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.”

Tempur-Pedic headquarters taps inspiration from local artists

February 11, 2013

Don Ament’s photo of a dogwood tree in his front yard was enlarged to 42 feet wide by 11 feet tall to cover a folding wall that separates an employee cafe from a meeting room at TempurPedic’s new corporate headquarters building in Lexington.   Photo by Don Ament


Many artists dream of landing a big commission. For photographer Don Ament, it came from Tempur-Pedic, the Lexington-based mattress company.

Representatives from Tempur-Pedic met Ament last March at Kentucky Crafted: The Market. Then they saw an image on his website of dogwood blossoms in sunlight. The website has images Ament made all over the world, but this one was shot in his yard in Lexington.

The company was furnishing its new headquarters building near Coldstream Park, and executives thought Ament’s photo would be perfect for a folding wall that separates the employee café from a meeting room.

This commission was challenging because it literally was big. The image, taken on a 2.25-inch square piece of film, needed to be enlarged and printed 11 feet tall by 42 feet wide.

Ament scanned the film to create a high-resolution digital file, then, with help from friend and fellow photographer Frank Döring, manipulated the image to sharpen edges and preserve color vibrancy. A company in Maine printed the photo in sections, and last week it was installed like wallpaper. The result is stunning.

“They could go anywhere for art,” Ament said of Tempur-Pedic. “But they seem really dedicated to local.”

Indeed, as Tempur-Pedic settles into its new 128,000-square-foot space, much more local art will be purchased, said Patrice Varni, a senior vice president.

The only other pieces now are two Italian glass and stone mosaics designed by Guy Kemper, a Woodford County glass artist who has done installations all over the world, some as big as airport terminal walls.

Kemper’s mosaics for Tempur-Pedic are abstract evocations, roughly 10 feet square, for the fourth-floor executive area.

One is called After the Storm. “It recalls the feeling of a Kentucky forest after a summer storm, when a steamy sun comes out and everything is dripping wet,” Kemper said.

The other mosaic, called Daybreak, is “a shot of color to energize the work environment and promote creativity,” he said. “A reference that you’ve had a good night’s sleep.” (On a Tempur-Pedic mattress, no doubt.)

Kemper said Tempur-Pedic executives and their interior designer, Gary Volz of Champlin Architecture in Cincinnati, approached him after seeing two mosaics he did for elevator lobbies at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled with the pieces by Don and Guy,” Varni said. “I’ve really been struck by the positive response from employees.

“There was a steady stream of people stopping by to watch the installations.”

Tempur-Pedic built its new headquarters, which has large windows and expansive views of the Bluegrass landscape, to replace a former warehouse that had evolved into offices and become overcrowded as the company grew.

“This building was designed with a particular focus on collaboration and integrating the various work groups, and engendering creativity and innovative thinking,” Varni said. “Art is a big part of that, that is meant to showcase and inspire creativity and innovation.”

Varni said the company has budgeted purchases of more art during the next few years, as its 360 employees settle into the building, figure out what would complement the space and learn more about the work of local artists.

“We feel very much a part of the community, because the company was founded here,” Varni said. “In our support for the arts, we felt first and foremost we should support local artists.”

Varni said the Kentucky Arts Council has suggested several local artists whose work might be a good fit.

“Art is such a subjective, personal taste kind of thing,” she said. “We like things that have some sense of nature and that run the range from more literal to more abstract. And we’re interested in a different range of mediums.”

As part of its mission to help Kentucky artists be able to earn a living from their art, the council sponsors Kentucky Crafted: The Market, which returns to Lexington Center from March 1 through 3.

Kemper and Ament hope more Kentucky companies will follow Tempur-Pedic’s example because the arts flourishes only in places where artists find good patrons. Plus, when that investment is made in the community, it help’s Kentucky’s economy.

“You don’t have to run to New York or Chicago to look for something great,” Ament said. “There’s more good work being done here all the time.”

Click on each image to enlarge and read caption:

DeWitt Godfrey sculpture is newest addition to Lexington skyline

July 3, 2012

Concordia was installed Saturday at the Downtown Arts Center. Photos by Tom Eblen


Want to see Lexington’s newest piece of public art? Drive down Main Street to the Downtown Arts Center — and look up.

Sitting on the roof of the old Lexington Laundry Co., an early 20th-century art deco building, is a stack of 15 giant steel cylinders. They lean against a taller wall next door, a neo-classical 19th-century building that forms the center of the arts complex.

The 14,000-pound sculpture, called Concordia, is the work of DeWitt Godfrey, an internationally recognized artist and art professor at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.

Godfrey and crane operators from Lexington’s Wilhite Ltd. spent 14 hours installing the sculpture Saturday, despite temperatures above 100 degrees. “They got very hot to the touch,” Godfrey said of the cylinders.

Godfrey left Lexington this week to cool off, but he will return to give a talk about the sculpture at 5:30 p.m. July 31 in the arts center, 141 East Main Street.

Concordia is typical of Godfrey’s work: creating cylinders by bolting together thick strips of Cor-Ten steel, an alloy that doesn’t corrode once it takes on a rusty patina. He stacks cylinders of various sizes, causing them to bend into unique shapes. Small cylinders are stronger and more rigid than big ones. Once in place and settled, the cylinders are bolted together.

“It’s fairly maintenance-free, which is a plus in the public art world,” Godfrey said, adding that the installation should last for decades.

“The process is not dissimilar from building a woodpile or a stacked-stone fence,” he said Sunday afternoon as he showed me the sculpture from behind as we stood on the arts center roof. “Your first priority is to make sure it is stable, doesn’t fall down and functions the way you want.

“The art is not entirely separate from the engineering,” he said. “It’s all about how the cylinders relate to the mass, their adjacencies and the supports.”

Before conceiving the piece, Godfrey spent time walking along Main Street, where he was impressed by the variety of architecture spanning more than 150 years. After the arts center’s architect and structural engineer made sure the building could support the weight, two steel beams were installed for the 18-foot by 28-foot sculpture to rest on.

In creating Concordia, Godfrey was thinking about buttresses, architectural structures that have been used since the Middle Ages to support walls by being built up against them. “Culture and community, they support each other; you don’t have one without the other,” he said. “If there’s symbolism in this, that’s what it is.”

The $72,000 project was a partnership between LexArts, the non-profit arts organization, and the 2010 class of Commerce Lexington’s Leadership Lexington program. Funding came from a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant, private donations, LexArts funding and in-kind contributions.

It is the second major public art installation that LexArts has sponsored recently. Surface Reflections, a 2011 piece by sound artist Bill Fontana, allows listeners at a spot off Main Street to hear water rushing through Town Branch Creek, which is buried below.

As with any piece of public art, LexArts President Jim Clark knows that some people will love Concordia and others will hate it.

“Contemporary art is the hardest to appreciate,” he said. “But if taking pictures is any clue of people’s liking of this, they have been doing a lot of that.”

Van Meter Pettit, an architect and Leadership Lexington class member, loves the sculpture.

“It fits nicely in a historic streetscape,” he said. “It doesn’t overshadow the buildings. It’s whimsical but not disrespectful.”

The process also was special: a call was put out to artists worldwide, and more than 100 submitted ideas. Rather than being given a specific location and criteria, they were asked to create their own vision for Lexington.

Arts professionals culled the submissions to 14, and public input was gathered at the 2010 Creative Cities Summit and other venues to narrow the finalists to five, from which a Leadership Lexington class committee chose Godfrey’s proposal.

Clark said he wants to create a “museum without walls” of world-class public art around Lexington, by Kentucky and international artists. Godfrey said this approach, which gives artists the freedom to be creative, is the way to achieve that goal.

“From the very beginning, it was, ‘Where do you see your work?'” Godfrey said. “It sets up a wonderful range of what other things are possible.”


Looking for public art? There’s an app for that.

March 23, 2011

Central Kentucky has more public art than most people realize, from edgy new murals and sculpture to historical architecture that has become so much a part of the landscape that we take it for granted.

Finding and learning more about this art has never been easier, thanks to a new, free tool that is as close as the palm of your hand.

The Kentucky Museum Without Walls project will soon release an Android version of its TakeItArtside! application, which was launched in November for Apple’s iPhone, iPad and iTouch.

The app is the brainchild of faculty and students at the University of Kentucky’s Art Department and Gaines Center for the Humanities and was developed by Lexington’s APAX Software. You may download it free from Apple’s App Store or the project’s Web site,

The application uses GPS mapping technology to direct users to art in public places in Fayette and surrounding counties. There is a photograph of and information about each piece. Users may search for public art in the region and make a gallery of favorites.

But that is just the beginning, said Christine Huskisson, the project’s co-founder and a part-time UK art professor. “It has the ability to engage people in public art who haven’t been engaged before,” she said.

Users may send feedback and information to project developers, such as whether a piece of art has been vandalized. Soon, they will be able to add additional artwork to the database, along with photographs and background information.

“We’re using the community to help us build the content,” Huskisson said, adding that submitted information will be edited and verified by project volunteers.

Interdisciplinary lesson plans for middle school and high school students are available on the app and the Web site, and discussions are under way about using them in local school systems. The app also has a calendar of events.

The app will soon launch an interactive game — ArtFit — that will help users count calories they burn while walking to visit artwork. Streaming video interviews with local artists will be added soon.

Eventually, Huskisson said, the project hopes to grow into its name and expand statewide, perhaps with help from UK’s network of county extension agents.

Georgetown College, where art department chair Juilee Decker has been active in public art projects, has joined as a partner in the Kentucky Museum Without Walls. Discussions are under way to bring in Transylvania University, too.

“It kind of has this life of its own,” Huskisson said. The collaborative nature of the project has allowed it to come a long way in less than a year. It recently won a regional award from the Association for Continuing Higher Education.

The project began when Marnie Holoubek asked Huskisson and her museum-studies students to help develop a public-art master plan for the Legacy Trail. As that project progressed, ambitions grew.

Huskisson discovered that Lisa Broome-Price, associate director of the Gaines Center, wanted to create a public-art database for the region. After receiving a $10,000 Commonwealth Collaborative grant from UK to develop their vision, they attended a professional conference in Baltimore and were inspired by mobile apps in New York and Portland, Ore., and an online public-art database in Philadelphia.

They and their students visualized the user experience — including games and lesson plans — and APAX Software figured out how to turn it into reality. Subsequent funding has come from the Gaines Center and private donations.

UK and Georgetown College students have collected information about artwork for the database — taking photos, writing descriptions and plotting GPS locations. The process has led to some interesting discussions about what is public art.

Huskisson said TakeItArtside! is including any painting, sculpture, mural or other work that is outside or in a building accessible to the general public. But project leaders are taking a broad view. Many historical homes were added to the database because they are architectural works of art, Broome-Price said.

By increasing awareness of public art, the project hopes to develop more appreciation for the art Kentucky has — and an appetite to create more.

“It’s about cultural assets in public places,” Huskisson said. “And we have a lot more of them than many people realize.”

Project promotes public transportation, public art

April 14, 2010

Yvette Hurt, an environmental lawyer and anti-smoking advocate, doesn’t have a background in public art or public transportation. But Art in Motion, the all-volunteer organization she and science teacher Scott Diamond started four years ago, has had a big effect on both.

Art in Motion has built two public-art bus shelters in Lexington, has two more approved for construction and is planning more. The organization will have a fund-raiser Saturday night.

“Sometimes I wonder how I got involved in this,” said Hurt, who was co-chair of Bluegrass Action, which pushed for Lexington’s 2004 public smoking ban. “I like art and public art, but I really see it as an environmental project. Building public transportation in Lexington is a huge environmental issue.”

The design for Art in Motion’s fourth bus shelter was chosen Monday from among 18 proposals by an eight-member jury of representatives from LexTran, the University of Kentucky, LexArts and the Aylesford Neighborhood Association. By fall, it should be in place on Euclid Avenue at Linden Walk, beside the UK Alumni House.

The garden-themed shelter was designed by Prajna Design & Construction, a Lexington firm whose principals and staff are all UK College of Architecture graduates.

The design is inspired by the simple sheds found on some Bluegrass horse farms. Made primarily of recycled steel and salvaged barn oak, the shelter will include a “green” roof of blooming sedum plants, a wall of ivy and low-voltage LED lighting.

“It’s not just public art; it’s a shelter. That’s what attracted us to it,” said Garry Murphy of Prajna. “I like the idea of architecture as art, and expressing a city’s individual qualities.”

Claudia Michler, who was on the jury as a neighborhood representative, said Prajna’s design stood out. “I think it will be nice to drive down that street and see a functional art piece,” she said. “Now it’s really a dull corner; it’s just concrete and asphalt and automobiles.”

The third Art in Motion shelter, Bluegrass, on Newtown Pike across from the Fayette County Health Department, also is expected to be completed in the fall, about the same time Garden Shelter is built. The Bluegrass shelter’s roof is supported by blue steel pipes resembling blades of grass, and the back has frames for two-dimensional art that can be changed periodically.

Art in Motion’s two completed shelters have drawn much public praise: The first, Bottlestop on Versailles Road, was finished in January 2009 and was built with translucent walls made from green Ale 8 One bottles. The East End Artstop, at Third Street and Elm Tree Lane diagonally across from the Lyric Theater, includes murals and a colorful sculpture called Lyrical Movement.

Each of the two newest shelters will cost about half the $36,000 that was needed for Artstop. UK contributed $12,000 toward Garden Shelter. Last August, Art in Motion and LexTran received a $150,000 federal grant through the state to help with future shelter projects. Other funding has come from a variety of sources, including LexTran and private donations of money and services.

Because Art in Motion, a part of the Bluegrass Community Foundation, is an all-volunteer effort, all money raised goes to shelter construction, Hurt said.

“Public art is the art that crosses all boundaries,” Hurt said. “In this case, it helps attract ‘choice’ riders to public transportation — people who could drive if they chose to. The more choice riders you attract, the more efficient public transportation becomes, and that’s good for the environment.”

If you go

Art in Motion Shakedown

What: Dance party and silent art auction to benefit Art in Motion.

When: 7 p.m.-2:30 a.m. April 17.

Where: Buster’s Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester St.

Admission: $8 donation at the door.

More info:

Click on each thumbnail to see full image:

  • If you go

    Art in Motion Shakedown

    What: Dance party and silent art auction to benefit Art in Motion.

    When: 7 p.m.-2:30 a.m. April 17.

    Where: Buster’s Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester St.

    Admission: $8 donation at the door.

    More info:

  • If you go

    Art in Motion Shakedown

    What: Dance party and silent art auction to benefit Art in Motion.

    When: 7 p.m.-2:30 a.m. April 17.

    Where: Buster’s Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester St.

    Admission: $8 donation at the door.

    More info:

  • If you go

    Art in Motion Shakedown

    What: Dance party and silent art auction to benefit Art in Motion.

    When: 7 p.m.-2:30 a.m. April 17.

    Where: Buster’s Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester St.

    Admission: $8 donation at the door.

    More info:

  • If you go

    Art in Motion Shakedown

    What: Dance party and silent art auction to benefit Art in Motion.

    When: 7 p.m.-2:30 a.m. April 17.

    Where: Buster’s Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester St.

    Admission: $8 donation at the door.

    More info:

  • If you go

    Art in Motion Shakedown

    What: Dance party and silent art auction to benefit Art in Motion.

    When: 7 p.m.-2:30 a.m. April 17.

    Where: Buster’s Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester St.

    Admission: $8 donation at the door.

    More info:

Public meeting Tuesday for Legacy Trail art

January 9, 2010

People with ideas or who want to learn more about the process for putting public art along the Legacy Trail are invited to a public meeting Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. at the Downtown Arts Center, 141 East Main St.

At the meeting will be Todd Bressi and Stacy Levy, an urban designer and artist who were chosen to coordinate the project. They have done similar work elsewhere, including Washington, D.C., and Pinellas County, Fla.

Marnie Holoubek, who helped form the Legacy Trail Public Art Consortium, said organizers want to continue the strong public participation that has marked planning for the Legacy Trail, a 9-mile walking and bike path from the Kentucky Horse Park to downtown Lexington’s East End.

There will be another public meeting before the public art master plan is completed in April, said Steve Austin, director of the Blue Grass Community Foundation’s Legacy Center. For more information, contact Austin at the Legacy Center at (859) 225-3343 or

Imagine Ohio River bridge as public art

September 26, 2008

Beligan artist and designer Arne Quinze is known for his large public art installations, many of which involve fluid masses of colorful wooden planks.

Quinze spoke at the Idea Festival on Friday, and he had a fascinating slide show of his work in cities around the world. Then, at the end, he had a surprise: A series of renderings and models of the old Ohio River railroad bridge turned into one of his art installations.

As it happens, Quinze met Louisville art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson in Europe last year. They invited him to Louisville to see their 21C Museum Hotel. When Quinze was here in March, he walked along Louisville’s emerging Waterfront Park.

“Within an hour of walking downtown, he saw the bridge and said, ‘I have an idea,'” said Alice Gray Stites, managing director of The Center for Contemporary Art at Louisville’s proposed Museum Plaza.

Quinze’s vision calls for turning what is to become a pedestrian bridge into one that would be a timeline of local history, with markers along the way. It would have music and lights powered by solar cells embedded in a mass of red and white wooden planks that would wind through the six arched steel spans atop the bridge. You can see some of Quinze’s renderings below.

“It’s a huge project, but I believe in it,” Quinze said. “We can do it and it would work.”

Stites said the Idea Festival presentation was the first time anyone in Louisville had seen Quinze’s proposal, so she doesn’t know what the reaction will be once it is shown to Mayor Jerry Abramson and officials developing public art projects for Waterfront Park. In addition to city approval, city funding also would be required to pull it off, Stites said.

Photo credit: copyright Arne Quinze

Photo credit: copyright Arne Quinze