Scholars, curators get close look at early Kentucky art history

July 12, 2014

140709MESDA0279Robert Leath, chief curator at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., held a drawer from an early Kentucky chest so he and students in MESDA’s Summer Institute could see the interior construction. The chest is part of an exhibit of early Frankfort-made furniture now on display at the Governor’s Mansion. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

FRANKFORT — Most people think early Kentucky was only a place of log cabins and coonskin caps. They don’t imagine that Kentuckians two centuries ago were producing great paintings, fine silverware and inlaid furniture as elegant as anything coming out of Philadelphia or New York.

Last week, 10 up-and-coming scholars and museum curators got a traveling lesson in Kentucky’s rich history of visual art and craftsmanship.

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., brought its prestigious Summer Institute to Kentucky for the first time. Students, faculty and guests got an intensive five-day tour of Central Kentucky landmarks and some of the state’s most valuable public and private collections.

“These are going to be the museum and institution leaders of the near future, and they have the potential to bring a lot of attention to Kentucky,” said Mack Cox of Madison County, a leading collector and scholar of early Kentucky furniture, paintings and long rifles. “We’re way behind (other states) in understanding and rediscovering our decorative arts past.”

I caught up with the group Wednesday morning at the Governor’s Mansion, where Cox was giving MESDA students and faculty an animated tour of an exhibit of pieces made by Frankfort artists between 1790 and 1820. They ranged from the sophisticated cabinetmaker William Lowry to convicts at the old state penitentiary, who made simple but elegant chairs.

“What you’re seeing, Kentuckians largely don’t know about,” Cox told the group, noting that such utilitarian objects as long rifles and powder horns were sometimes turned into beautiful works of art with elaborate engraving and metalwork.

The exhibit, part of the mansion’s 100th anniversary celebration, includes pieces from the Kentucky Historical Society, the Speed Museum in Louisville and the private collections of Cox, Mel Hankla of Jamestown and Tom Meng and Clifton Anderson of Lexington.

(The exhibit is free and open to the public during mansion tour hours through Aug. 26. For more information about the mansion and centennial events, such as a cocktail reception July 25, go to: governorsmansion.ky.gov.)

As Cox described each piece and the research that went into figuring out who made it and when, the students took photos and used little flashlights to examine details.

140709MESDA0137From Frankfort, the group traveled to Lexington for a tour of African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street, which has been restored in recent years. Its 5,000 graves include those of black Civil War soldiers and famous jockeys and trainers.

The group visited the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s Hunt-Morgan House and Pope Villa, two of Lexington’s most significant early 1800s mansions, and then went to Madison County to see White Hall, home of the fiery emancipationist Cassius M. Clay.

Other stops during the week included the William Whitley House in Stanford; the Old Capitol and Liberty Hall in Frankfort; Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County; the National Underground Railroad Museum in Maysville; Hopewell Museum and Cane Ridge Meeting House in Bourbon County and the Filson Historical Society and Locus Grove mansion in Louisville.

Before their trip, the students spent two weeks attending classes. When they return to North Carolina, they must finish Kentucky-related research projects and papers. Graduate-level course credit is awarded through the University of Virginia.

In his talk to the group, Cox pointed out stylistic traits of several significant Kentucky portrait painters of the early 1800s, including William Edward West. Because some of their paintings have been misattributed over the years to Matthew Jouett, the state’s best-known early portraitist, many Kentuckians don’t know how much talent was working here at the time, he said.

Catherine Carlisle, an art history graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hopes her summer project will shed new light on one of those little-known Kentucky artists, Alexander Bradford.

“I’m thrilled to be able to see so many examples of the beautiful, beautiful portraits that were coming out of Kentucky, and so early,” she said.

While some of the students had never been to Kentucky, and knew little about its artistic heritage, it was a homecoming for Grant Quertermous, the assistant curator at James Madison’s Montpelier estate near Orange, Va. He is from Paducah.

“I really wanted to do this one,” he said. “It has been great to give everyone exposure to Kentucky.”

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New Lexington radio station to focus on community engagement

June 21, 2014

If Lexington were to have a small, community-oriented radio station, what should its programming be? What roles should it play? Whose voices should be heard?

Those are some of the questions being asked by a local group now organizing such a station. They will convene several public meetings to get answers, and the first one is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., June 28 at Sayre School’s Buttery Building, 194 N. Limestone St.

The Federal Communications Commission recently awarded the group a construction permit for a 100-watt FM station. It must be on the air by October 2015 and would have a broadcast radius of 3.5 miles from its transmitter on the Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus at Leestown and New Circle roads.

The small coverage area would include downtown, Northside, the East End and as far west as Cardinal Valley. This diverse area of 93,000 people includes some of the largest concentrations of Latino and black residents in Lexington.

“We want to serve that community in a way that has never been done before,” said Mick Jeffries, a photographer, graphic artist and radio host on WRFL-FM, the University of Kentucky’s student-run station that he helped start 25 years ago.

lexonairlogo“The low-power FM movement has to do with trying to restore radio as a kind of education and community resource,” he said. “It’s largely educational and has a laboratory component to it. It’s nothing like commercial radio as we now know it.”

After commercial radio was deregulated in 1996, a dozen or so corporations quickly bought up most of the nation’s locally owned stations. They cut costs by replacing local staff and programming with syndicated content.

In reaction, the FCC in 2000 started granting licenses to non-profit organizations to operate low-power FM stations for community service. But, within months, radio-industry lobbyists pressured Congress to stop the FCC from issuing more licenses.

That changed in 2011 with the Local Community Radio Act, which allowed a new round of license applications last October. More than 1,200 have been granted. Lexington’s successful application was spearheaded by Debra Hensley, an insurance agent and former Urban County Council member.

Community engagement is Hensley’s passion. She has organized “social stimulus” events and produced videos and podcasts about neighborhoods and citizens. While they were working together on a podcast last year, Jeffries told Hensley about the low-power FM opportunity.

Hensley created a radio station organizing group that is seeking non-profit status. In addition to Jeffries, other board members include Hap Houlihan, formerly of The Morris Book Shop; Kakie Urch, another WRFL founder who now teaches new media in UK’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications; and Tanya Torp, a neighborhood leader in the East End.

They have reached out to many others for assistance, including BCTC, the local Latino arts and culture organization FLACA, the Urban League, WUKY-FM and the city’s Division of Emergency Management.

John Bobel, the division’s information officer, said a low-power FM station could be a valuable tool for reaching people in many of these neighborhoods during emergencies, as well as for communicating public safety messages.

“I am president of the William Wells Brown Neighborhood Association, and the way we get our word out is that I have to knock on doors to tell people what’s going on,” Torp said. “So having this kind of resource in our community is vital. A lot of people do not have Internet access. But a lot of people, including the elderly, have radios.”

The organizers see many potential roles for the station: covering neighborhood meetings; convening and broadcasting public forums; call-in shows discussing local issues, including wellness and nutrition; school music concerts and shows; and coverage of youth and league sports, including a Spanish-language show about Lexington’s Latino soccer leagues.

“Part of my job at UK is expanding use of different media to tell stories in different ways,” said Urch, who also sees educational opportunities for youth. She wants to create after-school workshops to teach middle and high school students to use technology and tell stories they care about.

Plans call for the station to have a free smartphone app that would allow broadcasts to be heard from anywhere, as well as a website with text, photos and video. Hensley wants a storefront studio in a visible location to increase public engagement.

“It’s not like we’re looking for syndicated programming that’s going to appeal to a certain market,” Jeffries said. “We want to engage people to actually help create the content for the station.”

Hensley knows the biggest challenge will be raising money to make it happen. She estimates about $50,000 in startup costs and an annual operations budget of as much as $150,000.

She is working on a three-year business plan, which would include grants, donations and, primarily, sponsor messages from local businesses and organizations, such as public radio does.

“We envision this as something the community sees, feels, embraces,” Hensley said. “So at this meeting we want to say, this is what we’ve got, this is what it could look like. What do you think?”

 


Story magazine founder wanted to tell Kentucky stories

May 4, 2014

story1 Julie Wilson is founder, publisher and editor of Story magazine. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

How does a woman born in Detroit become the founder, editor and publisher of a magazine dedicated to telling Kentucky stories? Well, there’s a story there.

Julie Wilson’s father was born into a big family in the Harlan County community of Pathfork. Like thousands of Kentuckians after World War II, he migrated north to seek his fortune. And, like many of those thousands, he eventually got homesick and returned to Kentucky.

Wilson, who has lived in Lexington since she was 4 years old, thinks her father’s experience nurtured her love for Kentucky in all its diversity. She now shares that love in each quarterly issue of Story magazine.

“There are so many unique stories in Kentucky,” Wilson said. “And every time we go out and talk to somebody, we get two more story ideas.”

With nearly two years of publication under their belts, Wilson and her partners are expanding Story magazine into a broader brand built around Kentucky culture and pride.

Kentucky Educational Television on May 14 will show the first episode of backStory, a quarterly program about the making of the magazine. Story is producing the show with Lexington-based Locker Public Relations.

Another project in the works, called Sessions, will feature collaborations of Kentucky musicians from a variety of genres. For that, Wilson is partnering with the magazine’s National Avenue neighbor, Duane Lundy of Shangri-La Productions.

story2Musicians scheduled up for the first session, on June 25, include Willie Breeding of The Breedings; Mark Heidiger of Vandaveer; and Stephen Trask, composer of the 1998 rock musicalHedwig and the Angry Inch, a revival of which opened recently on Broadway.

Wilson said a limited number of tickets for each session will be sold through The Morris Book Shop. An edited video will be posted online soon afterward. Event details will be available soon at Storythemagazine.com.

Wilson, 43, is a graduate of the University of Kentucky journalism program who worked as a free-lance writer for the Herald-Leader and a reporter for the Richmond Register. Then she spent a decade learning the magazine business at Host Communications, where she edited business-to-business magazines for the tour and spa industries.

After a year and a half as publisher of Kentucky Bride magazine, Wilson got to thinking about all of the interesting Kentucky stories she heard about but wasn’t seeing in other publications.

The cover of Story magazine’s first issue, which Wilson wrote, was a profile of Ashley Brock, a successful young model who travels from her home in Leslie County to do photo shoots in Europe and Asia.

“We look for how we can tell stories about Kentucky that are debunking the myths that are out there,” Wilson said.

She seeks out stories about Kentuckians doing cutting-edge things. Some are famous, such as the current issue’s cover subject, the late Louisville-born journalist Hunter S. Thompson. But many stories are about people whom readers might never have heard about otherwise, such as Dr. Joseph Yocum, a Nicholasville veterinarian who is a pioneer in animal stem-cell therapy, or Tim Hensley and Jane Post, gourmet mushroom farmers in Madison County.

story3Regular features focus on successful Kentucky expatriates, artists and craftsmen, musicians, philanthropists and people doing good things in their communities. Wilson said she tries to include features from across the state “so people won’t think we’re just a Lexington and Louisville magazine.”

She developed Story’s concept with Tim Jones, who as creative director oversees the magazine’s sophisticated design, and Laurel Cassidy, the associate publisher, who focuses on advertising sales. Bart Mahan is chief operating officer, and Allison May and Sara Plummer are account executives.

Wilson said the business is close to breaking even. The magazine has a distribution of about 18,000 copies and 2,200 paid subscribers, many of them Kentuckians living out of state. Eventually, she hopes to publish bimonthly.

Wilson’s husband, David Wilson, is chief operating officer of Yonder Interactive Neighborhoods, a sustainability education consultant. They have a daughter, who turns 9 this week.

“And, yes, her name is Story,” Julie Wilson said. “She says she was the first Story — but we didn’t name the magazine after her.”

The Lexington chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners recently gave Wilson an award as small business owner of the year.

“It has been more rewarding than I ever expected,” she said of the magazine’s first two years. “But I’m just doing this by the seat of my pants. I hope they know that.”


Derby Day at Keeneland: all that was missing was live horses

May 3, 2014

140503Keeneland-DerbyTE0124Derby Day at Keeneland was a laid-back affair. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Billy Hargis of Danville got to Keeneland early on Kentucky Derby Day to stake out a bench and start studying the program in the hope of picking a winner.

“I’ve been coming to Keeneland for a long time, since I was 16,” said Hargis, 64, adding that it is his favorite place to be on Derby Day because of the family atmosphere and smaller crowd.

“I went to Louisville once,” he said. “All I saw was a horse’s tail.”

Before long Saturday, Hargis had plenty of company. A picture-perfect day brought 19,344 people to the Lexington racetrack, which had everything a Kentucky Derby fan needed — except actual horses.

The horses were on TV screens, including the big one across the track in Keeneland’s infield. Spectators gathered in the stands and on the plaza benches below, picnicked in the paddock and tailgated in tents and RVs outside the gates at perhaps the world’s largest Kentucky Derby party outside Churchill Downs.

Jeff and Lisa Kayes have been coming to Kentucky from the Buffalo, N.Y., area each first Saturday in May for 18 years to catch the Derby action. Only four of those years were actually spent at the Derby in Louisville.

“We’ve done that; the riff-raff in the infield gets old,” Jeff Kayes said of Churchill Downs. “This is more laid-back.”

Keeneland has long allowed people to gather at the track for Derby, but it started making a bigger event of it in 1995. Now, as many as 20,000 fans come each year, wearing fancy hats and toting picnic supplies.

There was a hat contest, children’s activities and plenty of beer, mint juleps, other refreshments and souvenirs for the adults. For $5 admission, it was quite a show for both horse fans and people-watchers.

Debbie and Bill Viney of Georgetown set up a family picnic in the paddock with son, Tom, who lives in Louisville, and his daughter, Allie, 10. They were all dressed up, enjoying the sunshine and games of corn hole until it was time to eat.

“This is great,” Tom Viney said. “I’ll come to Keeneland seven days out of seven vs. going to Churchill.”

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Kentucky Derby’s little sister has her own style

May 3, 2014

140502KyOaks0020A giant, new video screen at Churchill Downs emphasizes the feeling that the 140th Kentucky Oaks on Friday is like one big reality television show.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

LOUISVILLE — Whenever friends from out-of-state complain about how Kentucky Derby tickets are expensive and hard to get, I tell them about the Kentucky Oaks.

Both races have been run for 140 years, but until a few years ago, the Friday event for 3-year-old fillies was a secret Kentuckians kept to themselves.

The Oaks is no longer a secret. The crowd of 113,071 that saw the favorite, Untapable, win by 4½ lengths Friday, was the third-largest ever. But the Oaks is still a less costly, less crowded and less crazy day at the races.

Neither Oaks nor Derby may be the same again, though, thanks to Churchill Downs’ newest addition. The Big Board is a 90-foot-wide video screen that rises 170 feet above the backside and is visible throughout the track. When the sound is cranked up on its 750 speakers, the multimedia experience can almost rival the human and equine circus that surrounds it.

Several months ago, my younger daughter called wanting advice about getting Derby tickets. Shannon lives in New York now but was coming home to meet up with Lisa Currie, her pen-pal of 20 years, who was flying in from Australia.

Lisa wanted to go to the Derby, but was easily persuaded that the Oaks might be more fun. It is the same with Australia’s famous Melbourne Cup, she said. She and other locals prefer to go on one of the preliminary race days.

Walking around Friday, I found a lot of people who have discovered the Oaks’ charm.

“I like the Oaks better, although we’ll be here tomorrow, too,” said Denise Needham of Long Island, N.Y., who was here for her fourth Oaks-Derby weekend. “It’s just as much fun, but less crowded. And it’s for a good cause.”

She was referring to Churchill Downs’ partnership with the Susan G. Komen organization, which has made Oaks Day an annual celebration of breast cancer survival and awareness.

Before the big race, there is a parade down the track of breast cancer survivors chosen from all over the country. Almost all of them wore pink. But, anymore, almost everyone wears pink to the Oaks.

“I get to wear pink and not get judged,” Rickey Spanish of Des Moines, Iowa, said with a laugh. He was wearing a pink shirt, pants and feather boa, and his Iowa friends were similarly attired.

“Today is all flash,” Spanish said. “Tomorrow, I’ll just wear a regular old suit to Derby.”

All of that pink has helped make the Oaks as good a people-watching event as Derby Day.

“The horses are OK, but the people are more interesting,” said Kitty McKune of Louisville, who stood people-watching as her husband, Mike, filmed the paddock crowd with a small video camera.

“Derby weekend brings out the best in everybody,” said Mike McKune, who shocked his wife by buying and learning how to tie a bow tie to go with this suit.

Frequently overcast skies and temperatures that barely broke into the 60s caused many men to lose their suit coats to women who draped them over their fancy dresses. Gusty winds had many women keeping at least one hand on their big hats.

“It was supposed to be warm!” said Katie Daniel of Louisville, who walked through the paddock wearing Daniel Nusbaum’s suit coat.

The weather definitely put a dent in beer sales, said Andre Williams, who said he has been hawking cold ones at Churchill Downs on Derby weekends for more than 10 years.

“They keep saying it’s too cold to drink cold beer,” Williams said, noting that his fellow vendors selling champagne and vodka “Lily” cocktails seemed to be doing better. “But it will pick up some the later the day goes.”

Judging by all of the crushed beer cans I walked over after the big race, he was right. By Saturday morning, though, they will all be gone so an even bigger, crazier crowd can leave many more beer cans. Derby Day is supposed to be much warmer.

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Irvine festival celebrates wild and tasty morel mushrooms

April 19, 2014

140417MushroomFest0211Jen Collins scans the forest floor for tiny, tasty morel mushrooms in Estill County. The 24th annual Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine is April 26-27. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

IRVINE — “I found one!” Jen Collins called out from the top of the ridge. Her fellow mushroom hunters groaned and giggled.

By family tradition, Collins’ older sister, Joan Murphy, is supposed to find the first tasty morel mushroom each spring when they hike into the woods to search for them. But within a few minutes, Murphy had found one, too.

Collins and Murphy are fifth-generation ‘shroom hunters. They have walked these hills each spring since their father, Dennis Stacy, brought them and their five siblings here as teenagers more than 40 years ago. Now, they hunt mushrooms with their children and grandchildren, and many other Estill County families do the same.

“We know when it’s spring we go mushroom hunting,” Collins said. “It’s just a way of life.”

140417MushroomFest0054This local tradition prompted Irvine to start the Mountain Mushroom Festival in 1991. About 20,000 people are expected April 26-27 for the 24th annual festival, which will include a mushroom market and cooking demonstrations.

The festival also incorporates another local specialty: Kentucky agates. The gemstones are found only in Estill and parts of five surrounding counties. There will be public agate hunts along creek beds April 22-24 and an agate, gem and mineral show in town April 22-27.

Festival activities include a pancake breakfast, tractor and car shows, a parade and the annual Fungus 5k race. Festival admission is free. (More information: mountainmushroomfestival.org.)

“We’re trying to educate, and promote our cultural heritage,” said Francine Bonny, the festival’s chairman. “We want to highlight what is unique about our home and share it with visitors.”

Morel, or Morchella, mushrooms are difficult to cultivate, but grow wild in deciduous forests around the world. They can be found across Kentucky and surrounding states. The mushrooms start popping up in late March or early April, when overnight temperatures have warmed and there has been enough rain to dampen the soil.

140417MushroomFest0050A morel looks like a sponge or honeycomb and is hollow. Old-timers called them “dry-land fish” because they taste a little fishy. Hunters must take care not to confuse them with “false morels” — mushrooms that look more like brains than sponges and are poisonous.

Estill County hunters rarely find more than one or two morels growing together. The mushrooms range in color from black to golden and are often only one-to-three inches long. It takes skill and experience to see them poking up among the dead leaves and wildflowers on the forest floor.

The sisters took me mushroom hunting last Thursday, along with Collins’ son, Michael Collins Jr., president of the Estill County Chamber of Commerce, and Bonny, the festival chairman.

We drove up into the hills outside Irvine to their favorite spot, then hiked down one ridge and up another. Every few minutes, each hunter would stop to carefully scan the forest, poking a walking stick at fallen leaves when they thought they saw something — a mushroom or a snake.

When a morel was found, it was picked with a pinch of the stem. Hunters take care to protect the roots so they will produce more mushrooms. They carry picked mushrooms in a net shoulder bag on the theory that loose spores will fall off as they walk, increasing the chances of more mushrooms in the forest in the future.

When the hunters found leaves that looked disturbed, it often meant wild turkey had been there. “Deer and turkey both like mushrooms,” Collins said. “So you have to beat them to ‘em.”

After a couple of hours, the hunters had found 28 small morels. That explains why they sell for about $40 a pound at the festival’s mushroom market. I hadn’t found a single one. I’m sure it was because I was too busy taking pictures. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

The sisters were kind enough to give me a handful of their morels, plus cooking instructions. When I got home, I cleaned and sliced them in half, soaked them in saltwater, rolled them in cornmeal and a little flour and fried them in butter. Delicious!

The next time I go mushroom hunting, I will leave my cameras at home. I want to focus on dinner.

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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

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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.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


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.