Kathy Walsh-Piper was amazed at what she was seeing.
Sitting on the art committee for the new Albert B. Chandler Medical Center at the University of Kentucky, the director of The Art Museum at UK was looking at pieces that had been collected by Matt Collinsworth and Adrian Swain of the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead.
I said, "This would be a fabulous show, if we could present it."
The result, Kentucky Folk: Art From the UK HealthCare Collection, is not only a show of works that will eventually go on display at the hospital, which is being designed with a heavy art component, but also the museum's first-ever exhibit of Kentucky folk art.
"Adrian and Matt did a wonderful job selecting this work," Walsh-Piper says. She and education director Deborah Borrowdale-Cox say they collected a broad selection of more than 80 pieces that show classic folk art and that break some stereotypes about the genre, widely regarded as a rural art form.
"Although most of them are from Appalachia, and many of them only had one or two years of schooling, some moved to Chicago and other cities," Walsh-Piper says. "There's one who is a homeless person in Louisville."
That is Mark Anthony Mulligan, who creates colorful work portraying seas of store signs and other urban scenes on surfaces such as plywood and pressboard.
In those pieces, he fits Walsh-Piper's definition of folk artists as "self-trained artists who are portraying, from their hearts, the natural environment that they see."
Borrowdale-Cox says, "They're people who don't necessarily attend a school, but they may be trained by a relative. Works tend to be pretty direct. The imagery is pretty stark and straight. The colors tend to be bright because that's a much more direct way of expressing an idea. That's not to say there isn't subtlety in it, but the subtlety or composed beauty is less important than the message."
Often, that message is religious. Edgar Tolson's religious imagery is an example, Borrowdale-Cox says, as he is represented by images of biblical stories. "He finds someone in the moment of making a choice, and he illustrates it," she says.
There also is a religious component to the numerous snake images in the exhibit, from paintings to carvings. The snakes come from religious ceremonies and Bible stories as well as from the natural environment of rural Kentucky.
By contrast, there is St. George and the Dragon by Lexington artist Robert Morgan, who works with found objects in an urban environment for colorful pieces that also carry social commentary and autobiographical tales.
Connecting the folk art to the health care intention is a wide selection of canes, with images including snakes, guns and even Jesus.
The range of work, drawn from nearly a century, goes from intricate wood carvings to some paintings that could elicit comments of "my kid could do that."
"The style is childlike, but the imagery is more sophisticated," Walsh-Piper says of several pieces in the rear of the museum's main gallery. "There's a lot of detail."
Borrowdale-Cox adds, "A lot of Kentuckians will have seen art like this and be very comfortable with it."
And that is one of the main points of the collection.
Under the direction of Dr. Michael Karpf, UK's executive vice president for health affairs, the hospital is being filled with visual art from across the state and around the world. It also is being outfitted with performing arts spaces and access, to provide a warmer, soothing environment for patients and their families.
"What you're looking at directs your train of thought, and if you're looking at something blank and bland that's just commercially produced, it's not going to have as much power to help you escape your pain and sickness," Walsh-Piper says.
Borrowdale-Cox says, "Their intention is something that is well documented to be a successful method of helping people relax, and it's also a way of saying someone else has been here. So often, when you're in a hospital, it's terrifying and frightening, and there's nothing that says anyone has ever lived through this.
"So if you see a painting of a landscape or a place that's familiar, you can just say, 'I'm going to go there for a while.' And that does help you, because if you are relaxed, you heal better and faster."
Variety also is important, Walsh-Piper says, because it gives viewers objects they can personally "adopt and say, 'I really like that one.' "
The art leaders also like that people who would never think of going to a museum will see art in the hospital.
If the museum can get an exhibit out of the collection, all the better, they say.