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Arts

Ghosts and the Clothes They Wear: Mike Goodlett’s Life with Art

It’s been a week or so since I visited Mike Goodlett in his sanctuary.

“Sanctuary” is one of those go-to words I never go to, but I’m going to it now, after having experienced its manifestation in real life.  Where Goodlett makes art is simply that: a place of refuge, of safety, sort of sacred but also a little scary, like a hiding place you go to in dreams when you are being chased by blurry creatures you may not be able to remember but then wake up and try to draw.

In this case, “sanctuary” is an anonymous farmhouse with a gravel road leading up to it tunneled in trees and vines.  The day I visited was all crystal-clear blue sky, a beautifully strange shine on and coming from everything, like a photograph that never gets taken but somehow still is a photograph.  The house is white-sided, two-storied, and gray-roofed, with multiple front and back doors, lots of windows, and all around it is yard going off into land, some of it barren, some of it treed, grass just now sprouting into life.

Mike Goodlett’s Studio

I parked and got out of my car.  There wasn’t any wind, just that bright chilly air.  Even though I had never been here before, it was like a returning.  Meeting Goodlett was like that as well.

He is tall and unassuming, very polite, and we shook hands after I called him on my phone, confused by which door I should knock on.  We both were awkward at first, but almost instantly we got down to business.  I was here to see his art, and this is where he makes it, so we went on in, an automatic transfer from reality to ghostliness.  Nothing unnerving at all about it though.  There wasn’t an abandoned-house fustiness, or even a feeling of loss; it was the smell and ambience of lives having been lived, dusty but clean, sunlight baking old wood and plaster into an atmosphere.

“I’ve always wanted to be left alone,” Goodlett said.  It was sort of a joke, but I think he meant it as a solemn introduction too.

“I mean, I can’t find a group I want to be a part of.  So being out here for me has made a lot of sense.”

The house is actually his grandmother and grandfather’s. They died 30 or so years ago, and since then Goodlett has used the rooms, and the vicinity, as his studio and headspace, creating batches of artworks made from the humblest of materials (concrete, plaster, thread, ball point pens, pencils, crayons, and spray-paint) but that exude a sophistication that belies the humility of their construction.

Goodlett escorted me through each room of the house, which is gutted mostly, emptied of hominess so it can supply this new form of utility.  The wallpaper is shredded at points, but still covers many of the walls in a handsome form of pentimento, like a shirt half torn off.  A small black wood-burning stove occupies the middle portion of the house, releasing that warmth and smell from my own backwoods childhood: wood-smoke almost like a cologne.  In the kitchen a long table covered in stacks of books, drawing paper, pen and pencils, a coffee urn.

In each of the rooms Goodlett displayed works he wanted to show me.  We started out, though, in a cold little side area where he was experimenting with spray paint and cut-out stencil-like netting.  There were chunks of sculptures in here as well.

He walked around showing me what he was trying to figure out, and then told me, “I love changing materials, figuring out what they can do for me.  Ideas, too. I move from one body of work into another that way.  I know a body of work is finished really when I don’t have any more energy for it, and when it has a place to go.  Energy and interest are kind of linked that way.”

This house itself was like his manifesto in a lot of ways: objects and ideas half-formed, trying to find each other.  An exuberance flashed out of everything that’s not finished, that was looking for a way to be something else.  At one point he showed me some homemade lace he’d constructed from thread, pastel cobwebs shaped into socks and little hats, creepy and droopy but also innocently tattered, as if made to be used by ghosts.

Goodlett walked us through a hall and into another first-floor room, which was crowded with more sculptural works, as well as pages and pages of his drawings spanning across the gray-painted wood slats.  His three-dimensional objects have a tenderness you can’t name, concrete/plaster-formed mainly biomorphic and/or humanoid shapes that have evolved from the drawings.  And conversely, the drawings often vacuum in the shapes of the sculptures, a sort of aesthetic circle-jerk that reminds you both of angelic visitations and, well, group sex.

Or, as Goodlett likes to call it, the intersection of “whimsy” and “pornography.”  That’s one of his main themes, he told me, a way of trying to figure out the meaning of those two usually unintegrated penchants, often seen as polar opposites.  Whimsy in visual art often can become a twee exercise in flirtation, pornography a way to shock or display street cred.  The drawings, on paper and cardboard, created through an enmeshing of ink and pencil, needle and thread and paint, get at that merger without losing a sense of vigor and intimacy.  They are shapes pulled from gestures and moans that have ballooned into myth.  Through that clarification process, whimsy connects to porn, and abstract goes concrete.

In a drawing from 2011 titled “Dress Socks” (from a show called “Dress Socks and Other Diversions” at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky), Goodlett gets down to the whimsy of porn and the porn of whimsy through a delicate fetishization of everydayness.  It’s an abstracted image of socks, given a veil of obsession, but a delicate ritual line informs every aspect of the drawing, like a Spirograph finding its way to language.  The drawing’s beauty comes from Goodlett’s dedication to finding what makes something erotic when it is not, what makes something endearing when it’s just an object you slide your feet into.  That investigation is done without words but through an adherence to what drawing can mean and do, a visual language that does not ever need a thesaurus.

Mike Goodlett, Dress Socks, 2011, ballpoint pen and thread on paper, 19 x 15.5 inches

We went upstairs.

Witnessing all of Goodlett’s rooms on display in his own personal museum up on the second floor, I kept thinking of Philip Guston’s jazzy delinquency and Georgia O’Keefe’s penchant for curves – all of that aestheticism laid bare through a need to make something personal, to find relief.  Throw a little Dichirico in there too, especially when taking in Goodlett’s objects: that stony sense of stillness matched with a yearning for songs of love.

In a piece I saw in one of the rooms, “Untitled” (from the 2015 exhibit “Human Behavior” at the John Goodlett Kohler Art Center), the connection to all of the above references comes through clearest.  The shape is chandelier crossed with internal organs, all of that turned to stone and then clothed in gauzy spandex, like something a mummy-stripper might put on to take off.  The muted color gives it dreaminess and pallor, but also highlights the stalagmite seriousness of its existence.  The solidity of it is an elegant joke too, like a lead balloon, but also you feel enlightened by its sense of holiness somehow.  It’s something you might worship, like an Egyptian artifact after the fact.

Michael Goodlett, Untitled

Goodlett mentioned Osiris in this room upstairs. The Egyptian-ness of his pursuit.

“It’s like inviting something supernatural to come and visit,” he said.  “Like I’m making vessels to contain them.”

One of many Osiris’s many identities is “Lord of Silence.”  He also goes by “Ruler of the Dead,” probably the first Egyptian deity to be associated with the mummy wrap, containing the dead in supernatural fabric to protect them as they made their way out of themselves.

Goodlett also explained to me that he works in cycles. Each cycle gets determined through exhaustion and external deadlines.  He is constantly pursuing obsessions, materials, and subject matter with an eye toward perfecting what he can, reinventing what he invents, and repurposing what he gets rid of.  (Right beyond the back porch is a beautiful pile of tossed-aside concrete and plaster pieces, a little encampment of future shapes, ideas, connections.)

In each room upstairs, drawings and sculptures waited for us politely, leaned up against the walls, ready for whatever.  My mind went to J. F. Sebastian from the movie Bladerunner.  He’s the genetic engineer left behind on Earth after most people have gone to colonize other planets, and because of dystopian loneliness and boredom he creates a generation of toys and androids to help him feel a little less alone.

I’ve always considered J. F. Sebastian a beautifully realized portrait of an artist without the normal baggage associated with “being an artist.”  His connection to what he makes is sincere and real, and yet he also understands the purpose of his practice in a pragmatic, unadorned way. He needs to make things in order to have someone there at the end of the day to greet him, to break away from a world that may no longer be there for him.  He creates an ecosystem out of bits and pieces, and in a movie filled with bleakness and doubt his existence feels the most hopeful and ironically the most grounded.

At one point, in one of the rooms upstairs, Goodlett brought in a bunch of drawings and laid them out on the floor, an overwhelming overspill.  You could tell he doesn’t like to talk about his work until he starts talking about it. But once he got going, he seemed relieved to be able to say what he wanted to say.

“Solitude appeals to me,” he said.  “But I also know I need to have a place for all of this stuff to go.”

He mentioned Philip March Jones as one of those external factors who’s assisted in understanding where he might fit in the world outside of here.  Jones, funder of Institute 193 and currently its Curator-at-Large, visited Goodlett here ten or so years ago and would not take no for an answer after asking Goodlett to have a one-man show.  Now dealers and curators often come to him.

All of my talk about J. F. Sebastian and solitude and sanctuary might make you consider Goodlett an “outsider artist.”  I truly hope not.  I don’t really think those old-school rules of arbitrary classifications apply here or basically anywhere now.  Goodlett graduated from an art school in the 1980s (Cincinnati Art Academy), and he has had exhibits at a lot of high-end joints, write-ups in national media (BOMBmagazine and Artforum, just to name a couple).  His outsiderness really is not something to focus on or to conjure.  He is an artist living his life, using what he makes to keep his life and energy and interest going.

At the end of our visit Goodlett told me he had to go to the grocery store next.  He explained how he’s one of the only family members left who can take care of his elderly mom and his aunts.  He spends a lot of time making sure they are doing okay, and then he comes out here to pursue what he needs to pursue.

This farmhouse from his childhood is not Paradise Gardens, or a version of Watts Towers.  It’s just where he has wound up.  Somehow the journey and the destination have merged into both an artistic practice and a reason to live.  Making art, whoever is making it, weaves the inner-world into the outer-world in a way that allows you to recover and replenish and continue.  This rooms in Goodlett’s farmhouse are always evolving, changing, and he always struggles to figure out what fits where.  What drawing can give birth to three dimensions, what object can be sucked into two.  This space has given him permission to do the work he needs to do: making clothes for ghosts, making ghosts so he can make clothes for them.

“I guess you’d call everything I do part of an ongoing installation that never ends,” he told me.

Eventually, we went outside and did a little tour of the yard and surrounding area.  Just beyond his front yard is a thicket of tall trees where he’s installed a couple of sculptures.  One of them, sprouting from the mud like the hardened teats of a buried cow, is the perfect example of whimsy sliding into something a little less than charming and more guttural.  It’s ridiculous but also makes perfect sense.

Goodlett’s pursuit of art is converging the need to be seen with the need to disappear.

Right before the end of our visit, Goodlett talked about his legacy in terms of where all this work might go.  He told me he had a dream that he would have all of his works stored in an anonymous storage shed, and he would give the key to someone, right before he passes.  He smiled.

“The only problem is – who do I give the key to?”

I nodded my head.  We said goodbye.

The night  before visiting Goodlett, I went to an Iron and Wine concert, so I was playing Iron and Wine songs all the way here and all the way back.  When I arrived, and when I left, the song I was listening to was “Resurrection Fern,” from the 2007 album The Shepherd’s Dog.  The music is steel-guitar languish blurring into folk-rock lament.  Sam Beam’s voice has a cadence and warmth to it, like a voice you hear only inside your head when you’re dozing off in church.

“Resurrection Fern” starts with these words:

In our days we will live
Like our ghosts will live
Pitching glass at the cornfield crows
And folding clothes.

I won’t be able to hear that song now without thinking about the depth and amount of Goodlett’s work, the place where he makes it, and the life he’s lived in order to be able to do it.  There’s a poetry to his pursuit you can’t write poems about; you can only acknowledge his lifelong project by knowing his work is a journey toward making more work, and more work, until all of it will need to a final place to exist – a pyramid, a museum, a storage unit, or a haunted house. It doesn’t matter.  Wherever it all goes it will be called “home.”

Arts

Scene&Heard: The Vocal Firepower of the Lexington Singers

There are plenty of ways to sing that sound interesting. There are, while admittedly fewer, still many ways of singing that sound pretty, or powerful, or pure. There is no way of singing yet invented that can match a fully developed bel canto voice.

Bel Canto, a vocal technique developed in Italy from the sixteenth century onward, is the open and clear sound, usually sung with a quaver in the voice called vibrato, and that’s stereotypical of the opera, and of classical music in general. It takes years for a singer to develop a proper bel canto voice, and singing with it, drawing breath from the diaphragm and propelling to the back of an often massive concert hall, is not just technically demanding but physically exhausting. It’s a way of singing that makes you sweat.

When the young bass-baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief, midway through the first act of the oratorio that he sang on Friday night, that exhaustion was beginning to show. He didn’t let it phase him in the slightest. The oratorio—a kind of long vocal work that incorporates orchestra, chorus, and solo voices—was Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah, one of the most famous, and famously demanding, examples of the genre.

Reginald Smith, Jr. (publicity photo, from reginaldsmithjr.com).

The Lexington Singers had invited Smith, along with several other soloists and the UK Chorale, another choral group, to join them in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Performing in UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts (like many classical groups in Lexington), the Singers set themselves the challenge of filling up a concert hall that could swallow most bars or clubs without losing half of the seats.

When the Lexington Singer’s Chamber Orchestra joined the vocalists on the stage, the entire scale of the enterprise became hard to ignore—there were over one hundred singers, and nearly fifty instrumentalists, assembled for the sole purpose of creating over two hours worth of almost continuous music. The piece they were set to perform would require nothing less.

Felix Mendelssohn composed Elijah for an 1846 premiere; he died less than a year afterward, at only thirty-eight years of age. The oratorio, therefore, is the closest thing to a mature work that the young composer and former child prodigy left to the world.

Stylistically, Mendelssohn always made a habit of looking back to the delicate and precise music of the Bach and Haydn, as opposed to the radical innovations of contemporaries like Liszt or Wagner. While the early Romantic period that he lived through was in many ways defined by composers challenging the harmonic and structural components of the classical tradition, Mendelssohn would never push the boundaries of what harmony and traditional musical forms could convey—his chords are always clean, and they always lead exactly where you expect them to.

Nevertheless, Elijah strikes a balance between the old and the new of Mendelssohn’s time: while the overture has a formally complicated fugue motion that’s reminiscent of Bach, the thick orchestral textures and propulsive rhythmic intensity of the music point to an unmistakable Beethoven influence on Mendelssohn’s style. Creating those complex forms and textures requires not only a choir that can sing up to eight voice parts at once but a full orchestra to back them up.

Coordinating such a large number of people for a performance is a task that’s almost entirely reserved to the world of classical music (imagine a rock band with more than six or seven members at the most, and you understand why), and classical groups have a unique figure devoted solely to the task of keeping everyone on the same page of the score: the conductor.

Dr. Jefferson Johnson has served as the conductor for the Lexington Singers for many seasons now, and his ability to direct the choir, while formidable, clearly cannot compare to his ability to choose a soloist perfectly suited to the Singers’ performance.

Jefferson Johnson (Photo by © Sally Horowitz)

Smith sang the title role, with a style that can only be described, appropriately enough, as biblical. With a throbbing, richly textured tone that conveyed every ounce of emotion that played across his expressive face, Smith leapt from a roaring castigation of the wayward Israelite King Ahab to a soft, subtle lamentation of the fate of his people, and in a searching, haunting aria, he found his way back to a joyful, soaring vision of a flaming chariot come to take him up to Heaven.

Smith has a voice that is too flexible, too widely developed and able to convey a breadth of emotions to offer easy categorization or comparison. Suffice it to say that he is a singer in impeccable command of an extraordinary talent.

Shockingly, Smith is still considered a rising star in the classical world, not yet fully arrived as a star in his own right. However, if his performance in Elijah is anything to judge by, Smith will be drawing comparisons to premier bass-baritones like Eric Owens before long—and some of those comparisons will be favorable to Smith.

Reginald Smith, Jr. | Photo by Sarah Shaw

The Singers, as a choir, also acquitted themselves well. The piece is noted for its rousing and overpowering choral movements. As the music built to climax after climax, the Singers’ voices bubbled, swelled, and rose like a tsunami to crash over the orchestra, the audience, and the building itself in an exactly controlled roll of passion into passion.

The orchestra itself played with a frenetic energy that clearly fed itself off of the remarkable vocal performances. In particular, first cellist Benjamin Karp managed to play with such a fury that he frayed his bow; he then went on to play a tender accompaniment to one of Smith’s second-half arias.

The other soloists also demonstrated the kind of vocal skill that it takes to perform a piece like Elijah. Contralto Shauntina Phillips enveloped the hall in a low, warm sound, even as the orchestra roiled and churned at full intensity behind her.

Shauntina Phillips | Photo credit: National Association of Teachers of Singing

Soprano Amanda Balltrip pierced through the air with a light but wonderfully intense lilt as she sang, unexpectedly, from the back of the hall. Likewise, soprano Katherine Olson set her voice to fly above the assembled choral and orchestral forces and distinguished herself even among the talent around her. Tenor Taylor Comstock snaked his high, silvery voice through the audience and left the impression of a particularly delicate but beautiful flower.

That’s not to say there weren’t a few flies buzzing about the hall. Mendelssohn prepared the text of the oratorio in both German and English, but since its premiere in 1846, the English version of the text has predominated (to understand why you only have to listen to a few minutes of singing in German). The Singers chose to maintain the English text. Unfortunately, the chorus had a sometimes hazy diction that made it difficult to determine exactly what was being sung. There was also a consistent difficulty with the ‘sss’ sound—there were moments when it sounded as though the choir was beating back an infestation of snakes. Despite some minor setbacks, however, the evening was a remarkable success.

The story of Elijah is the story of a prophet reprimanding his people for wandering from the path of righteousness. If they wandered into this performance, even the taciturn man of God would be hard-pressed to find a reason to condemn them.

Arts

Help Musicians Beat the Blues

“We are a town that likes to say we love our music and we love our musicians, and we support everybody,” says Robbie Morgan, founder of the newly-launched Lexington Musicians’ Emergency Fund. The “but” is implied in her statement, although the implication is clear.  “We kind of leave this one entity (independent musicians) off to the side…if you’re a musician, you’re kind of on your own.”

This shot across the bow of the Lexington cultural scene is more than talk, however, and Morgan now heads a small group of dedicated individuals ready to walk the walk, or, more precisely, flash the cash.

Enter the Lexington Musicians’ Emergency Fund (LMEF), a privately-funded organization designed to pick up the slack for working musicians in need of emergency assistance.

Morgan alludes to recent events involving musicians that struck a little too close to home, triggering a sense of urgency to begin building a safety net.

“That was too many people in town…that are close to suicide, or heroin addiction, or homelessness, or all of the above, and it was just like, ‘this is all just too close’.”

J. Tom Hnatow | Photo credit: Vivian Wang

J. Tom Hnatow, who has been a professional musician for the past decade, is an advisor to LMEF.

“When I lived in D.C., I was lucky enough to have a really helpful support network of people who could help me,” says Hnatow. “I’ve been helped out multiple times. And that culture doesn’t really exist in Lexington yet.”

Morgan set about creating this culture through a fund to serve as a backstop for musicians in need. She began by borrowing ideas from organizations in music cities such as Nashville, Austin, New York and even Louisville.

The Grammy Foundation served as the best model for the Lexington version, which may provide assistance for rent, utilities, food, medical bills, co-pays, deductibles and even tax or legal assistance (although criminal charges and payments on back taxes are not eligible).

Musicians in need apply by contacting the LMEF at weheartmusicians@gmail.com. The application process begins with eligibility qualification, as eligible applicants must (a) have earned seventy-five percent or more of total income during the last five consecutive years from music, (b) have three published/credited works of music, and (c) reside in Fayette or surrounding counties. A volunteer will then reach out the applicant, and requests for funds are put to a small panel of rotating advisors, which reviews the application anonymously to eliminate bias. The panel then makes a recommendation of whether to provide the funds and in what percentage.

The process sounds fairly conservative, at least in terms of disbursement of funds, and that’s before the last stipulation of the funds kicks in: the first 50 percent of the funds approved will be distributed immediately directly to whatever account needs to be settled, etc., but release of the remaining 50 percent of funds may require some legwork and homework on the part of the musician to increase her or his professional profile.

“The caveat to get that last fifty percent is that we’re going to start moving you to do the thing that you need to do in order to get professionalized,” says Morgan, who is quick to stress that these are not major strings attached to the funds. “These are smaller, little steps that start to get you going.”

“The point is not to give out handouts,” says Hnatow. “It’s really for someone who says, ‘I can’t pay rent.’ Once you take that person and you get them beyond that point, you then ask, ‘Okay, do you have insurance on your instruments?’ It’s aiding them to move beyond the spot where they are.”

The idea is to increase the career prospects of the individual as a musician incrementally, hopefully leading to better opportunities and less reliance on community support like the LMEF in the future. This is the secondary goal of the LMEF, to turn out a class of professional musicians who can, in turn, begin to reinforce the local infrastructure. 

“We might wind up having to tweak some of the parameters,” says Morgan. “It might be that we don’t have enough musicians who make seventy-five percent of their income [from music], and we might have to go to fifty percent.”

Robbie Morgan with The Binders | Photo by Zach Selby

The bar is set high initially to make sure the fund is not overburdened from the outset, but the question of long-term sustainability hangs in the air as well. LMEF is a privately-funded organization that relies on donations. It isn’t a standard tax-deductible non-profit, like a 501(c)(3) or similar organizations. If sustainability is a concern, it’s not one that shakes Morgan too heavily for the time being, although she is fully cognizant of what LMEF will need long-term.

“Obviously, with no revenue streams at this point other than donations, it’s going to be a little tricky,” Morgan says. “Eventually, once we start moving people into a proactive landscape, we’re going to use the Creative Capital model.”

Under this model, musicians that move on to greater success would then pay a very small percentage of earnings back into the fund for a period of time. Both Morgan and Hnatow talk about the LMEF in terms of being the first piece of a larger puzzle, with an infrastructure slowly building to make the original function of the LMEF obsolete.

“The goal with something like this is to put yourself out of business,” says Hnatow. “The goal is to become more proactive than reactive.” 

In addition to the funds, applicants and volunteers with LMEF can join a private Facebook group that exists to provide a communications network for musicians in need of assistance or even just advice.

Morgan and Hnatow point to another hoped-for benefit of the LMEF, which is to start coaxing local musicians out of the fabric of Lexington anonymity.

“Part of it will be interesting to discover people who do live here who we may not necessarily have heard of, who are making a living in the arts,” says Hnatow.

“We’re going to discover that there are more musicians in this town than the ones we see at the Green Lantern, because we’re going to find out that there are country musicians, people who write films, people who score theater stuff,” says Morgan. “And you know the exciting thing is this might provide a way for us to see hip-hop artists, Christian musicians, whatever it is…that our community is really big and we’re overwhelmed with requests because we find all these people that we didn’t know existed.”

“If Lexington is going to continue to grow culturally, then we’re going to need things like this,” says Hnatow.  “It’ll never be Nashville, it’ll never be New York, it’ll never be one of those cities, but if you can provide people with something they can’t get somewhere else, that sort of ups its game a lot. If we can be supportive of people who are making a living as musicians, we can grow.”

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topical

More Context

John Hunt Morgan, “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy”, is safe in his construction cocoon. Protected from debris and damage during the much-anticipated renovation of Lexington’s historic courthouse, the statue of Morgan was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1911, during the dark century of continued subjugation in the South of freed slaves and their descendants following the Civil War. The Morgan statue will greet visitors to the courthouse’s main entrance upon completion of the renovation.

The Morgan memorial, and its companion statue in the courthouse plaza, erected in 1887, of John C. Breckinridge, Vice-President of the United States, slave owner, defender of secession, Confederate general, and the last Secretary of War of the Confederate States of America, create an heroic tableau that some have called “history”.

The statues were erected in the public square, on a block which was, in the first-half of the nineteenth century, the site of major slave auctions, and marked in recent times by a small, lonely plaque.

slaves00

At the end of a summer riven by blood, outrage, fear, and protest, is it still important to talk about some statues?

The conversation about Lexington’s courthouse statues, begun after the massacre at “Mother” Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, continued last fall. Mayor Jim Gray charged the Urban County Arts Review Board (UCARB) to make recommendations concerning the future of the statues, highlighting the need to reflect “shared values”, diversity, and inclusiveness.

The Board studied the issues exhaustively, heard testimony from experts and the public, and encouraged submission of letters of opinion from the general public. They received many more letters in support of retaining the statues in their locations in the courthouse square. Nevertheless, in November the Board recommended that the statues of Morgan and Breckinridge be moved from the courthouse block to other publicly accessible, appropriate places.

At the meeting where this and other recommendations were made, the UCARB members looked on incredulously as, at the eleventh hour, city officials informed them that removal of the statues might very well jeopardize the federal historic tax credits that were a vital part of the financing of the courthouse renovation. The extensiveness of discussions with federal historic preservation officials concerning this issue has never been publicly disclosed.

After the November UCARB meeting the public conversation about the statues went into a deep sleep.

In mid-February of this year, Chris Corcoran, an advisor to Mayor Gray, announced that the Mayor had decided to keep the statues in place, telling the Arts Review Board:

“The mayor’s intent is to keep those statutes where they are and provide more context,” (italics are mine) Corcoran said. “We are not pursuing moving the statues.”

Conversation over.

They say that history is written by the victors, and all across the South in the decades after the Civil War the believers in “The Lost Cause” retained the symbols of the Confederacy and valorized its heroes. It was a victory after defeat and a message of warning to those who would try to upend the renewed and revived architecture of domination and subjugation. The new heroes, inheritors of the mantle, were men in white robes, police officers with dogs and billy clubs, and governors standing in schoolhouse doors.

So what would be more context for our statues, presiding in place in our public square?

Perhaps this:

The statues of Morgan and Breckinridge stand as testament that history can be warped and defiled. That a gauzy cover can be applied to it to encourage a recasting of the true history of a vile cause. That a history of a place, our public square, the site of untold suffering in the decades before the Civil War, can be nearly erased. These statues are not “history”, they only mark the attempts by people in history to rework history. Mark this; the statues were erected not just to memorialize heroes of “The Lost Cause” but to serve as a warning to those who would attempt to impede that revision of history and challenge its contemporary malevolent regime.

Not enough more context?

The men valorized by these statues were inhabited by an evil and degrading ideology. An ideology of racial superiority in service of a system that required centuries of enslavement of other human beings. So, Africans stolen from their homelands and their descendants, were subjected to the most cruel and inhumane conditions, treated and tortured as beast of burdens, and bought and sold as property of others on this very spot. These slaves were instrumental in building the early America.

The fever of this racist malignant ideology and system was only stanched by a most bloody and wrenching civil war. It still remains to be fully extinguished. Slavery in the United States takes its place amongst the most horrific and prolonged injustices and acts in humanity’s known history. It is the cause for which Morgan fought and died and Breckinridge avidly served. This is the true history to be remembered in this place amongst these statues.

We whitewash or forget this truth at our peril.

But perhaps the most appropriate more context, would be this image, suggested in a conversation with UK Art Museum Director, Stuart Horodner, and projected large throughout the courthouse plaza:

ali

For another response to the courthouse statues see Tom Martin’s UnderMain piece about Kurt Godhe and Kremena Todorova’s latest community engagement art project, Unlearn Fear+Hate.

Slave auction announcement image courtesy of University of Kentucky

Ali-Morgan image courtesy of Chris Rosenthal 

Arts

A New Broom Sweeps Clean

Born in Clark County, Kentucky, Louis Zoellar Bickett was raised Catholic and knew at a young age that he was an artist. Louis recalls this realization as a common story, one that might have happened to other children who showed artistic talent; his teachers – mostly nuns in Louis’ case – recognized that he had a gift and encouraged him in many ways. He won awards for drawing and other creative projects on a regular basis as a boy.

Louis' First Communion, he is pictured at the far right, front row.

Louis’ First Communion, he is pictured at the far right, front row.

What may have been a bit uncommon, was that moment in 1972 when Louis’ largest and longest running artistic endeavor began. While sitting with his mother who was saving and discarding alternate piles of old family photographs, he grew curious about the pile of photos that were to be thrown out or torn up, because she had no earthly idea who was in the photos – so, ‘why hang onto them?’

Louis asked then if he could have the photos that his mother did not want and that is when his interest in retaining – or containing – random, seemingly meaningless, objects began. Since that time, nearly forty-five years ago, Louis has been collecting, labeling, and storing every object in his life, whether it be a t-shirt or a love letter, a toothbrush or his own urine. He has collected thousands upon thousands of objects that together have become known as The Archive.

Object from The Archive, Courtesy Louis Zoellar Bickett

Throughout his career, Louis has constructed hundreds of projects, some object-based, some objects contained within other objects, many performances and all highly conceptual in nature. Each project may have been done in the construction of identity – he now acknowledges. Although he is unsure if it is all entirely autobiographical, pondering the question that it could be multiple identities or even commentary on our collective identity that most piques his interest.

Pregnant Landscape, The Totem Series,

Louis’ mode of working is seamless, moving from one thing until something new emerges from it. Throughout his life he has transitioned from The Totem Series to the Cultural Mudman Rituals, from Ten Thousand Selfies to his photographic essays like Sam Foy with Broom and even into poetry. Whether it be the wrapping of an object or the construction of a performance or the collection of his life in words, Louis continues to weave an intricate fabric.

Sam Foy Project, Sam Foy at Shaker Village, Mercer County, Kentucky, 2015

Sam Foy Project, Sam Foy at Shaker Village, Mercer County, Kentucky, 2015

Knowing now at sixty-six years of age that logically ‘the existence of God as defined by organized religion is remote’, Louis says that he is guided by science and the heart. Gently, he still sows; aligning what he has wrapped, tagged, shot, and jotted down on paper, never imaging that it needed to mean a thing to us. In fact, he confides, that even if you get nothing from his art, that is what you got and that, at least, is something.

In the end, Louis acknowledges that what he does – all he does – is a laborious thing, a duty or calling and, ‘quite honestly a pain in the ass.’ Understandably. Afterall, constructing a single identity is one thing, trying to piece together the newly broken thing we have become – sweep it clean so that we might be free to write a new label – is something entirely different.

The Cultural Mudman Rituals, 2015, Al’s Bar.  Photo by Guy Mendes

Here from my second interview with Louis is the artist talking about The Totems and The Cultural Mudman Rituals.

Featured Image in topmost position is by Guy Mendes. Also part of the mudding performance at Al’s Bar in 2015.

Arts

Mama’s Boys

My mother was not what you’d call a sports fan. She had eight kids, six girls, and while I would never claim that this fact alone made our house a sports-free zone, it clearly played a part. We had estrogen in the air, thick as the scent of Lemon Pledge on cleaning day. We had Joni Mitchell and “Masterpiece Theater” and macramé. Georgia O’Keefe on the walls. Feminist tomes on the bookshelves.

We didn’t have a lot of balls.

Read on…

original works

The Lone Oak

I became acquainted with the old bur oak tree near downtown Lexington not as a child, but as a very young adult. It was something of a Lexington landmark and I think it deserves a story. Its own place in history. No doubt, according to the tree specialists, it had at least a couple of centuries of stories to tell since Lexington was settled in June of 1775 and this ancient tree was at least that old.

The bur oak was located right off Lafayette Parkway leading up to Lafayette High School. Barely out of our teens, my husband and I were hunting for our first house and our realtor showed us a rather decrepit small home with this magnificent tree in the backyard. I don’t know if we bought the house because of the house or because of the tree. It was astonishing. Spreading my arms as wide as I could, I still could not embrace its diameter.

I don’t know how tall it was but it was too tall for tree specialists to even contemplate taking it down back in the 1970s. Bur oaks often grow 200-300 feet tall. It was many feet in circumference. It shaded our entire home in the summer with its big, brawny limbs. In the fall, it produced the most interesting acorns and gallons of them. These trees produce the largest acorns of any oak tree and they often were the preferred food for bears, harkening back to another time in the history of the place where Lexington began.

Besides enjoying the fact that this special tree was in our newly-acquired back yard, it provided a conversation starting point with our neighbors on the aptly-named Lone Oak Street. Our neighbors were a couple old enough to be our grandparents and well-known Lexington residents, Fred and Lois Flege. We bonded over that tree. They took to us and we to them and they became like our family.

We lived on that street and under that tree, with the Flege’s as our neighbors for many years. The tree developed dead limbs that we had to prune but we could bear to do no more than that. It was an important touchstone for us and for the Flege’s.

Shortly after we sold our house, the new owner took down the big tree. It had become dangerous. That tree will forever be a part of our memories of our early life in Lexington with our beloved neighbors, the Flege’s.

Years later, we moved back to Morehead and one day, we found a bur oak acorn in our front yard. There are no bur oak trees that we know of in this part of the Daniel Boone National Forest. We planted it. Maybe someday, long after we are gone, there will be another majestic bur oak tree in what used to be our yard.

One of our best memories will always be the big bur oak tree standing in the middle of Lexington.

Arts

Andrew Brinkhorst Sees Music

If you’ve been to live music shows in the area over the last two or three years chances are you have seen Andrew Brinkhorst, trusty Fuji camera in hand, angling for the best photo shot. Over the course of the past few years, Brinkhorst has taken over 17,000 photographs documenting the burgeoning Lexington and regional music scene. A selection of about 40 images of live music shows and festivals are featured in the Lexington Art League show, This Is The Thing, which opens on April 22.

An avid music-goer with “a very understanding wife”, Brinkhorst’s documentary project was sparked during his first visit in 2013 to the NoLiCDC Night Market, the monthly music, food, art, and social street fair mashup on Lexington’s reenergized Northside. The vibe was dynamic, friendly, and community-minded. Brinkhorst was inspired to document what he calls the “collective effervescence” of that moment and the scene.

Brinkhorst’s approach to his subject matter is not intended to be encyclopedic. He did not attempt to shoot all musical genres, performers, or venues. His concern was to capture some of the immediacy, essence, and immersion of live music, its performers, and audiences. Shooting with a fixed focus 50mm lens rather than a telephoto lens, Brinkhorst takes his photographs close to the action which lends the desired sense of immediacy to his images. He sees himself primarily as a street and documentary photographer, influenced by some of the greats like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bruce Davidson.

An acknowledged “bad drummer”, Brinkhorst has been around and involved in music since his youth in Parkersburg, West Virginia. His favorite bands included Foreigner, Boston, The Doobie Brothers, and even Aerosmith! He has also been a devoted photographer for many years and views photography as both a technical and creative craft. Employed as an IT security specialist and product manager, Brinkhorst is fortunate in having significant control over his schedule which gives him the freedom to frequently prowl around the night music scene.

The work featured in This Is The Thing is the first phase of a larger documentary project intending to document the enlivened Lexington and regional art scene and also the small business sector. He acknowledges that his approach to these next two areas will probably require more of a documentary storytelling approach than was required for shooting the music scene. His hope for This Is The Thing is that the show inspires others to go out and attend live music performances and appreciate the amazing musical talent and diversity that we have here in the Bluegrass.

This Is The Thing opens at the Lexington Art League on Friday, April 22. The show runs until May 29.

All images copyrighted by Andrew Brinkhorst and used with his permission.

Arts

Athens West: ‘Mockingbird’ Flying High

Photo: Emily Reed as Scout

Thursday, November 20th, sees the opening night of To Kill a Mockingbird,the second play in the AthensWest inaugural season. After the first play of the season, Doubt,met with critical and commercial success, the new theatre group is pressing forward, changing the face of Lexington Theatre. Joining me to talk about Mockingbird,AthensWest, and the new vision of theatre in this region, are Jeff Day and Mark Mozingo, co-founders of Lexingtons newest theatre group.

UM:   Jeff, thanks for taking time to talk about the show and Athens. What was the process that brought about Mockingbird as the second show in the season?

JD:    Well, it’s pertinent to now. What’s going on today is what was happening when Harper Lee wrote the book in 1960.

UM:   Such a well-known book and it translates well as a play. Did the release of the new Lee novel have any bearing on the board’s decision.

JD:    Of course. We knew Lee was very much in the public eye with her new book, and we knew this would be an incredible play to put up.

Harper Lees novel, Go Set a Watchman,was published this year and contains many of the same characters from her classic story. The film of To Kill a Mockingbirdappeared a few years after its publication and starred Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall. It stands as one on the all-time classics of American cinema. Lee said of Horton Footes screenplay: its one of the best translations of a book to film ever made.

 UM:   AthensWest is housed at the Downtown Arts Center, correct?

JD:    Yes. The Center was taken over by Parks and Recreation and we have a wonderful working relationship with them. We’re all highly affiliated with LexArts as well. The coming together of many arts groups, we feel, is what Lexington has been needing for many years.

UM:   How did AthensWest come about?

JD:    We started initially because we had the dream of creating an Equity theatre in Lexington. For so long a time there has been no Equity theatre and we were wanting to up the standard, not from the standpoint of having only Equity actors, but having the guidelines that professional theaters outside of Lexington must have.

UM:   For those who may not know, Actors’ Equity is a professional organization that actors can belong to. Most Equity actors are encouraged to take roles only in productions sanctioned by Equity.

JD:    Right. It also ensures that actors get a decent wage for their time and effort and so on. This has been a big struggle for actors in this region for years, where weeks and months would be spent on a show, many times needing to take time off from day jobs or being away from family with no compensation other than your name in a playbook. In Spring of 2014, I put a big proposal together, I met with the mayor, and I’d already been in conversation with Bo List. Bo and I started meeting on a regular basis. I was in a production of Twelfth Night and one evening, after a performance, Bo came to me and said, “let’s do Doubt,” which became Athens first play. We held open auditions. Bo and I were doing everything at first, then we enlisted Mark and Kate Goodwin.

UM:   And by Mark, you mean Mark Mozingo, who we happen to have here with us. Mark, thanks for joining us.

MM:   Glad to be here.

UM:   What is your role at AthensWest, Mark. No pun intended. (no laughs)

MM:   I’m officially the Director of Outreach.

UM:   Unlike Jeff, you’re from this area, correct?

MM:   Yes. I’m a Winchester boy. I moved back here from New York City, where I had been acting professionally since 2006.

UM:   What caused you to move home?

MM:   My father had taken ill and I moved back to support.

UM:   Sorry to hear that. Mockingbird is an interesting play to take on; the racial issues alone are palpable.

MM:   It’s challenging hearing the “n” word every night. It’s shocking to hear white actors using the word in it’s original hateful context, and I think it’s important for audiences to experience that too.  It’s jarring.  It’s upsetting.  Not just challenging; it’s an ugly part of our national history.

UM:   Surely. Do you feel times have changed?

MM:   Perhaps. It’s 2015, this was set in 1935. We like to think things have changed so much; maybe they have and maybe they haven’t. We did “Scout’s Honor: To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Public Library on November 9th. One of the key issues discussed was: where does the law come in on things like racism?

UM:   Were there any good answers?

MM:   Varied. What is certain is the viewpoint of Atticus in the play.

UM:   Atticus Finch, you mean. The lawyer.

MM:   Yes. He believes that everyone is indeed equal in the eyes of the law. It’s such a subjective thing, though. Is it that we’re all equal by right of birth, by being born American? What constitutes equality? Atticus took on the case because he believed in the equality of the law. It’s also shocking and powerful to hear the dialogue of 1935, not just racial slurring.

UM:   Tom Robinson, the slighted black man in Mockingbird, is played by Patrick Mitchell.

MM:   Yes, and he’s wonderful. Patrick is one of the founding members of The Message Theatre here in Lexington, along with former Poet Laureate, Frank X. Walker. Tom Robinson is a challenging, racially-charged part to play. At one point in the play, Atticus is asked: “do all lawyers defend negroes?” It’s hard to know if Atticus is really that color-blind or if he truly was invested in the belief that all are equal under the law.

UM:   One would like to think in this day and age, unlike in the 1930s, racism would be thought of as a learned behavior.

MM:   Maybe by some, not by all.

UM:   I suppose we can point to many recent events to see that racial intolerance is alive and well.

MM:   It’s interesting that there was such a mood of equality in the 1960s, right after the book was written. I haven’t read the new novel by Lee, but apparently Finch isn’t as equality-minded as he was in Mockingbird.

When To Kill a Mockingbirdfirst appeared in 1960, it was a huge hit. It then won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1961. Gregory Peck won the Oscar for Best Actor for playing Atticus Finch in 1962 and Lee was appointed to the National Arts Council in 1966 by then-President Lyndon Johnson. 

UM:   So, the question arises, was Finch always this way, or was the character developed from trending times. Did Lee become more intolerant and it bled through to her characters?

MM:   Hard to say.

UM:   I did read where the manuscript to Go Set a Watchman, which was published earlier this year, was the original incarnation of Mockingbird. Mark, How did you come to be involved with AthensWest?

MM:   Bo and I reconnected and we met with Jeff, Margo Buchanan and Leslie Beatty. We talked about what professional theatre meant to us and what it could mean to central KY.

UM:   Jeff, I worked with you over at Asbury, you’ve been there now, what, 12 years?

JD:    Yes.

UM:   And you came to Kentucky by way of LA and Utah, right?

JD:    I spent time in LA and I did an MFA at the University of Utah.

Enlarge

AtticusEmilyporchfront
Kevin Crowley is Atticus Finch and Emily Reed as Scout.

UM:   And you’ve been tasked with directing Mockingbird.

JD:    Yes, and it’s been wonderful. For transparency’s sake, I must say, however, that I did step down from the board; there are just too many irons in the fire between my role at Asbury, maintaining a professional career, and other projects. I will remain at Athens from a creative standpoint, which is perfect for me, as I’ve always been an idea guy. I like to get stuff started.

UM:   I know getting an equity theatre going has been a dream and goal of yours for some time, Jeff. What process did you have to go through to make it happen.

JD:    It’s odd, because so many people act like it’s a huge thing; really, it was just a matter of filling out the proper paperwork. We have become a full Equity company, officially carrying the SPT3 (Small Professional Theatre) status. To meet the parameters of this, we have to hire at least two equity actors per show. Many actors in the community would like to eventually become Equity but haven’t had the opportunity in Lexington, because shows are non-equity and therefore are not given credit and weight in the eyes of equity. It is with enough of these credits that Actors Equity finally grants an actor their Equity Card. For those who are not full equity, we have negotiated the Equity Candidacy Program, which allows non-equity members to receive credit, thereby moving them closer to obtaining their card.

UM:   That sounds like a great program. I know a lot of actors in the community who have struggled with this issue for years. Mark, how else do you think this might change theatre in Lexington?

MM:   There’s not a lot of room for favoritism or precasting roles, which has been a sore spot in Lexington for a long time. We’re trying to do it the right way. When we say we want to engage this community and Central KY with quality theatre, we mean it.

JD:    When we cast this show, there were open auditions and we didn’t have anyone in mind. It was a blank slate. We have a lot of people in this cast who would like to have a career in acting and they can join equity eventually, if they want to, given these experiences.

MM:   Working in New York as I did for years, there’s simply no room in a community like that for playing favorites and boosting egos; what’s important is who is the best candidate for the job. Shoo-ins and preconceptions are out.

UM:   Do you feel this has been an issue in the past?

MM:   Not with all theatre in Lexington, but yes.

UM:   Aside from the credits actors will receive and the base pay, which I’m sure they love, how do you think this will affect the quality of shows?

MM:   There’s a difference between going to see a union show with professional actors vs. non-professionals. There’s a level of training there that may not be present in non-equity. Is it true that there are great actors who don’t have their cards and crappy ones who do? Yes. Is it more likely you’ll have a performance standard that will make you happy you invested your time, money, and effort to come out in the evening with an Equity-backed show? Definitely.

UM:   So, it’s like having your uncle over to fix your sink. He knows a little something about plumbing, and he does a great job, though he may not be bonded and licensed as a plumber. Then, there are numerous stories of licensed plumbers whose work isn’t the best quality; you call them two days later to do the same repair.

MM:   Yes. The time is right for Lexington Theatre to move up. A lot of times, when you’re in a union, you can’t get work if you are in a denser area like New York City or LA. Here, there are many roles with open auditions; the opportunities are vast. This is especially true since there are so many Equity theaters in Kentucky: Actors Theatre of Louisville, Jenny Wiley has a huge operation going. When you’re in a community where there’s not a huge scene for theatre, but there are some roles to be had, it is a point of pride to get your card and be in a process where the bar is intentionally set a bit higher. As a union actor, it was a big deal for me to negotiate along with the others at Athens West, this contract that is helping to open the door for Lexington and give more value and credence to our artistic community.

UM:   Is Athens going to expand its season?

JD:    Next year we want to shoot for four shows, but it may stay at three; we’ll have to wait and see.

MM:   We’re happy we’ve been able to do this three-show season.

UM:   What’s next?

JD:    We have Bo List directing 33 Variations for February, which has already been cast.

MM:   And then Margo Buchanan will direct Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge, which is a Bluegrass musical. Michael Hume will be the musical director for it.

UM:   Do you usually announce your auditions?

MM:   Yes. People can check our Facebook page.

JD:    We also have an email set up for audition inquiries as well: athenswestauditions@gmail.com.

UM:   Terrific. And a website?

MM:   athenswest.org

All Photos by Patrick J Mitchell www.imagesbypatrik.com

topical

Cheapside Statues: An Opinion

Editor’s Note: The Urban County Government Art Review Board (UCARB) has held several special meetings to consider the status of the statues of John Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan in Cheapside Park. UnderMain has published a number of pieces about this issue since the Charleston church shootings in June. The UCARB is now in the process of developing its recommendations to Mayor Gray, to be presented in November. The following opinion piece, intended as a statement to the UCARB, is by Van Meter Pettit, a local architect. Input into this issue may be submitted directly to the office of Mayor Gray at mayor@lexingtonky.gov or by calling 859 258-3100.

I am writing to recommend that Lexington consider carefully relocating the bronze Confederate monuments currently located in Cheapside Park. This is not meant, as some have alleged, to erase or destroy history. On the contrary, it is to recognize more appropriately a buried history that deserves to be honored in this unique location where it took place.

The bronze figures of Breckinridge and Morgan have no specific tie to this precise location except for the fact that they were located there a long time ago. Morgan could be more appropriately located near the house museum where he lived. Breckinridge or Morgan could be more appropriately recognized in the Lexington Cemetery because it is where their bodies are buried. Since Henry Clay and countless war dead are located there it would in no way be disrespectful to relocate these landmarks there. They would be in good company.

Why go to the trouble of moving landmarks that have stood in this public space for a century or more? Because for 150 years our guardians of history have had that chance to tell the story of slavery and racial violence that was ritually and publicly conducted in this civic space but have failed to do so. It is time to clear this ground of pro-slavery landmarks installed during an era of racial oppression and terror in order to convey a very significant history that is tied specifically to this place. Confederate monuments and the Civil War have no specific claim on this ground. They actually serve to obstruct an important story that has yet to be properly honored.

What appears to be wholly missing from the community conversation about Cheapside is its unique history as a public square. In addition to serving as a marketplace and a seat of justice and public administration, it is also a place where more African American slaves were sold than any other place in the state1. Men, women, and children were sold in the thousands like livestock and split from all known family and relations. It was legal, it was commonplace, and it made many white families in Kentucky very rich. There is a building on Upper Street that still has evidence of basement pens used to hold slaves awaiting sale.

From eyewitness accounts as early as 1816, the courthouse square was used regularly as a place to whip slaves who were guilty of an infraction as benign as missing a curfew. It was a public spectacle that regularly drew crowds even when the town was very small2. For nearly a century these ritual beatings were a form of social and political entertainment. Less frequently, but yet repeatedly, this site also hosted lynchings, where blacks accused of a crime could be killed without trial or legal recourse.

During the era when former Confederates dominated state and local politics3, men who registered black Lexingtonians to vote could be murdered in front of numerous witnesses without the perpetrators being brought to justice4. From a high of nearly 50% in 1900, the population of African-Americans in Lexington quickly dropped to below 15%. Unrestrained night raids by vigilantes against black residents were an obvious motivation for black Lexingtonians to migrate away.

This post-confederate ‘Birth of a Nation’ style reign of terror made famous by D.W. Griffith’s grotesque heroic depiction did not end until a 1920 race riot of several thousand that led to six deaths and scores of injured. A mob stormed the courthouse where a black man was being tried for murder. They intended to beat him and hang him rather than allow him to stand trail. Kentucky Governor Edwin Morrow called in federal troops to maintain order5. This event happened after both bronze statues were installed. This is the political environment in which they were created and sited.

Thousands of humans sold as slaves, hundreds of the enslaved brutally and publicly lashed, and an untold number of before and after the Civil War publicly lynched… and we have only a state highway marker that has been vandalized. Almost no one knows this history of our oldest public square. Instead we are discussing pro-slavery bronze figures that as historical figures are footnotes outside of Lexington.

John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan were both elite Confederate generals who chose treason against the nation in order to defend and protect the institution of slavery, something Ken Burns refers to as “America’s original sin”. These monuments need to be recognized as a statement of cultural and political defiance against the outcome of the Civil War and the subsequent elevation of African-Americans to a status of full citizenship. Kentucky failed to ratify the 13th (abolishing slavery), 14th (citizenship to former slaves, equal protection under the law) and 15th (right to vote) Amendments to the U.S. Constitution until 1976. Kentucky elected former Confederates or their sympathizers to political leadership for decades after the Civil War.

These statues must be evaluated based upon the context of the politics and public discourse of their time. Their creation and placement were political and philosophical acts that have not lost their original meaning. To suggest that they no longer possess a very toxic cultural baggage would be willfully naive.

These landmarks hold a similar cultural message as the statue of Jefferson Davis that stands in the state capitol. Seventy-two university historians agree that the Davis monument should be relocated away from the Capitol Rotunda because, “The statue’s presence in the Capitol rotunda ‘minimizes the significance of slavery as a cause of the Civil War, downplays the human suffering of millions and endows the Southern cause with a nobility it does not deserve’, said a letter signed and sent to state lawmakers by the current and former historians6.”

In my opinion the Cheapside pro-slavery artifacts share a message that willfully and intentionally obscures the blight of slavery in our history in favor of a fictionalized ‘nobility’ born of victim status from northern aggression. That the pro-slavery Cheapside monuments stand in a place where slaves were brutally and publicly whipped, murdered and sold away from loved ones makes them all the more impossible to ignore or absolve.

These landmarks can be understood as the defiant and unrepentant gestures of a former slave-owning elite who dominated the politics and economics of Kentucky during this period. White supremacy and nostalgia for the slavery era is their shared context. I sincerely believe that to allow these to remain in places of honor is to endorse the messages they were made to convey.

If we fail to act in this pivotal moment we will send a message that we are still culturally unreflective of the gravity of our past and that the slave-holding old guard still have our implicit respect and tacit blessing.

Thank you for your thoughtful consideration.


1 Cheapside Slave Auction Block By Tim Talbot from explorekyhistory.ky.gov

2 An 1816 account of Lexington recorded by Samuel R. Brown and recounted by J. Winston Coleman, Jr. in Six sketches of Kentucky, published by the Henry Clay Press

3 How Kentucky Became a Confederate State, by Christopher Phillips New York Times, May 22, 2015

4 Kentucky Historian George C. Wright in his book, Racial violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940 : lynchings, mob rule, and “legal lynchings” at least 353 lynchings took place in Kentucky up to 1940. A majority of the victims were African American men.

5 History of Governor Edwin P. Morrow from Wikipedia

6 72 history professors sign letter urging removal of Jefferson Davis statue from Kentucky Capitol Lexington Herald-Leader by Jack Brammer jbrammer@herald-leader.com, August 31, 2015

Arts

Raising the Bar

UnderMain is again partnering with The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky and The Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning to promote more art criticism in our community. Our partners know that to do this well, we have to commit to quality writing and to achieve this, we have to keep raising the bar. So, on Saturday, September 26th, from 10:30 am – 1:00 pm, Stuart Horodner will conduct a class in writing critical review. Below, he answers a few questions about purpose and process.

UM: What do you hope to accomplish with this class?

SH:  I’d like to give an overview of why art criticism ( in the form of reviews of exhibitions) is important, and who are some of the best practitioners today. We will discuss  what makes them so good, and how local writers can cultivate their skills to contribute arts-related writing to local and national outlets in print or online formats. We’ll look at a range of short reviews and analyze them, and then do some short writing exercises based on Lexington exhibitions.

UM: How in your opinion can art criticism contribute to a growing arts community such as the one we have in Lexington?

SH:  Art criticism is a healthy thing for all arts communities, as it provides feedback for artists about how their work is being understood, and helps those interested in discourse to have a public opinion to discuss (to agree with or argue about).

Thoughtful critical writing helps audiences understand art and can serve to inspire them to visit galleries, museums, art centers, fairs, etc. If local artists and exhibitions are not written about, an important part of the professional development of individuals and institutions cannot mature and succeed. Can you imagine the films, books, plays, restaurants, or sports teams in Lexington or any other vital city,  not being written about regularly? I can’t. So who will do this writing, where can it appear, and who will read it?

UM: Will the structure of the class be lecture-style or more of a workshop?

SH: The class will combine lecture, conversation, and workshop aspects. We will address a range of philosophical and practical aspects of art writing, locally and beyond.

UM: How can UnderMain facilitate you in attaining your goals?

SH: UnderMain can invite individuals to attend the class, and continue to serve as a platform for emerging and established voices. One aspect of art criticism locally that we must address is the timeliness of response, and the differences between journalistic coverage and critical assessment.

UM: Any expectations on academic training or experience needed for those who enroll?

SH: The class welcomes people who have an interest in the topic regardless of their training. Most important is that those who enroll are excited about art and writing and want to learn new skills. Something I might ask of those who do enroll is to bring a list of what arts-related writing you currently read, why you read it, and how you use the information/opinions to further your own interests and activities.

The class will take place at The Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning located at 251 West Second Street, Lexington, Kentucky, 40507. The cost is $20. Please sign up today! We look forward to seeing you there.

Arts

A Delightful Bath

On some basic level, every exhibition is an opportunity to contemplate and maybe even escape a little. Delights: Bathing in Another World – Paintings and Sculptures by Elissa Morley on display at the Ann Tower Gallery through May 10th gives us the chance to immerse and discover.

Elissa Morley, Installation View at Ann Tower Gallery

Morley’s twelve watercolor and graphite drawings, along with seven hanging tissue sculptures transform this gallery, now located on the second floor of the Downtown Arts Center in Lexington, Kentucky, into something quite unique. To visit is almost as though you were stepping into the illusions Morley depicts within each of her poplar frames.

Central themes in her work are quietude and contemplation. In this space, Morley successfully asks us to relinquish momentarily the known world overrun by the mating call of Twitter, push notifications from Facebook, and the ever-present ephemerality of Instagram.  Rarely alone long enough to contemplate our surroundings and what we are doing within them, we take little time to consider how our actions might impact this world – or even worse – that while forever caught in the flutter we do nothing to alter any of it.

calderButtonMorley’s Alexander Calder-esque mobiles hung from the ceiling
make no sounds as they react to our movements within the gallery. Initially this is a very calming sensation. On deeper contemplation, the soft, tattered tissue shapes like that in Blue, White, Pink Wings – tenuously held together with wire – might be remnants of something we once knew, something that is now only moments away from falling apart entirely. Other works like Yellow Wings hang so low that they occasionally penetrate the viewer’s personal space beckoning us to reconsider our complacent gaze.

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Blue, White, Pink Wings (above) and Yellow Wings (video), steel, watercolor, tracing paper

Within the framed objects hung along four walls, pacific blues, wisteria purples, and persimmon oranges painted on tracing paper – sewn together in multiple layers – blur any overt intent or heavy import. Yet their presence in this multi-media installation encourages deeper inquiry. Fields of multiform abstractions are punctuated with architectural elements and the occasional tree-like shape as though to signal some specific place, a place not yet known as in a drawing or idea that is still churning in the mind and at the hand of its creator.

But there is a creator at work, one who resists the confinement of others’ imagined boundaries perhaps but is still mindful and present. Stepping into and back out of these drawings allows us to renew our perceptions of this world by bathing briefly and delightfully in another. Delights: Bathing in Another World Paintings and Sculpture by Elissa Morley is on view through May 10, 2015 and is well worth a visit.

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Elissa Morley, Frigidarium watercolor and graphite on layered paper 27x34

Elissa Morley, Frigidarium watercolor and graphite on layered paper 27×34

Elissa Morley attended Asbury University and the Slade School of Fine Art in London, England.  She has lived in Lexington for several years, teaching at Georgetown College, Eastern Kentucky University and Asbury University.  She is also a recipient of a 2009 Kentucky Foundation for Women Artist Enrichment Grant.

Arts

Our Conversation with Nan Plummer – First of Many

UnderMain would like to welcome Nan Plummer to the position of LexArts President and CEO.  What you are about to read is a recent and very casual conversation between Nan, my UnderMain colleague Tom Martin, and myself. Nan is a new-arrival on Planet Lexington and there is so much to discuss with her about the arts in our community as well as the broader Central Kentucky region. UnderMain is committed not only to opening this dialogue, but to continuing it in a series of discussions throughout the year. In future interviews, I hope to expand upon some of the concepts raised, including the viability of a United Arts Fund model for raising and granting monies and what that means for area arts organizations large and small; the role of the non-traditional arts from dance to music to the visual arts; the current state of theater; our specific history with public art; and our present and future opportunities for both the public and private sectors. Just as we consulted some of you about questions for this initial interview, your opinions and input are necessary for this conversation to evolve. We invite your thoughts via the UnderMain Facebook page.

Nan with her daughter, Maggie.

Nan with Communications Director Maury Sparrow and Operations Manager Alma Kajtazovic.

Nan with Nathan Zamarron, LexArts Community Arts Manager, and J. David Smith, Jr., Stoll Keenon Ogden and LexArts Grants Chair

Nan with Liz Swanson, artist, designer, and Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Kentucky College of Design

Nan with Allison Kaiser – Executive Director, LexPhil

Christine: Welcome Nan, and thank you for joining UnderMain today. Let’s begin by learning a little about your background and what attracted you to this position with LexArts.

Nan:   There are a bunch of things that drew me to this position. My whole career has been in the arts, mostly the visual arts, and in museums with really strong performing arts components, performing arts, and music especially. I’ve been on a diversion into being a full-time, frontline fundraiser for Arkansas Children’s Hospital – a place I have adored for a long time. And, it was just time for me to get back into the arts and take what I’ve learned in the training ground that was ACH back into something where I knew a lot more. I’ll be 60 on my next birthday and I know what I know and I do what I do. And, it occurred to me that not only would this make me happier, but I think that my best contribution will be taking what I’ve been doing for all this time and combine it with what I know and love in the arts. LexArts, because it helps so many people and so many organizations in such a broad context, just looked delicious and – you know – it just seemed like the perfect thing.

Christine: Yes, the role of the organization appears very broad in general. Do you see any real successes that you would like to continue or anything that you would like to eliminate with regard to LexArts’ recent history and its role in supporting the arts in our community?

Nan:  The big task ahead of us – because there are so many things that organizations like LexArts can do and does do across the country – is to find out what Lexington and Central Kentucky need LexArts to do right now. There are a lot of things we are very good at. The United Arts Fund model of raising money, for instance, for general operating support is not what it was in the 60’s and 70’s, but it isn’t broken and it’s still generating lots of income. So, raising money for the arts is something that I think LexArts needs to keep doing.

Tom: In that regard, LexArts has not seemed welcoming to the non-traditional music community in Lexington and I’m not sure why that is. I’m not finding fault, because I’m sure that there is some structural reason for that. Speaking for those of us who are not classical players, but nonetheless are working musicians with significant investment of funds and time and creativity, we do not feel supported by LexArts.

Nan: What would support  mean to you? Money? Which is important.

Tom: Well, it is, but it’s more than that. The compensation for what we do has to come from the market. I think we need help with marketing to the masses the fact that we have an historically vibrant music community here. Lots of songwriters, lots of musicians across a wide spectrum of genres.

Christine: It has been noted that for some in our community it appears that LexArts’  holds a primary allegiance to larger, more established organizations.

Nan: And here is the second thing I think LexArts needs to do, along with being clear about its mission: to remind people about its history. United Arts Funds were established to fund those big, grand, pillar organizations. In the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s those were the organizations that communities believed needed support in order for the arts to thrive. I think as time has gone on, people in general in UAF have figured out that an art scene is not only those great big organizations. But what would the arts be like in Lexington if those ceased to exist? So, the trick for LexArts is to remind people, this is how we got started. We don’t sit in the room and pick favorites. This is how we got started and we have to now broaden that. We tend to broaden our support maybe less quickly than the arts community springs up around us. So, while it may appear that way, it’s not a bias. Here is where we started and we can’t change where we started. That’s historical fact.

Christine: Let’s turn to our attention to the annual fund. The actual amount of funds raised for the annual fund, aside from the city’s contribution, seems very limited for a city of our size in a region as wealthy as ours. Nan, Is there anything that you think we could change to generate more giving?

Nan: Oh, absolutely. I think that there is a lot of potential to raise more money and I think that’s one of the reasons I was brought here, so that I’d spend a long time learning how to raise money. I’ve raised a lot of money for the arts in my other roles. So, sure, let’s go. There is no perfect leader for an organization, ever. No one is perfect.  Organizations, boards over time hire a series of imperfect and incomplete people whose strengths we hope  match the needs of the organization at that time. How many – have there only been two other directors?

Christine: Jim Clark was director for 14 years.  Dee Fizdale prior to that.

Nan: And the organization has changed a lot. It was founded under Dee, Jim changed it a lot. And so, they brought things that certainly I couldn’t have brought. I’m not the founder type and I’m learning everyday what my predecessor was good at that I’m not quite so good at. But, what I hope to be good at is fundraising and growing – growing the funding base and maturing LexArts’ fundraising ability so that it’s on par with the artistic activity here in Lexington. I think there’s a lot of potential. And getting back to the first question: why did I want to come here?Potential is really the core word; there is so much waiting to happen here. I’ve never seen a downtown like this, I really haven’t. It’s just the right size. I’m thinking about the skyscrapers and the lawyers and the bankers and, oh my gosh, all these artful places within walking distance. I know that there are other places like this, I’ve just never been this close to one.

Christine: And this growth, this particular sort of vibrancy is very new for Lexington. In fact, it has changed the conversation in Lexington about LexArts as a funding organization and specifically about transparency. Do you see how that that might be addressed in a more formal way? For instance, many non-profit organizations supply a 990 (a Form 990 is an annual reporting return that certain tax exempt organizations must file with the IRS).

Nan: Oh, we all must.

Christine: To my knowledge, LexArts does not make that readily available.

Nan: Of course we do – we must. If you walk into the building and ask for it, I am legally required under federal law to provide that to you within twenty four hours. You can also get it from the IRS website and you can also go to GuideStar and get it, so it’s publicly available.

Tom: This question came from somebody who’s been looking at the websites of similar organizations and found their 990’s readily available.

Nan: Oh, some organizations put it on their own website?

Tom: Uh-hm.

Nan: Making a note. Yeah, this is public information and I guess that what it always comes down to for me is, it’s not our money. If you work in a non-profit organization, it is not your money. And neither is the city money that we re-grant or the state money that we re-grant or the federal money that we pass through the other organizations or the federal money that we spend on public art projects. It’s not our money. And that’s why non-profit boards really need to take their fiduciary duty very, very seriously. I take it very seriously. And so I think part of the misunderstanding about LexArts’ affection for non-traditional arts groups is a lack of proactive transparency – education about how we make grants with the money that we raised and the money that we received.

Tom: That’s a two-way street. There will be those who just love to complain.

Nan: Yes.

Tom: But when you say, “Okay, what are you going to do about it? What are you willing to invest?” they often seem to disappear.

Nan: That’s human nature.

Tom: I think it would be really interesting to see what would happen if LexArts were to put that challenge to the non-traditional community and say to them, “We want to engage with you, you have to tell us how and you also have to tell us what you bring to the table; what can you do – you want us to do for you, what can you do for us?” Which creates…

Nan: It is a collaborative…

Tom: I’d love to see what would happen.

Nan: I’ve had a couple of conversations where arts group leaders have essentially said LexArts has favorites, ‘you sit in the room, you pick the big guys, you just – you like classical music to the exclusion of just about everything else.’ That’s not how the process goes. It’s an open grant process. There are five general operating support partners who are the core going back to when the organization was formed. And then, other organizations of almost every size may apply for project and program support. We serve as fiscal agent for organizations that aren’t even incorporated as 501(c)(3)s yet to help them get going. And so, if we’re not supporting you or we don’t seem to be interested it might be because you’ve never come to talk to us or looked into the process.

Tom: Would you say that those organizations who would like to see support from LexArts are not stepping forward and basically need to sharpen their pencils?

Nan: I think so and I think that that process, the way I understand it is that process has been ongoing – that Jim (Clark) did a great job at that, really professionalizing the application process because again, it’s not our money and when we give it away we aren’t just saying, “Oh, we love you, here you go,” “Oh, you bother me, go away.” No. They are as objective as we can make them. It’s not who we like better and who we don’t. Everybody who works at LexArts and everyone who sits on the grants committee – and it’s a committee, not the LexArts staff who makes the decisions – is a human being, last time I checked.  And so, we – we have emotions and preferences and are not immune to the things that other human beings respond to when they made judgments. So that’s why there is this process.

I’ve told my colleague, Nathan Zamarron who’s our programs guy that I think he’s brilliant, that he is a very, very good bureaucrat and that is a compliment. In fact, I would like to restore the nobility of that term. It’s a French term like amateur and dilettante that’s gotten a bad rap. A bureaucrat is someone who practices the art of the office, the art of administering public goods for the common good. And we are trying to do that really well at LexArts.

Christine: I have a specific interest in public art and have for a very long time, from Dynamic Doors in 2002 to Horse Mania to the Outdoor Mural Project and more recent developments like the murals being installed by PRHBTN. Do you have any insight there as far how LexArts might encourage more conversation about public art?

Nan: Great, great question. I am not hearing, “Okay, we’ve got enough public art, you can stop now.” I’m seeing a lot of enthusiasm and it was really exciting to me that that article in Herald-Leader, which I was looking at online in the period between my hire and my arrival, that the lead story on Sunday above the fold with a big color picture is about art, I thought, woo-hoo! So it’s controversial.  Art is a topic about which thoughtful, intelligent, loving, well-educated, wonderful people can and will disagree. That’s the point. So, not everyone is going to love everything that goes up in a public or publicly visible private space. I don’t think everybody loves Bernini either. I’m not sure everybody thought that The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel was totally thrilled with it at first. So this is a process. And contemporary art is a conversation and while it can be absolutely beautiful, most artists are really asking you to engage with their idea, not to admire their technique.

Tom: One recent development that has received publicity is LexArts sponsoring a new theater group. Isn’t this a conflict of interest for an organization that has community arts organizations vying competitively for funding from LexArts?

Nan: Supporting a new theater group?

Christine: Athens West.

Nan: Support is a spectrum at LexArts and financial support for competitive grant process is not the only way we support arts organizations. Maybe some folks think it should be the only way we do that. I guess that’s the question, but it hasn’t been. And so, the short answer is: it’s not a conflict of interest, it’s a different interest. It’s a different way that LexArts supports the arts here. And it kind of goes to the question of well, how many things can you be to how many people? There are lots of resources that LexArts brings to the arts community. One of them is funding, and another is expertise. We’re a staff of five at this point, so every function has somebody’s name on it. The community has invested us with this (and by the community, I mean the whole nation) IRS tax-exempt status – it is conferred upon an organization by the people. So we use that to benefit organizations that don’t yet have them. So, that’s a long answer to that question.

Christine: The question arises at a very tumultuous time for other theater organizations.

Nan: Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Tom: Theater, like many art forms in Lexington, ebbs and flows and at the moment we have some new companies that are beginning to rise. And then, there’s Balagula Theatre which has brought really provocative content to the stage.

Nan: Yes, they have been a general offering support partner at LexArts. Part of my job is getting out to see all that I can. Imagine getting paid to do that. In December, my daughter and I got to see Venus in Fur on a Friday night before the announcement of (co-director) Ryan Case’s resignation. And I was just flabbergasted because it was so good. I’ve been a theater kid all my life and while I don’t see nearly as much theater as I would like, I like to call myself an expert. I like to think I know what’s good. That was really good. I thought it was wonderful. That’s me as an arts consumer. My next task is to really get to know them as an organization and learn how can we help.  So, yeah, lots of ebb and flow at the moment and I guess Lexington should consider itself lucky that there are folks who are coming to theater.  Not everything succeeds and that’s one of the reasons that LexArts exists: to level the playing field. One of the things that I would love to see happen with increased funding to LexArts is to fund artistic startups – entrepreneurial creative endeavors.

Christine: Sure. But one of the things I think is a very serious problem is the development and retention of audience. Frequently it will be to the downfall of the organization because there’s nobody coming, there’s no one attending. Goes back to marketing…

Nan: Yeah, Michael Kaiser who wrote The Art of the Turnaround and then two more books – a kind of trilogy on arts organization management, has brought forward a model to every organization that he’s helped: great arts, aggressively marketed. The two need to exist together for success. You could have something that is aggressively marketed and if it’s no good the audience figures that out pretty fast. So, they go hand in hand. I’m not sure what that would look like in Lexington, but  think that’s something that – we already do work at, you know. For the visual arts, for example, Gallery Hop has been going on for a long time, it’s one of our oldest programs, I think.

Christine: Very successful.

Nan: Very successful. We talked about how – like every arts organization, perhaps – we need to upgrade our website.

Tom: See if my impression is correct just of your vision because I think I’m hearing something here that’s a little…

Nan: I hope I’m being consistent.

Tom: You are.  It sounds to me as if you view LexArts’ role as one which creates that level playing field and makes it possible for individuals, groups, organizations to merit consideration because they are good at articulating what they want to do. It makes it possible for them to receive support based on merits versus ‘who you know.’

Nan: Um-hm. Yeah. I like the way you said that. I think that the call from the community is: we need more, we need more, we need more. And growing an arts organization – even one like LexArts that has a long history and is sort of an institution – is a little like building Brunelleschi’s Dome: you build one course and you stand on it to build the next. It’s incremental. So, it’s matter of learning what needs most to be done next and then being able to build the resources to do that, because the temptation is to say, “Sure, we will. Oh, we’d love to do that. Yeah, let’s try.” And then, you’re not doing well at anything for anyone. And, so we need to avoid that, resist that temptation and really learn strategies about saying no to a whole bunch of good ideas. And so,  figuring out our strategy based on what we can do and who are. ‘We’ are five people, ‘we’ are this board, ‘we’ are an arts organization, ‘we’ are the organizations that feed into us, ‘we’ are our donors. You know?

Tom: One last question that was raised during the search for new leadership: Is LexArts strictly about fundraising? Or is it, in addition to fundraising, also about advocacy for the arts? And can those two things be balanced without conflicting?

Nan: (LexArts board chair) John Long has said that LexArts’ mission and vision came under scrutiny at this transitional point and they thought about it a lot. Funding and advocacy are there together. And that conflict is the nature of human existence I think and again, transparency is the best solution for when those conflicts appear. If they appear, you name them: ‘uh-oh, these things are in conflict.’ That’s not necessarily bad. Conflicts get resolved all the time. And so, if there’s a perceived conflict, call it and look at it.

Christine: Under Main exists to examine things a little more thoroughly – take them a little deeper. In fact, I would love to see a series of meetings with you that incorporate video or audio about the various topics that we’ve only broached today. We thank you Nan for your time and your dedication to the arts and look forward to what lies ahead.