Would a better flag boost Kentuckians’ pride in their state?

June 20, 2015

KyFlag

 

Kentucky needs many things: better health, more education, less poverty, less political corruption, a more-prosperous middle class, a less-polluted environment.

And a better state flag. I have thought that for years, but I’ve always considered flag design a trivial issue in a state with so many bigger challenges.

Ben Sollee changed my mind.

If you don’t know Sollee, he is an enormously talented singer, songwriter and cellist (yes, a cellist) whose unique style of folksy, bluesy, socially conscious music has attracted an international following. He also is a proud Kentuckian.

Ben Sollee. Photo by Tom Eblen

Ben Sollee. Photo by Tom Eblen

Sollee performed in Frankfort this month at the Kentucky Historical Society’s annual Boone Day festivities. I sat on stage and interviewed him between songs about his Kentucky roots and how they influence his art.

Kentuckians have a lot to be proud of, Sollee said, but they don’t express that pride as much as do residents of some other U.S. states and Canadian provinces. He thinks part of the problem is our flag.

“When I travel and I see people in British Columbia or Colorado or California, they are proud of where they’re from,” he said. “And they wear it all over. Everyone’s sporting the state flag, the state image, the state logo.

“We don’t have that in Kentucky,” he added. “Our state flag is not adopted on a cultural level. We need a better state flag!”

Two men wearing antique clothing and shaking hands in the middle of a blue flag, surrounded by goldenrod weed and a lot of words just doesn’t cut it graphically.

The handshake guys make a fine official seal. “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” is a great motto for a commonwealth, which is a more noble thing to be than a mere state. Goldenrod is pretty,  even if it does make me sneeze. But all thrown together, these things make a boring flag.

“Sitting here at the Kentucky History Center, I understand that’s a bit of blasphemy,” Sollee said, although his comments drew loud applause from the audience.

“There’s a lot of heritage behind that flag,” he added. “But there’s a lot of new heritage that’s not being represented by that flag. It’s a bad design, and it doesn’t communicate to a wide swath of people easily.”

I think Sollee is right, and so do flag design experts. Yes, there are experts who study the design, use and cultural significance of flags. They are called “vexillologists” and among the places they hang out is the North American Vexillological Association.

Last year, the association published “guiding principles” for good flag design. Kentucky’s flag violates most of them. It is what vexillologists call an S.O.B. — seal on a bedsheet.

When you see Kentucky’s flag flying at a distance, which is the way we usually see flags, it is blue with a vague golden blob in the middle, virtually indistinguishable from the flags of a half-dozen other states.

What state flags do the vexillologists like? Those of New Mexico, Texas, Maryland, Alaska, Colorado and Arizona, to name a few. They approach the quality of great national flags, such as the United States, Canada, Great Britain and South Africa. Even some cities, such as Chicago and Washington, have flags designed so well that residents embrace them.

With few exceptions, well-designed flags are simple, with two or three basic colors and meaningful symbolism that is easily recognized. They are distinctive, and they avoid seals and writing of any kind.

As Ted Kaye, author of the book Good Flag, Bad Flag, puts it: “A flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.”

When designing a flag, experts recommend starting with a rectangle 1 by 1½ inches. If a design doesn’t work in that small a space, it just doesn’t work.

“We could have a crowd-sourced campaign, which is to say let’s get the in-state artists to submit designs and have a competition,” Sollee suggested. “Let’s create a new piece of art that can be our state flag that we can all get behind and adopt.

“It would do wonders for people outside of Kentucky recognizing and visiting this place,” he said. “It would do wonders to have a banner that we could all wave around. I think it’s a small step that we could make big strides with. Let’s do it!”


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: Livestreamky.com.

“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.”


New photo book focuses on Kentucky originals

December 5, 2010

Guy Mendes is a photographer, a writer, a producer of TV documentaries and a collector of interesting friends. Many of the latter, including some of Kentucky’s most interesting artists and characters, are the subjects of his new book, 40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits.

“All of the people in the book were friends, family, mentors and teachers,” Mendes said. “In their own way, they showed me the way.”

An exhibit of 25 of Mendes’ striking portraits opens Dec. 9 at the tiny North Limestone gallery of Institute 193, which published the book. The entire collection will be displayed next year at a new gallery in the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, and then go on a two-year tour of galleries around the South.

The book includes writers Wendell Berry, James Still and Ed McClanahan; artists Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Robert Tharsing, Edgar Tolson and Ann Tower; performers Ashley Judd and Ben Sollee; and characters Carlos “Little Enis” Toadvine and Bradley Picklesimer. Mendes wrote a short essay with each portrait, telling something about the subject and the circumstances of the photograph.

“Taken together, these photos give lie to the notion that Kentucky is a backward place without much culture,” Mendes said. “Kentucky has been home to some very creative thinkers and talented artists and musicians.”

The cover image isn’t of anyone famous — or even from Kentucky. It is a 1977 picture of Robert Bass, Mendes’ childhood friend and “adventurous alter ego,” standing on a beach wearing a scuba mask, flippers and his underwear, and holding a lobster. It was chosen, Mendes said, “because it lets you know fun is involved.”

In many ways, the book represents Mendes’ personal journey. Born and raised in New Orleans, where his grandmother had been the Queen of Mardi Gras in 1904, he came to the University of Kentucky in 1966 to study journalism. Except for a summer in Houston, where he was an intern for Newsweek, and a year in Connecticut, Mendes, 62, has lived in Central Kentucky ever since.

After studying under Berry, Mendes changed his major from journalism to English. He also quit UK’s student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, to help publish one of the era’s best underground papers, The Blue-Tail Fly.

As a boy, Mendes had a Polaroid camera, “and I made some experimental pictures of my cat and my feet,” he said. Then, in college, he met Meatyard, a Lexington optician who, after his death from cancer a week before his 47th birthday in 1972, became an icon of 20th-century art photography.

Meatyard and Robert May — whose bequest to The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky launched its photography collection and lecture series — took Mendes along on weekend picture-taking excursions. With old houses and the Bluegrass landscape as backdrops, they used people, props and special effects to create art. The trips had a profound effect on Mendes.

“I began to see that photography could be a means of expression and not just a recording tool,” he said. “Wendell Berry and Gene Meatyard changed the way I thought about words and pictures.”

Another influence was the poet and photographer James Baker Hall. The longtime UK professor took Mendes into his Connecticut studio as an apprentice in 1971, when Hall was teaching photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and literature at the University of Connecticut.

“Jim always said that a good portrait is not taken, but given; it is a collaboration between the subject and the photographer,” Mendes said. “The people in this book all had an energy I admired, and I wanted to get a little of that energy in the picture.”

Mendes joined Kentucky Educational Television in 1973 and became a writer and producer of award-winning documentaries before his retirement in 2008. “I was lucky to have a job where I could put words and pictures together,” he said.

But his passion was always black-and-white still photography, which he taught at UK for 14 years. “It was always the work I did for myself,” he said. “I’m still excited about the next picture and what it might look like.”

Mendes lived in a rented farmhouse in rural Woodford County from 1974 until 1990, soon after he married Page, a painter and Web designer. They and their two sons — Wilson, 16, and Jess, 14 — now live in Ashland Park, where Mendes works from a backyard studio designed by the pioneer solar architect Richard Levine.

Digital technology has revolutionized photography, but Mendes still prefers to shoot film and use an enlarger and chemicals to make high-quality prints, which he sells through Ann Tower Gallery.

Mendes published a book of his photographs in 1986, Light at Hand, an assortment of landscapes, portraits and figure studies. The idea for the new book came from Phillip March Jones, a young Lexington artist who started the non-profit organization Institute 193 last year to promote the region’s less-celebrated artists.

Jones said he was sitting in Mendes’ studio one day last year looking at portraits and listening to him tell stories about their subjects. He was struck both by the quality of Mendes’ work and the fact that nobody else had made such a visual record of this slice of Kentucky life.

Jones edited the book, which was designed by Carly Schnur. To raise money for printing, they turned to Kickstarter.com, a Web site that organizes backers for creative projects. Within two months, 150 backers had pledged $9,235. Most signed up to buy the book for $25. (Since the printing, nearly 400 more copies have sold at the $35 retail price, Jones said.) Some also pledged more money in return for special benefits.

“Now I must sing for my supper,” Mendes said with a smile. He will give private tours of his studio to 15 backers, take portraits of four others and teach two-hour photography workshops for three more. He also will make two special-edition books with hand-printed photographs.

“This book would not have happened without a little help from my friends,” Mendes said. Both the friends who helped produce the book and those who, over the past four decades, have given their portraits to his camera.

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

IF YOU GO

Guy Mendes: ’40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits’

Exhibit: Dec. 9-Jan. 29 at Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and by appointment. For more information, visit Institute193.org.

Gallery show opening reception: 6-9 p.m. Dec. 9 at Institute 193.

Book signing: Noon Dec. 11 at The Morris Book Shop, 408 Southland Dr. Call (859) 276-0494 or visit Morrisbookshop.com.

HOW TO GET THE BOOK

The book 40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits is available in Lexington at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Morris Book Shop, Black Swan Books, Institute 193 and online at Institute193.org.


The best show in Lexington on Saturday night

November 29, 2009

Having seen too many disappointing Kentucky-Tennessee football games, I decided the best show in town Saturday night would be at historic Floral Hall at The Red Mile. I was right.

Lexington’s Ben Sollee, an amazing musician and songwriter who is going to be really famous one of these days, was playing with collaborator Daniel Martin Moore at a benefit for Institute 193, a creative little (and I do mean little) art gallery at 193 Limestone St.

Sollee is a classically trained cellist, but sings and plays the instrument like nobody else you’ve ever heard. He mostly performs his own music, a combination of folk, jazz, bluegrass and R&B.

More than 100 people were there, and it was a terrific night of music in one of Lexington’s classic small venues. About the only illumination was Christmas twinkle lights wrapped around the octagon-shaped building’s central support posts, which made for a lovely atmosphere (and difficult photography).

For more about the musicians, go to www.bensollee.com and www.danielmartinmoore.com.  To learn more about Institute 193, go to www.institute193.com.

Click on each thumbnail to see the complete picture.


Have cello and bicycle, Ben Sollee will travel

June 9, 2009

At age 25, Ben Sollee has gained a national following with his heartfelt songs, his soulful voice and his unconventional cello technique.

Sollee can do amazing, unexpected things with a cello. He’s doing one this week, and it also involves a bicycle.

“I was looking for something a little bit different in touring,” he said. “I had gotten in this habit of flying to one side of the country and flying back for one gig, then hopping in the car and driving six hours for another gig. The pace was inhuman. I wasn’t really feeling the places I was at anymore.”

Sollee is feeling those places this week.

Oh, is he feeling them.

Last Wednesday, Sollee and two friends began riding bicycles from his Lexington home to the annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festval at Manchester, Tenn., where he will perform this weekend.

They rode from Lexington to Frankfort in a steady rain, and Sollee gave a concert when they arrived. The next morning, they officially began the 330-mile Pedaling Against Poverty Tour.

Each day since then, the trio has ridden about 50 miles a day, stopping to play concerts in Danville, Berea, Somerset and Cookeville, Tenn. Another show is planned near McMinnville, Tenn., on Wednesday. Then they ride to Bonnaroo.

In addition to making a statement about environmentally friendly music touring, Sollee said the trip is intended to promote the anti-poverty charity Oxfam America and Xtracycle, the California company that made the bikes he and Marty Benson are riding.

The stretch bicycles have 24 gears, disc brakes and a cargo platform in back. Sollee has his cello case strapped to one side. His gear is strapped to the other side for balance.

Benson is videotaping each day’s progress and posting it on Xtracycle’s Web site.  Benson’s sister, Katie, is with them on a regular road bike.

“Considering I hadn’t really ridden much before this tour, it’s going great,” Sollee said Monday. As he talked on his cell phone, Sollee pedaled Ky. 90 through Wayne County. His voice was occasionally drowned out by the swoosh of a passing truck.

“We had a really hard day going from Berea to Somerset … hauling about 60 pounds of gear up all those big hills,” Sollee said. “Heading into Somerset I didn’t think I was going to make it. We pulled in eight minutes before show time.”

There have been a few minor breakdowns and a couple of wrecks without injuries. Sollee ran off the road near Harrodsburg while trying to ring a bell on the back of Benson’s Xtracycle. It’s a game: Whoever rings the other’s bell the most pays for dinner at the end of the trip.

“Marty rang my bell today and wrecked his bike,” Sollee said. “It was sweet revenge.”

Sollee said he has learned several things on the ride, such as how roads are graded, how diet influences stamina and the importance of pacing yourself. And he has learned it is hard to draw a crowd at small-town concert venues.

Usually, Sollee is good at drawing crowds. National Public Radio named him one of the top 10 “unknown artists of the year” in 2007. He became a lot better known last year with two CDs, If You’re Gonna Lead My Country and Learning to Bend.

He performed on ABC-TV’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! in March and was among those who played at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert last month in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Sollee was the featured performer at February’s “I Love Mountains” rally in Frankfort. His next project is a CD with Daniel Martin Moore to raise awareness about mountaintop removal coal mining.

It is an impressive resume for a native Lexingtonian who not that long ago was studying at Yates Elementary, Winburn Middle, Lafayette High and the University of Louisville school of music.

When I called again Tuesday afternoon, Sollee had 45 miles under his belt for the day and was eight miles from Cookeville.

“We’re within spitting distance,” he said. “We made really good time today.”
With Bonnaroo only two days and about 75 miles away, Sollee seemed to have gotten a second wind.

It’s hard to know if Sollees’ Bonnaroo performances will be as high-energy as usual. Life on the road is hard on a musician, especially when he has to pedal his cello up all of those big hills.

Check out Marty Benson’s daily videos from the trip: