‘Dead Poets’ journey leads to grave of murdered Lexington poet

July 28, 2015
Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who driven his white Dodge "Poe Mobile" to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, uses his iPhone to look up lines from poet William Wordsworth carved on the headstone of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. His grave is in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who has driven his white Dodge “Poe Mobile” to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, uses his iPhone to look up lines from poet William Wordsworth carved on the headstone of Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. His grave is in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When Walter Skold quit his teaching job to write poetry, he didn’t know that his personal journey would become as literal as it was metaphorical.

While studying at The Frost Place, an educational center on poet Robert Frost’s farm in New Hampshire, former state poet laureate Patricia Fargnoli read her poem, “Visiting Frost’s Grave.”

“I had just visited his grave, and it and her poem intrigued me,” said Skold, 54, who lives in Freeport, Maine. “On a whim, I started researching poets’ graves and I was just completely fascinated by the uniqueness of them — their design, their epitaphs. It turned into this sort of pilgrimage.”

He is now six years into that pilgrimage, having driven his “Poe Mobile” van on four major road trips to visit the graves of more than 520 poets in 46 states.

Skold, a former journalist, takes photos and videotape for a planned book and documentary film. He also promotes his idea for a new national holiday: Dead Poets Remembrance Day on Oct. 7, the day in 1849 when Edgar Allan Poe died and James Whitcomb Riley was born.

I met Skold Tuesday at African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street. He had come to visit the grave of Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, a black poet, lawyer, newspaper editor, minister and activist who suffered a tragic death.

Robert_Charles_OHara_BenjaminBorn in 1855 on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, Benjamin first came to Kentucky in 1879, possibly to teach school. Then he moved around the country, practicing law in California and Rhode Island and becoming a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Benjamin moved to Lexington in 1897, got involved in politics and edited The Standard, a black newspaper. He wrote books, pamphlets and poetry and became involved in early civil rights struggles.

On Oct. 2, 1900, Benjamin got into an argument with white precinct worker Mike Moynahan, who was challenging blacks trying to register to vote. Moynahan followed Benjamin outside and shot him in the back at the corner of Spring and Water Streets. An inquest ruled it justifiable homicide.

“I had never heard of Benjamin,” he said. “But I was so amazed when I came across his story.”

Skold examined a marble monument that a fraternal organization erected at Benjamin’s grave on the 10th anniversary of his death. And he read aloud the faded epitaph, an 1834 poem by William Wordsworth: “Small service is true service while it lasts; Of friends, however humble, scorn not one: The daisy, by the shadow that it casts, protects the lingering dew drop from the sun.”

Skold placed at the base of the monument a pebble from Mount Parnassus, Greece, which ancient Greeks believed to be the home of the Muses. Then he poured a bit of Cognac on the grave, from a bottle almost empty from moistening the graves of dead poets throughout the South over the past seven weeks.

After taking photographs and video, Skold was off to Lexington Cemetery to visit the graves of two more forgotten poets, James Thomas Cotton Noe and Catherine Ann Warfield. I suggested he also look up writer James Lane Allen while he was there.

Skold had already spent seven days traveling around Kentucky in the Dodge van he calls the Poe Mobile. “It’s a big part of my shtick,” he said, pointing to the Maine license plate that says, “Dedgar.”

The van is a conversation-starter, and for Skold, this pilgrimage is mostly about starting conversations.

“Every day I learn so much, just from meeting people, friends and family of dead poets, archivists, other poets,” he said. “It’s like a journey of discovery.”

This is Skold’s third trip to Lexington, which he said has “a special place in my heart.” On his first trip, in 2009, the Poe Mobile broke down. He spent a few days in Lexington and got to know poet Eric Sutherland, who introduced him around.

On this trip, he met several more living poets, including Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, Jeff Worley and Richard Taylor. Skold’s next stop is the annual writers’ workshop at Hindman Settlement School to meet even more.

“This whole project seems a little weird, even to me, but what has really kept me going is people’s responses, their enthusiasm for my project,” he said.

Skold thinks most people understand the value of poets, and why it is important to remember them long after they are gone.

“They speak to the deepest beliefs and questions and concerns of the people they write among,” he said, citing as an example the beloved Kentucky poet Jesse Stuart, who died in 1984. “By reading him, I can enter into the culture and history of Kentucky.”

Walter Skold, whose project is called the Dead Poets Society of America, has spent six years traveling in a Dodge van to the graves of more than 500 poets in 46 states. The license plate from his home state of Maine is in honor of "Dead Edgar", the writer Edgar Allen Poe.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Skold’s Dodge van honors Edgar Allen Poe.

Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who driven his white Dodge "Poe Mobile" to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, poured a bit of ceremonial Cognac on the grave of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. His grave is in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Skold poured a bit of ceremonial Cognac on the grave of Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote

Walter Skold, who has traveled to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, read a quote from the English poet Robert Wordsworth on the tombstone of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. He is buried at African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Skold read a quote from the English poet William Wordsworth on Benjamin’s tombstone.

Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet, was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. He is buried in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Benjamin’s monument was erected by a fraternal organization a decade after his death.

Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who has driven this white Dodge van to visit the graves of more than 500 poets over the past six years, came to Lexington's African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street to visit the grave of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.


John Carroll remembered as ‘a great editor and an even greater friend’

June 22, 2015

Norman Pearlstine, the top editor of Time Inc. and, before that, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, stepped to the pulpit of Lexington’s First Presbyterian Church on Monday and got right to the point.

“John was our generation’s best, most respected, most beloved editor,” he said.

Anyone seeking confirmation of that had only to look out across the venerable old sanctuary. It was filled to capacity with John Sawyer Carroll’s family, friends and colleagues who flew in for his memorial service from as far away as China.

Carroll, 73, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and Lexington Herald-Leader, died June 14 at his Lexington home of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare, rapidly progressive dementia that he was diagnosed with in January.

Lexington Herald-Leader Editor John S. Carroll spoke as the newsroom staff celebrated a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on April 18,1986. Reporters Jeffrey Marx and Michael York won the prize for articles in 1985 about cash and gifts given to University of Kentucky basketball players by boosters, in violation of NCAA rules. Photo by Charles Bertram

Herald-Leader Editor John S. Carroll spoke as the staff celebrated a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on April 18,1986. Reporters Jeffrey Marx and Michael York won the prize for articles in 1985 about cash and gifts given to University of Kentucky basketball players by boosters, in violation of NCAA rules. Photo by Charles Bertram

Pearlstine was a classmate of Carroll’s at Haverford College near Philadelphia. His eulogy was followed by two more, from Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, and Bill Marimow, the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Maxwell King, another former Philadelphia Inquirer editor, read a prayer selected by Carroll’s widow, Lee. The Rev. Mark Davis offered words of comfort and spoke of a life well-lived that ended too soon. Singer Calesta Day filled the sanctuary with a stunning a cappella rendition of Amazing Grace.

Friends and colleagues came to pay tribute to Carroll for five decades of remarkable journalism that produced more than two dozen Pulitzer Prizes and significant government and social reforms.

Among them: legendary Philadelphia Inquirer editor Gene Roberts, who hired Carroll for his first editing job, and Frank Langfitt, a National Public Radio correspondent based in Shanghai who worked under Carroll at the Herald-Leader and flew 18 hours to get back for the service.

“He had such an influence on my life,” Langfitt said. “I had to be here.”

The service and a reception afterward at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning drew a who’s who of Kentucky media and political figures, including Mayor Jim Gray; Rep. Andy Barr and his predecessor, Ben Chandler; and former Gov. Brereton Jones.

Those who eulogized Carroll spoke of an intellectually curious and demanding editor, an inspiring leader, a great mentor and a kind and modest man.

After editing the newspapers in Lexington and Baltimore, Carroll went to the Los Angeles Times in 2000 after a scandal in which the publisher cut a secret deal with advertisers that compromised ethical standards and demoralized the newsroom.

“What followed over the next several years should stand as one of the finest acts of leadership in a newsroom or anywhere else in modern times,” said Baquet, whom Carroll hired as his deputy in Los Angeles.

“John’s newsroom was fun and ambitious,” he said. “The key people who went to work for him came out different, with bigger, larger ideas and fewer limits. And with the belief in the power and the honor of journalism; that we were part of something much larger.”

Baquet said that when he was named the top editor of The New York Times a year ago, he spoke to his staff and described the kind of outstanding but humane newsroom he wanted to create. “John was deep in my head and in my heart when I said that,” he said.

Marimow, who became Carroll’s deputy in Baltimore after working for him in Philadelphia, told how his curiosity about a routine story about the scrapping of an aircraft carrier near Baltimore led to a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series about the human and environmental toll of the global ship-breaking industry.

“As an editor, John was a visionary who reveled in great work as well as quirky stories and quirky colleagues,” Marimow said. “He saw the forest clearly, while most of us, including me, were lost in the trees.”

There were plenty of funny stories, too.

Pearlstine told how, when they were college students in 1962, he got Carroll out of jail after he and a friend ran onto the field of Connie Mack Stadium during the seventh-inning stretch to try to shake hands with Willie Mays.

Baquet recalled, early in their working relationship, a long, racy story about how the drug Viagra was changing Los Angeles’ pornography industry. Afraid Carroll might not want to publish it, Baquet gave it a bland headline and submitted it for approval. After a long silence as he read the story, Carroll started to chuckle.

“Then he said, ‘Great story. But why’d you put this really dull headline on it?'” Baquet recalled. “Then he pulled out a pencil, and I swear it took one second, and he scrawled down a new one: Lights, Camera, Viagra. He was the best headline writer in the business.”

Marimow recalled the last time he saw Carroll, when their families got together a year ago on Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts.

“John was tan, trim, vigorous and energetic; the picture of vitality,” he recalled. “It’s the way I’ll always remember him. A great editor and an even greater friend. An irreplaceable friend.”


Richmond author’s final book chronicles World War I fighter pilots

May 30, 2015

RICHMOND — The new book First to Flychronicles the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of young Americans who flew primitive fighter planes for France before America entered the First World War.

They were a fearless and colorful bunch who lived as if there were no tomorrow. For many of them, there wouldn’t be. Their dogfights with German aviators were often suicide missions.

Charles Bracelen Flood, the best-selling author and historian who moved to his wife’s Madison County farm in 1975, chose these men as the subject of his 15th book. (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25.)

Cover of the book "First to Fly" by Charles Bracelen Flood.  Photo provided

But as Flood was completing the manuscript last year, he discovered he shared their brief life expectancy. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer June 15 and died two months later at age 84.

“He went out like he would have wanted to,” said his widow, Katherine. “Writing right to the end.”

Flood’s final book is a page-turner, written in a spare, vivid style like that of his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway. He told friends about meeting Hemingway in a Paris bar in the 1950s and being surprised to hear the famous author had read his first novel, Love is a Bridge, a best-seller published to critical acclaim when Flood was a 23-year-old Harvard graduate.

After six novels, Flood wrote a controversial book about his year as an embedded reporter with American troops in Vietnam and covered several Olympics for The Associated Press. He then began a series of non-fiction history books about Abraham Lincoln, Adolph Hitler, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman and the American Revolution.

The New York native’s last book grew out of reading a few memoirs by Escadrille veterans. Flood began the project in 2011, searching out other pilots’ diaries and letters. He and his daughter, Lucy, went to France in 2013 for more research.

“He would tell us about them, and you could just see his eyes light up,” said Lucy Flood, a freelance writer and editor in California. “They had such amazing stories.”

First to Fly weaves together short biographies of these men and their experiences flying flimsy, open-cockpit airplanes made of wood and canvas, with engines and machine guns that were anything but reliable.

The 38 members of the Lafayette Escadrille came from a dozen states. Their average age was 24. They were race car drivers, athletes, gamblers, soldiers of fortune and idealistic Ivy League university graduates from wealthy families. Several transferred to the unit after fighting in the trenches with the French Foreign Legion. They were looking for adventure, and they found it.

An undated photo of Charles Bracelen Flood (1929-2014), author of "First to Fly: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Heroes Who Flew for France in World War I." Photo provided

Charles Bracelen Flood

Aviation was such a novelty that fighter pilots were celebrities. When they weren’t flying, they were drinking or enjoying the company of legions of female admirers, whose silk stockings they wore under their leather helmets for good luck. They acquired two lion cubs, named Whiskey and Soda, as mascots and wrestled with them as if they were big dogs.

Eleven Escadrille pilots would not survive the war. Others suffered numerous wounds and injuries. Post-traumatic stress led some to later die of suicide, alcohol and drugs. But others went on to become successful businessmen and military officers in the next war. Four wounded fliers married their French nurses. Three others married movie stars.

An additional 231 American pilots served in French aviation units between 1914 and 1917, when the United States entered the war. Many of them sought transfers to the Escadrille, including the first black American fighter pilot.

Eugene Bullard was born in Georgia, left home with $1.50 in his pocket and joined the Foreign Legion on his 19th birthday. He was a machine gunner in the trenches until he was wounded. After recovery, he applied for pilot training and flew 20 combat missions.

Bullard stayed in Paris after the war, managed a nightclub and fought with the French underground during World War II. In 1954, the winner of 15 medals was asked to help two French veterans rekindle the eternal flame at the tomb of France’s Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe. Bullard died in 1961 in New York.

Flood had planned to write his memoirs after finishing First to Fly. So, on the day of his fatal diagnosis, he began working with his daughter to make audio recordings about his adventurous life as a writer, teacher and mentor.

Lucy Flood has almost finished transcribing those five hours of interviews, which she and her mother plan to turn into the memoir Flood ran out of time to write.

“He just had an unbelievable enthusiasm for life,” Katherine Flood said. “He loved people, could talk to anyone and was interested in everything.”


At age 81, renowned folk artist Minnie Adkins is busier than ever

May 9, 2015
Folk artist Minnie Adkins, 81, in her "museum" building beside her home in Elliott County.  Photos by Tom Eblen

Folk artist Minnie Adkins, 81, in her “museum” building in Elliott County. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

ISONVILLE — Minnie Adkins turned 81 in March, nine months after her second husband died. At a point in life when most people would be slowing down, the renowned Elliott County folk artist is busier than ever.

Adkins spent the long, snowy winter whittling and painting. Her work included 11 identical statues that will be presented next year to winners of the Governor’s Awards in the Arts, which she won in 1998.

She also made dozens of colorfully painted horses, pigs, possums, foxes and roosters — especially roosters. When I visited her last week, Adkins had a table filled with roosters, each whittled from a tree limb fork.

“As you can see, I ain’t lackin’ for roosters,” she said with a wry smile. “I never do have arthritis in my hands and I’ve whittled and whittled.”

Adkins will be in Lexington on Friday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. for Gallery Hop at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 West Second Street.

Adkins carved Bright Blue Rooster for a children's book she did with writer and folksinger Mike Norris.

Adkins carved Bright Blue Rooster for a children’s book she did with Mike Norris.

She will be showing a range of her life’s work, including dozens of figures she made for photographs in three children’s books she has done with writer and folksinger Mike Norris of Danville: Bright Blue Rooster (1997), Sonny the Monkey (2012) and Mommy Goose, which the University Press of Kentucky will publish next year.

After Gallery Hop, Adkins will get ready for the Day in the Country Folk Art Fair on June 6. Adkins started the fair at her home years ago, but it became so popular the Kentucky Folk Art Center moved it to Morehead. It is now one of America’s largest folk art fairs, with more than 50 artists from 10 states.

Then, on July 18, Elliott County will put on its second annual Minnie Adkins Day in Sandy Hook with art, crafts, food and music.

“We have a really good time at Minnie Day,” Adkins said. “Of course, I’ve just been to one Minnie Day. But it was really good.”

Adkins began whittling as a child, making toys for herself and gifts for her parents. She started selling pieces at Avon bottle shows in the early 1970s in Dayton, Ohio, where she and her first husband, Garland, had moved to find work.

“I was selling them for 50 cents or $1, and was I ever tickled when I sold a whole batch of them,” she said. “I thought I had hit the big time.”

After moving back home in 1983, she accompanied her husband to Morehead one day. While he filed for unemployment benefits, she went into a craft gallery to look around. She told the owner she made things like what he was selling, and he asked to see some of them.

Adkins has been selling work ever since with help from folk art champions such as Adrian Swain and Larry Hackley. Grandson Greg Adkins helps market her work now when he isn’t busy coaching basketball at Elliott County High School.

Adkins has been featured in several folk art books, including Ramona Lampell’s 1989 best-seller, O, Appalachia: Artists of the Southern Mountains.

“That’s really what got me recognized,” Adkins said. “People began to come here, folk art collectors from all over the country, to find me.”

Her work is in dozens of private collections and several museums, including the Smithsonian and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and New York City’s American Folk Art Museum. In Lexington, her work is sold at Ann Tower Gallery and Clark Art & Antiques.

Garland Adkins helped whittle until his death in 1997. Three years later, she married Herman Peters, a metal worker who made steel sculptures of her figures. He died last June.

Adkins lives on more than 100 acres along Right Fork Newcombe Creek, which she calls Peaceful Valley, within sight of her childhood farmhouse.

She often whittles in the easy chair in her living room, where the walls are filled with awards, including an honorary doctorate from Morehead State University, and pictures of her family, which includes a son, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Adkins has no idea how many pieces she has made: “It would be wild to even think.”

She has a workshop in her barn, as well as a little museum. In recent years, she has bought back many of her early pieces — or been given them by collectors and their families who have become friends.

Some of her biggest pieces portray Bible stories, such as Noah’s Ark, Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Adam and Eve. She also has done paintings, quilts and painted furniture. But her favorite things to make are whimsical animals.

“We always had all kinds of animals on the farm,” she said. “After I got to making pigs and horses and roosters, then I went into foxes and bears.”

Some of Adkins’ animals defy description, such as one she bought back from a collector a few years ago.

“The woman said when she come to my house I was whittling on this and she said, ‘What is that?'” Adkins recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know what it is and I don’t know who I’m making it for,’ so I called it a Who What.”

One of folk artist Minnie Adkins' biggest pieces has been this Noah's Ark set, which she sold years ago and recently bought back.

One of Adkins’ biggest pieces was Noah’s Ark, which she sold years ago and has bought back.


Kentucky Typer is a high-tech guy, but his passion is old typewriters

May 3, 2015
Bryan Sherwood started his business, Kentucky Typer, two years ago. He repairs typewriters and buys, restores and resells them. Sherwood said many of his sales have been to 20-somethings who have discovered typewriters, a machine that all but disappeared from homes and offices after personal computers became popular in the 1980s. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Bryan Sherwood repairs old typewriters and buys, restores and resells them. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

By day, Bryan Sherwood is an IT specialist for a Lexington accounting firm. But he spends most evenings and weekends in his garage, working on an older type of information technology.

Sherwood runs Kentucky Typer, one of the few businesses left that repairs typewriters, those clacking machines that were ubiquitous in offices and homes for nearly a century before computers replaced them.

He said he cleans, lubricates and repairs about four typewriters a week for customers all over the country. Sherwood also buys and refurbishes typewriters and resells them through his website, Kytyper.com.

“I like the fact that they do one thing but do it really well,” he said “You can’t surf the Internet. But you can put printed words on a page.”

His mechanical mind also appreciates old typewriters’ design and craftsmanship.

“I like seeing all the different ways designers of the past approached the same problem,” he said.

150429KyTyper0010Sherwood, 43, learned typewriter repair by studying old manuals and working with Ed Reed of Ed’s Office Machines in Winchester. Sherwood thinks he and Reed might be the last two typewriter repairmen in the state.

Kentucky Typer was launched two years ago, but Sherwood has seen a surge in business lately.

Many customers are older people who have used typewriters their entire lives and don’t want to learn computers. Other typewriter users like the romance of machines on which so much great 20th-century literature and journalism was produced.

Still others are people who write a lot and enjoy a more physical, mechanical experience than they can get with a laptop computer.

“What I hear a lot is there’s a different aspect to writing with a typewriter than on a computer,” he said. “It’s because they don’t have all the distraction of Facebook, email dinging in and all those kinds of things.”

A growing number of typewriter buyers are people in their 20s who were born after the computer age began. Their generation’s interest has pushed up prices, especially for manual portables made from the 1930s to 1960s. Those now sell for two or three times what they did just a few years ago.

Ironically, the Internet has fueled interest in typewriter use and collecting. It has made it easier for typewriter fans to connect with one another, find and buy machines and get parts and information.

That is how I discovered Kentucky Typer. My trusty 1941 Remington Deluxe Remette needed adjustment, and in searching for information I found a PDF of Remington’s 1940 portable typewriter manual on Sherwood’s website.

I have always been an early adopter of technology, from the Radio Shack TRS80 I bought in 1981 to the MacBook Pro I write on now. But I also love typewriters because, well, I just do.

I learned to type on my parents’ Royal desktop. They gave me an electric Smith-Corona portable to take to college, but it was such a noisy beast I ditched it for a 1920s Royal manual portable that I bought from my landlord.

I was later given a 1920s Underwood desktop, a formidable hunk of iron. For the past 15 years or so, my typewriter of choice has been the 1941 Deluxe Remette. That rugged model was said to be a favorite of World War II correspondents.

150429KyTyper0025Sherwood’s favorite typewriter is the IBM Selectric, which used a unique type ball. They were made at IBM’s Lexington plant from 1961 until production ceased in 1986.

Selectrics still are excellent machines and fun to work on, Sherwood said. But he also has other reasons for liking them: He learned to type on one in high school, and his father worked on IBM’s Selectric assembly line.

Sherwood services all kinds of typewriters, charging $79 for basic cleaning and repair, plus $40 an hour for major work.

He restores mostly Selectrics and post-World War II portables, most of which he sells for $100 to $200. Smith-Corona, Remington and Olympia manual portables from the 1950s are especially popular.

Sherwood isn’t ready to give up his day job at Dean Dorton Allen Ford any time soon for the typewriter business. But he and his wife, Heather, enjoy it as a hobby.

“It’s fun to help people get machines working that aren’t working,” he said. “And lots of places there’s just nobody left who will do it.”

 


Despite moves from Argentina to Alaska, writer rooted in Kentucky

March 17, 2015

Nearly 40 years after he left Lexington in search of language, literature and academic adventure from one end of the Americas to the other, Johnny Payne said he still gets emotional each time he flies into Blue Grass Airport.

“I’ve lived many beautiful places,” said Payne, a novelist, poet and playwright. “But when the plane is coming in over those fields, I just get teary-eyed every time. This is the most beautiful place in the world. It’s kind of my mythic space.”

Payne has lived in nine states, Peru and Argentina. He now teaches English at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he and his wife, Juana, and their three dogs live atop an isolated mountain in a yurt — a round wooden hut.

Their nearest neighbors are foxes and moose, and temperatures can reach 20 below zero. But, he said, Lexington got a lot more snow this winter than they did.

PaynePayne’s plane touched down Saturday for a visit with family and to give two talks about his newest book, “Vassal” (Mouthfeel Press, $16), a re-imagining of The Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem from the 8th century BC.

He will speak at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Transylvania University’s Cowgill Center, Room 102, and at 7 p.m. Thursday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Both events are free and open to the public.

Payne’s 10th book grew out of re-reading The Odyssey and writing a poem about it that an editor urged him to expand it into a book.

“I was coming to terms with myself at this time in my life,” Payne said, and he identified with the ancient Greek hero Odysseus and his decade-long journey home. “A book can be very personal without talking directly about my own experience.”

Payne, 56, and I were friends at Lafayette High School, where he says Spanish teacher Marcia Miller was the best teacher he ever had. She gave him the confidence to go to college. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Indiana University, a master’s at the University of Alabama and a doctorate at Stanford University.

As a 22-year-old graduate student, Payne learned the Quechua language and traveled to mountain villages in Peru recording the stories of peasant farmers. He translated them into Spanish, and after finishing his academic project edited them into a book for Peruvian children.

“That’s the most unusual thing I did in my life, and it made me really happy,” he said. “I wasn’t trained in that area; I just did it. I could never do it now. I would have too much self-doubt.”

Payne taught at Northwestern University and started two master of fine arts programs in creative writing. The MFA program at the University of Texas-El Paso that he founded and directed for eight years is the nation’s only bilingual English-Spanish program.

“It was very quickly successful and probably the most significant thing I’ve done in my career,” he said.

Payne thought he wanted to be a dean, so he moved to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to head the College of Liberal Arts. Within a year, he realized he hated high-level administration and stepped down to teach and write.

He comes home occasionally to visit his parents, John and Joy Payne, but returns to Kentucky most often in his imagination. Six of his books are set completely or partly in Kentucky. A musical play, “The Devil in Disputanta,” is named for the Rockcastle County community where generations of Payne’s ancestors farmed.

His other books have been set in Europe and Latin America, including his first novel written in Spanish, “La Muerte de Papi” (2014). Payne recently finished a novel about an Irish serial killer in 1840s London, and he is working on a book of poetry about people’s complex relationships with technology.

Payne said he keeps returning to Kentucky in fiction not because of nostalgia but for the state’s rich storytelling possibilities.

“It really ripens in your imagination,” Payne said. “You kind of have an objective distance where you see it in your mind’s eye, and half of it you invent. It’s this quest of always finding a new Lexington and new Kentucky.”


Alice Dunnigan’s amazing story, from Ky. segregation to Capitol Hill

February 7, 2015

150208Dunnigan002President John F. Kennedy reaches down to speak with Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist.   Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker

 

Alice Allison Dunnigan grew up on a red-clay hill in Logan County, the daughter of a poor sharecropper and a washerwoman.

She, too, would wash clothes and clean houses for white people before working her way through Kentucky State University to realize her first big dream, becoming a school teacher.

But Dunnigan is remembered today for climbing another hill — Capitol Hill — where in the late 1940s she became the first black woman journalist accredited to Congress, the White House and other major assignments in Washington, D.C.

Dunnigan died in 1983 at age 77, but Carol McCabe Booker, a former journalist and lawyer, remembers meeting her once at a party. Dunnigan was a friend of Booker’s husband, Simeon, 96, another pioneering black journalist.

But it wasn’t until two years ago, when the National Association of Black Journalists inducted both Dunnigan and Simeon Booker into its hall of fame, that Booker learned more about this woman’s amazing life story.

She tracked down a rare copy of Dunnigan’s 1974 self-published autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. It inspired her to edit a new edition of the book, which the University of Georgia Press will publish Feb. 15 as Alone atop the Hill ($26.95).

150208Dunnigan003Booker will be in Kentucky next week to talk about Dunnigan and sign books. She speaks Feb. 17 at the Kentucky Historical Society‘s monthly Food for Thought lunch in Frankfort ($25, or $20 for members; reservations due Feb. 13. Call (502) 564-1792, ext. 4414, or email julia.curry@ky.gov).

The next day, Booker speaks to KSU students. And on Feb. 19, she goes to Dunnigan’s hometown for a free, public event at 2 p.m. in Russellville’s African American Heritage Center, 252 South Morgan Street, sponsored by the Kentucky Human Rights Commission.

Dunnigan tells her compelling story in the clear, direct style that made her an influential voice in black newspapers nationwide when she was Washington bureau chief for the Associated Negro Press news service.

“I thought she deserved the right to tell her story in her own words, in her own voice,” Booker said when we talked by phone last week. “I wanted Alice to have a chance in this new era.”

Dunnigan’s writing needed little editing, Booker said. But she did make one big change: she cut the 670-page autobiography by more than half, leaving out the last chapters that covered her years in government service after she left her poverty-wage journalism job in 1960. The final chapters were not nearly as interesting as the rest of the story, Booker said.

The new book is a fascinating read, filled with anecdotes that show how pervasive discrimination limited possibilities for both blacks and women at the time. Dunnigan always thought her gender was as much of a hindrance as her race.

“That’s why I think the story has wide appeal,” Booker said. “A young woman of any race reading that story can glean some inspiration from it.”

Dunnigan’s motto was, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” She decided at age 13 to become both a teacher and a journalist to “tell people how to improve their lives.” But her parents and husbands from two failed marriages offered little encouragement.

Even after Dunnigan “made it” in Washington, she was barred from some venues, or had to sit with servants at events instead of with other reporters. She endured openly racist congressmen and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s refusal to answer her tough news conference questions about discrimination and civil rights.

Dunnigan, the first black woman elected to the Women’s National Press Club, got access to power because she demanded it. She won respect and dozens of journalism awards for her accuracy, fairness and persistence.

But she never made much money in journalism. Dunnigan often had to pay her own travel expenses to cover stories, and she writes of pawning her watch each Saturday so she would have enough money to eat until her paycheck arrived on Monday.

A year before her death, Dunnigan published her second book, The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition. It is a collection of sketches she wrote in the 1930s to inspire students in the segregated schools where she taught.

“You could say that Alice had one fantastic career as a communicator in three venues — teaching, journalism and government,” Booker said. “It was being a teacher on a broader level.”

150208Dunnigan001Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist, greets A.B. “Happy” Chandler, the former Kentucky governor, senator and U.S. baseball commissioner.  Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker


Black History Month founder was also an Appalachian coal miner

February 3, 2015

For several years, I have written a series of columns each February about little-known aspects of the history of Kentucky citizens of African descent.

So it seemed fitting to begin this year’s series with a look at the man who created Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson. A prolific author, historian and activist, he was the key figure in the recognition of black history as an academic specialty.

150204Woodson0002But before all of that, Woodson grew up in Appalachia, worked as a coal miner and began his academic career as a student at Berea College.

Many people don’t know about Woodson’s Appalachian roots, said Alicestyne Turley, director of Berea’s Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education and an assistant professor of African and African American Studies.

“In fact, I never knew he had been a student at Berea until I came here,” she said. “It just never came up on the radar.”

Woodson was born in 1875 near New Canton, Va., the oldest of nine children of former slaves. After the Civil War, his parents moved to West Virginia when they heard Huntington was building a high school for blacks.

Woodson studied on his own while working as a coal miner. He wasn’t able to enter that high school until he was 20, but it took him only two years to earn a diploma.

“He had everything you would normally think of in an Appalachian background — except that he was black,” Turley said.

“Honestly, historians have not done a lot of work on his early life,” she added. “I wonder: what was he doing then besides working in the coal mines?”

After high school, Woodson began teaching in Winona, W.Va., at a school that black coal miners started for their children. But he wanted more education, and Berea College seemed a logical choice.

Berea was founded in 1855 by abolitionist John G. Fee on land given him by Cassius Clay of Lexington, an outspoken emancipationist newspaper publisher. It became the first non-segregated, co-educational school in the South.

Woodson commuted from West Virginia by train and only studied part-time. Still, he managed to earn a bachelor’s of literature degree in 1903. His timing could not have been better.

150204Woodson0001The next year, Kentucky’s General Assembly passed the Day Law, which prohibited blacks and whites from attending school together. That law wasn’t repealed until 1950, and during the decades in between, Berea shifted its focus to white Appalachian students of modest means.

Woodson went on to earn another bachelor’s and a master’s degree in European History from the University of Chicago, and he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1912, he became the second black person, after W.E.B. Du Boise, to earn a doctorate from Harvard University.

Frustrated that white scholars were either ignoring or misrepresenting the history of his people, Woodson started what is now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which celebrates its centennial this year.

The association sponsored conferences, primarily to teachers of black children. Woodson edited the association’s Journal of Negro History until he died in 1950.

Woodson founded Associated Publishers in 1920, which was the nation’s oldest black-owned book publisher when it was dissolved in 2005.

In 1926, Woodson launched Negro History Week, sandwiched between the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass on Feb. 12 and Feb. 20.

“He had to fight to get that week,” Turley said. But the concept gained acceptance and spread, eventually becoming Black History Month.

Woodson, who spent most of his academic career at Howard University in Washington, D.C., also became a political activist and a regular columnist for Marcus Garvey’s weekly newspaper, Negro World.

He wrote more than two dozen influential articles and books, the most famous of which was “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” published in 1933.

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions,” one of the book’s frequently quoted passages says. “You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”

After Woodson left Berea, he continued a correspondence with the college’s president, William Frost. Turley said those letters are revealing.

“He often talks about what he learned at Berea,” she said. “He understood Berea’s commitments of learning, labor and service. Those were things that stayed with him the rest of his life.”


Wendell Berry: Ky. writers have too little impact on public discourse

January 29, 2015

150128KyWriters0027After becoming the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame on Wednesday night, Wendell Berry, right, talked with Julie Wrinn, director of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. At left is writer Jason Howard,  editor of Appalachian Heritage, a literary quarterly. Behind them, writer Bianca Spriggs. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

As the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, Wendell Berry lamented that many fine books the state’s authors have written about Kentucky issues have had little impact on public discussion or policy.

In most ways, Kentucky is too fragmented a state, Berry said in remarks at a ceremony Wednesday night at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, where he and five writers from the past were inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“This fragmentation is made possible, and continually made worse, by a cloud of silence that hovers over us,” Berry said. “We have in this state no instituted public dialogue, no form in which a public dialogue can take place.

“This public silence ought to be a worry, especially to writers,” he said. “What is the effect or fate, Kentucky writers may ask, of Kentucky books devoted to urgent public issues — Night Comes to the Cumberlands or Lost Mountain or Missing Mountains or The Embattled Wilderness?”

Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen, who spoke earlier at the ceremony, said afterward that Berry underestimates the impact of those books and others like them. They may not have led to solutions for Kentucky’s many problems, she said, but things would be worse without them.

Before Berry’s remarks, excerpts from the work of the five deceased authors were read. The standing-room-only crowd that filled the Carnegie Center’s first floor included many writers likely to earn spots in the Hall of Fame someday.

The other new inductees were: Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) of Louisville, who created “gonzo journalism”; Guy Davenport (1929-2005) of Lexington, who during his lifetime won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant; Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), a black poet from Pike County; Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007) of Lexington, a novelist and critic who helped found The New York Review of Books; and Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996) of Bowling Green, an author and poet.

Watch for my column Sunday with more notes and observations from the Hall of Fame ceremony.

 150128KyWriters0009State Rep. Kelly Flood of Lexington took a picture of Wendell Berry with Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen at the Carnegie Center on Wednesday night after Berry became the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. In the background, writer Ed McClanahan, left, talks with Steve Wrinn, director of the University Press of Kentucky.


Wendell Berry first living inductee in Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame

January 10, 2015

111218WendellBerryTE0032AWendell Berry at home, December 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

When the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning announced plans in July to select the first living member of its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, I wrote that the process should be a search for Wendell Berry.

Kentucky has many fine writers working today, but none can match the range, craftsmanship and international acclaim of Berry, 80, who writes and farms in Henry County, where his family has lived for five generations.

So the Carnegie Center’s announcement this week should come as no surprise. Berry will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 along with five deceased writers, who will be identified that night.

The ceremony at the Carnegie Center, 251 West Second Street, is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Kentucky Educational Television plans to live-stream the event on Ket.org.

“To be recognized in that way at home is a very pleasing thing,” Berry said when I talked with him by phone last week. “And a relieving thing, actually.”

The Carnegie Center, a non-profit organization that promotes literacy education, reading and writing, created the Hall of Fame three years ago to draw attention to Kentucky’s rich literary legacy.

In its first two years, 13 deceased writers were honored: Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren.

hall-of-fame-logo-final-300x165Neil Chethik, executive director of the Carnegie Center, said about 200 members of the public nominated more than 75 writers for the honor this year, including about 25 living writers. A short list was sent to a committee of writers and readers headed by Lori Meadows, director of the Kentucky Arts Council, which made the selections along with the Carnegie Center staff.

“Everybody pretty much said, ‘It’s going to be Wendell, right?'” Chethik said. “His command of all three major areas of writing — fiction, non-fiction and poetry — and his influence statewide and internationally brought us to him.”

Chethik said future classes of inductees may include a living writer, but not always. The criteria for all nominations is that a writer must be published; must have lived in Kentucky for a significant period or have a strong tie to the state; and must have produced writing of “enduring stature.”

All of which makes Berry a natural for the honor. The former University of Kentucky English professor has written more than 60 volumes: novels, poetry, short-story collections and essays. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he received the National Humanities Medal in 2010 and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.

The major theme of Berry’s work is that people should live and work in harmony with the land and their community. “He is so rooted in Kentucky,” Chethik said. “He speaks for a lot of Kentuckians.”

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Berry’s 1971 book, The Unforeseen Wilderness helped rally public opposition to a plan to flood Red River Gorge. His 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, is a bible of the international movements for sustainable agriculture and locally produced food.

Over the years, Berry has participated in protests against nuclear power and coal strip-mining. He was among a group of environmental activists who camped in Gov. Steve Beshear’s outer office in 2011 to protest state government support for the coal industry’s destruction of Eastern Kentucky mountains.

A year earlier, Berry cut his ties to UK and withdrew his papers to protest the university’s renaming of the basketball team residence hall Wildcat Coal Lodge in exchange for $7 million in donations from coal executives.

“The actual influence of writers in Kentucky is in doubt,” Berry said when I asked about his activism, and whether he thought it would ever sway public policy.

“As far as the future is concerned, I don’t sit around and think about the future in regard to what I’ve done,” he said. “It seems to me to be a distraction from the things I ought to be doing.”

Berry said he has been busy writing poetry and working on several long-term projects. He also is writing a short speech for his Hall of Fame ceremony about “Kentucky writing and what it means to be a Kentucky writer.”

“Kentucky writers over the years have given us a kind of record of life in this state, what it has been like to live in it,” he said. “Sometimes they have given us very important testimony about things that were wrong.

“They have been an extremely diverse set of people, and I think the quality of their work has been remarkable,” he added. “I don’t think there’s any worry about it continuing.”


Lexington artist, poet has made big career with tiny paintings

January 6, 2015

141218Woolfolk0007Miriam Woolfolk holds a painting she did of Loudoun House. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When the street artist MTO came to Lexington’s PRHBTN festival last fall to paint a mural on a Manchester Street warehouse, he showed how huge, bold and controversial art can be.

141218Woolfolk0034At the other end of the spectrum, Miriam Lamy Woolfolk, an award-winning Lexington painter and poet, has been showing for decades how tiny, delicate and beautiful art can be.

Woolfolk, who turns 89 on Valentine’s Day, paints intricate watercolor landscapes that take up no more than a few square inches. About 30 of them will be on display at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning beginning Jan. 16 for Gallery Hop.

She has been a regular, prize-winning exhibitor at miniature art shows around the world for decades, but this is her largest Lexington show in years. It was organized after her work was included in a Carnegie Center exhibit last year featuring images of surrounding Gratz Park.

“After that, we were fascinated by her art,” said Luisa Trujillo, the center’s art director.

Woolfolk is from Louisville, where she remembers always dabbling in art and poetry. She worked in a World War II ration office, for an oil company and for the magazine of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad before raising four children.

She moved to Lexington with her first husband in 1951. Her second husband, the late Patch Woolfolk, was a professor of animal science at the University of Kentucky.

Woolfolk’s only formal art training was in high school. But she took night classes after her interest was rekindled while working as a bookkeeper for a physician, whose office housed the Lexington Art League in its early years. (Later, she would serve as the league’s president.)

141218Woolfolk0015Woolfolk discovered a love for miniatures at her first out-of-state art show.

“I flew up to New Jersey and was absolutely stunned by all the little pieces,” she said. “I’ve always liked little stuff.”

In 1980, she won “best of show” at a prestigious art exhibit in Washington, D.C. Her pair of small watercolors were the only miniatures in that show, and the prize led to an invitation to join the Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers Society of Washington.

That involvement led to many prizes at miniature art shows around the country and as far away as Russia and Tasmania. She also has illustrated several books for Lexington authors and organizations.

Trujillo said the Carnegie Center also was interested in Woolfolk’s art because she has always excelled in both images and words.

A poet since childhood, she is a past president of the Kentucky State Poetry Society and edited its journal, Pegasus, for 21 years. Two of her poems were included in The Kentucky Anthology: 200 years of writing in the Bluegrass State, published in 2005 by the University Press of Kentucky.

That book was edited by Wade Hall, a longtime English professor at Bellarmine Univeristy and a collector of regional quilts, more than 100 of which he donated to the University of Kentucky for display in the W.T. Young Library.

Woolfolk has always done needlework, too, and she wanted to contribute to Hall’s collection. But, because of her love of miniatures, and a good sense of humor, she gave him a potholder instead of a quilt.

141218Woolfolk0020Woolfolk said she never used a magnifying glass to paint her miniatures, just very tiny brushes, some with just a few hairs. Her scenes were drawn from photographs she made, many at spots around Central Kentucky she found while driving back roads with her husband.

Age finally dimmed Woolfolk’s eyesight, and she has given up painting. She recently entered what she said will be her last art show, in Maryland. She also completed a big, small project for the Carnegie Center.

As part of a November event celebrating J.D. Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye, Woolfolk made 100 tiny paper boxes that were given to attendees. Each contained a piece of paper with a quote from the book.

Woolfolk has been making similar tiny boxes for years and giving them away to friends. Usually, though, they come with a line of her own poetry: “A secret place to hold your dreams, for dreams take little space.”


Thomas Hunt Morgan: history to empower, not limit, Lexington

January 3, 2015

While most of us are making plans for this year, some people in Lexington have their eyes on 2016. They are planning a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Hunt Morgan, the most famous Lexingtonian most people here have never heard of.

The goal is not so much to celebrate someone who lived from 1866 to 1945, but to use his legacy to help reshape Lexington’s image and future. If this local boy could grow up to become one of the 20th century’s most influential scientists, what might other Lexington children be inspired to accomplish?

If Thomas Hunt Morgan’s name sounds vaguely familiar, it is probably because you have heard of his uncle, Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a dashing Confederate cavalry raider. His statue is outside the old Fayette County Courthouse.

Thomas Hunt Morgan was born in the home of his great-grandfather, John Wesley Hunt, one of Kentucky’s first millionaires. In 1955, the house was saved from demolition and inspired creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which now operates it as a museum.

THMMorgan grew up in a circa 1869 house behind it. The Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky recently deeded that house to the Blue Grass Trust, which has begun renovation.

Morgan spent his childhood collecting fossils, birds’ eggs and other natural specimens that filled his parents’ attic, inspiring him to a career in science.

After earning a degree from the University of Kentucky, he got his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University. As a professor at Bryn Mawr College, he did pioneering research in embryology there and at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass. He moved on to Columbia University in 1904 and the California Institute of Technology in 1928.

Morgan’s experiments with fruit flies explained how the theories of genetics and evolution worked. He became the first Kentuckian to win a Nobel Prize in 1933 and wrote seven books that are now scientific classics.

But Morgan’s significance was not just in the results of his research, but in the ways it was conducted. His emphasis on collaborative, skeptical experiments over theory created the foundation for modern biological research.

The attic of Morgan’s childhood home was the first of several laboratories he would use to change the course of science. “He always said this was a key part of his success,” Tom Kimmerer, a Lexington forest scientist, said.

UK’s biological sciences building is named for Morgan, and the biology department hosts a prestigious annual lecture that bears his name. But Morgan is much more famous everywhere else than in Lexington, which has always been more fixated on his Civil War uncle.

Kimmerer thought it was time to change that. After writing a piece about Morgan for the website PlanetExperts.com, he launched an effort to make 2016 the “year of Thomas Hunt Morgan” in Lexington.

The Blue Grass Trust hosted a lunch at the Thomas Hunt Morgan House on Dec. 5 for more than 40 representatives of local government, education and business communities. Kimmerer outlined his vision for a year of events that could have a lasting impact on Lexington’s potential to become more of a center of scientific education, research and commercialization.

Kimmerer said the response has been good — especially outside Kentucky.

“We’ve gotten a very warm reception from all of the institutions where Morgan studied and worked,” he said, noting that they have offered to send speakers and lend artifacts and materials.

After the lunch, attendees formed committees to help interested groups organize events and raise some money for facilitation once a non-profit has been identified as a financial steward.

“We would like for interested companies or schools to step up and create events they think would have value,” Kimmerer said.

Among the ideas: science fairs, lectures, and an educational event called a bioblitz, where teams of volunteers work together to identify as many species of plants, animals and organisms in a defined area as possible within 24 hours.

Kimmerer is trying to organize a screening of the new movie, The Fly Room, which is set in Morgan’s Columbia University laboratory, and perhaps an exhibit of the scientifically accurate movie set.

Even more important is creating a long-term legacy, such as public art and exhibits; economic-development initiatives focused on science; scholarships or fellowships at the prestigious institutions where Morgan studied and worked; and naming a local public school for Morgan.

But the most important legacy Lexington could create for Morgan is the attitude that this city should be empowered by its history, rather than be limited by it.

“We look at this as an opportunity for Lexington to change its self-image,” Kimmerer said. “And the more we can get kids involved, the better.”


Lexington curator bringing Kentucky artists to New York gallery

December 29, 2014

141104PMJones0015Lexington native Phillip March Jones poses inside the gallery he now manages in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The founder of Institute 193 in Lexington renovated the space for Christian Berst Art Brut, a Paris-based gallery that wanted a New York City presence. Jones plans to include Kentucky artists in the gallery’s shows. Photos by Shannon Eblen

 

NEW YORK — When Phillip March Jones started the non-profit art space Institute 193 in Lexington five years ago, his goal was to bring wider attention to little-known contemporary artists in Kentucky and the South.

Now he has taken that work a step further, opening a New York branch of the Paris-based Gallerie Christian Berst Art Brut. Already, his shows have a Kentucky flavor.

The gallery opened Oct. 30 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with Do the Write Thing: Read Between The Lines, a collection of pieces by 17 artists who live on the margins of society and use the written word as graphic elements of their drawings.

_MG_7701Among the artists featured was Beverly Baker of Versailles, who has Down syndrome and is a member of the Latitude Artist Community in Lexington.

The gallery’s next show, which opens Jan. 10, is, Making Pictures: Three for a Dime, which until recently was on display at Institute 193’s small space at 193 North Limestone Street.

That show features tiny photo booth portraits that Jim and Mancy Massengill made in the 1930s as they traveled around rural Arkansas. Their goal was to earn extra money during the Great Depression, but decades later these souvenir portraits look like playful, strange and even haunting works of art.

Art Brut is a French term to describe art produced by people outside the mainstream of artistic culture and conventions. It is about the human urge to create for the sake of creating, rather than for academic or commercial motivations.

“We’re essentially interested in people who are doing things out of a very personal and private impulse,” Jones said. “It’s really a private exercise, one that’s based on their own vision without any concerns for audience.”

Jones, who grew up in Lexington, has had a diverse career as an artist, writer, curator and publisher. He worked with the Souls Grow Deep Foundation in Atlanta and is curator of the University of Kentucky’s Chandler Hospital art museum.

Institute 193 has published a number of books based on its shows. Others have published two collections of Jones’ photography: Points of Departure, a collection of roadside memorials, and Pictures Take You Places.

Jones had been shuttling between Atlanta and New York for two years when the Paris-based gallery hired him to create its New York space. Last summer, he moved to the city and started searching for locations. He settled on a dilapidated former hardware store and synagogue at 95 Rivington Street, just a few blocks from the New Museum, one of New York’s leading contemporary art museums.

The split-level space has the main gallery upstairs and a downstairs area Jones calls the workshop, which will show new discoveries or smaller exhibitions related to the main show upstairs.

When I visited there in early October, the place still had a long way to go and Jones was busy juggling contractors. But three weeks later, everything was done, and Jones said nearly 500 people showed up on opening night.

Art Brut would seem an odd genre for a gallery whose business is selling art. But like any genre, it has its devotees. “The goal of this space is to unearth these various things happening all over the world and to share them,” Jones said.

Baker has been displaying her work for more than 15 years. It has been exhibited three times before in New York and is in the collection of the Museum of Everything in London.

“For years, she has been making these drawings and paintings,” Jones said. “I don’t think she’s really concerned with who’s looking at them and what they think of them. I think it’s something she has always done and will always do.”

Although Jones has turned over the day-to-day operations of Institute 193 to interim director Coleman Guyon, he remains chairman of the board and sees a lot of future synergies between it and his New York gallery.

“Over the next few years, there’s probably half a dozen artists from Kentucky I would like to work with,” Jones said.

“In Atlanta or wherever I’ve been, I’ve always been an advocate for artists from Central Kentucky, because it’s my home but also because there’s really great stuff happening,” he said. “I think this will be an even more tangible way to do those things.”

141121PMJones-TE0006Dean Langdon looks at a recent show at Institute 193, a non-profit art gallery at 193 N. Limestone St. that Phillip March Jones founded five years ago. The tiny space has featured cutting-edge contemporary art from Kentucky and around the South. Photo by Tom Eblen 


The fascinating story of Henry Clay’s ‘mad artist’ younger brother

December 27, 2014

Gigi LacerPorter Clay is thought to have made this games table in his Lexington shop in the early 1800s.  Henry Clay’s younger brother made excellent furniture, and charged high prices for it. Photo by Bill Roughen from the book, Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860.

 

Henry Clay has been famous for two centuries, but almost nobody remembers his younger brother, Porter, whom the statesman once described as “the greatest man I ever knew.”

Porter Clay, born two years after Henry in 1779, was a Baptist preacher and lawyer who served as Kentucky’s state auditor and Woodford County attorney. He also was a mercurial man who lacked the people skills that made his brother the “great compromiser” — and he paid dearly for it.

But his greatest achievement came in his first career, as one of early Kentucky’s best cabinetmakers. Several pieces of furniture he is thought to have made still survive, and they are attracting new attention from scholars and collectors.

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., has just published a biographical essay about Porter Clay in its online journal (Mesdajournal.org). It includes new research by the author, James Birchfield of Lexington, retired curator of rare books at the University of Kentucky Library’s Special Collections.

Birchfield will give a free lecture about him at the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual Antiques & Garden Show March 6-8 at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Alltech Arena.

And in 2016, the MESDA Journal will publish a companion article about his furniture by Mack Cox, a Madison County geologist who has become a leading scholar and collector of early Kentucky decorative arts.

PorterClay“I think he was very bright, a mad-artist kind of a guy,” Birchfield said of Porter Clay. “He was a superior craftsman, but he was always breaking up with everybody.”

Like his older brothers Henry and John, Porter was born in Hanover County, Va., to the Rev. John Clay, a Baptist minister jailed for preaching contrary to the colonial Church of England, and his wife, Elizabeth. He died in 1781, and Elizabeth remarried Henry Watkins. They moved to Kentucky in 1791 and ran a tavern in Versailles.

Henry stayed in Virginia to study law before moving to Kentucky in 1797. By that time, Porter was apprenticed to Lexington cabinetmaker Thomas Whitley. But a year before his seven-year indenture was finished, he ran away to New York, where he worked as a journeyman amid America’s best furniture craftsmen, who included Duncan Phyfe.

Porter Clay returned to Lexington a year later — his brother having negotiated a financial settlement with Whitley — and set up shop making furniture. Henry was one of his brother’s clients, and records show that not only was he charging prices higher than Phyfe was in New York, but he apparently didn’t give a family discount.

Porter Clay, like most Kentucky cabinetmakers then, did not sign his work, so identification of pieces has been based on style, provenance and available records. Henry loved to drink and gamble, and the furniture he ordered from his brother in 1803 included a pair of games tables, now thought to be in a private collection.

Porter’s first shop was in a house that still stands at the corner of Mill and Church streets. Three years later, in 1806, he built a new house and shop behind a bank on Main Street, beside what will soon become the 21C Museum Hotel.

In 1804, Porter married Sophia Grosh, a ward of the Hart family, Henry’s in-laws. Her sister married John Wesley Hunt, Kentucky’s first millionaire who built what we now know as the Hunt-Morgan House museum.

With his craftsmanship and social connections, Porter should have been a successful businessman. He took on a partner, Robert Wilson, in 1807. But a year later, they split and Porter left cabinetmaking to become an entrepreneur.

He partnered with William Smith in 1808 in an ironworks and boat-building business. But they split up within three years, and Porter moved to Richmond, Va., to follow his brother’s path and study law. He returned two years later and practiced law in Nicholasville, Versailles and Lexington and served as Woodford County Attorney. Then Porter Clay got religion.

At the time of his conversion, he later wrote, “I determined to throw myself under the protection of my Heavenly Father and wait His good providence rather than make my thousands in an unholy calling.”

Porter Clay apparently reconciled the conflict, because in 1820 the governor (perhaps through his brother’s influence) appointed him state auditor at the then-handsome salary of $3,000.

But being both a state official and preacher brought him nothing but grief. When he audited a legislator who belonged to his church, they became embroiled in a bitter dispute. Porter Clay was excommunicated from his church in 1827. His people skills, Birchfield writes, were apparently “less polished than his sideboards and tea tables.”

In 1829, tragedy struck: death claimed Porter Clay’s wife, daughter, mother, step-father and eldest brother, John. He remarried six months after his wife’s death, but his new wife came with debts and a son who didn’t like him. Porter resigned as state auditor in 1834, and the family moved to Illinois.

Within five years, Birchfield writes, Porter Clay had become an outcast in his own home and he left for Missouri to stay with a relative. His brother then got him a job with the American Colonization Society, which urged masters to free their slaves and send them back to Africa, to a colony in Liberia.

By the 1840s, Porter was an itinerate Baptist preacher in Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas. He refused further help from his brother. Stricken by fever in Camden, Ark., he died Feb. 16, 1850 at age 71. He was buried in a grave unmarked for 60 years.

Porter “has gone, poor fellow,” Henry wrote his wife, Lucretia, when he heard the news. “He had but little to attach him to this life.”


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

November 21, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New novel explores race, class in 1940s Central Kentucky

November 18, 2014

In his novel Pickering’s Mountain, Joseph Anthony wrote about the complexities of strip mining and economic survival in Eastern Kentucky, where he lived in the 1980s as an English professor at Hazard Community College.

The New Jersey native has lived in Lexington ever since, and he has looked for a way to use fiction to explore two of Central Kentucky’s overarching issues: race and class.

While reading microfilm copies of the Lexington Leader in the public library, Anthony found his hook. It was a small ad placed near, but not with, a “Colored Notes” column from 1948, when even the news was segregated.

bookThe ad began: “Wanted: Good family with plenty of help … ” It was placed by a farmer needing share-croppers to live in a vacant house beside him and help with his tobacco crop.

It made Anthony wonder: what might have happened if the “good family” that answered that ad was black? And that is how he begins his new novel, Wanted: Good Family (Bottom Dog Press, $18.00).

The book is masterfully written and well-grounded in Kentucky history and mannerisms. It explores issues of race, class, relationship and the potential for change that are as relevant today as they were when this story takes place more than six decades ago.

“I wanted to write about our big drama story in Lexington, race, and how things have and haven’t changed,” he said. “And I had an idea of how to write about somebody who could do terrible things and not actually be a bad person.”

The newspaper ad said interested parties should not call or write, just show up. So that is what Rudy and Nannie Johnson do. He is a World War II veteran looking for work. She cleans houses, but was a nurse’s aide at Good Samaritan Hospital until she applied to train for a better job and was branded as a “troublemaker.”

The Johnsons and their four children — Herbert, Franklin, Eleanor and Harry, all named for people occupying the White House when they were born — live with her mother and sister in cramped quarters off Georgetown Street.

Lexington had a housing shortage in the late 1940s because of veterans returning from war. Things were worse for blacks, who were only allowed to live in certain parts of town and could rarely get credit to buy a house anywhere.

joeDesperate enough to take a chance, the Johnsons pile their children into a borrowed pickup truck and drive to the next county to answer the ad. The farmer and his wife, an older couple who lost their only son in the war, are surprised to see them. But they, too, are desperate. Like all good Kentuckians, everyone tries to be polite.

“We didn’t think to say ‘whites only’,” Wilma Lawson, the farmer’s wife, explains to readers. “We figured anyone who knew our place would know that.”

Indeed, they would. James Lawson has a dark past that everyone in their county seems to know. The Johnsons, being from Lexington, are unaware. But they have their own family secrets and shame.

Everyone’s secrets come out as the book’s major characters alternate chapters of first-person narrative. Readers wonder if any of these people, black or white, can escape the ghosts and prejudices of their past.

The characters are still working through events that occurred two decades earlier, when Kentucky race relations included lynchings and black residents being run out of small towns en masse.

What makes Anthony’s book so interesting is that it doesn’t try to preach or over-simplify. It shows that racism comes in black as well as white, and that injustice can afflict the oppressors as well as the oppressed.

“I’m a much nicer person as a writer than I am as a human being, and the reason is I have to see everybody’s point of view,” Anthony said. “I have to really try to understand their dilemma.”

While racism and prejudice are no longer legal, that doesn’t mean they have disappeared. Human relations are complex and always evolving.

“The book is about change, about the possibility of change,” Anthony said. “As Rudy says, if we can’t change we’re lost, we’re done. And that’s really what I wanted to write about.”

If you go

Joseph Anthony will sign copies of his novel,Wanted: Good Family.

■ 5:30 p.m. Thursday, The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

■ 3 p.m. Dec. 13, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.


New book: diabetes epidemic should be treated like one

November 11, 2014

Diabetes is often called an epidemic, and no wonder. Over the past half-century, the disease has exploded.

In 1958, fewer than 1 in 100 Americans had diabetes; now, it is 1 in 11. Virtually all of the increase has been in obesity-related Type 2 diabetes, which can cause complications such as blindness, kidney failure and the need for limb amputations.

The problem is especially serious in Kentucky. The Centers for Disease Control reported in 2012 that the number of diabetes cases rose 158 percent in Kentucky over 15 years, outpacing every other state except Oklahoma.

A flu epidemic of this magnitude would create public alarm and swift official response. Ebola? If there were even a couple of cases in Kentucky, politicians and health officials would be running around like their hair was on fire.

141111DiabetesBook0002But diabetes — a slow-moving, chronic disease — is not being treated like an epidemic. That must change, two Lexington health policy experts argue in a new book, The Great Diabetes Epidemic: A Manifesto for Control and Prevention (Butler Books, $24.95)

The authors are Dr. Gilbert Friedell, former director of the Markey Cancer Center at the University of Kentucky and founder of the Friedell Committee, a statewide health care policy organization; and Isaac Joyner, a public health policy analyst who has worked on a variety of issues in Kentucky, Texas and the Carolinas.

They will speak about the book and sign copies at 5 p.m. Friday, which is World Diabetes Day, at The Morris Book, 882 E. High Street. They also are scheduled to testify Nov. 18 in Washington before the Congressional Caucus on Diabetes.

The authors say a major public health response is needed to stop diabetes’ rapid growth, deadly consequences and huge cost. Their book outlines specific steps that individuals, communities and the government could take.

“If we continue to treat diabetes on a one-patient-at-a-time basis, we can’t deal with an epidemic,” Friedell said. “Unless you take a public health approach to an epidemic, it doesn’t work.”

141111DiabetesBook0003

Gilbert Friedell

At its current rate, the authors say 40 percent of Americans alive today — and half of people of color — will eventually develop diabetes. The first step in changing that, they say, is widespread, routine screening.

“You have to find cases early, which means you have to screen people who seem well,” Friedell said. “The symptoms of diabetes come on maybe 10 years after the disease starts. But nobody knows they have the disease. We’re wasting 10 years that we could be doing something good for people.”

More than one-fourth of the people who have diabetes have not been tested or diagnosed, according to CDC studies. That means that while 370,000 Kentuckians know they have diabetes, another 137,000 may have it and not know it.

In addition to that, officials estimates that 233,000 Kentuckians have a condition called prediabetes, which means they will eventually develop the disease if they don’t take steps to stop it.

Health officials now recommend diabetes screening for people with high blood pressure, or anyone over the age of 45. Friedell and Joyner think everyone over age 20 should be screened.

One big problem with fighting diabetes is that it is viewed as an individual problem, rather than a societal problem. That despite the fact that the federal government alone spends $90 billion fighting the disease, mostly for treatment.

Isaac Joyner

Isaac Joyner

“There’s a tendency to blame the victim,” Friedell said. “If you don’t eat right and exercise and if you’re fat you’re going to get diabetes. That attitude doesn’t help. We need individuals to change their behavior, but it’s easier to do when the whole community says diabetes is our problem. It’s the way that we make change.”

Friedell and Joyner want the government and communities to invest more money and effort in proven programs for preventing or minimizing the damage of diabetes. It also would require changing insurance company reimbursement policies. But the long-term payoff would be huge.

“Your investment up front has a return that’s perhaps eight times,” Friedell said. “But you have to accept that it’s going to be over a few years.”

The biggest issue, though, is public awareness — and urgency.

“There has to be a sense of urgency, and there is no sense of urgency about diabetes,” Friedell said. “We need to do something to get the public involved, and the public has to feel that it’s important.”


‘Lost Lexington’ a reminder of great buildings and people

November 1, 2014

The cover of Lost Lexington explains why Peter Brackney’s new book is so timely: It shows a mothballed old courthouse in desperate need of renovation beside the gigantic crater that has replaced the city’s oldest business district.

141102LostLexington002Brackney, a lawyer and writer of the local history blog Kaintuckeean.com, said the plight of the old Fayette County Courthouse and the CentrePointe boondoggle were big motivations for writing his book.

So was the University of Kentucky’s controversial demolition this summer of several significant mid-century modern buildings on his alma mater’s campus to make way for new construction.

“Everywhere you see a parking lot, something once stood,” Brackney said in an interview. “I think the more you learn about some of these historic structures, the more you appreciate what we have left.”

Brackney focuses on what is gone, and it is an impressive collection of special buildings and places once central to community life. They include elegant mansions, a racetrack, an amusement park, a football stadium, railroad stations and a private garden that early settlers referred to as “paradise.”

Lost Lexington (The History Press, $19.95) includes a forward by Mayor Jim Gray and many photographs. But what makes it most interesting is Brackney’s thorough research into these places and the remarkable people associated with them. I know a lot about Lexington history, but I learned some things.

Brackney begins with Lexington’s best-known preservation story: the 1955 demolition of the 1798 Hart-Bradford House for a parking lot. That act, and fears that the 1814 Hunt-Morgan House across the street would be next, led to creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and the city’s first preservation laws.

“If you looked at the Hart-Bradford House and didn’t know a thing about who lived there, you would think there was nothing special about it, just a nice two-story brick house,” Brackney said.

brackneyBut, as the book explains, that house was built by Henry Clay’s father-in-law, Thomas Hart, a Revolutionary War veteran and influential land speculator. The next resident was John Bradford, Kentucky’s first newspaper publisher and a major civic leader. Clay was married in that house, and Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan may have been, too.

Few people now remember another longtime resident of the house: Laura Clay, an early champion of women’s rights. She learned about the subject the hard way: watching her father, emancipationist Cassius Clay, cheat her mother out of property after their divorce.

Among the several fabulous, long-gone estates featured in the book is Chaumiere des Prairies, where three U.S. presidents were entertained and the traitor Aaron Burr was held under arrest.

Col. David Meade’s estate was famous for its beautifully landscaped gardens. When he died in 1832, a farmer who bought the property destroyed them with grazing livestock, prompting neighbors to post signs about “paradise lost.”

Brackney tells the stories of such 20th century landmarks as the Phoenix Hotel, Union Station, the Southern Railway depot and Joyland Park. Joyland Park was famous for its amusement rides and the huge dance pavilion where Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and other big band leaders performed.

One interesting story was about how, for 23 years, the afternoon Lexington Leader gave every white kid in town free swimming lessons at Joyland’s public pool. In those segregation days, the newspaper provided free swimming lessons for black children at Douglass Park.

The book tells about two sporting venues that no longer exist: the Kentucky Association racetrack and Stoll Field/McLean Stadium, the home of UK football games and other community events before Commonwealth Stadium replaced it in 1972.

UK’s recent demolitions and the CentrePointe project, which destroyed more than a dozen downtown buildings and 51/2 years later is nothing more than a hole in the ground, were a wakeup call for historic preservation in Lexington.

But Brackney, who lives in Jessamine County, laments that many other communities still haven’t gotten the message. Nicholasville’s oldest Main Street commercial building, built in the early 1800s, was recently demolished.

“While we do have to balance preservation and progress, we have to make sure there’s an understanding that people lived and worked in each of these places; they’re not just bricks and mortar,” he said.

“Drive down Nicholasville Road, drive down Richmond Road, and there’s nothing that separates them from Glendale, Ariz., or any new city,” Brackney added. “There’s nothing that makes them unique. And it’s Lexington’s history and uniqueness that helps make it a great city.”

If you go

Peter Brackney will speak and sign copies of Lost Lexington:

5:30 p.m. Nov. 3: Thomas Hunt-Morgan House, 210 N. Broadway, hosted by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. The event includes a panel discussion about historic preservation in Lexington.

2 p.m. Nov. 9: The Morris Book Shop, 882 E High St.

6 p.m. Nov. 9: Barnes & Noble bookstore, Hamburg Pavilion.

7 p.m. Dec. 2: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.


Kentucky workshop for photojournalists shows power of storytelling

October 28, 2014

141029MtnWorkshop02 copySophomore Mackenzie Alexander is one of four girls enrolled in agricultural power and mechanics classes at Madison Southern High School. To keep the girls’ hair clear of flames during welding instruction, teacher Brent Muncy will often french-braid it for them. His skills impressed another student so much, she asked him to braid her hair for the homecoming parade. During the 39th annual Mountain Workshops last week in Berea, photojournalist Melissa Ripepi of Blacksburg, Va., did a photo story about Muncy. Photo by Melissa Ripepi. 

 

BEREA — Each October, I spend a week in a different Kentucky town with three dozen of the nation’s best photojournalists. We help 75 or so students discover and tell the stories of people who live there.

I got back from Berea on Sunday after five days of hard work and little sleep. The amazing results of those students’ work are gradually being posted on MountainWorkshops.org. A 116-page book was produced on-site and will be published next year.

I keep volunteering for this nonprofit educational enterprise because it’s my annual reminder of the power of storytelling — and of why honest and intimate photojournalism still matters in a media-saturated world.

The Mountain Workshops began as a class field trip in 1976, when I was a freshman at Western Kentucky University. I didn’t get to go, because I was studying to be a writer, not a photographer. But several of my friends were among the small group of photojournalism students who accompanied two professors to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky to document the state’s last remaining one-room schoolhouses.

The next year, the project focused on a poor neighborhood in Bowling Green. Then it began traveling to a different small town each year. WKU started bringing in top professionals as photo coaches. The workshop was then opened to photo students from other universities, as well as professional news photographers who wanted to go beyond daily assignments and learn to tell deeper visual stories.

I joined the workshop faculty in 1995, when writing coaches were added. Workshop organizers realized that even the best photographs need well-crafted words to complete the story. Since then, workshops in picture editing, video storytelling and time-lapse photography have been added.

This year, there was a new workshop in data visualization — print and online techniques for turning complex sets of numbers into graphics that help people understand information.

141029MtnWorkshop01 copy

Mary and Neil Colmer own Weaver’s Bottom Craft Studio in Berea. A shared love of art and craft have been an important part of their long marriage. During the 39th annual Mountain Workshops last week, their story was told by photojournalist Marc Ewell, who lives in Hong Kong. Photo by Marc Ewell.

Coaching at the Mountain Workshops has allowed me to get to know many of the nation’s best photojournalists, people who work for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, MediaStorm, the Washington Post, Time magazine and National Geographic. The all-volunteer crew frequently includes Pulitzer Prize winners, some of whom have unglamorous behind-the-scenes support roles.

One of my most memorable fellow coaches was the late Charles Moore. He made those iconic Life magazine photos of Birmingham police arresting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and turning dogs and fire hoses on civil rights protesters in 1963.

The 39th annual Mountain Workshops in Berea was headquartered in the former Churchill Weavers factory, a light-filled 1920s complex that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Now called Churchill’s, it is being renovated into a beautiful event space. Thanks to the workshop’s corporate sponsors, the building was temporarily filled with computers and camera gear for everyone to use.

Workshop organizers had identified and contacted dozens of potential story subjects in Madison County, and participants literally drew them out of a hat. As they got to know their subjects over the next few days, more complex and interesting stories emerged, as they always do. By Saturday morning, the photographers had told those stories with candid images made as they tried to blend into the background of their subjects’ daily lives.

An award-winning photojournalist from New York City and I coached a team of six participants. They all found stories richer and more complex than what was on the slips of paper they drew from the hat.

An assignment about a beauty school turned into a story about the school’s only male student. The young man’s mother had recently been killed in an accident, prompting him to focus on achieving his dream of becoming a hair stylist.

A story about a couple with a craft shop turned into an intimate portrait of a long marriage nurtured by a shared love of the arts. Another participant profiled a high school farm mechanics teacher who is the kind of mentor his students will remember for the rest of their lives.

For nearly four decades, the Mountain Workshops have created an unparalleled documentation of small-town Kentucky life. But its impact has been much broader.

Each year, instructors who years earlier were participants talk about how the workshop changed their lives and careers, and how it continues to influence the way they photograph big stories around the world.

They talk about having become more thorough, accurate and compassionate storytellers, all because of an intense week they spent focused on “ordinary” Kentuckians who turned out to be anything but ordinary.


If you wrote your own obituary, what would you say?

October 14, 2014

Obituaries can be either the best or worst part of a newspaper.

We all recognize the bad ones; they contain dry lists of awards and accomplishments, saccharin sentimentality and euphemisms for death.

But good obituaries — whether news stories written by reporters or classified notices placed by families — offer vivid descriptions of what a person was like and how he or she lived. In a few paragraphs, they offer a glimpse into a rich life, and maybe even some advice for living our own.

I love well-written obituaries. My favorite annual issue of The New York Times Magazine, usually published the first Sunday of each year, is called The Lives They Lived. It has short essays about a couple dozen people who died the previous year. Some were famous, others obscure, but each of their lives had a big influence on society.

So I was intrigued when Neil Chethik, director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, told me about a class he was teaching last Saturday called Writing Your Own Obituary. I decided to sit in.

“I think the more we talk about death and accept it as a part of our lives, the better off we will be,” Chethik told his 10 class participants. His own interest in death and its impact led him to write his first book, Fatherloss: How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of their Dads.

People came to the obituary class for many reasons. Some didn’t trust their relatives to get it right, or they wanted to have the last word, so to speak. Others weren’t so much interested in producing an obituary for publication as writing a meaningful letter to leave for relatives and close friends.

Contemplating your own obituary forces you to put your life in perspective: your faith, values, relationships, accomplishments and regrets. It’s an opportunity to reflect, evaluate and sum up. It can even give you a feeling of some control over that time when you will lose all control.

Chethik shared obituaries he found in newspapers around the country that were effective and even inspiring. Some were written in the first person and included life lessons and short tributes to people who were special to the deceased.

“What we’re trying to do is get to a deeper level of what you care about,” Chethik told the class. “It’s easy to go further in writing than you might do personally, at least in some families.”

Chethik suggested several prompts: List 10 words you think describe you. What activities do you love most? What have been your most important relationships? What have been your “mottos” throughout life?

Some people might also want to consider including confessions, regrets or reminiscences from their “glory days.” Accuracy in the details is essential; no family wants to be haunted by errors.

There is always debate about photos — should you publish a recent portrait or a favorite from years ago, or both? — and whether to give the cause of death or leave readers to speculate.

Beyond those basics, good self-written obituaries reflect the writer’s authentic voice. They are clear and concise and avoid minutiae. Distilling accomplishments, feelings and emotions into a few well-chosen paragraphs is a good discipline.

Writing your own obituary also might spark a desire to compose a longer memoir for family, friends or even publication. People like to read tales well told about interesting experiences. It is why powerful memoirs have always been best-sellers.

Online resources for writing your own obituary, or that of a loved one, include Obituaryguide.com and Obitkit.com, which was created by a former colleague of mine at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

One more thing: Don’t avoid humor. The right touches of appropriate humor can lessen the pain of death, just as they make life more enjoyable, Chethik said.

When comedian Joan Rivers died at age 81 last month, many obituaries recalled the funeral instructions she left in her 2012 autobiography. “I want it to be Hollywood all the way,” she wrote. “I don’t want some rabbi rambling on; I want Meryl Streep crying, in five different accents.”

Like many of those in Chethik’s class, I found the process of contemplating my own obituary more enlightening than morbid. That’s because it made me think as much about how I want to live the rest of my life as how I want to be remembered.