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Rich Copley: Kenyan artist-in-residence program at UK comes to a colorful end

Artist-in-residence program takes pride in its success

Herald-Leader Culture ColumnistNovember 13, 2011 

Ruth Hunt Wood looks around Allan Githuka's studio, zeroing in on an image of a small village under a deep-blue sky.

"I recognized them instantly because I have flown over the Rift Valley many times," Wood says of the region in western Kenya. "So when I walked in and saw them, I said, 'Oh, Allan, you've painted the Rift Valley.' It's so beautiful there and quite recognizable."

Wood has gotten to know Kenya quite well during the past decade while administering the organization that bears her name. Since 2001, the Ruth Hunt Wood Foundation has brought Kenyan artists to the University of Kentucky for semester-long residencies, during which they have produced work, studied with UK art professors, imparted some of their own knowledge and, at the end of the term, presented an exhibit on campus.

Githuka's work will be on display Thursday through Dec. 2, starting with a reception at the Tuska Center for Contemporary Art in UK's Fine Arts Building.

It will be a bittersweet experience for Wood, who is ending the program with Githuka's residency.

"It's been very successful, and the artists have all gone on to do wonderful things," Wood says with a quaver in her voice as she discusses the end of the project. "I have been very proud of them all."

The foundation has brought 10 painters to UK and eight sculptors to the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in West Rutland, Vt. One work from each of the painters is exhibited at Gateway Regional Art Center in Wood's hometown, Mount Sterling.

There are plans to create a similar program with a different country, but Hunt and the university are not ready to announce it.

"I just feel it's time for it to come to an end," says Wood, a granddaughter of Ruth Hunt Candies founder Ruth Tharpe Hunt. "It's been very successful, and I have a committee in Kenya that works very hard, and I think they feel 10 years was a great run.

"And Allan was the icing on the cake. He really was."

In addition to images of his homeland, the gallery will show some of his impressions of Kentucky, such as Packed Commonwealth Stadium, an image of faces in a sea of blue, inspired by Githuka's first football game.

"The stadium was really packed with people, and the color that was dominating there was blue," Githuka says. "So I thought I should depict that in the converse and give the blue the utmost view in the stadium, and it came out something like that."

Oil paintings line the walls in Githuka's small studio in the Reynolds Building, where the UK art department is housed. None of the works existed before August. One of the stipulations of the program is that the artists don't bring any work with them; everything in the exhibit was created in Kentucky. Being in the art department also gives the artists a chance to try new things. Githuka's exhibit will include masks he created during an iron pour at UK.

Githuka, 46, dabbled in art as a child in primary school. He did pencil illustrations and work of that kind until he graduated from high school and joined an artist community in his village, Ngecha, outside of Nairobi. From there, he started painting with an eye toward a national or international career.

"At first I started with landscapes," Githuka says. "Then I started doing more with figures and faces."

In fact, Wood says, the sea-of-faces style such as in Packed Commonwealth Stadium is kind of a signature of Githuka.

The foundation program has become well known in Kenya and is prized for the artistic and cultural experiences it provides.

Coming from near the Equator to Kentucky, visiting Kenyan artists have experienced things fall color and chilly weather, which are not common in that part of Africa.

"The big thing they want to see is snow," says Wood, who recalls receiving calls from artists complaining that they were cold and needed items gloves and such when temperatures dipped into the 60s and 50s.

When he returns to Kenya in December, Githuka says he will have plenty to share, which he is expected to do as part of the program.

"Having an opportunity like this is very important to an artist," says Githuka, who has a wife and two daughters in Kenya. "Coming to Kentucky, working at the university and bringing African art to Kentucky is something to boast about, something important."

Reach Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217, or

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