When artist John Lackey moved his studio to the former Spalding's Bakery building at the busy corner of North Limestone and East Sixth streets a couple of months ago, he quickly got a taste of life in a transitional neighborhood.
"People had been coming here to get doughnuts for 70 years," he said, "so they were used to just walking right in."
Lackey's paintings are detailed and colorful interpretations of wild Kentucky landscapes, with trees and plants that seem to dance in the breeze. Think Vincent van Gogh does Paul Sawyier, with touches of M.C. Escher and Max Ernst.
An old man wandered into the studio one day and silently studied Lackey's paintings. "Those trees are awfully curly," he finally said. "Trees aren't really that curly, you know."
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A few days later, a little girl walked in, looked around and, just as matter-of-factly, announced: "I like roses. If you paint roses, I might buy some."
Like some of his new neighbors, Lackey isn't exactly sure what he is trying to accomplish with Homegrown Press Studio & Gallery. It officially opens Friday for Gallery Hop with a show of painting and woodblock prints. Lackey's paintings also will be featured during Gallery Hop at Alfalfa Restaurant, 141 East Main Street.
"My personal goal with this place is to come to maturity as an artist," said Lackey, who began painting six years ago after doing woodblock engravings for two decades. A former TV station art director, he is a prolific graphic artist. Lackey also writes poetry, short fiction and songs, and he has experimented with filmmaking.
"Somehow, I want to bring them all together here," said Lackey, 48. "That's the good part of middle age. I feel like an artist now."
Lackey's father was a teacher at Sayre School and his mother is a nurse. His wife, Jenny, manages a medical office. They live in a south Lexington suburb and have two sons: Quinn, 18, a freshman at Furman University in South Carolina, and Dylan, 14, a student at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. Lackey loves hiking in the woods, which inspires much of his art.
During the past couple of years, Lackey's art has started getting a lot of attention. He recently completed a four-seasons series of landscape paintings for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce's board room in Frankfort. He also has paintings on display in the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea.
Lackey has created posters for the band Wilco. He did woodblock engravings for a poetry book by Erik Reece and the book Abraham Lincoln of Kentucky, which was written by four Kentucky poets laureate and published by the Kentucky Arts Council for the Lincoln bicentennial in 2009.
He just finished a woodblock engraving for the cover of the late James Still's unfinished novel Chinaberry, which was edited by Silas House and will be published in spring by The University Press of Kentucky.
Lackey said it feels like his artistic career is at a crossroads, just like his new studio's location and the diverse neighborhood around it.
Al's Bar across the street has become a hangout for young urban pioneers who are moving into the area, fixing up old buildings and trying to blend in with, rather than displace, longtime low-income residents. The streets can be dicey after dark, but conditions are improving steadily.
Chad Needham bought the Spalding's building last year. It had been vacant since 2004, when bakery owner James Spalding decided to retire after being pistol-whipped during a robbery. In 2006 his f amily reopened the bakery on Winchester Road in a new building that looks like the old one.
Needham is only the third owner of the circa-1880 building, which was a grocery, saloon and coal yard before the Spalding family bought it in 1934. Before that, the Spaldings had been selling their famous doughnuts for five years out of their house on nearby Rand Avenue. After a major renovation is complete, the old building will have a beautiful upstairs rental apartment in addition to Lackey's studio.
"I just fell in love with this place," Lackey said of the big, high-ceilinged room, whose bare brick walls are bathed in light from the storefront windows. In addition to working and showing his work here, he hopes the studio will become a place for other artists to gather and collaborate.
"I feel like this is an appropriate place for me to be right now," Lackey said. "I also hope that what I'm doing helps the neighborhood. We're on the crest of a wave here, and I want to help pull it along."