Visual Arts

Luminous: Retrospective puts late Kentucky artist back in the spotlight

“Guide,” a 1991 oil on canvas work by Carolyn Hisel, will be among the 50-year retrospective of the late Kentucky artist’s work opening at the Headley-Whitney Museum.
“Guide,” a 1991 oil on canvas work by Carolyn Hisel, will be among the 50-year retrospective of the late Kentucky artist’s work opening at the Headley-Whitney Museum.

Creativity was “all-consuming” for visual artist Carolyn Young Hisel. According to Dan Hisel, her eldest son, even on beach vacations with family, a sketch pad and pencil were always within reach for his late mother, drawing landscapes, documenting moments, using her creativity in an attempt to crack life’s hardest codes.

“The drawing and painting going on constantly was her way of trying to understand the world,” Hisel recalled. “It was kind of this constant searching that she did.”

CYH PORTRAIT 1989 cropped.jpg
The late Carolyn Hisel, a Kentucky artist, will be honored with a 50-year retrospective at the Headley-Whitney museum. Photo provided

Works by Carolyn Hisel, who passed away in 2017 at age 75, had been displayed in more than 20 solo exhibitions in her home state of Kentucky and various parts of the country during her lifetime. Now, thanks to her family and closest friends, people will get greater insight and appreciation for the artist’s half-century of artistic output.

Opening 20 years after her last retrospective exhibition at the Headley-Whitney Museum of Art in her hometown of Lexington and on the two-year anniversary of her passing, the exhibition “Luminous: Carolyn Young Hisel, A 50 Year Retrospective” will be on display from April 6 through June 16.

Hisel, a graduate of Henry Clay High School and the University of Kentucky, began her art career as an abstract expressionist painter before she veering into representationalism, focusing on communicating clearer on more personal topics and figurative work.

Read Next

She also used a sweeping color palette to tackle the complexities and passion of her Christian faith and spirituality that was ingrained in her youth and informed by her intellectual curiosity and life experience.

“She really thought about those things a lot and tried to translate that to her work,” said Christina Bell, a long-time friend and the curator of the exhibition. “The light inside Carolyn translated to the light in her paintings.”

“Swimmer” is an acrylic on canvas painting from 1983. This is an important work from Carolyn Hisel’s first one-person show called “The Houseboat Series,” which was held at the Living Arts and Science Center in 1984. Photo provided

“Luminous” coincides with the recent release of a book chronicling her art career titled “This Light, This Ringing: A Fifty-Year Retrospective of the Work of Carolyn Young Hisel.” Like that publication, the exhibition will showcase various phases and themes that Hisel portrayed in her art through landscapes and figurative paintings. Dan, along with her husband Alan and youngest son Matt, chose and procured approximately 130 paintings and many never-before-seen drawings.

“It was like a beautiful puzzle to me,” Bell said on curating the exhibition. “It was just a joy just to see work that I’d never seen of hers but also put it together in a way that is just an amazing complement to her work.”

On Saturday April 6, “Luminous” will have a ticketed opening and reception with special talks by Jennifer Roberts, Professor of Art at Harvard University, artist Rita Zimmerman and poet/writer Mary Ann Taylor Hall. The talk begins at 4 p.m. with a reception following from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Artist as a Landscape 44 x 40 Acrylic on Canvas 1978.jpg
“Artist as a Landscape,” a 1978 acrylic on canvas, is one of Carolyn Hisel’s very early works included in the exhibition. Photo provided

Those involved with “Luminous” hope that this retrospective will give people a greater appreciation of Hisel’s contributions as an artist to Kentucky and beyond. In putting it together and gathering pieces that reflect personal loss or feelings of whimsy, surreal landscapes or the relationship between humanity and divinity, even those who were closest to her felt like they got to know her a little bit better.

“I’ve come to, I think, a deeper understanding of her vision,” Dan Hisel said. “Her vision for the way in which art can transport us. The way in which art can move us and inspire us and help us heal and, you know, just kind of deal with the things in our life.”

If you go: Luminous: Carolyn Young Hisel, A 50 Year Retrospective

When: Opening ticketed reception and talks at 4 p.m. April 6; on display April 6 through June 16

Where: Headley-Whitney Museum of Art, 4435 Old Frankfort Pike

Tickets: $10 adults, $8 seniors, students and military/AAA, free for children ages 10 and under.

Tickets for opening reception available by calling 859-255-6653.