The brain trust of Lexington’s latest public art project, “Book Benches: A Tribute to Kentucky Authors” has gathered in the boardroom of the LexArts offices in ArtsPlace on Mill Street, and while they came to talk about the event, they are quickly preoccupied with scouring the 92 designs submitted for the project.
Chatter fills the room as the representatives pour over examples from William Wells Brown to Frank X Walker, but its falls quiet as project founder Kate Savage of Arts Connect undoes the bow on the design from artist Johnnie Allen Smith for James Lane Allen’s “A Kentucky Cardinal.”
The intricate design celebrating the 1894 novel inspires an awe from Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning director Neil Chethik and LexArts president and CEO Nan Plummer that seems to portend a lot of interest in the seat as sponsors begin to consider which benches they want to have fully realized.
“It’s an honor to have a book designed, but the holy grail is to have it made,” Chethik says.
With designs in hand, organizers of the project are now seeking sponsors to have the benches made and displayed around Lexington from June to November, much like the Horsemania projects in 2000 and 2010 and similar endeavors.
For $5,000 sponsors will have the design of their choice executed and shown with their sponsorship prominently noted. The benches will be auctioned after display, with proceeds benefiting the presenting organizations: Arts Connect, LexArts and the Carnegie Center. There are five $10,000 “epic” sponsorships available, with which the sponsor will own the bench outright.
The goal is having 35 benches made and displayed, though they can create as many of the 92 designs as sponsors are interested in backing, Savage says. “Book Benches” was her idea, inspired by a similar display in London.
“I thought it was a very cool idea, because of course I was familiar with Horsemania, and I really thought the idea of books would work here,” Savage says.
But since Arts Connect is a relatively small arts awareness organization, Savage knew she needed partners in the project and found logical collaborators in LexArts and the Carnegie Center, which is behind numerous literary endeavors including the annual Carnegie Classics series of galas and the Kentucky writers Hall of Fame.
“It says we have everywhere in Kentucky, high quality authors, and we have readers who are passionate about those authors,” Chethik says. “And it shows the community has a desire to connect with those authors.”
The benches are designed to look like a book, with the back of the bench being the book cover, in most designs, and the seating area showing an image from the book.
When the project issued a call for artists last year, it offered a list of suggested authors, but artists added dozens more, some clearly in an effort to avoid the event’s self-imposed rules against duplication. Only one bench per author is permitted and one bench per artist. So, when the first sponsor selects a Wendell Berry book — there were numerous Berry submissions — it will knock out all others.
The rule is intended to make sure a broad range of authors are represented and raise awareness of Kentucky writers, Chethik says.
“We don’t want to have 10 Wendell Berrys, because he’s already know, at the expense of David Arnold, who is just coming into his own,” Chethik says of the Lexington-based author of “Mosquitoland” and other bestsellers.
The fact that Kentucky has a range of authors from time-honored scribes such as William Wells Brown and Robert Penn Warren to new names such as Arnold and Frank X Walker is a testament to the enduring vibrance of Kentucky writers, Carnegie Center marketing and communications director Jessica Mohler says.
“It says what a deep pool of literary talent we have,” she says. “Every generation, a new group of great authors pops up.”
With the designs in hand, the organizers are entertaining ideas of what to do with the display this summer and early fall, like having authors reading from their works on their benches, offering mini-libraries of authors works at their benches, maybe even having QR codes on benches visitors can scan and hear readings from the books.
While plans are currently only for a few dozen designs to be executed, Savage also talks about a gallery exhibit of all the designs so people can see things like all the different takes on Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men.”
But first, organizers need to get benches sponsored.
Last week JRA Architects became the first when it chose to sponsor Lexington artist Maui Crane’s design of Cynthia native Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead.” And Lexington artist Blake Eames will be creating a bench of her design for Arnold’s “Mosquitoland” as a prototype for prospective sponsors to see.
Chethik says authors are excited by the idea, some even pursuing sponsorships for their benches.
“George Ella Lyon really summed it up,” Chethik says. “She said, ‘It sounds like a happy project.’”
Rich Copley: @copiousnotes