Visual Arts

Uncommonwealth: Artist's Lexington Project uses Facebook as its gallery

Louis Zoellar Bickett's work "challenges us by challenging convention, the way we look at ourselves, at life, at community," said Mayor Jim Gray.
Louis Zoellar Bickett's work "challenges us by challenging convention, the way we look at ourselves, at life, at community," said Mayor Jim Gray. Lexington Herald-Leader

Editor's note: With the upcoming Lexington exhibits of Louis Zoellar Bickett's work -- starting with the University of Kentucky Art Museum's "Louis Zoellar Bickett: Saving Myself," opening Friday -- we wanted to reshare Cheryl Truman's 2013 profile of the artist. Enjoy, and watch for more on Bickett, soon. ~ Rich Copley, Aug. 23, 2016.

In the mornings, Louis Zoellar Bickett gets up early, gets on his bike — he does not own a car — and goes out to chronicle Lexington.

Subscribers to Bickett's Facebook page may see a Lady of Guadalupe on the side of a mobile home off Loudon Avenue, or street life along North Limestone, a corridor dear to Bickett's heart because he lived above the North Limestone restaurant Le Deauville for almost 30 years.

A Facebook friend called Bickett's photographic work "a love letter to Lexington."

Bickett, a self-taught artist who is a waiter at a la Lucie, calls it Project Lexington.

"Photography is definitely the medium and the means in which I'm trying to accomplish the project," he said.

Bickett has tried to photograph the Lexington suburbs as well, but finds that his heart just isn't in it. He prefers the off-the-path corners of downtown and the historic quiet of Gratz Park, the shadows on the stately homes as the daylight ebbs and the sunny plastic decor of more modest homes at the height of the day.

A recent Bickett Facebook post of painted orange and green wood lightly coated with melting snow looks uncannily like tart vertical stripes of orange and lime sherbet, the kind that used to be served at the ice cream parlor on Winchester Road in the '60s.

Bickett's work summons the ghosts of Lexington past while striving to preserve what Lexington looks like in an era of rapid change.

"Louis Bickett's work challenges us by challenging convention, the way we look at ourselves, at life, at community. That's what conceptual artists do: challenge the status quo," said Mayor Jim Gray, who is a longtime friend of Bickett's. "They realize it's more than about pretty pictures. It's about the questions below the surface."

The front of Bickett's house on High Street — he moved there three years ago — announces that a Lexington character lives there. Visitors first notice the gravestone of a pair of twins that are not actually buried there. Bickett picked it up and decided to use it as a piece of found art.

Indoors, he collects specimens of his life and showcases them in clear bottles and containers: the shavings from his last haircut, his late dog's ashes, other people's Day-Glo orange plastic pill bottles.

Bickett has documented his life and art since 1972, receiving the Al Smith Fellowship for Kentucky artists three times. As a photographer, he chronicled the Anita Madden Derby Party from 1995-98.

On his Facebook page, which serves as his gallery, you will find similar fascinations: tiny houses and trailer parks.

"I don't know why I'm so fascinated with trailer parks, but I find them interesting," said Bickett, 62, who grew up in a spacious house in Winchester. He likes to imagine how people live, and celebrate, sometimes colorfully and with flair, in tiny spaces.

"However, I am real conscious about not trying to seem a classist, because I'm not like that," he said.

Because he is working in his own medium as a chronicler of Lexington, Bickett can invent his own narratives for, say, the former workmen's cottages off North Limestone, some of which now house artists.

"Light is it," he said. "You can almost photograph everything if the light is great."

He is particularly fond of the area around North Limestone, which has changed over the last few years, with renovated buildings, studios, houses, bars, restaurants and other businesses. A few years back, he photographed every house on North Limestone all the way to New Circle Road.

Gentrification of such an area as North Limestone "is inevitable ... and you can see how fast gentrification changes an area."

Still, he remains sensitive to the people displaced when an area becomes a sudden hotspot for those who move downtown from elsewhere. When gentrification moves in, he notes, other people are pushed elsewhere. Eventually he may photograph those places, too.

Said Bickett: "I'm not sure there's such a thing as an unsuccessful digital photograph. ... I'm not a historian and I'm not a journalist, so I can do anything I want to them."

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