Tom Eblen: Scholars, curators get up-close look at Kentucky art history

Herald-Leader columnistJuly 12, 2014 

FRANKFORT — Most people think early Kentucky was only a place of log cabins and coonskin caps. They don't imagine that Kentuckians two centuries ago were producing great paintings, fine silverware and inlaid furniture as elegant as anything coming out of Philadelphia or New York.

Last week, 10 up-and-coming scholars and museum curators got a traveling lesson in Kentucky's rich history of visual art and craftsmanship.

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., brought its prestigious Summer Institute to Kentucky for the first time. Students, faculty and guests got an intensive five-day tour of Central Kentucky landmarks and some of the state's most valuable public and private collections.

"These are going to be the museum and institution leaders of the near future, and they have the potential to bring a lot of attention to Kentucky," said Mack Cox of Madison County, a leading collector and scholar of early Kentucky furniture, paintings and long rifles. "We're way behind (other states) in understanding and rediscovering our decorative arts past."

I caught up with the group Wednesday morning at the Governor's Mansion, where Cox was giving MESDA students and faculty an animated tour of an exhibit of pieces made by Frankfort artists between 1790 and 1820. They ranged from the sophisticated cabinetmaker William Lowry to convicts at the old state penitentiary, who made simple but elegant chairs.

"What you're seeing, Kentuckians largely don't know about," Cox told the group, noting that such utilitarian objects as long rifles and powder horns were sometimes turned into beautiful works of art with elaborate engraving and metalwork.

The exhibit, part of the mansion's 100th anniversary celebration, includes pieces from the Kentucky Historical Society, the Speed Museum in Louisville and the private collections of Cox, Mel Hankla of Jamestown and Tom Meng and Clifton Anderson of Lexington.

(The exhibit is free and open to the public during mansion tour hours through Aug. 26. For more information about the mansion and centennial events, such as a cocktail reception July 25, go to: governorsmansion.ky.gov.)

As Cox described each piece and the research that went into figuring out who made it and when, the students took photos and used flashlights to examine details.

From Frankfort, the group traveled to Lexington for a tour of African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street, which has been restored in recent years. Its 5,000 graves include those of black Civil War soldiers and famous jockeys and trainers.

The group visited the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation's Hunt-Morgan House and Pope Villa, two of Lexington's most significant early 1800s mansions, and then went to Madison County to see White Hall, home of the fiery emancipationist Cassius M. Clay.

Other stops during the week included the William Whitley House in Stanford; the Old Capitol and Liberty Hall in Frankfort; the National Underground Railroad Museum in Maysville; Hopewell Museum and Cane Ridge Meeting House in Bourbon County and the Filson Historical Society and Locus Grove mansion in Louisville.

Before their trip, the students spent two weeks attending classes. When they return to North Carolina, they must finish Kentucky-related research projects and papers. Graduate-level course credit is awarded through the University of Virginia.

In his talk to the group, Cox pointed out stylistic traits of several significant Kentucky portrait painters of the early 1800s, including William Edward West. Because some of their paintings have been misattributed over the years to Matthew Jouett, the state's best-known early portraitist, many Kentuckians don't know how much talent was working here at the time, he said.

Catherine Carlisle, an art history graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hopes her summer project will shed new light on one of those little-known Kentucky artists, Alexander Bradford.

"I'm thrilled to be able to see so many examples of the beautiful, beautiful portraits that were coming out of Kentucky, and so early," she said.

While some of the students had never been to Kentucky, and knew little about its artistic heritage, it was a homecoming for Grant Quertermous, the assistant curator at James Madison's Montpelier estate near Orange, Va. He is from Paducah.

"I really wanted to do this one," he said. "It has been great to give everyone exposure to Kentucky."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415.Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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