Visual Arts

New exhibit shows Kentucky crafts as 'treasures'

Earth, Water, Wind & Fire, a beaded vessel by Linda Fifield
Earth, Water, Wind & Fire, a beaded vessel by Linda Fifield

A handmade coverlet stitched with care, a pitcher and a wash basin, a woven chair. These are the kind of everyday items that represent Kentucky's rich craft heritage.

With few financial resources at hand, early rural and Appalachian folk made everything they needed by hand, often marrying personal infusions of artistry with inherited technical skill. These homespun traditions and techniques evolved over decades, inspiring some artists to dedicate their careers to preserving historical techniques while others experimented, modified and reinterpreted the old ways to form radically fresh artistic approaches to craft traditions.

Either way, the legacy of past artisans endures in the cultural DNA of many of Kentucky's contemporary working artists and craftsmen. Kentucky Art and Craft: A Continuum of Creativity, at the Lexington Public Library's downtown gallery, is here to prove it.

The exhibit — one of the stops Friday on the last Gallery Hop of the year — features more than a century of Kentucky's most celebrated working craft artists. It is organized by Kentucky Craft History and Education Association, a 2-year-old arts organization devoted to documenting, preserving and educating the public about the state's celebrated craft tradition.

The show, which continues through Jan. 9, highlights unique pieces from multiple genres and disciplines. It's a small but potent visual sampling of Kentucky's key artistic movers and shakers of the craft movement's evolution. From the anonymous works of early 20th-century Berea College craftsmen to the contemporary viewpoints of nationally acclaimed artists, including Arturo Alonzo Sandoval of Lexington, the exhibit is an eclectic intersection of pivotal works by artists who defined or are helping to define Kentucky's place as a national leader in its support of arts and crafts.

As one of the few states to dedicate serious funding and administrative infrastructure to bolstering its craft legacy — the Kentucky Crafted Program of the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen are substantial supporters of professional craftsmen — Kentucky is often a model for other states looking to develop similar programs.

The formation of the Kentucky Craft History and Education Association represents another installment in Kentucky's leadership. It grew out of a documentary film project aimed at collecting the personal histories of key players in the craft movement, founding president Susan Goldstein of Lexington said.

"In working on the documentary videos," she said, "we discovered that vital information, records and materials were scattered and difficult to find. Over the years, offices have moved and records gone missing; organizations in one location were completely isolated from work going on in similar organizations elsewhere, and even though their work often overlapped, there was no awareness of this and no strategy for archiving and preserving their work."

The association does not aim to be a bricks-and-mortar institution, Goldstein said, but rather a virtual compendium of centralized, streamlined access to craft history records and materials. Other endeavors, such as the current library exhibit, industry workshops and community partnerships, will be woven into the organization's programming as it develops.

Goldstein had the original idea of the exhibit, and she curated the contemporary elements with fellow artist Bruce Frank. Richard Bellando and Nancy Atcher curated the historical elements of the show.

Part of Goldstein's mission in curating the exhibit is to provide visual proof of the scope and quality of the artwork that the association hopes to preserve for researchers and posterity, but she also hopes to introduce the public to artists she calls "Kentucky treasures."

"There are many artists who are Kentucky treasures who are not known by local people," Goldstein said. "One reason is that many of them are regularly showing and working nationally, so it is rare and difficult to catch a local viewing of their work. These artists are strong, unique, creative — people who Kentucky should be very proud of."

Two notable examples of such artists are Sandoval, a fiber artist, and glass artist Stephen Rolfe Powell of Danville, both of whom have cultivated national reputations and have works in Kentucky Art and Craft.

Others cited by Goldstein include Jack and Linda Fifield of McKee, whose wooden vessels with intricate beading are increasingly popular; former Eastern Kentucky University professor Ron Isaacs, who turns traditional textile art on its ear with his trompe l'oeil technique of carving finely detailed clothes out of new birch wood; and Lexington's LaVon Van Williams Jr., whose wood relief works of African-American cultural life have recently become collectible.

Gwen Heffner, a potter who is curating the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea, was tapped by Goldstein to host a walking lecture of the exhibit during Friday's Gallery Hop. Heffner noted the interrelationship among regional artists featured in the exhibit.

"A lot of these artists know each other or knew each other and were influenced by each other's work," she said in a preliminary tour of the exhibit.

"For instance," she said, pointing to one of Williams' wood-relief works hanging near the exhibit's entrance, "he was influenced by the folk artist Minnie Adkins."

Adkins is an Elliott County wood carver, and her rustic work stands next to Williams,' underscoring the behind-the-scenes relationships among the artists. These relationships are reflected in more than personal or professional networks. Thematically, perhaps even subconsciously, they reveal themselves in the heart of the work.

For instance, Heffner pointed out how the patterns and colors in an antique hand-stitched coverlet were reflected in many works around the room, works that are decades younger than the coverlet.

She compared the pattern and color repetition in Sandoval's fiber installation on the wall to similarly echoed patterns in the glasswork of Lexington artist Dan Neil Barnes, whose jewel tones caught the light of the late-afternoon sun.