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.

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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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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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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Seth Tuska continues father’s legacy, and more

September 27, 2008

Lexington sculptor John Tuska had a sign on his studio wall: Non basta una vita. In Italian it means, One life is not enough.

“It isn’t enough for all the things I want to do,” he once told an interviewer. “Work generates work.”

Fortunately for Tuska, who died in 1998 at age 67, there was someone to give his artistic vision another life.

In the past dozen years, Seth Tuska, 50, has been collecting, organizing and cataloging his father’s prolific work: more than 25,000 documents now housed at the University of Kentucky and more than 4,000 pieces of sculpture, drawing, ceramics and mixed media.

He has worked with a curator to create a 60-piece traveling exhibition that is being marketed to museums around the world. He has turned his childhood home into a museum of his father’s work, which had its “grand reopening” on Friday. And he has started a studio, gallery and reproductions business that he hopes will give the museum financial security.

He has worked with filmmakers Arthur Rouse and Kiley Lane on a documentary about his father that premiered in July on Kentucky Educational Television. And he is working with Lexington historian and author David F. Burg on a biography.

On one level, Seth Tuska has spent the past dozen years coming to terms with the most complex relationship of his life. On another, he has laid the groundwork for securing his father’s legacy — and for helping other Kentucky artists create theirs.

John Regis Tuska was born in Yukon, Pa., in 1931, the eighth of 10 children and the only son of a coal miner. The Great Depression was on, and when the mines shut down the family moved to New York City when Tuska was 6.

Tuska’s father, a Slovakian immigrant, never understood his artistic son, who would skip school and roam the stacks of the Brooklyn Public Library. Tuska graduated from an alternative high school for the arts and worked proofreading Collier’s Encyclopedia for 25 cents a day. It was the perfect job for a teenager with an insatiable appetite for knowledge.

After a hitch in the Navy, where he went to Japan and became fascinated with pottery, Tuska graduated from the prestigious New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. He came to Kentucky for a teaching job at Murray State University. Within three years, he moved to UK, where he was teacher and mentor to hundreds of students over three decades. The university is now home to the Tuska Center for Contemporary Art, a gallery in the Fine Arts Building.

Tuska’s wife and muse, Miriam, was a Jewish girl from New Jersey whose family disowned her for marrying Tuska, a Roman Catholic. She also was an art student when they met at Alfred, and she worked with textiles all her life. They had two sons, Seth and Stephen.

For years, Miriam Tuska tried to persuade her husband to go back to New York, where she thought his artistry would be more appreciated. Besides, she missed the ocean. But Tuska liked Kentucky, and the closest she ever came to living near the ocean was in 1975, when the family bought a Victorian house at 147 Old Park Avenue in Lexington, which she named “The Breakers.”

Tuska’s first major commission was Genesis, a ceramic interpretation of creation, which hangs on the 18th floor of UK’s Patterson Tower. He focused on ceramics until 1969, when he took a yearlong sabbatical to Rome and became fascinated with bronze sculpture and the human form. It dominated the rest of his life’s work.

“He was never trying to create a photograph,” Seth Tuska said of his father’s sculpture. “He was trying to create an idea that you’re looking at what’s going to happen next. Where is that motion going?”

Tuska’s next major commission, in 1974 for Vanderbilt University in Nashville, was a series of bronze panels depicting the mythological flight of Icarus. In 1985, he did a bust of U.S. Sen. John Sherman Cooper for the state Capitol in Frankfort.

Tuska loved experimenting with materials and technique. He sculpted in bronze, plastic and wire and made his own paper to mold reliefs that looked like bronze.

“The man never stopped; he was always trying something new,” Seth Tuska said. “He didn’t like being in the public eye. He liked the classroom and his studio. That was his environment. But if you came to him, he would talk your ear off.”

Tuska’s constant work left little time for physical fitness — or family, aside from the annual “Christmas tree/ Hanukkah bush,” an elaborate two-week family art project. Triple-bypass heart surgery only seemed to intensify Tuska’s desire to create as much as he could in life.

His last major piece — and the one most visible in Lexington — was Illumine, a series of 56 bronze figures celebrating individual human expression that are mounted on the façade of UK’s Fine Arts Building. He worked on it from 1985 to 1995. By the end, Tuska was too frail to cast the bronze, so his graduate students did. His son hung it.

Seth Tuska had spent 20 years as a structural engineer, designing bridges and homes. But when his mother fell ill, he became his parents’ caregiver. After she died in August 1996 at age 65, the next 18 months were a time of discovery, when Seth Tuska finally began to understand the forces that had driven his father — and kept them apart.

“Mom raised us,” he said. “My father worked all the time. He was a loving, giving person … but if you wanted to be in Dad’s world, you had to be in Dad’s world. That’s why I’m an artist. I spent a lot of time with him in his studio. He rarely included himself in our lives. I understand that now, but as a child it was a bit difficult.”

John Tuska got a second wind in the summer of 1997, when he returned to Japan to represent the arts in Kentucky. When he returned, father and son began converting the family home into a gallery and studio. Then, just before Christmas, John Tuska fell and shattered his right arm and drawing hand. It never healed properly.

“In those last few weeks, our conversations were very reflective,” Seth Tuska said. “For the first time in his life, his body would not let him do anything that he needed to do. One life was not enough for all the things he wanted to do.”

John Tuska died April 30, 1998. He apparently saw it coming: In 1964, he made three drawings depicting the stages of his artistic life. The final one showed him much as he would be 34 years later — broken right arm and all.

Working with Rachel Sadinsky, a Lexington-based independent art appraiser and curator, Seth Tuska organized his father’s papers and sorted through his studios at home and at UK’s Reynolds Building.

“The man never threw anything away,” he said. “My journey has been, how do I share this?”

There are the museum and gallery, the papers at UK, the documentary film, the biography, the exhibition and catalog. And then there is the business, selling Tuska reproductions to support the museum and related education efforts.

Because much of Tuska’s work depicted human figures in motion, his son is marketing limited-edition pieces to health and wellness companies. It doesn’t hurt that the International Spa Association is based in Lexington.

“I might get accused of re-creating my father’s work,” he said. “But these are all things we talked about doing and were directed by him.”

Seth Tuska said he wants his father to be remembered as a great artist.

“I’m the son promoting my father, so that’s a tough sell to begin with,” he said. But Alfred University is providing help and encouragement, and initial response from museums to the exhibit has been good.

Perhaps the most significant legacy project has been the creation of Tuska Studio and Foundry in the former 9,000-square-foot Perry Lumber Co. building on Walton Avenue.

Bronze artists usually sculpt in clay, but it is a time-consuming and expensive process to turn those sculptures into bronze pieces.

Three years in the making, the studio includes a wood shop, metal shop, ceramics studio, silversmith’s studio and a bronze foundry run by artist and teacher Brad Connell.

Tuska and Connell are expanding the foundry to give it the capability to do life-size sculptures. They hope it will fill a need for Kentucky artists and become a place where the public can learn about bronze sculpture.

Lexington not only has a lot of horses; it has a lot of equine artists, including top horse sculptors Gwen Reardon of Thoroughbred Park fame, Shelley Hunter, Karen Kasper and Alexa King.

Earlier this month, there was a “pour party” at the studio for the casting of the final pieces of Hunter’s half-life-size statue of John Henry, which will mark the beloved race horse’s grave at the Kentucky Horse Park.

“I was going to go to a foundry in Michigan, but that would have been a lot of trouble and expense,” said Hunter, executive director of the Lexington-based American Academy of Equine Art. “This is a wonderful resource for Lexington. We’re the horse capital of the world and do all these sculptures, and now we can make them here. The money doesn’t leave town.”

This was her first experience working with the Tuska Studio, Hunter said, “but it won’t be the last time. These guys have been wonderful.”

As she spoke, Hunter stood beside a wall that displayed artifacts from John Tuska’s career. his leather casting apron, images of his work, a copy of his studio sign, Non basta una vita.

Bronze was John Tuska’s favorite medium, and the son says his father had dreamed of having his own foundry.

In this life, he has one.

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If you go

Tuska Museum and Gallery: 147 Old Park Ave. Hours: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tue.-Fri., or by appointment. The space can be rented for meetings and events. Call Elizabeth Revell, (859) 255-1379.

Tuska Studio and Foundry: 248 Walton Ave. Visitors welcome during regular hours, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri. For more info, contact Seth Tuska at (859) 255-1379 or

Tuska Center for Contemporary Art: UK Fine Arts Building, 465 Rose St. Hours for fall: 12:30-6 p.m. Mon., Wed.; 3:30-6 p.m. Tue.; 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Thu.; noon-3 p.m. Fri. (859) 257-1545.