Louis Zoellar Bickett is having his moment in the sun.
Never mind that he’s 66 and has Lou Gehrig’s disease, which has taken from him his ability to go wandering around Lexington and forcing him to leave his home on buzzing High Street for the quiet of a single-level house in Ashland Park.
Ironically, this is the time when it has become unabashedly cool to be Bickett. Long viewed as a beloved local eccentric, Bickett and his art have hit the mainstream.
Bickett’s works are featured in University of Kentucky Art Museum exhibit “Louis Zoellar Bickett: Saving Myself,” which according to the museum’s description, tells “the story of one man’s awareness of time, place and connectivity to others.”
A profile by Laura Relyea, editor of ArtsATL, and former KET producer-director Guy Mendes recently appeared in the Oxford American online. In that piece, the authors puzzle over how to describe Bickett — “compulsive hoarder? curatorial genius? amateur historian?” — and Bickett’s front sitting room, smelling deeply of old books, is a fine place to start.
His mind is sharp. He is re-reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses” for the 10th time. He is one of Lexington’s great characters, known for his decades as a waiter at a la Lucie on Limestone, for his art and photography, for his collections of found objects and detritus from his life, for his unstoppable thirst for reading and good conversation.
On a brilliant morning in August, Bickett’s household is being packed up, and by packed up, that means a good amount of the collections that constitute what Bickett calls “The Archive” are going into storage. Bickett isn’t sure which part is the real art of the collection — the collections, or the cataloging of them in a 700-page document.
The archive inventory list was begun in 1980 and starts with “collage box work produced in Winchester, KY: 1980-1982.” The first item is titled “There is a naked man in the cathedral,” and described as “box construction, 8.75” w x 11” h x 3”.”
And so the catalog drives on, through jars and pictures and to Dec. 17, 1999, when Zoeller dug up a canning jar’s worth of dirt from the grave of Patrick Edward Madden and, “while digging the dirt during a rainstorm, fell into the grave.”
The catalog also includes various secretions in jars and other containers, including the “Father’s Day Semen Project: June 18, 2000,” in which five people along with Bickett deposited semen into bottles on Father’s Day, with the bottles then sealed with Roman casting wax. There’s also a Kentucky horse manure project, the dung preserved in candy jars, spice jars and canning jars.
The Trash Archive 2001-2004 includes North Limestone Street trash, Graceland trash from Memphis, Bourbon Street trash from New Orleans, and Masterson Station Park trash.
Unexpected items appear: “What Is in Jim Gray’s Wallet” (c. 1990) is a listing of the contents of Gray’s wallet that Bickett found in a drawer in Gray’s house. The first work was produced on Oct. 25, 2003, with a second edition given to now-Mayor Gray as a gift. Also in the collection are Bickett’s cellphone bill, a National Geographic Society map of the Holy Land, and a copy of the guide book “Sexy New York.”
How to describe Bickett’s artistic sensibility? It’s a little bit Marcel Proust, a little bit Hunter S. Thompson, a little bit “Hoarders.”
Much of his art “is not for the general public,” Bickett said. “It’s not made to show it.”
The public art that he is showing is, he estimates, the tip of his artistic iceberg, perhaps 5 percent of his output.
Stuart Horodner, director of the UK art museum, said Bickett’s work is in fact plugged in to a style familiar in more metropolitan areas over the past 50 to 75 years. He cites a display called “The Keeper” at the New Museum in Manhattan, which highlights “a variety of imaginary museums, personal collections and unusal assemblages.”
For such art, Horodner says, there is often an “I-don’t-get-it” moment from the first-time observer. Horodner knows how to tackle that.
Forgetting for a moment that it’s art, Horodner suggests looking at the materials used and the locations from which those materials are harvested, and how the artist endows them with meaning — in Bickett’s case, what it means to be a gay man within the confines of Kentucky history: “His work takes this on in a very smart, and I think, sensitive way.”
Bickett said there are three periods when an artist can make it: straight out of a fine arts program, in middle age or in old age. He figures he has hit the senior citizen marker: “Then the powers that be look down on you and say, ‘Well, he’s still here.’”
And he enjoys the notice, but his mobility has steadily declined. The man who used to arise while the fog was still on both Gratz Park and the pink flamingos of trailer parks, and who would photograph both, can no longer move freely. He has lost 45 pounds off his 5-foot-10 frame.
The irony, he said, is that he has always been robustly healthy, rarely ever sick. While waiting tables at a la Lucie, he could balance six plates at a time.
During the summer of 2015, he noticed that his right foot would register that it had hit the floor when it was still about an inch or two in the air. The resulting missstep gave him a bit of a lurch, what he called a “teeter,” and sent him to the neurologist — then to another one.
It was the third neurologist who diagnosed him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — after, Bickett said, “I had to have every test but a gynecological test.”
He was diagnosed two days after a la Lucie closed. The disease is terminal.
Toward the end of a la Lucie’s run, he stopped delivering plates after almost dropping a plate into the lap of then-Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear. He said Beshear, a customer for decades, probably would have been gracious about it, but it unnerved him nonetheless. Bickett decided to tell customers that he had arthritis in his back and could no longer deliver the plates.
At first, Bickett fought using the cane, then the four-tipped cane, then the walker. Now he’s fighting the wheelchair.
His faculties are unaffected and might be for the duration of the disease, which could last six more months or six more years. Bickett can think through elaborate actions, but he can’t force his body to respond.
“I pick up a letter and say, ‘I’m not going to drop this,’ and no matter how hard I concentrate, I can’t hold a letter,” he said.
He insists that there are five events that have been game-changers in Lexington art. He mentions them in the interview, slowly enough for a reporter to write them down, then the next day sends them over again by email:
“The election of Jim Gray as mayor of Lexington; the hiring of Stuart Horodner as director of UK Art Museum; the opening of Institute 193 by Phillip March Jones; the opening of 21c Museum Hotel “and the international importance of their curator, Alice Gray Stites;” and the emergence of the Lexington Art League “from a local arts group to a position of regional importance.”
That’s the way Bickett looks at it. And as he can tell you, his mind remains very good indeed.
If you go
Louis Bickett: Lexington events 2016
▪ The University of Kentucky Art Museum, “Louis Zoellar Bickett: Saving Myself,” Through Nov. 27.
▪ 21c Museum Hotel, 167 West Main Street: “What You Don’t Surrender The World Strips Away,” Sept. 9 to April 15.
▪ Institute 193, 193 North Limestone: “Selections from the Art Collection,” Oct. 27 to Nov. 26.
▪ Lexington Art League, 209 Castlewood Drive: “All We Ever Wanted,” Oct. 28 to Nov. 27.
▪ UK Chandler Hospital Dining Pavilion, 800 Rose Street: “The Kentucky Dirt Project: 120 Counties” (permanent installation).