Lexington's Sister Cities Commission has put together student and cultural exchanges for 53 years, but this year's big project was a horse of a different color.
Four horses, to be exact.
As part of the Horse Mania 2010 public art project, LexArts asked the commission to help recruit an artist from each of Lexington's four sister cities: Deauville, France; County Kildare, Ireland; Shinhidaka, Japan; and Newmarket, England. Like Lexington, each place has a strong equine heritage.
The sister cities put out a call for designs, and the winning artists were flown to Lexington and given a horse statue, art supplies and studio space. Travel costs were covered by donations and by the sponsor of all four horses, Balatro Gallery in Dudley Square.
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How did it all work out?
"I think it was fantastic," said Kay Sargent, who manages Lexington's Sister Cities Commission. You can judge for yourself at Dudley Square, at South Mill and Maxwell streets, where all four horses are on display.
I caught up with French artist Karl Lagasse in late April as he was applying gold leaf to his horse, Normandy, in a small basement studio at ArtsPlace on Mill Street.
Lagasse, 29, said he sells his work through galleries in France, London, Hong Kong and New York. He had been to New York, Los Angeles and Miami before, but this was his first visit to Kentucky.
Through an interpreter — Betty Mills, a longtime French teacher and chairwoman of the commission's Deauville committee — Lagasse said he covered his horse in gold leaf to represent the prosperity that the horse industry has brought to Deauville. The horse's other element is the Normandy flag.
Although he spent much of his two weeks in Lexington working, Lagasse said he and his girlfriend went to several good restaurants, attended a ballet and saw their first American baseball game. The Lexington Legends "made a home run, but they lost," he said with a frown.
Yoshihiro Hosokawa was in Lexington for only a week in May, so he had less time for leisure. A musician as well as an artist, he also is president of the tourist association in Shinhidaka. The design of his horse, Nihon no Haru (Spring in Japan), included Mount Fuji, swans, cherry blossoms and other images from his picturesque region.
Liza Kavanagh of County Kildare called her horse Folúil (pronounced fawl-oohl), which means Thoroughbred in the Irish language. She decorated it with a collage of photographs, race cards, tote tickets and other scraps of memorabilia collected from Irish racecourses.
"It was my first trip to Kentucky, and I have to say it was a fantastic experience," Kavanagh said, adding that the bluegrass landscape "felt very much like home, but on a much grander scale."
"I know that we Irish are known for our hospitality, but the people I met went well beyond the call," she said. "I had more offers for dinner than I could squeeze into the fortnight, and people could not have been nicer."
Paula Wilson of Newmarket and her daughter, Amy, an art student, arrived in Lexington after midnight April 6 and were taken in darkness to stay in the guest house at nearby Calumet Farm.
"The following morning, we could hardly believe our eyes when we saw the beautiful surroundings," she said. "Outside were horses galloping around the workout track, bathed in sunshine. As the week progressed, the pink and white dogwoods blossomed."
Wilson was the first of the sister cities artists to visit Lexington, and she was given studio space in Artists Attic in Victorian Square. (But because of the steady stream of visitors she received, the others were given studio space in ArtsPlace.)
After 180 hours of work, Wilson finished her horse, Me and My Gal, which is based on designs of racing silks used by Thoroughbred owners around Newmarket.
By then, an ash cloud from a volcano in Iceland had shut down air travel across Europe. So Calumet owner Arianne de Kwiatkowski let the Wilsons spend another week in her guest house.
Wilson found Lexington to be "one of the most hospitable, friendly places I have ever visited," and she hopes to return to see the finished Horse Mania exhibit before the horses come off Lexington's streets this fall.
"I'd better start saving!" she said.