Kentucky needs many things: better health, more education, less poverty, less political corruption, a more-prosperous middle class, a less-polluted environment.
And a better state flag. I have thought that for years, but I’ve always considered flag design a trivial issue in a state with so many bigger challenges.
Ben Sollee changed my mind.
If you don’t know Sollee, he is an enormously talented singer, songwriter and cellist (yes, a cellist) whose unique style of folksy, bluesy, socially conscious music has attracted an international following. He also is a proud Kentuckian.
Sollee performed in Frankfort this month at the Kentucky Historical Society’s annual Boone Day festivities. I sat on stage and interviewed him between songs about his Kentucky roots and how they influence his art.
Kentuckians have a lot to be proud of, Sollee said, but they don’t express that pride as much as do residents of some other U.S. states and Canadian provinces. He thinks part of the problem is our flag.
“When I travel and I see people in British Columbia or Colorado or California, they are proud of where they’re from,” he said. “And they wear it all over. Everyone’s sporting the state flag, the state image, the state logo.
“We don’t have that in Kentucky,” he added. “Our state flag is not adopted on a cultural level. We need a better state flag!”
Two men wearing antique clothing and shaking hands in the middle of a blue flag, surrounded by goldenrod weed and a lot of words just doesn’t cut it graphically.
The handshake guys make a fine official seal. “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” is a great motto for a commonwealth, which is a more noble thing to be than a mere state. Goldenrod is pretty,
even if it does make me sneeze. But all thrown together, these things make a boring flag.
“Sitting here at the Kentucky History Center, I understand that’s a bit of blasphemy,” Sollee said, although his comments drew loud applause from the audience.
“There’s a lot of heritage behind that flag,” he added. “But there’s a lot of new heritage that’s not being represented by that flag. It’s a bad design, and it doesn’t communicate to a wide swath of people easily.”
I think Sollee is right, and so do flag design experts. Yes, there are experts who study the design, use and cultural significance of flags. They are called “vexillologists” and among the places they hang out is the North American Vexillological Association.
Last year, the association published “guiding principles” for good flag design. Kentucky’s flag violates most of them. It is what vexillologists call an S.O.B. — seal on a bedsheet.
When you see Kentucky’s flag flying at a distance, which is the way we usually see flags, it is blue with a vague golden blob in the middle, virtually indistinguishable from the flags of a half-dozen other states.
What state flags do the vexillologists like? Those of New Mexico, Texas, Maryland, Alaska, Colorado and Arizona, to name a few. They approach the quality of great national flags, such as the United States, Canada, Great Britain and South Africa. Even some cities, such as Chicago and Washington, have flags designed so well that residents embrace them.
With few exceptions, well-designed flags are simple, with two or three basic colors and meaningful symbolism that is easily recognized. They are distinctive, and they avoid seals and writing of any kind.
As Ted Kaye, author of the book Good Flag, Bad Flag, puts it: “A flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.”
When designing a flag, experts recommend starting with a rectangle 1 by 1½ inches. If a design doesn’t work in that small a space, it just doesn’t work.
“We could have a crowd-sourced campaign, which is to say let’s get the in-state artists to submit designs and have a competition,” Sollee suggested. “Let’s create a new piece of art that can be our state flag that we can all get behind and adopt.
“It would do wonders for people outside of Kentucky recognizing and visiting this place,” he said. “It would do wonders to have a banner that we could all wave around. I think it’s a small step that we could make big strides with. Let’s do it!”