When General Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, Paul Sawyier was just 2 weeks old. He would grow up to become a prolific artist, painting thousands of impressionistic water color landscapes, many of which documented the rivers, hills, and other natural landscapes of Franklin County.
Sawyier died almost a century ago, but his memory is very much alive in Franklin County. The town did, after all, name a public library after him.
And this weekend, audiences can delve more deeply into Sawyier's life and times thanks to a new play by Frankfort resident Don Coffey.
Two Loves and a River is a heavily researched biographical play that traces Sawyier's life from age 21 to 52, weaving together not only his love of painting, but his love of Kentucky landscape and his long term romance with Mary Thomas Bull, informally known as Mayme.
The play will be produced steps away from the Kentucky River at the Ward Oates Amphitheatre and is a fundraiser for the Capital City Museum, which is dedicated to "telling the big story of Kentucky's small-town capital city."
"When people think about museums they think about stagnant exhibitions," says Capital City Museum Curator Tom Fugate. "This gives us an opportunity to really move into a living history aspect of the life of Paul Sawyier and gives the people in our community an immersion into what his life really was."
Discovering an accurate account of Sawyier's life is part of what inspired him to write the play, Coffey says.
"When I moved to the Frankfort area many years ago, I immediately started to hear about Paul Sawyier," says Coffey. "Invariably people would say, 'yeah, he was a very good artist, but you know, he was always drunk.'"
Coffey grew skeptical of this portrayal and wanted to find out about Sawyier for himself. He discovered that Sawyier was not a drinker for most of his life.
"That was absolutely not true," Coffey says of the local rumor. "He was not a drunk. He was a good person and a good artist."
Coffey says that Sawyier "did come to drink" some in his later life, but describes that fact as the "low end" of his life story and not one that should sully his memory or achievements.
Coffey's research led him to archives and libraries around the state, where he discovered some facts that previous biographers had missed.
"I was quite surprised to find the employment records of Kentucky River Mills, the hemp mill where Jim's Seafood is today," says Coffey, who also wrote a biography of Sawyier called Paul Sawyier, Kentucky Artist.
"Previous biographies of Paul Sawyier said he worked one time at the mill at his father's behest. Simply not true," says Coffey. "He worked there six or seven times. He was on and off. Sometimes he went to school to study art and then he'd come back and work for the mill."
While Coffey leaned heavily on these kinds of meticulously researched details in writing the play, he also had to use his imagination to fill in some of the blanks, particularly in the romance between Sawyier and Bull.
Coffey drew much of Bull's character from her personal writings.
"The Kentucky Historical Library here in Frankfort and especially the art library of the University of Louisville have original stuff from the Bull family, including a lot of Mayme's written possessions like her scrapbook and poems that she wrote," says Coffey.
"You could kind of tell how she was feeling at different points in her life from what she was writing down," says Katy Doyle, who plays Sawyier's long term love interest in the play.
The poet and the artist grew up together in Frankfort, attending Second Street School, which is still open, and spent decades in an on-again, off-again romance that was troubled by Sawyier's attempt to make a living as an artist.
"He did love Mayme but as Mayme acknowledges in the play, his art is the most important thing to him," says John Downs, who plays Paul Sawyier in the play.
Downs, who also grew up in Frankfort, says that working on the play has deepened his understanding of and connection to Sawyier. One of the reasons that Sawyier has remained a permanent fixture in the memory of Franklin countians is because Sawyier was extremely prolific and as a result, many locals own his paintings and print reproductions, he says.
"Fifty years after he died, there became an industry of reproducing prints of his paintings," says Downs, who has several Sawyier paintings on display at his house.
"Even though he's been dead for 100 years, it's not been that long ago in some ways," says Downs. "One of the cast members has some Paul Sawyier paintings that were given to her father by Paul Sawyier himself, so that personal connection is still there."