Ann Tower was widely known as the owner of downtown Lexington’s premier art gallery, as the wife of painter and former UK art professor Robert Tharsing and, more recently, as the mother of painter Lina Tharsing.
But Tower also was an accomplished painter, having earned a master’s degree in fine art from the University of Kentucky in 1975. She painted hundreds of canvases until she began focusing most of her attention on representing other artists and their work.
While planning her mother’s memorial service, Lina Tharsing, who worked in the gallery with her for years, decided she wanted to present a show of her mother’s work. “Ann Tower: A Retrospective and Remembrance” closes March 14 at the Ann Tower Gallery in the Downtown Arts Center.
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“She spent so much time focused on the careers of artists in Kentucky that she really set aside her own painting career,” Tharsing said. “I just felt like this was the best way to honor her legacy and her memory, to show that she really was an artist in her own right.”
It’s some of her best work, and I think it deserves to be seen.
Lina Tharsing, daughter of Ann Tower
The show features Tower’s work from the 1970s until recently. The family always spent summers on a remote island in Nova Scotia, where Tower and her husband did a lot of painting.
“And often I would come home from school and she would be painting in the kitchen,” Tharsing said. In recent years, all three of them had studios at the house.
Rather than borrowing some of the many pieces that Tower had sold over the years, Tharsing said, she went through the house and studios and sorted through dozens of canvases, several of which she didn’t recall ever seeing. Stuart Horodner, director of the University of Kentucky Art Museum, helped her select work for the show.
“It’s hard to make those choices when you’re attached to all of the work,” Tharsing said. “He, of course, selected a lot of my favorite things, which is why there are quite a few that are not for sale. It’s some of her best work, and I think it deserves to be seen.”
There are several examples of Tower’s best-known paintings: small, simple still-lifes filled with bright colors, layered patterns and a strong relationship to nature. She often painted flower arrangements, and there are scenes from her garden, her porch and looking out her studio window to her flower beds.
“But she also had quite a few large paintings,” said Tharsing, who has selected several large landscapes for the show.
One is of a spring snowfall on flowers in the formal garden of Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, that Tharsing said has hung in their house since she was a child. But another, a scene of Central Kentucky farmland that resembles the work of British painter David Hockney, was a surprise.
“I had never seen this painting before,” Tharsing said. “That was one of the exciting things about digging through her work. I see a lot of myself in her work, even though I have not seen some these particular paintings before. The brush strokes. The way she uses color.”
She was very sensitive to the needs of artists, because she was an artist. She knew how difficult it was.
Tower taught in UK’s art department in the 1970s and 1980s and was the Herald-Leader’s art critic from 1983 to 1992. Then she became passionate about gallery work. She co-founded the Hackley Gallery in Winchester, 1995 to 1998, developing expertise in Kentucky folk art, and she opened this gallery in 2002 after the Downtown Arts Center opened.
“She just did this because she believed that Lexington had amazing artists and they deserved a professional space to show in,” Tharsing said. “She was very sensitive to the needs of artists, because she was an artist. She knew how difficult it was.”
After Tower’s retrospective closes, the gallery’s next show will feature many of the nearly 30 artists she represented. The final exhibit will be part of a joint retrospective with the Lexington Art League of Robert Tharsing’s work — an exhibit Lina Tharsing had been planning with Tower — opening April 28. Then the Ann Tower Gallery will close for good at the end of June. Tharsing plans to refocus on her own painting career, which has attracted favorable notice from the leading Southern culture magazines Oxford American and Garden & Gun.
“She was a really confident person her whole life,” Tharsing said of her mother. “She said from an early age that she was going to be an artist and a painter and live an unconventional life, and she did.”
If you go
Ann Tower: A Retrospective and Remembrance
What: Paintings by late artist, gallery owner and critic Ann Tower
When: Through March 14
Where: Ann Tower Gallery, second floor of the Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.