Chamber knows Kentucky art is good for business

February 27, 2011

FRANKFORT — When the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce decided to renovate and enlarge its headquarters to create more public space, chamber president David Adkisson said, “I kept saying I wanted something really Kentucky.”

He considered asking architects to design the 7,000-square-foot addition to look like a fancy Bluegrass horse barn, or even a bourbon distillery warehouse.

“They convinced me that wasn’t the way to go,” Adkisson said, as he gave me a tour of the beautiful, but conventional, new space.

What is happening instead is a better reflection of Kentucky’s uniqueness: the Chamber is filling its new building with a diverse collection of original art and furniture by the state’s contemporary artists and craftsmen.

Since the new space opened in April, it has been a big hit, with members of the business advocacy group and with other Kentucky organizations that have used the new meeting rooms, Adkisson said.

He said the project has more than achieved his goal of making the Chamber’s headquarters, near the intersection of Interstate 64 and U.S. 60, a prominent “front door” to Frankfort.

“We’re in the business of showing off the best of Kentucky, so this was a natural,” Adkisson said. “We made a conscious effort to create a gallery-like atmosphere that would showcase the artwork. Now, when groups come here, the art immediately becomes the focus of attention.”

The project also has been a significant boost for Kentucky artists — and not just because the Chamber has so far spent about $50,000 buying and commissioning pieces. Louisville distiller Brown Foreman gave $40,000 toward the art project, and most of the rest so far has come from building-project money, Adkisson said.

Lori Meadows, executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council, worked closely with the Chamber to identify artists and pieces for the building.

“It’s incredibly important for the Chamber to recognize that to complete a building, you need art,” Meadows said. “A lot of time went into the selection of pieces to make sure they were appropriate for each spot.”

The additional space was built onto the front of the Chamber’s existing 10,000-square-foot building. The two sections are connected by a new, light-filled lobby. The upper parts of the tall lobby walls are covered with panoramic Kentucky scenes by Jeff Rogers, a Lexington photographer best known for his two Kentucky Wide books.

The Chamber’s new board room is dominated by a round conference table designed by Brooks Meador of Interspace Limited in Lexington and produced by furniture maker Shawn Strevels of Faulkner Fain in Nicholasville.

The board room’s largest wall displays four large seasonal landscape paintings of Kentucky wilderness by John Lackey of Lexington. Light from a corner window illuminates a leaded-glass sculpture by Dan Neil Barnes of Lexington.

The building’s largest meeting space — the AT&T Teleconference Room — has a 10-painting suite by Lexington artist Dan McGrath, depicting scenes of commerce across the state.

The new addition also features paintings by Chris Segre-Lewis of Wilmore and Darrell Ishmael of Lexington, and mixed-media pieces by Kathleen O’Brien of Harrodsburg. There are decorative platters made by porcelain artist Wayne Bates of Murray, and a coffee table in the reception area made by Mark Whitley of Smith’s Grove.

“Our goal is to buy one new piece each year,” Adkisson said. After a few more pieces are purchased, he said, the Chamber plans to publish a brochure for visitors, telling about each artwork and the artist who created it.

“I think it’s exciting that they are realizing the value of art and supporting it,” said Ishmael, who in addition to being a successful artist is an executive with East Kentucky Power Cooperative in Winchester. “I think it’s really refreshing, and I wish other businesses would do it.”

Meadows said the Chamber’s collection has inspired several executives to contact her for help in acquiring original Kentucky art for their companies’ buildings. “That’s exactly what we want to see happen,” she said.

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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, 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.

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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

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


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

‘Clear as Mud’ seeks to clarify KY pottery history

July 4, 2010

Kentucky pottery has been popular with collectors for nearly a century, but its history has often been shrouded in mystery, ignorance and confusion.

A new book tries to sort out some of that confusion and explain the evolution of Kentucky porcelain, pottery and stoneware. But its title — Clear as Mud — acknowledges the difficult task.

This handsomely printed book is the work of Louisville art dealers Warren and Julie Payne, who specialize in Kentucky art. He edited and wrote some of it; she was responsible for the book’s excellent photography and design. Seven collectors from Kentucky and Ohio — Riley Humler, Larry G. Hackley, Jerry Nichols, Stephen J. Lee, Mike Slaven, and Nick and Marilyn Nicholson — contributed chapters.

The book is a resource for identifying pieces, and it has a source list of other books and magazine articles at the end. There are guides to identifying potters’ marks — and the work of potteries that left no mark.

Clear as Mud tells the history of several significant Kentucky potters and potteries. It also tries to put the artistic trends and influences of Kentucky potters in regional context, noting the influence of Cincinnati’s Rookwood Pottery Co., North Carolina mountain potters and the then-emerging tourist trade across the South.

The book explores the work of the Cornelison family, which claims a two-century legacy of pottery-making in Madison County, and it dissects disputes over the Bybee name by the Cornelisons and other potteries. Profiled artists and companies include Jonathan Browne Hunt, Kenton Hills Porcelains, Louisville Pottery Co., Hadley Pottery Co., Lexington Pottery Co. and Waco Pottery.

There is a section on “pinch” pots, and even one on unusual customer gift items produced by industrial potteries such as Owensboro Sewer Pipe Co.

Most Kentucky potters didn’t start out as artists. Their jobs were to make utilitarian objects, including crocks, urns, roof tiles and drain pipe. That often led to dishes and vases, colorful glazes, rich designs, elegant shapes and artistic style.

Payne acknowledges upfront that what distinguishes art pottery from plain pottery is debatable. He likens it to hate-crime legislation: It’s all about the mind-set of the perpetrator. Or pornography: A collector knows it when he sees it.

Whether you are a collector or just curious about those colorful pots that you have seen sitting around all your life, Clear as Mud is a quick, interesting read that just might clear up some confusion about one of Kentucky’s proud artistic traditions.

Two centuries of Kentucky art in one exhibit

June 26, 2010

PARIS – Kentucky has a long, rich and diverse tradition of visual art. An exhibit at the Hopewell Museum offers a taste of it all.

The Arts of Kentucky, a 45-piece exhibit of two centuries of Kentucky fine art and crafts, opened May 29 and continues through Aug. 22. The exhibit was put together by Estill Curtis “Buck” Pennington, an art historian who borrowed works from two public and 10 private collections, as well as several commercial galleries.

“My goal was to show as much as possible that had not been seen in public before,” said Pennington, a Bourbon County native who moved back home from Europe a few years ago.

The show includes a self-portrait and an exceptional painting of a child by Matthew Harris Jouett (1788-1827), Kentucky’s most famous portraitist.  Jouett was the son of Revolutionary War hero Jack Jouett and studied under Gilbert Stuart, early America’s most famous portrait painter.

The Jouett paintings belong to Central Kentucky collectors Mack and Sharon Cox. “They have been major collectors of Kentucky art for the last 10 years and are very talented antiquarians,” Pennington said.

Oliver Frazer (1808-1864), a Lexington-born painter, isn’t as famous as his friend Jouett, but he was a first-rate talent – and perhaps the first Kentucky-born artist to study in Europe.  This show includes fine Frazer portraits of his wife and two young daughters, as well as one of Kentucky politician Richard Menefee, for whom Menifee County was named (albeit misspelled).

Other featured artists that most modern Kentuckians have probably never heard of include William Edward West (1788-1857), who became famous after going to Italy and painting Lord Byron in 1822, and the landscape painters Robert Burns Wilson (1851-1916) and Harvey Joiner (1852-1932).

There also is work by one of Kentucky’s first distinguished female artists: Hattie Hutchcraft Hill (1847-1921), who was born in Paris, Ky., studied in Paris, France, and returned home to paint. “She had quite a career,” Pennington said.

One of Pennington’s favorite paintings is a 1917 portrait by John Bernard Alberts Jr. of Louisville cartoonist Paul Plaschke drawing in his studio. The painting is on the cover of Pennington’s 2008 book, Kentucky Master Painters.

Everyone knows about the great statesman Henry Clay, but did you know his brother, Porter Clay (1779-1850), was a talented Lexington cabinet-maker? This show includes an elegant card table he built.

There are several other pieces of Kentucky furniture, including an sideboard whose boards show what huge cherry trees were still around here in the early 19th century. There is a good sampling of Kentucky’s famous antique silver; the most impressive being a tobacco-themed trophy pitcher and goblets.

“In the last five years we’ve seen an incredible surge in collecting Kentucky furniture and silver,” Pennington said.

As impressive as the antiques are, the newer Kentucky art is every bit as captivating. It ranges from the Depression-era work of painters Edward Fisk (1886-1944) and Frank Weathers Long (1906-1999) to a colorful piece by the colorful Lexington painter Henry Faulkner (1924-1981).

There also is folk art, pottery and even a piece of commercial art that Kentucky Utilities customers of a certain age will remember: a wooden rendering of the cartoon character Reddy Kilowatt. “I wanted a little bit of everything,” Pennington said.

Living artists featured in the show include Robert Tharsing, Robert Morgan, Ann Tower, Robert James Foose and Gaela Erwin. The range of their work shows the variety and energy of Kentucky’s contemporary art scene.

The show is also a great opportunity to see the Hopewell, a light-filled gem of a community history and art museum. It is housed in a renovated 1910 beaux arts building that was originally Paris’ Post Office.

“I was interested in doing this because it reflects the Kentucky creative spirit at various points in time,” Pennington said of The Arts of Kentucky exhibit. “You get a chance to experience a variety of art forms in microcosm. And these paintings are some of the artists’ best work.”

If you go

The Arts of Kentucky

The Hopewell Museum

800 Pleasant St., Paris

Exhibit continues until Aug. 22

Hours: Wednesday – Saturday, Noon – 5 p.m., and by appointment

Admission: $3 for adults; students, children and members free

More information: (859) 987-7274

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Tuska seeks help in carrying on father’s legacy

September 12, 2009

Non basta una vita – Italian for “one life is not enough” – was the late John Regis Tuska’s motto to describe his artistic ambitions.

Now, his son is discovering that two lives may not be enough, either.

For the past dozen years, Seth Tuska has worked to preserve and publicize the legacy of his father, a prolific artist and University of Kentucky art professor who died in 1998 at age 67.

Seth Tuska, 51, turned the family home at the corner of Old Park and Central avenues into a museum of his father’s art. He engaged a filmmaker and curator to put together a documentary film about his father and catalog and traveling show of his work.

He sought commercial outlets for reproductions of Tuska pictures and sculptures, which depict the human form in motion. And he started a bronze foundry on Walton Avenue to support regional sculptors.

But last November, after a bronze-pouring at the foundry, Tuska said he went home with a ringing in his ears. Then, on Christmas morning, he awoke at 4 a.m. with an intense pain in his chest. Foolishly, he didn’t see a doctor for three weeks. When he did, he was taken straight in for quadruple heart bypass surgery.

But the worst was still to come.

Tuska said when he resumed normal physical activity in March, the ringing in his ears, which had never really gone away, got much worse. He now suffers from a severe case of tinnitus – a constant sound like cicadas in his head that makes it hard to sleep, read or concentrate.

Tuska said he now needs to deal with his medical crisis and entrust his father’s legacy to others. “I have to move on and figure out what’s ahead for the rest of my life,” he said.

The first public steps in that direction will come Friday. Mayor Jim Newberry is to issue a proclamation honoring John Tuska and his work, and he will accept the loan of a bronze figure, Energy Source, for display at city hall.

That evening, during Gallery Hop, the Kentucky Theatre Gallery will display 18 Tuska pieces. The theater will have two showings, at 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., of  Non Basta Una Vita, a 2008 documentary about John Tuska by Arthur Rouse and Kiley Lane.

Thanks to the event’s sponsors, attendees also will be given a film poster, popcorn and a drink. Tuska said he has worked with local arts educators to distribute many of the 600 tickets to students.

Where things go from there, Tuska said, depends on community interest – both artistic, and financial.

Tuska sold the foundary to artist Amanda Matthews Fields and enlisted a group of community leaders to advise him on how to proceed with setting up a non-profit Tuska Museum and Learning Center foundation to take over the family home and his collection of his father’s art.

Tuska lives upstairs in the home, but is in the process of moving out. He wants to keep the collection of his father’s work in Lexington.

His vision is to continue the home’s first floor museum. But, more importantly, he wants to use the upstairs apartment to house visiting artists and the 2,500-square-foot lower level for educational space.

Downtown developer Phil Holoubek, a member of the advisory group, said several strategies have been discussed. “Seth will have to decide what he feels most comfortable doing,” he said.

Holoubek said the Tuska collection includes outstanding art that could not only enrich the community culturally, but promote economic development.

LexArts President Jim Clark, who for six years directed the New York Public Art Fund, agreed. “If John Tuska had done this work in New York City he would have been a very prominent sculptor,” he said.

Clark sees a lot of potential for the Tuska Museum and Learning Center, if it gets the right leadership that can attract the necessary money.

“Having a house museum is perfect for Lexington,” Clark said. “It is intimate in scale. It’s in a beautiful neighborhood. Anybody flying into Lexington for the (horse) sales, that would be a perfectly lovely discovery. Part of that is just working with what they’ve got and marketing it.”

With more regular museum hours, more advertising and an experienced curator, Clark thinks the Tuska museum could become an important cultural destination. And he thinks Seth Tuska has the right idea about using his father’s legacy to encourage arts education.

In addition to the high quality of John Tuska’s work, Clark said, what made him special was his dedication to teaching. Great artists who also are great arts educators, like Tuska and Centre College’s Stephen Rolfe Powell, are rare.

A learning center that promoted arts education – and honored arts educators with a “Tuska prize” and residency – could put Lexington on the arts map. “That would be a very big deal in this country,” Clark said.

What’s needed now is for people to step up and help Seth Tuska make it happen.

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