Martha Slaughter, director of the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville for three years, recently got a crash course in the state's indigenous artistic traditions.
The occasion was the 50th anniversary exhibit of the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen, an organization that was formed in 1961 to bring together the commonwealth's myriad artists and traditional craftspeople.
"It was a good learning curve for me," Slaughter said from her office at the museum. "It's a very interesting heritage. I've lived in California, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and British Columbia, Canada, and this is the strongest craft work I have seen. It would be competitive with anyone."
The exhibit was curated by Larry Hackley, a former member and board member of the guild who also organized the group's exhibit for its 25th anniversary in 1986. He joined the guild in the 1970s and says one of its strengths was that artists from around the state, many of them self-taught, gathered to talk about art and learn from one another.
"Potters would get together to talk about their craft and take trips down south to see how other potters worked," Hackley says. "And I know other groups like painters got together.
"Originally, it was founded as an educational organization, though it evolved into more of a sales vehicle," he says.
In its earlier decades, the guild had retail outlets around Kentucky, including a store on Euclid Avenue in Lexington that Hackley says was the guild's most successful, and a train that took works around the state.
Hackley says the origins of the group began with Louisville's Virginia Minnish, who began bringing together a diverse group of politicians and artists.
"You had people in arts groups from little tiny towns around the state in there with these big names from the University of Kentucky and Berea and the University of Louisville all working together," Hackley says. "It was really quite ingenious the way it came together."
And that is reflected in the exhibit, which boasts works by UK professor Arturo Alonzo Sandoval; Lexington artist Gayle Cerlan; and the late Edgar Tolson, a folk-art icon from Campton.
As the exhibit took shape, certain things stood out to Slaughter.
"A lot of the woodcarvers like Edgar Tolson's works are really good, and the fiber work is wonderful," she says. "There's a quilt in the show by Jane Burch Cochran called Last Suppers that is just wonderful and thoughtful. And the instruments that are made in this region are beautiful."
Surveying the exhibit, Hackley says that in the past 25 years there have been fewer artists and more craftspeople involved in the guild, and he has noticed a growth in photography.
But what he and Slaughter see in particular is an organization created to unify practitioners of one of Kentucky's international calling cards, its art.
"The fact that it has survived for 50 years is pretty significant," Hackley says. "And since membership is juried, the quality of the work has to be pretty good.
"In putting this together, I heard there was one woman who was juried eight times before she got in. She was persistent."
And membership was clearly important to her.
Hackley is no longer a member of the guild. But assembling the show sparked certain hopes and wishes for the group, including possibly finding another permanent exhibition and retail space.
The guild has exhibits around the state, including a recent one at the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea. Its fall fair, Oct. 8 and 9 at Indian Fort Theatre in Berea, will be another 50th anniversary celebration.
Hackley also hopes the group will use its numbers to be more influential in state politics to get more support for artisans and craftspeople.
But this is a time to look back at a half-century of work.
"The exhibit is just a snapshot of the last 50 years," Hackley says. "It's just a sampling of what we have done."