PRHBTN festival shows the potential for more murals in Lexington

October 10, 2015
Meg Salesman's mural "Common Threads" dominates the side wall of a former school in Philadelphia being converted into 56 high-end apartments in a development called Mural Lofts. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Meg Saligman’s mural Common Threads dominates the side wall of a former school in Philadelphia being converted into 56 high-end apartments called Mural Lofts. Photos by Tom Eblen


On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I saw what Lexington’s PRHBTN festival could grow up to become.

I love PRHBTN. The festival, organized by John and Jessica Winters, has made a huge contribution to Lexington in its first five years. It has brought some of the world’s best street muralists here to cover blank city walls with impressive works of art.

This year’s festival, which has been going on for the past week, added four new murals to our civic collection. Go see them at 266 Jefferson Street, 431 Jersey Street, 350 Short Street and 185 Elm Tree Lane.

My favorite this year is Portuguese artist Sergio Odeith’s image of the late jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong on a 30-by-70-foot wall of Lighthouse Ministries at Elm Tree Lane and Corral Street. It is a warm smile for the whole East End.

My all-time favorite PRHBTN mural is the colorful rendering of Abraham Lincoln on the back wall of the Kentucky Theatre. It has been a local icon since Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra’s spray paint dried two years ago.

I don’t like all of the PRHBTN murals; a few of them just seem creepy. My least favorite is the enormous piece depicting an “outlaw” street artist that was painted on the Old Pepper warehouse on Manchester Street last year.

That mural was done by European artist MTO, who seems to like creating controversy as much as art. While technically excellent, the mural strikes me as self-indulgent; a vanity piece that missed an opportunity to relate to its setting.

But those are just my opinions. I was discussing PRHBTN with a friend last week, and it turned out the murals I dislike are among his favorites. And that’s fine.

Good art often elicits strong emotions. That is especially true with public art, which is big and out there for everyone to judge. A piece that touches one person’s soul can turn another’s stomach. Public art without any edge is often boring and forgettable.

If you want to see some unforgettable public art, go to Philadelphia. And I don’t mean the “Rocky” statue near the steps Sylvester Stallone ran up in the movies, or Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE sculpture, with its right-leaning O.

Over the past three decades, Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program has worked with artists and community groups to create more than 3,800 murals all over the city. Many of them are stunning works of paint and mosaic art that reflect a vibrant city in all its diversity.

The program began in 1984 as an anti-graffiti campaign when Philadelphia was a city in decline. Artist Jane Golden realized many of the young “taggers” defacing buildings across the city had both talent and a desire to create art. Mayor Wilson Goode hired her to redirect their energies into something positive.

The public-private partnership now works in every Philadelphia neighborhood to provide arts education to young people and pair artists with community and non-profit groups to collaborate on public art.

Many of the murals celebrate neighborhoods, the contributions of ethnic groups, workers, industries and other aspects of the 333-year-old city’s history and culture. Subjects run the gamut from universal themes of humanity to one mural on the side of a pet hospital celebrating dear, departed cats and dogs.

My family took a bus tour of several dozen downtown murals, and our guide talked about how they and the process of creating them had helped improve understanding and communication among Philadelphia’s disparate populations.

While many were painted directly on buildings, others were done in pieces on special cloth and later assembled on walls. That allowed schoolchildren, nursing home residents and even prison inmates to help with the painting.

Some of the most interesting murals are mixed-media pieces, combining various painting techniques with mosaic tile and glass.

Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program has inspired many imitators. Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory in 2007 started the Artworks Mural program, which has created 90 murals in 36 Cincinnati neighborhoods and seven nearby cities.

The PRHBTN festival has shown that high-quality art murals can enhance Lexington and engage its citizens. How could we build on that?


What a difference this Philadelphia mural made to a corner otherwise notable for a convenience store. This 2002 mural by Meg Saligman is called "Theater of Life." Photo by Tom Eblen |

What a difference this Philadelphia mural made to a corner otherwise notable for a convenience store. Meg Saligman’s mural Theater of Life.


Arturo Ho's mural about the history of Philadelphia's Chinatown.

Arturo Ho’s mural, History of Chinatown.


Michael Webb's mural, Tribute to Trades and Labor.

Michael Webb’s mural, Tribute to Trades and Labor.


Michelle Angela Ortiz's mural, Where Girls Grow Strong.

Michelle Angela Ortiz’s mural, Where Girls Grow Strong.



Finding Home, by Josh Sarantitis and Katherine Penneckaker,



A mosaic mural on an alley wall.


This 2008 mural by artist Willis Humphrey, called "Mapping Courage," honors black leader W.E.B. Du Bois and the Philadelphia Fire Department's Engine Co. 11, on whose building it is painted. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Willis Humphrey’s mural “Mapping Courage,” honors black leader W.E.B. Du Bois and the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Engine Co. 11, on whose building it is painted.


Murals don't have to be gigantic, or painted. This mosaic mural was created on a small wall on a Philadelphia side street. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Murals don’t have to be gigantic, or painted. This mosaic mural was created on a small wall on a Philadelphia side street. Photo by Tom Eblen |


David Guinn's mural, Gimme Shelter.

David Guinn’s mural, Gimme Shelter.


Reach High and You Will Go Far, by Joshua Sarantitis.

Reach High and You Will Go Far, by Joshua Sarantitis.

To see even more Philadelphia murals, click here.

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.

New crop of ‘community supported art’ on sale this week

April 21, 2015

Central Kentucky’s farmers are just getting their plants in the ground, but a new crop of local art is ready for harvest.

For the fifth season, the Lexington Art League is selling 30 CSA “shares” of “community supported art” using a similar model to what local farmers have been doing for years with “community supported agriculture”.

csaThe 30 shares will be on sale through Thursday for $400 each. Each share includes an original piece by nine local artists: ceramics, paintings, leatherwork, screenprints and photography.

This year’s artists are Brian and Sara Turner of Cricket Press, Matthew D. Cook of Borderstate, Elizabeth Foley, Lennon Michalski, Joe Molinaro, Nadezda Nikolova, Brandon C. Smith and Melisa Beth.

The artists were chosen by the league’s curator, Becky Alley. Each artist is paid $600 for their work. Since the program began, the league says its CSA program has sold 1,890 pieces of locally produced art, providing $37,800 in income for local artists.

“CSA is a celebration of local talent and an investment in the artists whose creativity and unique abilities distinguish and enrich our community,” said Stephanie Harris, the league’s executive director.

Shares can be purchased online at or by calling (859) 254-7024. Shares in future CSA “seasons” also are for sale.

The Lexington Art League, headquartered at Loudoun House in Castlewood Park, also sponsors the annual Woodland Art Fair each August.

Studying great art can help improve everyday observation skills

April 13, 2015

150330ArtPerception0088Gray Edelen, left, an art history student from Bardstown, talked with medical students Taylor Gilbert of Lexington, center, and Amanda Pursell of Louisville about Robert Tharsing’s 2011 painting “A Natural History of Kentucky”, which hangs in the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center. Photos by Tom Eblen


On a recent afternoon, small groups of University of Kentucky students huddled around paintings and sculptures on display at UK’s Chandler Medical Center.

As you might expect, some were art history majors. But they were there to help 17 medical students.

The medical students weren’t really there to learn about art, but to observe it — very closely — and then describe what they saw and what they thought it meant.

The goal was to improve the medical students’ observation and communications skills to make them better at diagnosing patients’ illnesses.

“It’s good to learn how to see the bigger picture by looking at the details,” said Taylor Gilbert, a medical student from Lexington.

The exercise grew out of a presentation by Amy Herman, a lawyer and art historian who travels around speaking about what she calls “the art of perception.” In early February, Herman spoke to a packed classroom at UK’s College of Medicine.

Herman began this work more than 15 years ago when she was education director at the Frick Collection, an art museum in New York City. She had heard how art historians at Yale and the University of Texas worked with medical students to improve their perception skills, so she set up a similar program at the Frick for the nearby Cornell University medical school.

Amy Herman. Photo provided

Amy Herman. Photo provided

When a friend heard what Herman was doing, she suggested that these skills could help other professionals, too. Homicide detectives, for example. Herman contacted the New York Police Department and, within six months, she was training every newly promoted captain.

A Wall Street Journal reporter wrote about the program in 2005 and, Herman said, “My world exploded.” She left the Frick to start her own consulting business. In addition to medical students and New York cops, she now trains agents for the FBI, CIA and even Navy SEALs.

As Herman began showing slides of paintings to the UK medical students and asking them to describe them, she forbid the use of two words: obviously and clearly.

“We work and live in a complex world, and very little obvious and even less is clear,” she said. “No two people see anything the same way, and we have to understand and enrich our appreciation for that fact.”

Herman showed what appeared to be an abstract painting, but was really a picture of a cow. Few saw the cow until she brought attention to it. She then drew lessons from landscapes, still life paintings and portraits of “handsome women of the 18th century” that held subtle clues about their lives.

“Perception goes both ways,” she said. “How do patients perceive you when you walk into the room? Do you put them at ease? Is it easy to ask questions? Your patients may have an entirely different perspective than you do.”

Herman said people often make mistakes by trying to “solve” problems too quickly, before they have taken time to assess a situation.

“Before you decide what to think and what to do, you need to say out loud what the issue is,” she said, adding that some of those things may seem too obvious or be embarrassing to mention but can be vital details.

Herman showed a painting of an elderly, obese and naked woman sitting on a sofa. When asked to talk about it, an audience member began by describing the sofa’s upholstery.

“You need to say what you see and not dance around it,” Herman said. “I always tell police officers you will never get in trouble for saying what you see. Saying what you think is an entirely different story.

“Raise the issue, even if you can’t explain it,” she added. “Raise any inconsistency, because with more information somebody else may be able to answer the question for you. Also think about what’s missing. What should be there but isn’t?”

Herman said she recommends that child abuse investigators ask a child to smile. Seeing whether a child’s teeth are clean says a lot about the care they are receiving.

“Small details can provide volumes of information,” she said. “Body language and facial expression tell us a whole lot.”

When describing observations, choose words carefully to be precise. And don’t make assumptions. The three most important questions to ask when problem-solving: What do I know? What don’t I know? What more do I need to know?

“There are often things hiding in plain sight that you are consciously or unconsciously not seeing,” said Herman, who gave an embarrassing personal example.

Several years ago, while running in New York, she noticed a man in a wheelchair walking a puppy. She loves puppies, so she asked him if she could pet it. After playing with the puppy for several minutes, they parted. Within minutes, she realized that the man had looked familiar. It was Chuck Close, a famous artist she admired but had never met.

“He’s one of my favorite artists in the world, but I was so focused on his puppy that I didn’t even notice the man was a captive audience right in front of me,” she said. “Don’t miss what’s right in front of you.”

150330ArtPerception0095Christina Romano left, an art education major from Louisville, talked with medical students Katie Donaldson, center, of Independence, and Amy Chen of Davis, Calif., about Warren Seelig’s stainless steel and fabric mesh sculpture, “Gingko”.

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.”

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 

Ben Sollee art project uses music to educate about groundwater

December 9, 2014

solleeLexington musician Ben Sollee and artist Kiersten Nash are leading an art project called Livestream to educate people about groundwater. Photo by Tom Eblen

Groundwater is one of Kentucky’s most abundant, precious and endangered natural resources. People rarely think about it because they can’t see it.

But what if they could hear it?

That’s the idea behind Livestream, a public art and education project being put together by Lexington musician Ben Sollee and a group of artists and scientists working with the Kentucky Geological Survey.

The National Endowment for the Arts last week announced a $40,000 grant to help pay for the project, which will be built next year in a city park, possibly Jacobson Park. Livestream also is receiving about $20,000 from LexArts and the city’s Department of Environmental Quality and Public Works.

The project began in 2010 when Sollee met Kiersten Nash, a New York artist who previously lived in Louisville. They wanted to collaborate on a project that would educate people about environmental issues.

“After lots of phone calls and ideas and brainstorming, we came up with this idea that we wanted to connect people with groundwater,” Sollee said. “But the question was how are we going to do that?”

How they plan to do that is fascinating.

The Kentucky Groundwater Data Repository, a project of the Kentucky Geological Survey, archives data from groundwater monitoring stations across the state. It has information on more than 92,000 water wells and 5,100 springs.

So the artists wondered: what if monitoring data from a few of those wells and springs could be transmitted live and turned into music that would reflect the groundwater’s changing conditions? To figure out how to do that, they worked with artist Bland Hoke, engineer Sean Montgomery and educator Dan Marwitt.

Sollee, who has gained a national audience for his jazzy, soulful cello music and vocals, recorded a catalog of phrases on his cello. Those phrases will be activated by monitoring data transmitted every 15 minutes from four groundwater sources around the state, said Charles Taylor, the head of the survey’s water resources section.

Two stations will be at McConnell Springs in Lexington and Mammoth Cave National Park in southern Kentucky. Two other sites under consideration are a spring at Carter Caves State Park in Eastern Kentucky and one at Land Between the Lakes in Western Kentucky.

That data measures five values for groundwater: acidity, flow, temperature, conductivity (its capacity to pass electrical current) and turbidity, or clarity. Values of each measure will be assigned to Sollee’s recorded cello phrases, which will be played through 20 large pipes.

“When the data hits a certain point, it will play the note, so it’s a dynamic soundscape based on Kentucky groundwater,” Nash said in July, during a demonstration of a prototype at the Downtown Arts Center. The demonstration used recorded groundwater data.

“As a composer, I wanted to be able to give the sound of the water something that felt very at home here in Kentucky, that had that kind of landscape, a little bit of roll to it,” Sollee said of his phrases.

The installation will be interactive with viewers as well as data. Sensors installed around the pipes will cause the volume to rise and fall, depending on viewers’ proximity.

“So as you walk up to the pipe the volume increases, and as you walk away the volume decreases,” Nash said. “It’s really a project where art, science and technology meet.”

LexArts and the city have collaborated on several smaller art projects to promote environmental education, but this is the biggest yet.

Livestream’s creators see potential for school teachers to develop environmental education programs around the installation. More information:

“Kentucky’s in a really fortunate position — we have groundwater, an abundance of it, but we take it for granted and don’t always treat it right,” Sollee said, noting the effects of surface mining, suburban development and farming. “We hope this will increase affection for that resource.”

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.

Artists must learn business skills to make a living from their art

November 17, 2014

lackyJohn Lackey at his studio at North Limestone and Sixth streets. Photo by Tom Eblen


Lexington is starting to become a city where an artist can earn a living, but it requires almost as much focus on business as art.

Successful artists tell me they have had to learn strategy, salesmanship, client management and finance to earn money from their passion. Most of all, they have had to be flexible entrepreneurs, willing to try new things and see where they lead.

I talked about these issues last week with John Lackey, an independent artist in Lexington for a dozen years. Since 2010, he has operated Homegrown Press Studio & Gallery at the corner of Limestone and Sixth streets.

Lackey is best known for his intricate block prints and colorful acrylic paintings of Kentucky landscapes. They are fanciful scenes from nature, filled with swirling clouds and curly trees that almost seem to dance.

But Lackey does a lot more, both out of passion and necessity. He has done logos and other commercial art for businesses, including Alfalfa restaurant, where he once worked, and North Lime Coffee and Donuts, which shares his studio building. He also has produced more than a dozen concert posters for his favorite band, Wilco.

Lackey, this month, was commissioned by Kroger to paint an outside mural for its new Euclid Avenue store. The five interconnected, 12-by-7-foot panels along Marquis Avenue will depict “the trees with the most personality in Woodland Park, with human activity in the background,” he said.

He also is getting into filmmaking, after years of playing with time-lapse and animation photography. Lackey has an campaign that runs through Tuesday to raise money for a full-length movie. It will be set in Lexington’s northside and focus on themes of community and sustainability.

Lackey learned figurative art and print-making at the University of Kentucky, but some of his most useful professional skills were acquired during several years of hiatus between his studies, when he worked at lumber yards and car dealerships.

“I learned a lot that I still use today when I sold cars,” he said, including negotiating skills and how to read customers.

Lackey spent 14 years as a graphic artist for two Lexington TV stations, where he learned more about art and deadlines. He was then able to begin building an independent art career, thanks to an understanding wife with a steady paycheck.

Early on, he realized the work is a lot like being a home-improvement contractor. Customers who commission work have ideas, but often don’t know exactly what they want. That’s where listening skills and artistry come in.

Lackey said that being willing to try new things has helped him both get jobs and stretch artistically.

“At first, I didn’t do a lot of saying no, because I needed the money, and it pushed me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “It’s good if you have different things you like to do in art.”

The Kentucky Arts Council helped Lackey expose his work to potential clients. After being included in a show at the Governor’s Mansion, he was chosen to create the 2011 prizes for the Governor’s Award in the Arts. The council also helped him get a commission for four seasonal landscape paintings that now hang in the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s board room in Frankfort.

Many artists advise against doing free work to get exposure. While Lackey generally agrees, he follows his instinct on some projects where the payoff isn’t obvious.

For example, as a Wilco fan, he engaged others on the band’s website and volunteered to do artwork for a charity event. The band liked it and hired him to create concert posters.

The head of the Clyde’s restaurant chain around Washington, D.C., also is a Wilco fan. He saw Lackey’s posters and hired him to do artwork for the restaurants. The Clyde’s work was seen by Virginia-based Potter’s Craft Cider, which hired him to design its logo and labels. Such jobs can be vital income bridges between fine art projects.

Other free artwork has enriched his life, if not his bank account. Lackey has done more than 60 posters for the Holler Poet’s series at Al’s Bar, across East Sixth Street from his studio, where he occasionally reads his own poetry. Each poster became an opportunity to experiment with new techniques that have improved his work.

“For me, one of the benefits of being an artist is not having to do the same thing twice,” he said. “It keeps your brain regenerating.”

‘Room with a view’ exhibit features Lexington scenes from 1990s

August 23, 2014

140821Tharsing0004The view out the bay window of painter Robert Tharsing’s second-floor studio on High Street in the early 1990s. Below, the old Fayette County Courthouse.  Photos courtesy of the artist and Ann Tower Gallery


Before he retired as an art professor at the University of Kentucky, Robert Tharsing did his personal painting in downtown studios, first in the upstairs room of an old house on High Street and then above Cheapside Bar & Grill.

When he was between paintings — or stuck trying to figure out where to go with an abstract canvas — he did what many people do when they need a break: he stared out the window. In Tharsing’s case, he also painted what he saw. The result was about 20 views of the Lexington skyline and scenes of downtown life in the 1990s.

In anticipation of retirement, Tharsing built a home studio in 2001. When he moved, he left most of these paintings stacked in the Cheapside space, which wife Ann Tower uses as storage for her gallery on Main Street. Tharsing never showed them in public — until now.

Robert Tharsing: Room With A View, an exhibit of 14 pictures painted over the course of a dozen years, went up last week in the East Gallery at UK Chandler Hospital. The free exhibit will be up for six months.

140821Tharsing0003“I had seen a few hanging in his studio a long time ago and thought they were interesting,” said Phillip March Jones, who curates the hospital’s art exhibits. “I also thought it was interesting they had never been shown as a body of work.”

Jones said viewers from Lexington will easily recognize these scenes, as well as what has changed, and appreciate the bird’s-eye view Tharsing had from his studio windows.

The vividly colorful scenes are awash in light, but often devoid of people. Most of the time Tharsing spent in these studios was at night and on weekends, before downtown became a popular destination for restaurants, bars and festivals.

“Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always painted the scene as well as other interests I have,” said Tharsing, 70, who has lived in Italy and spends summers in Nova Scotia.

Tharsing said these small pictures were often a release, a distraction when he was working on large, abstract paintings. “It was a way to paint something that’s very tangible that I knew what it was,” he said. “With an abstract painting, I often don’t know what it is. In that sense, it’s like being a novelist; you have to let the characters develop and see what they’re going to tell you about themselves. The painting has to do that, too. It has to tell you what it is, what it’s all about.”

The High Street studio had a big bay window that looked down on Vine Street and a cluster of 1980s office towers. Tharsing said he liked how light played off the buildings, streets and parking lots in different seasons.

“That part of Lexington is all about very simple geometry,” he said. “There’s hardly anything that distinguishes itself as being real architecture. So what you’re left with is these volumes and planes and reflections. More than half the buildings down there have got these mirrored windows, so it’s not only the building I’m looking at but I’m looking at myself through the glass across the street. That interested me.”

Cheapside had more people on the street, and a building that did interest Tharsing: the old Fayette County Courthouse, which was then still in use. The massive circa 1900 building or pieces of it appear in six of 14 paintings in the exhibit.

“I really liked it because there was a lot of coming and going,” he said. “It was very much small-town life.”

Tharsing said “the icing on the cake” came one day when he looked down and saw perennial candidate Gatewood Galbraith in his trademark hat. He was accompanied by a single sign-carrying supporter and was being interviewed by a TV news crew.

To accompany the exhibit, Jones is producing old-fashioned perforated postcard books with 10 of the pictures, for sale ($10) at Ann Tower Gallery, The Morris Book Shop and Institute 193, his nonprofit gallery.

These paintings are reminiscent of the plain, colorful style of Edward Hopper (1882-1967), who was one of Tharsing’s inspirations. Another inspiration was the Venetian landscape painter Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768).

But Tharsing said he resisted Canaletto’s occasional tendency to improve the skyline, tempting though it was in Lexington’s case. “He rearranged the city to suit himself,” he said. “It is like urban renewal; it’s an interesting idea.”

Lecture highlights camera club that produced photography stars

March 13, 2014

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


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

The Lexington Camera Club was different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Winchester lawyer turns wood into beautiful pieces of art

December 17, 2013

131212Keeton-TE0006Wood artist John Keeton, in his workshop near Winchester, shows how a turned-wood vessel he made will be fitted onto a stand for use as an award. Photos by Tom Eblen 


WINCHESTER — When John Keeton was a boy in Floyd County, he learned how to make wood useful. He has spent the five decades since then learning how to make it beautiful.

I first saw Keeton’s work this fall, when I won the media award in the Governor’s Awards in the Arts. The winners’ trophies were identical turned-wood sculptures the artist made from curly maple and holly.

Red stain and lacquer accentuates the grain of the maple vessel, which is balanced on a delicate spire and topped by an even-more delicate finial, both made of black-lacquered holly.

The 11-inch-tall sculpture is a graceful combination of strength and fragility, and every time I look at it I wonder, How did he do that! Last week, I went to the workshop on Keeton’s 68-acre farm to find out.

“I’ve always liked pretty woods, figured woods,” said Keeton, 65. “I’ve been playing with wood all my life.”

Well, most of his life. Keeton was squirrel hunting when he was 13 and fell off a rock ledge, breaking the forearm stock of the family’s shotgun. He whittled a replacement from a piece of cedar he got off a lightning-struck tree.

After graduating from Pikeville College and the University of Kentucky law school, Keeton began a 40-year career as a lawyer and Clark County prosecutor. He and his wife, Eileen, have five children, 14 grandchildren and a great-grandchild between them.

131212Keeton-Art0007Keeton’s hobbies have always been hunting and woodworking. He was fascinated with antique Kentucky long rifles, and he made stocks for reproduction flintlocks. He began repairing antique furniture, then making furniture.

One project was a walnut plantation desk, which he made to fit some turned and faceted legs he salvaged from an antique table he bought at an auction. When he decided in 2009 to make a table to match the desk, and he bought his first lathe to copy the antique legs.

“I absolutely fell in love with wood-turning,” Keeton said. “I finished that table and that’s the last piece of furniture I made. I’ve been turning ever since.”

He began with some turned-wood Christmas tree ornaments, then made a shallow dish from a cherry board. That led him into bowls, vessels, urns and sculpture. Keeton has made about 175 pieces in the past four years, building on four decades of woodworking skill and expertise.

Keeton is a juried and exhibiting artist in the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen and the Kentucky Crafted program. He displays and sells work at the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea, the Appalachian Artisan Center in Hindman, the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville, three Kentucky galleries and one in Scottsdale, Ariz.

He will be teaching wood-turning classes next year at two prestigious craft schools: the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C., and the Arkansas Craft School in Mountain View. For more information, see

Keeton said his work has sold well, but that isn’t why he spends four or five hours a day in his shop making it.

“I turn for artistic expression,” he said. “I’ve always had a need to create. That’s really where it started.”

Most of Keeton’s designs come from classic, mathematical patterns that have been used in art and architecture for thousands of years — parabolas, fibonacci spirals and all kinds of curves.

Keeton sketches designs, often while watching television in the evening, then carefully chooses wood from a growing collection of blocks he has collected in a storage room beside his shop and a converted tobacco barn.

He especially likes to work with burls, the bulbous growths on trees that are caused by various kinds of stress. They have unique figured patterns of grain that when polished yield unique designs.

Many of Keeton’s pieces are embellished with copper handles or finials, or with gold or copper leaf. Some others display accents that look rich and metallic but are created with little more than glue, cheese cloth and tissue paper.

“I just do what’s pleasing to me,” Keeton said. “If it sells, that’s great. But that’s not why I do it. Selling is simply the icing on the cake.”

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Lexington sculptor’s work comes to life with the turn of a crank

November 19, 2013


Artist Steve Armstrong’s piece Spring is part of a 20-year retrospective show at ArtsPlace through Jan. 17. Photo provided


You cannot truly appreciate a Steve Armstrong sculpture by just looking at it. You must turn the crank.

Each piece depicts a richly painted fantasy, complete with human figures expertly carved out of wood. When you turn the crank, wooden gears move, levers twist, rods shift and the figures come to life like an antique toy.

“I try to jog a memory, create a mystery, that childlike sense of wonder at discovering something new,” the Lexington artist said of his work, a genre of sculpture known as automata. “I enjoy testing the limits of my imagination.”

You can enjoy it, too. A couple dozen of the 400 or so pieces Armstrong has made over the past two decades are on display through Jan. 17 at ArtsPlace, 161 N. Mill St. The free show is titled: Steve Armstrong: 20 years of Mystery and Wonder.

Armstrong has pieces all over the world. One avid collector is Tom Cousins, the real estate developer who reshaped Atlanta’s skyline in the 1970s and ’80s. Locally, Armstrong’s work is in the University of Kentucky Art Museum and Chandler Medical Center.

“I have a kind of a naughty piece at the Kinsey Institute,” he said, referring to the famous sex research institute at Indiana University. “Not too terribly naughty.”

131112SteveArmstrong-TE0013Armstrong, 68, said it took many years to discover his calling as an artist, although he had plenty of clues along the way.

“I have always had a bit of curiosity about how things work,” he said. “I was the type of kid who invariably took my toys apart.”

Armstrong was the son of a career Air Force pilot. He lived all over the country, and in Japan from ages 7 to 10. That’s when he encountered Japanese wind-up toys.

“I took a lot of those apart and never could get them back together,” he said. “I was curious about what made them move.”

Armstrong ended up in Lexington for high school, and after two years at UK served in the Air Force from 1967-71. He then returned to UK and studied art under the late John Tuska, who became one of his biggest influences.

Armstrong also became intrigued with Montessori education, which allowed him to use his knowledge of art and music (he has played guitar in a rock band since age 16). He became a certified Montessori teacher and operated a school in Lexington for 18 years while making art in his spare time.

“I dabbled in painting and printmaking and ceramics and wood-block engraving,” he said. But what he enjoyed most were making carved-wood mechanical novelties that he sold at folk art shows. In 1993, he sold his school to become a full-time artist.

“I had an epiphany that maybe there was a fine art way to do these mechanical pieces,” he said.

About that time, Armstrong ran into Tuska, who asked what he was doing. When he showed his former teacher three sculptures he had made, Tuska bought them all.

Another break came when Armstrong’s former neighbor, Transylvania University art professor Jack Girard, saw his work and got a piece included in an art show. Gallery owner Heike Pickett tried to buy it, but she was outbid — by Armstrong’s mother.

Still, Pickett asked to represent him, and Armstrong said he has been busy ever since. (He also is represented on the West Coast by the John Pence Gallery in San Francisco.)

Armstrong works from home, as does his wife, Diane Kahlo, also a well-regarded artist and a distant relative of Frida Kahlo, the late Mexican painter. Diane Kahlo is now showing paintings at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco.

When the weather is nice, Armstrong likes to work outside. When winter comes, he carves and paints his yellow-poplar figures and assembles the sculptures at his kitchen table. He has a big basement studio, but it is stuffed with odds and ends he has collected for possible use in future pieces.

“Any crazy thing that I can imagine I can bring to life,” Armstrong said.

“There’s nothing more rewarding for the viewer than to be able to interact with the piece, and really nothing more rewarding for me,” he added. “I love to watch people turn the crank and experience a piece for the first time.”

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What’s happening at Speed Art Museum during 3-year shutdown?

August 10, 2013

Photo by Tom Eblen |

Pieces of art, including early Kentucky furniture at right, has been stored in several galleries during the Speed Art Museum’s three-year renovation and expansion.  Photos by Tom Eblen  


LOUISVILLE — People gasped when Kentucky’s largest art museum announced in late 2011 that it was closing for more than three years for an extensive renovation.

Would the Speed Art Museum lose momentum during such a long shutdown? Or would the break allow it to shift into high gear? After a tour of the work-in-progress, I’m betting on the latter.

The Speed has raised more than $50 million, including $18 million from Louisville’s Brown family, to renovate its 1927 main building, demolish a 1972 addition and expand all over its 5-acre campus beside the University of Louisville.

When it reopens in early 2016, the museum will have 79,600 square feet of renovated space, 75,000 square feet of new space and 135,000 square feet of new outdoor facilities, including an art garden and piazza. Two new wings will add galleries, an education center, a 150-seat film theater and a café.

Like most museums, the Speed wants to attract a larger, younger and more diverse audience by offering relevant art experiences. Those efforts are already underway in a small, temporary space the Speed has rented in downtown Louisville, at 822 East Market Street.

But the Speed also is making a big commitment to Kentucky’s past: a large gallery showcasing the state’s rich decorative arts tradition.

Scott Erbes, director of collections and exhibitions at the Speed Art Museum, will curate the new museum's new Center for Kentucky Art. He holds a piece of painted pottery by Fayette Barnum (1870-1960), a Louisville artist and influential art teacher.

Scott Erbes, director of collections and exhibitions at the Speed Art Museum, will curate the new museum’s new Center for Kentucky Art. He holds a piece of painted pottery by Fayette Barnum (1870-1960), a Louisville artist and influential art teacher.

When the Speed’s director of collections, Scott Erbes, offered to give me a private tour of the shuttered museum, I couldn’t resist.

Our first stop was the famous English Room, where elaborate oak paneling carved in the early 1600s for a manor house in Devon has been stripped from the walls. Each piece has been numbered and shelved so it can be reassembled in a different room.

Some galleries were empty and in various stages of renovation. Others resembled high-class attics, packed with the museum’s 14,000 pieces of art. Paintings hung on sliding panels of steel mesh. Furniture and sculpture lined shelves. The arms of marble statues were covered with bubble wrap.

The Speed has loaned some pieces to other museums. Choice European paintings are part of an exhibit at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky in Lexington through Sept. 22. Some Kentucky paintings are at the Hopewell Museum in Paris through Sept. 2.

I was most interested in plans for a new Center for Kentucky Art, a 5,600-square-foot gallery that will house paintings, sculpture, furniture, silver, pottery and textiles made or used in the state between the late 1700s and the mid-1900s.

“With the exception of paintings, Kentucky art had never been a major focus” of the museum, Erbes said. But that changed after he met Bob and Norma Noe of Wilmore.

The Noes are Garrard County natives whose ancestors came to Kentucky more than two centuries ago. The Noes lived for 25 years in the Washington, D.C., area, where he worked as a cost analyst for the Air Force. In their free time, they visited museums all along the East Coast.

“Many of them had sections devoted to their home state,” Bob Noe, 84, recalled. “It was very noticeable to me that there was no such thing in Kentucky, even though I knew many high-quality things were made here.”

The Noes began collecting early Kentucky pieces, and their hobby became a passion after they retired and returned to the state in 1979. The Noes went to local auctions and noticed that the best Kentucky pieces were being bought by out-of-state collectors. So they started buying.

130730SpeedMuseum0044“It was quite cheap then, because there weren’t many Kentucky collectors,” Noe said. “Now it is very, very expensive.”

The Noes wanted Kentuckians to have more appreciation for their arts heritage, so they began looking for an institution to donate their collection to. They considered the University of Kentucky, “but they had no place to put it,” he said.

They began talking with the Speed and were impressed that several board members and the staff shared their passion. In 2011, the Noes donated 119 pieces to the Speed, more than doubling its Kentucky holdings. The Noe collection is the foundation of the new center, which Erbes hopes to expand through other acquisitions and loans.

The new center will show the quality and variety of early Kentucky art. It will explain how styles developed as artists, craftsmen and their customers moved around the state. And it will link history to the arts, showing, for example, how the arts were used to promote and memorialize famous Kentuckians such as Daniel Boone, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln.

“Rightly or wrongly, I have felt that Kentuckians have not had enough pride in their early beginnings,” Noe said, adding that he hopes the Center for Kentucky Art will help change that.

When the Speed displayed pieces from his collection at special exhibits in 2000 and 2002, Noe said, he enjoyed watching visitors’ reactions.

“I saw young people turn to their parents after leaving,” he said, “and say they didn’t know Kentuckians had made such beautiful things.”

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Veteran sign painter creates art from Lexington, racing nostalgia

August 5, 2013


John Cox, owner of Thoroughgraphics, shows a copy, at right, he is making of an old sign from the Nashua Room at the old Hialeah racetrack in Hialeah, Fla. Cox said he acquired several old Hialeah signs years ago when the sign company he worked for was hired to replace them.  Photos by Tom Eblen  


John Cox’s artwork is a shot of nostalgia for anyone who lived in Lexington or followed Thoroughbred racing during the decades after World War II. His paintings are literally signs of the times, recalling the famous and infamous.

Cox’s hand-painted signs look as though they spent decades at such places as Joyland Park, Stoll Field, Scott’s Rollarena, Comer’s Restaurant or Keeneland.

Remember the Library Lounge, that swinging singles bar in the 1970s? Or the Red Lion Lounge, which featured the “exotic” dancer Chesty Morgan? And don’t forget Boot’s Bar, where headliners included the Fabulous Table Toppers and Carlos Toadvine, aka Little Enis, the left-handed, upside down, backwards guitar player.

Longtime racing fans may recall the Citation Room at Hialeah Park in Florida, the Boots & Saddle Bar across the street from the track or Greentree Stable, Payne Whitney’s New Jersey farm that was a Thoroughbred powerhouse in the 1920s.

“I had had several people who asked me to make them a sign that looked like it was old, from some memory they had,” said Cox, who since 1982 has owned and operated Thoroughgraphics, a Lexington sign company.

Cox was soon making “new old” signs for gifts. Since late last year, he has been showing and selling his pieces at Gallery Hop. His work is now on display at Congleton Lumber Co.’s new showroom, 1260 Industry Road, and at his website,

Cox left last week for Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where Saratoga Race Course is celebrating its 150th year. His company will be making modern signs for its many customers there, and he has made some “new old” Saratoga-themed signs for sale through Lexington’s Cross Gate Gallery.

“It’s a unique niche,” said Cox, 54, who began his career hand-lettering signs for Johnson Sign Co. in the 1970s while a student at Lafayette High School.

130723OldSigns0102Cox had always been interested in calligraphy, and he studied art at the University of Kentucky. Because many of his fraternity brothers were in the horse business, he focused on that industry. His customers now include farms, tracks and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame at Saratoga. He just finished making metal plaques for the newest group of Hall of Fame inductees.

Other than Cox’s artwork, little hand-painting is still done at Thoroughgraphics, which has a lot of modern technology for making all kinds of signs, from huge printers to computer-controlled wood routers.

“There are lots of different ways that are better and longer-lasting now than painting signs,” Cox said, adding that “when they took the lead out of paint, it didn’t last as long or hold its color very well.”

That technology would make it easy to reproduce old-fashioned sign images. But that wouldn’t be the same as what Cox does. His hand-painted letters show brush strokes, and he makes each piece look old and authentic with creative use of sandpaper, varnish and sometimes even a little dirt.

“I don’t try to pass them off as being old,” he said. “If you look at the back of them, you can see they’re brand-new materials.”

Cox said his signs are a mixture of authenticity and imagination. He researches a place, looking for photographs of old signs there. If he finds a design he likes, he copies it. Or he may use imagery from old promotional materials, such as matchbook covers.

For other signs, Cox simply makes up a design appropriate to the era — how he would have done the job, if only he had been around then to do it. Most of his pieces are inspired by signs from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Cox has collected more than 100 antique signs that cover the walls of his workshops at Thoroughgraphics. There has been a resurgence in public interest in old signs. There is even an American Sign Museum in Cincinnati.

Most of Cox’s “new old” signs sell for $200 to $400, although he is asking $2,000 for a large Keeneland sign painted with gold leaf.

Cox said he has enjoyed showing his work, because people come up and tell him great stories about their memories of the places depicted in his signs.

“It’s a great creative outlet for me,” he said. “And people seem to really enjoy them.”

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Sculptor Julie Warren Conn carves a new niche in Kentucky

June 18, 2013


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kentucky Mudworks has succeeded by thinking outside the wheel

April 22, 2013


Link Henderson of Kentucky Mudworks makes one of the ceramic pint glasses that will be part of her fundraiser for Seedleaf on April 27 at West Sixth Brewery. A $15 donation to the community garden group will come with a beer in one of her handmade pint glasses. Photo by Tom Eblen 


Link Henderson moved here after college in 1997 because her best friend got married, got a teaching job in Lexington and bought a duplex where Henderson could rent the other half.

“I always wanted to own my own business, ever since I was a kid,” said Henderson, who grew up in North Carolina and majored in Latin and ceramics at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. “I just didn’t know what it was or how it would happen.”

After working as a waitress and baker, Henderson got a job teaching ceramics classes at the city-owned Loudoun House.

When it was closed for a major renovation, she rented studio space in an old carriage house downtown, offered her own classes and made pottery to sell.

As the business grew, she moved to larger quarters on Jefferson Street. One thing led to another, and Kentucky Mudworks LLC is now a full-service ceramics studio, school and store at 825 National Avenue.

130416KyMudworks0085The company will have one of its two annual charity fundraisers April 27 at West Sixth Brewery. Called Pints for Plants, the event benefits Seedleaf, a nonprofit organization that works to provide affordable, nutritious food for people at risk of hunger in Central Kentucky.

Henderson is hand-making more than 300 ceramic pint glasses. Donors get a pint of beer in a glass for a $15 donation to Seedleaf, from 3 p.m. until they are all gone.

Henderson said Kentucky Mudworks’ success has been all about diversification.

“Knowing my market and being willing to have a toe in every facet of the business,” she said.

When Henderson began making pottery and teaching classes, she was frustrated that there was no good place in the region to buy clay. There are fewer than a dozen ceramic clay manufacturers in the country, and mail order is expensive.

“A box of clay is only $30, but it costs $20 to ship it,” she said. “So, if you have a local supplier, it’s a really great thing.”

Henderson started selling clay to potters, schools and universities. Kentucky Mudworks now stocks 80 kinds of clay in its 11,000-square-foot facility, along with kilns, wheels and a full range of pottery materials and supplies.

130416KyMudworks0049When online retailers started taking a bite out of her margins several years ago, Henderson created her own line of tools.

“Instead of trying to compete with 30 or 50 online stores, I wanted to have products in those stores,” she said.

Dirty Girls Pottery Tools now has about 40 distributors in the United States and Canada. Henderson also sells them at her shop and website:

Henderson and her five employees make commissioned pottery, such as trophies and awards. They also offer ceramics classes for adults and children. Kentucky Mudworks recently partnered with Zig Zeigler, a stained-glass artist whose studio is down the street, to offer stained glass classes.

The hardest thing about building the business was financing.

“In the beginning, it was credit cards, which is an absolute no-no,” Henderson said. “But I was 25 and had no collateral.”

As the business grew, she was able to get a conventional loan, which she plans to pay off in September. Henderson owns 90 percent of the business. Eight percent is owned by a friend and investor, and a longtime employee owns 2 percent.

But, for many years, much of Henderson’s capital came from living simply and plowing most of her earnings back into the business.

“I probably lived on 700 bucks a month for I don’t know how long, literally living above the shop,” she said. “Ramen noodles: that’s how I financed my business!

“I didn’t have a family or a mortgage,” added Henderson, 38, who now lives on a farm near Lawrenceburg. “I started when I was so young because I figured if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it if I have something to lose.”

In addition to constant financial discipline, Henderson said she does a business plan every five years to stay on track.

Kentucky Mudworks has been a lot of work, but it has been worth it, she said.

“I wish more young people would start businesses,” Henderson said. “I was very, very lucky. I found a niche, a hole in the market that I was able to capitalize on.

“But it takes so much more than you think.”

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Father and son show the math in art and the art in math

April 20, 2013


Martin Demaine, left, and his son, Erik, with one of their paper origami sculptures. 


Martin Demaine became a single parent when his son was 2. Suddenly, the visual artist went from being a workaholic who spent little time with Erik to his constant companion, teacher and collaborator.

It has worked out well for both of them. Amazingly well.

When Erik started designing puzzles at age 6, they created a company to sell them. After first grade, Martin home-schooled his son, including teaching him a lot about art. Erik started playing with computers and teaching his father, who has gone on to do computer science research.

At age 20, Erik finished his Ph.D. in computer science and became the youngest faculty member in the history of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then came a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant at age 21 and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship.

130421Demaines1Erik, 31, and Martin, 70, both now teach at MIT. Earlier this month, they were awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Their current research into paper folding holds promise for breakthroughs in fields ranging from engineering to pharmaceuticals.

The Demaines will be in Lexington this week to give two free, public lectures about their research and open an exhibit of their work at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, which will be on display until May 26.

The Demaines will speak on “Algorithms Meet Art, Puzzles and Magic” at 5 p.m. April 24 at the Worsham Theater in UK’s Student Center. The next day, at 4 p.m., they will talk on “Geometric Puzzles” at Transylvania University’s Cowgill Center, room 102.

Their visit was initiated by Dr. Sylvia Cerel-Suhl, a Lexington physician whose son, Adam Suhl, studies with the Demaines at MIT.

Between those lectures, the Demaines will go to Danville to blow glass with Centre College artist Stephen Powell, who they met through mutual friend Lino Tagliapietra, the renowned Italian glass artist. In January, the Demaines plan to spend a week or two at Centre, creating art with Powell and lecturing on mathematics.

In separate telephone interviews last week, the Demaines said they work at the intersection of mathematics and art.

“We have used one to help solve problems with the other,” Martin said. “They are very similar in many ways. They both have these exciting moments when you discover things, when you succeed in visualizing something.”

“It’s all about creativity,” Erik said. “All about having clever ideas and executing those ideas. We look for mathematics in the art we do, and art in the mathematics we do.”

130421Demaines3Many grants now require an artist to be part of the team of research scientists, because it brings a different kind of thinking to the problem-solving process. Much of the Demaines’ work at MIT involves acting as “translators” between artists and scientists.

In addition to creating art, the Demaines teach and have published about 80 scientific papers with each other and a variety of fellow researchers.

The Demaines’ current work began with a fascination for origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. The orgiami pieces in their UK show involve precise circular folds that cause paper to bend itself into distinct shapes. The sculptures are composed of several interlocking pieces of folded paper, sometimes enclosed in a blown-glass vessel they made.

“Origami has always been seen as a recreational art,” Erik said. “But we embraced it as a serious thing. That turned out to be a good bet, because there are a lot of applications to science and engineering.”

For example, their origami research has led to safer automobile airbags. Their research discovered new ways to fold up airbags so that, when they deploy, the force is spread more evenly so drivers and passengers are not injured.

Future applications of such folding techniques include self-supporting structures or even space station modules that could deploy themselves when they reach their destination. But the most exciting possibilities are microscopic.

“I think the big application for us would be if we could help develop techniques for protein-folding that would be better for drug design,” Martin said.

“It’s quite exciting,” he added. “It makes life for us an adventure. We are just hoping that more doors will open up.”


Artist Lina Tharsing branches out while maintaining Lexington roots

April 2, 2013

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mark Whitley turns furniture art into business

April 2, 2012

Mark Whitley in his workshop near Smiths Grove. Photo by Tom Eblen

SMITHS GROVE — When Mark Whitley was growing up in rural Barren County, his father’s workshop was his playground.

“I would just come home from school and make something out of wood,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I was training for anything. It’s just what I did.”

It is still what he does. But now, Whitley, 36, is one of the region’s up-and-coming furniture artists. His hand-crafted pieces are winning awards at exhibitions such as the American Craft Council’s Atlanta Show and Kentucky Crafted: The Market.

He has been able to grow as an artist and earn a comfortable living for himself; his wife, Melissa, the director of a non-profit agency in nearby Bowling Green; and their 3-year-old son, Briar.

Kentucky has always had many fine artists and craftspeople. Whitley is part of a new generation that not only is pursuing artistic passion but learning how to turn it into a viable business.

Whitley credits much of his commercial success to the Kentucky Arts Council, a state agency that sponsors the annual Kentucky Crafted: The Market and many education and grant programs. He won a $7,500 Al Smith Fellowship and was a participant in the Platinum 10 program, which gives 10 Kentuckians a year of intense training in the business side of the arts.

“A few simple things I learned in that year really guided my business,” he said. “And it gave me the confidence to make a real living at it.”

The Kentucky Crafted program was created 30 years ago to help the state’s artists and craftspeople sell pieces they produced. But Whitley is an example of a new group of artists who are developing markets for one-of-a-kind pieces.

“He really likes to connect with the people he works with,” said Lori Meadows, executive director of the arts council. “It has been great to watch him get better and better and grow his business.”

Whitley didn’t set out to be a professional artist. After graduating from high school, his main goal was to get out of Kentucky.

Raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he received a scholarship to church-affiliated Chapman University in Orange, Calif., where he earned a degree in religious and peace studies. Whitley said he was accepted into seminary at Vanderbilt University, “but it just didn’t feel right.”

He studied in New Zealand, traveled the United States and worked briefly as a prototype builder for store fixture designer Corman & Associates in Lexington. Then he returned to Barren County.

“The best thing I did was move away for a few years,” he said. “I went all over the country looking for someplace pretty to be and couldn’t find any place better” than Kentucky.

Whitley bought nine acres near where he grew up and built an A-frame house with a big workshop in the basement. He started making and selling furniture, experimenting with designs and technique. But he didn’t know much about the commercial niche of art furniture until he went to Kentucky Crafted: The Market for the first time in 2005. “I said, ‘Wow, these people are just like me,'” he said.

Whitley guesses he has made about 125 pieces, 50 or 60 of them since he began focusing on art furniture. Many have ended up in Lexington homes, thanks to several years of exhibiting at the Woodland Art Fair.

Since he has become better known regionally and nationally, Whitley has been able to nearly double his prices. “Which means I’m actually just making a small profit,” he said. “We live simply, so it’s a pretty good living.”

Whitley’s furniture starts at about $1,800. His average piece sells for $3,000 to $5,000.

More than anything, Whitley said, higher prices allow him to work the way he wants to — slowly and carefully. “That’s what it’s all about: allowing yourself to take time to do excellent work,” he said. “Now, if I create 10 pieces of furniture a year, I’ve been really busy.”

Benches, tables and cabinets comprise much of Whitley’s work. “Chairs are my arch nemesis,” he said. “They’re difficult to build, difficult to make comfortable. But I keep trying.”

Whitley now goes to major shows looking more for commissions than sales of what he takes there. “I just need a few pieces to show my craftsmanship and aesthetic,” he said.

Whitley sold a $10,000 table at Kentucky Crafted: The Market last month in Lexington and got three commissions. Despite the economy, he said, “The couples with ten grand to spend are still out there.”

He also has pieces in corporate collections in Louisville, San Francisco and London, England; the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce headquarters in Frankfort and an art museum in Bowling Green.

When I visited his workshop recently, Whitley was working on his biggest commission yet — a walnut conference table for the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville. Made to seat 20 people, the table top is being built in quarters. Whitley had to go to Michigan to find enough walnut from a single tree so the grain and color would match.

When Whitley gets a commission, he talks with the client about what kind of piece he or she wants and how it will be used. He visits the room where it will be placed and observes other objects that will surround it.

“I see a piece of furniture in my head almost immediately when I talk to a client,” he said. He makes sketches, then a formal proposal, which is almost always accepted unchanged.

Whitley doesn’t work from detailed plans. “All of the details are worked out on the workbench,” he said, which includes taking cues from the wood’s grain, texture and moisture content. “I abide by the laws of the wood; all the things wood can do to make you look like a fool.”

Whitley’s favorite wood to work with is walnut, followed by cherry, ash and several varieties of maple. Hinges are the only hardware he buys; all knobs and pulls are custom-made for each piece.

He uses no commercial stains or paints, only age-old coloring techniques such as ebonizing. That process turns wood a permanent black through the use of iron, vinegar, tannic acid and other chemicals. Most pieces have oil-based finishes.

Whitley has had trouble finding good furniture lumber in Kentucky, so he buys much of his wood from boutique dealers in Pennsylvania. Planks are stacked against the walls of his workshop. “I’ll get weird boards and hang on to them for years before I decide what to do with them,” he said.

Whitley is constantly experimenting with ways to laminate, color and bend wood to achieve his artistic vision.

“I find myself identifying far more with sculptors these days than furniture makers,” he said.