their book will spark more public interest and scholarship in early Kentucky decorative arts.

“We just scratched the surface,” Lacer said. “We left out big collections we know about, and I can only imagine the ones we don’t know about. This is a lot bigger idea in our state than I ever dreamt.”

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Things will be hopping Friday night on Bryan Avenue

August 13, 2013

Looking for something to do Friday night?  The North Limestone Cultural Development Corp., which calls itself the NoLi CDC for short, is having the first of what it plans as a series of “Night Market” events Friday from 7 p.m. until midnight on that cut-through piece of Bryan Avenue between Limestone and Loudon avenues. The event is free and open to the public.

Devine Carama Wind Sync and other local music acts will perform between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., after which the Lexington Film League will show the film, Koyaanisqatsi. There will be food from Bradford BBQ, ice cream from Crank & Boom and beer from West Sixth Brewery.

NoLi CDC describes the Night Market as, “A collaborative community pop-up event inspired by the concept of temporary urbanization. This process involves changing the dynamics of a specific space to further engage the community and foster relationships between local creatives and the public.”

Whatever. Sounds like fun. I’m going.

 


Whippoorwill Festival teaches skills for back-to-nature living

July 16, 2013

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Dave Cooper, right, organizer of the Whippoorwill Festival last weekend near Berea, stirs a pot of pinto beans while Carol Judy, center, of the Clearkfork Community Institute in Eagan, Tenn., leads a workshop on roots and other non-timber forest products. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

BEREA — How do you describe the Whippoorwill Festival? It is part Scout camp, part folkways festival and part family reunion, straight out of the pages of the old Whole Earth Catalog.

However it’s described, the third annual event brought more than 300 people from across the region to rural Madison County last weekend. They came for 3½ days of camping, communal eating, conversation, education, music, dancing and fun in a family-friendly atmosphere.

“It attracts an eclectic, interesting group of people,” said organizer Dave Cooper of Lexington, an environmental activist and former mechanical engineer. “You put them all together and interesting things happen.”

The Whippoorwill Festival is held at HomeGrown HideAways, a 100-acre farm and eco-friendly campground west of Berea that is tucked away below tree-covered hills.

The festival is one of three that owners Nathan and Jessa Turner host each year. HomeGrown HideAway also has the PlayThink Movement & Flow Arts Festival in June and the Holler in the Holler music and arts festival, Aug. 9-11.

Most people came to the Whippoorwill Festival to learn “skills for earth-friendly living,” Cooper said. There were more than 75 classes and demonstrations.

Many classes harked back to Appalachia’s pre-industrial lifestyle and heritage: cooking and bread-making over an open fire, making soap from goats’ milk, beekeeping, composting, starting a fire without matches, making paper, banjo playing and ballad singing.

130712WhippoorwillFest-TE0006Johnny Faulkner, a retired archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service at Red River Gorge, was teaching and demonstrating skills that Kentuckians were using long before the first white pioneers and settlers arrived.

He used a small billet made from a deer antler to chip or “knap” flint to make arrow and spear points for hunting. After he finished one, he showed me how they were attached to a spear made of native river cane and hurled at high speed with the help of a short stick called an “atlatl.”

“With that, they could throw a spear at 100 miles an hour,” he said. “I sure wouldn’t want to be hit by one.”

Norm Adkins of Richmond demonstrated a similar technique, but with materials beyond the traditional flint that Native Americans used. He had one bright green arrowhead he made from fiber optic plastic.

Other classes focused on food: oyster mushroom inoculation, hunting wild mushrooms, growing herbs and strawberries, making sauerkraut, growing nut trees, starting a community garden, composting, saving seeds and raising backyard chickens.

And still others were about skills for low-cost and back-to-nature living: basic bicycle and auto repair, wildflowers, spinning wool, knitting, making sandals and shoes, natural childbirth, stargazing through a telescope, hitchhiking and wilderness first aid.

“We live in Berea, and this is one of our favorite things to do every year,” said Chris Smith, an emergency room nurse who taught the wilderness first aid class and came for the weekend with his wife, Katie Gardner, and their two sons.

They were staffing a first aid station among the tents of several social activists groups, including Appalachian Water Watch, Kentucky Heartwood, the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition and Kentucky Mountain Justice.

“People see a lot of old friends here,” Smith said. “It gives them a break from protesting what they don’t like and learning more about what they do like.”

There was a contra dance on Thursday night and traditional music concerts Friday and Saturday evenings. Pam Gadd of Nashville came to perform with the New Coon Creek Girls string band and teach workshops on banjo playing and songwriting. She also wanted to take the composting workshop.

Wendy Welch of the Tale of the Lonesome Pine Bookstore in Big Stone Gap, Va., led a “running a successful small business in Appalachia” workshop, a skill Cooper wants to emphasize more at future festivals.

“Many workshop leaders come to the festival and talk about whatever their passion is, and often they are making a little business out of it,” said Cooper, who is trying to start a new organization, the Appalachian Small and Micro Business Alliance.

“It would be kind of a chamber of commerce to help nurture and grow these small startup businesses in the region,” Cooper said. “As we look toward the end of coal, we’re going to need lots of ways to create new economic models in Appalachia.”

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Sculptor Julie Warren Conn carves a new niche in Kentucky

June 18, 2013

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Julie Warren Conn uses a grinder to carve a piece of Minnesota limestone in her studio near downtown Winchester. Her fork lift often doubles as a work table.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

WINCHESTER — When Julie Warren Conn was a student at the University of Tennessee, she hoped to be a French major, but couldn’t speak the language. She became an art major instead, but continued to struggle with some basics.

“I couldn’t paint, couldn’t draw, but I loved working with my hands,” said Conn, who in 1965 became the UT School of Art’s first sculpture graduate.

Over the next dozen years, Conn mastered steel welding. Then she took up stone carving. Since 1977, the artist formerly known as Julie Warren Martin has developed a national reputation as a stone sculptor, with dozens of pieces in prestigious museums and collections.

Her work is in places ranging from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., to the Holiday Inn headquarters in Stamford, Conn. Her largest piece is a 30-ton installation of New Mexico travertine outside what is now GlaxoSmithKline’s U.S. headquarters in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

130611StoneArtist0129After her husband of 12 years, Philip Conn, retired as president of Western Oregon University in 2005, they moved to Lexington and she opened a small studio and gallery in Winchester (Juliewarrenconn.com). But she has shown little work in Kentucky, until now.

A collection of Conn’s sculptures, titled Stories in Stone, will be featured during Gallery Hop, 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, at the Central Library Gallery, 140 E. Main St. The free exhibit opened June 15 will remain up through Aug. 11.

Conn, 70, grew up in Knoxville, where her father, Millard Warren, owned a specialty concrete business and had an interest in design. Access to his company’s heavy equipment made it easier for her to begin carving and polishing stone.

Knoxville has had a significant marble processing industry since the early 1900s, thanks to East Tennessee’s quarries of pink marble. Conn said she learned cutting and shaping techniques from marble mill employees who let her work in their shop.

“I became their resident artist,” she said. “One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about my work is the opportunities to become connected with people.”

Marble remains a favorite medium for Conn, although her gallery also includes pieces made of travertine, granite, onyx, alabaster and various volcanic and fossilized rocks.

130619StoneArt0001Conn’s typical day at the office involves driving a fork lift. It doubles as a workbench for large hunks of stone, such as the column of Minnesota limestone she was grinding down the day I visited her studio. Her tools include grinders, saws, chisels and a big exhaust fan to clear out clouds of gritty stone dust. There’s a good reason her studio is zoned industrial.

The most time-consuming part of Conn’s work is polishing her sculptures, which can take three-times longer than cutting the basic shapes. After progressing through sandpaper between 80 and 1,000 grit, she finishes each piece with paste wax.

The petite Conn said she has never been intimidated by the physicality needed to work with hard and heavy slabs of stone. While careful to avoid injury, she said she has fallen off ladders and scaffolding and once had a grinder disk fly apart and send her to the ground.

Some of Conn’s work is representational, but most pieces are abstracts dictated by the stone she is working with. That often includes openings and holes, which give the sculpture a lighter feel — and can be useful for securing belts to move it.

“I let the rock guide me,” she said. “I love to take a volume of stone and begin carving. I won’t have a clue what it will be. Then it will start to look like something to me, or somebody will come in and interpret it.”

Conn said she sometimes likes to see how far she can push a piece of stone without breaking it. She also enjoys experimenting with new and different kinds of rock, such as the small sculpture she made from a chunk of common Kentucky limestone she found outside her studio. Once highly polished, it was unrecognizable.

Conn has recently started making bronze sculptures cast from her stone pieces, as well as bas relief stone drawings inspired by ancient Egyptian ruins.

On one side of Conn’s studio are a dozen large wooden boxes filled with rocks awaiting her attention, including a few her husband found and suggested she might want to experiment with.

“When Philip starts toward me with a rock, I run,” she said with a laugh. “Because it usually means trouble.”

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Holler Poets celebrates 5 years of showcasing Kentucky writers

May 25, 2013

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Eric Sutherland, founder of the monthly Holler Poets series, poses outside Al’s Bar at the corner of North Limestone and East Sixth Streets. The series will celebrate its fifth year, and 60th session, on May 29. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

As the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War approached in March 2008, Eric Scott Sutherland was frustrated and angry. So he fought back the best way he knew how: with poetry.

The writer organized Poets for Peace, a protest reading in the newly reopened Al’s Bar at the corner of North Limestone and East Sixth Street. The event featured an all-star lineup of local literary talent, including Jane Gentry Vance, who was then serving as Kentucky’s poet laureate. Nearly 100 listeners packed the house.

“It was just electric,” Sutherland recalled. “You could sense it.”

Sutherland had tapped into more than public outrage over a tragic, costly and unnecessary war. People seemed hungry for poetry and a venue for self-expression.

“There was pent-up demand for what this guy was doing,” said Josh Miller, one of the bar’s owners. So Miller’s brother, Lester, asked Sutherland if he would organize an event like that at their bar every month.

The Holler Poets Series was born.

The series celebrates its five-year anniversary, and 60th session, on Wednesday. The free event will begin, as always, with an open microphone for any writer wanting to share his or her work.

Then there will be the featured writers. This month’s are Frank X Walker, Kentucky’s current poet laureate, and his fellow Affrilachian poet, Mitchell Douglas. The evening concludes with a musical act. This month’s is Christian hip hop artist Justin Long, who performs under the name JustMe.

Holler’s format has changed little since the series began in 2008 with the award-winning poet Maurice Manning, who now teaches at Transylvania University. Since the beginning, events have been promoted with unique posters created by artist John Lackey, whose Homegrown Press Studio is a couple of doors down from the bar.

About 80 writers have been featured at Holler, including other well-known Kentucky names such as Nikky Finney, Silas House, Richard Taylor, Erik Reece, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, Crystal Wilkinson, George Ella Lyon, Rebecca Gayle Howell, Bianca Spriggs and Leatha Kendrick.

Lexington’s poetry scene has flourished in recent years. Holler Poets — some of whom were born in mountain “hollers” or like to speak loudly — is a big reason why.

Since the beginning, Holler’s goal has been to both raise the profile of experienced poets and encourage the development of new ones. “The open mic has inspired a lot of people to develop their craft, given them something to work toward every month,” Sutherland said.

“Holler Poets has been extremely important in encouraging new voices to emerge, to go from writing for themselves to writing for an audience,” said Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, a Bulgarian-born poet, WRFL radio host, and owner of the Lexington poetry book press Accents Publishing.

“I thought I would go and mingle with like-minded people,” said Tina Andry, who had written poetry all her life but mostly kept it to herself. “Everyone was so welcoming, and the next thing I knew I was publishing a book.”

The Poets for Peace event on March 30, 2008 was followed a year later by Peace in the Mountains, where writers decried what environmentally destructive methods of surface mining for coal is doing to Kentucky’s land, water and air. Holler readers frequently critique an American society that values money more than people. Several of the events have been fundraisers for peace and environmental groups.

“For me, everything is political,” said Sutherland, 41, a Shelbyville native who studied natural resource conservation at the University of Kentucky and has earned his living as a baker and arborist. “It has been rewarding to use art as a way to inform people about what’s going on.”

Sutherland has been surprised by Holler’s popularity. He can’t remember an event where Al’s Bar wasn’t filled with people.

“I knew that our literary heritage would support it and that it was needed,” he said. “But I didn’t know it would catch on. I think the time was just right.”

Sutherland knew he had arrived when, at Holler’s three-year anniversary, Lester Miller surprised him on stage with a fancy certificate proclaiming him as the poet laureate of Al’s Bar.

Accents Publishing will soon publish Sutherland’s fourth poetry collection, Pendulum, inspired by his experiences working at the lobby café of Lexington’s downtown Central Library. Books are important, but Sutherland thinks Holler shows that performance can make poetry a more powerful artistic medium.

“When you hear people up on stage baring their soul, which takes a lot of courage, it ignites something in the listener,” he said. “I think people yearn to feel connected to other people. Poetry is really the last vestige of a direct expression of humanity.”

If you go

Holler Poets 60Five-year anniversary

When: 8 p.m., May 29

Where: Al’s Bar, 601 N. Limestone

Who: Affrilachian poets Frank X Walker and Mitchell Douglas, hip hop performer JustMe. Open microphone for other poets, with sign-up beginning at 7 p.m.

Cost: Free.

More information: EricScottSutherland.com

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Conference reflects on issues raised in landmark Wendell Berry book

April 9, 2013

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Wendell Berry, right, joined conference attendees on a tour Saturday of the farm at St. Catharine College in Washington County. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

SPRINGFIELD — Wendell Berry is a true conservative. He believes in conservation, the idea that God gave us the Earth to sustain our lives and the responsibility to care for it so it can sustain the lives of future generations.

Four decades ago, the writer and farmer was alarmed by the methods and economics of modern farming and mining, which were (and still are) destroying land, water and rural communities. So he wrote his 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, which has become an international classic.

That book and Berry’s subsequent work did much to spark the sustainable agriculture and local food movements, just as Rachel Carson’sSilent Spring in 1962 helped spark the environmental movement.

So it was no surprise that 300 people from 35 states and several foreign countries came to Louisville and Springfield last weekend for a sold-out conference revisiting the book. Well-known speakers discussed both progress and challenges, and they pondered this question: What will it take to resettle America?

The conference was organized by the Berry Center in Henry County, which is run by Mary Berry Smith to promote the philosophy of her father, as well as her uncle and late grandfather, both farmers, lawyers and conservationists named John Berry.

On Saturday, the conference was at St. Catharine College in Springfield, where the Berry Center has just begun a partnership to create undergraduate degree programs in ecological agriculture. The Catholic college campus includes an 800-acre farm the Dominican Sisters of Peace have operated since 1822.

The conference included an on-stage interview of Berry by veteran journalist Bill Moyers, who will use it on one of his Public Broadcasting System programs. Other speakers included Bill McKibben, the best-selling author and climate change activist; Wes Jackson, a MacArthur “genius” award winner and founder of The Land Institute, a leading sustainable agriculture organization; and Vandana Shiva, a renowned author, scientist and environmentalist in India.

In his interview with Moyers, Berry blamed many of today’s ecological problems on industrialization, unbridled capitalism and political systems that favor wealthy corporations, which make big political contributions to reap far bigger returns in taxpayer subsidies and lax regulation.

“There’s no justification for the permanent destruction of the world,” Berry said. “It’s not economically defensible. It’s not defensible in any terms.”

Berry, 78, lamented that the three and a half decades since his book’s publication have been marked by further environmental degradation, from strip mining and soil erosion to water pollution and accelerating climate change.

“It’s mighty hard right now to think of anything that’s precious that is not in danger,” he said.

Berry noted that black willows no longer grow beside his Henry County farm on the banks of the Kentucky River, 13 miles from where it empties into the Ohio River, but still flourish just upriver on the Ohio. There seems to be something in the Kentucky River’s water they can no longer tolerate.

“If the willows can’t continue to live there, how can I be sure that I can continue to live there?” he asked.

Berry, a lifelong Baptist, said the unholy alliance between corporate capitalism and many conservative Christians is “a feat which should astonish us all.”

“A great mistake of Christianity is speaking of the Holy Land as only one place,” he said. “There are no sacred and unsacred places; only sacred and desecrated places.”

But Berry noted that many faith communities are beginning to heed the Bible’s call to environmental stewardship and justice. That gives him hope, as does the growing popularity of organic food, local farmers markets and the sustainable agriculture movement.

“I don’t like to talk about the future, because it doesn’t exist and nobody knows anything about it,” Berry said. “The problems are big, but there are no big solutions.”

Berry said he thinks “resettling America” will require enough people living on and being able to earn a living from the land to take care of it. That will take individual initiative, better government policies and the political will to deal with urgent global threats such as climate change. Can it succeed?

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not,” Berry said. “We only have a right to ask what’s the right thing to do and do it.”

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Journalist Bill Moyers, left, and writer Wendell Berry autograph books after Moyers filmed an interview with Berry. It was part of a two-day conference revisiting Berry’s landmark 1977 book, “The Unsettling of America.”  Photo by Tom Eblen


Artist Lina Tharsing branches out while maintaining Lexington roots

April 2, 2013

130330LinaTharsing-TE0021Lina Tharsing’s new show appears at UK Hospital through August. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Lina Tharsing‘s paintings place the viewer between the real and the unreal. This month, as the artist celebrates her 30th birthday and opens her last Lexington show for a while, she finds herself in a similar position.

“I’ve been fortunate to have such strong support in Lexington,” Tharsing said. “But I would like to branch out more.”

Tharsing’s six-painting show, Making a New Forest, recently went up at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center‘s East Gallery, which is free and open 24/7. An opening reception is planned for 6 to 8 p.m. April 27.

When the show comes down at the end of August, the title painting will remain at the hospital, thanks to several donors. Any unsold pieces will be part of a show of Tharsing’s newest work this fall at Poem 88 gallery in Atlanta.

The Atlanta show will be the second solo exhibition outside of Kentucky for Tharsing, who last year was chosen as No. 5 on Oxford American magazine’s list of 100 “new superstars of Southern art.” Conduit Gallery in Dallas showed her work in 2011.

Tharsing’s recent shows have featured paintings based on the famous dioramas built in the 1930s at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

130330LinaTharsing-TE0016The paintings displayed in Dallas were small, colorful pictures that looked like natural scenes of animals in the wild — until the viewer notices the edge of a display case or the telltale glint of light on a plate-glass window.

Making a New Forest offers a different perspective on the dioramas. These striking pictures are 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide, and painted completely in black and white. In addition to animals and landscapes, they show men in lab coats and ties, positioning the stuffed animals or fabricating scenery. The paintings are based on 1930s black-and-white photographs of the museum’s staff at work.

“I liked the idea of these people creating new environments, and what these environments stand for,” Tharsing said. “I also thought it would be interesting to see what happens when you take a black-and-white photograph and make a black-and-white painting.”

Painting the old photos of the dioramas being built allowed Tharsing to incorporate human figures into natural landscapes, and to play with size and scale.

“I was interested in that tension between real and unreal,” she said, “showing multiple truths existing in the same space.”

Tharsing is excited about exhibiting in the hospital’s hallway gallery, which thousands of people walk by each day.

“It’s a good opportunity to show your work and see what the general public thinks of it, and not just the art public,” she said.

Although it sometimes seems a little unreal, Tharsing is pleased with the attention her work is getting beyond Lexington, where she graduated from Lafayette High School and earned a bachelor of fine arts at UK.

Many people here know her as the daughter of Robert Tharsing, a painter and retired UK art professor, and Ann Tower, a painter and gallery owner.

The exhibition was organized by Lexington native Phillip March Jones, an artist who started the Institute 193 gallery and works as a curator for UK hospital and in Atlanta.

Her next project will continue her fascination with mixing real and unreal imagery. These even-larger paintings, in color, will be based on cellphone photographs she has taken, including a startling image of the ceiling collapsing in an abandoned Atlanta paint factory.

Tharsing expects to spend more time in New York during the next few years, making connections and, she hopes, showing and selling her paintings. But she has no plans to move there.

“Lexington is such a great place to be able to live inexpensively and have a good support network,” she said. “There’s just a great community here. There are a lot of young people here doing entrepreneurial, exciting things, and I want to see that happen.”

 


‘Religious freedom’ law more about discrimination, pressure politics

March 31, 2013

Kentucky’s new “religious freedom” law sure looks like an attempt by conservative Christians to justify discrimination against gay people and get around local “fairness” ordinances.

That is why many people were puzzled when Jim Gray, Lexington’s first openly gay mayor, was the most muted voice in the choir of opponents who urged Gov. Steve Beshear to veto the bill.

Beshear did issue a veto, but the General Assembly overturned it by a wide margin last week.

Beshear’s veto came at the urging of dozens of organizations and individuals — liberal churches, gay rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Kentucky League of Cities, the Kentucky Association of Counties and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who said the bill would “take us backwards as a city and Commonwealth, hurting our strategic position in an increasingly global economy.”

Gray, however, issued a tepid statement that stopped short of urging a veto. He has declined to elaborate publicly.

“The legislation’s stated goal is to encourage religious freedom. That’s a worthy goal,” his statement said. “However, many citizens are concerned the bill may unintentionally open the door to discrimination. Last Thursday, I talked to the governor, shared these concerns and urged him to consider these issues carefully.”

Gray took a beating in social media from some gay people and their supporters, but gay rights leaders were more circumspect. Lexington Fairness chairman Roy Harrison, in an interview Friday, avoided any criticism of Gray.

“We are really happy that he brought more discussion to the bill,” Harrison said. “Everyone has their own political calculus.”

The General Assembly’s political calculus was clear. Most opponents of the bill were lawmakers from progressive urban districts. Legislators from more conservative rural, small-town and suburban districts voted for it.

In a conservative district, there is nothing more dangerous in the next election than having an opponent claim you voted against “religious freedom.” Rural Democrats, especially, are feeling the heat.

Gray is seeking re-election to a second term as mayor next year, so he may have wanted to avoid alienating conservatives. But few people expect Gray to get serious opposition. Former Police Chief Anthany Beatty floated a trial balloon about running, but it hasn’t gotten much lift.

Gray seems to be widely popular in Lexington, even among former critics. As mayor, he has had significant accomplishments and has made few missteps.

Besides, voters knew Gray was gay when they elected him to council in 2006 with enough votes to make him vice mayor. His sexual orientation wasn’t really an issue when he unseated incumbent Mayor Jim Newberry in 2010. Since then, Gray hasn’t tried to be “the gay mayor” — just “the mayor.”

Gray’s political calculation may have been that everyone, including the governor, knew where he stood on this subject, so he had little to gain by being vocal on a statewide controversy where he had no real influence.

Gray did come out strong a year ago on a Lexington controversy, when Hands on Originals cited religious objections in refusing to print T-shirts for a gay pride festival, sparking an ongoing investigation by the city’s Human Rights Commission.

A more important political calculation may have been that Gray didn’t want to anger the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Damon, D-Nicholasville, an influential member of the Central Kentucky delegation. Rep. Sannie Overly of Paris may have unseated Damron as chair of the House Democratic caucus this year, but the way this bill sailed through the General Assembly showed Damron still has plenty of clout.

For all the huffing and puffing on both sides, nobody seems to really know what this legislation will do. The stated intent is to make it easier for Kentuckians to ignore state laws or regulations that conflict with their “sincerely held” religious beliefs unless there is a “compelling governmental interest.”

Bill supporters such as The Family Foundation, which could be more accurately called the Foundation for Families Just Like Ours, insists it is not a vehicle for discriminating against gay people. But a spokesman also has argued that the Hands on Originals case wasn’t really discrimination.

The law’s uncertainties and unintended consequences were a big reason Beshear said he vetoed it. “As written, the bill will undoubtedly lead to costly litigation,” he said.

Don’t forget the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars that have been wasted on defending clearly unconstitutional attempts by some local governments to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

Harrison, the Lexington Fairness chairman, said gay rights and civil liberties groups will be watching to see if this new law is used to try to justify discrimination. If so, they will aggressively challenge it.

Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, a Unitarian Universalist minister and opponent of the new law, mused that one unintended consequence of it could be to advance gay rights.

Unitarians support gay marriage. Could not they use this law to challenge Kentucky’s 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions as an infringement of their “sincerely held” religious beliefs? Might the state then be forced to show a “compelling governmental interest” for banning gay marriage?

One thing is for sure: this bad law will keep the culture warriors battling for years to come.