‘Outstanding Southerners’ list includes two who are looking to the future

Ada Smith, the institutional development director of Appalshop, stood outside of Appalshop in Whitesburg.
Ada Smith, the institutional development director of Appalshop, stood outside of Appalshop in Whitesburg. The New York Times

Ada Smith’s late grandmother had a gallery on her refrigerator for the achievements of her grandchildren.

Young Ada longed to get her name onto that refrigerator. If her grandmother were still alive, Smith thinks this recent honor would do it.

Smith, a second-generation employee of Whitesburg’s Appalshop, is one of two Kentuckians among the 60 named Southern Living Southerners of the Year for 2017. Her parents are longtime Appalshop employees Elizabeth Barret and Herb Smith.

Southern Living says, “As the institutional development director for Appalshop, Kentucky native Ada Smith carries on the legacy of an arts-and-education cooperative founded in 1969 to preserve and share the folkways and current concerns of Appalachia.

“Appalshop spearheads everything from documentaries on rocking chair makers to innovative initiatives like Mining the Meaning, which received a $450,000 grant to infuse a former coal mining town with arts- and technology-driven programs and businesses.”

The other Kentuckian honored is J.K. McKnight, founder of the Forecastle Festival in Louisville. In 2016, the festival drew over 60,000 people to Louisville’s Waterfront Park. Presale tickets for 2018, which went on sale on Dec. 5, are already sold out.

Southern Living wrote of him: “The festival contributed $20 million to the city’s local economy, but McKnight, a passionate environmentalist, also wanted the event to promote sustainability, with solar- and wind-powered stage lights and T-shirts made from recycled plastic bottles.

“Now, with an independent foundation attached to the festival, McKnight’s mission is to protect some of the most ecologically diverse landscapes — from the Green River watershed in Kentucky, to Marrecas, Brazil — for future generations, including his baby daughter, Maple.”

Ada Smith went to college at Hampshire College in Massachusetts; as a teen, she had doubted she would return to Eastern Kentucky, but later she reversed that decision.

“The people there have invested a lot in me, and I owed it to the community that has invested in me to give back,” she said.

Smith noticed that at Appalshop, “there’s a lot of work just making it work right.” Recruited for a temporary job, “I ended up sticking around longer and doing a lot of grant-writing and fundraising. There’s a lot more to running Appalshop than just producing the art.”

McKnight found out he had been named an outstanding Southerner via a text from his mother, narrowly beating out a notification from his wife, Holly Weyler McKnight.

“I’ve always looked at it as our job to rope in the best assets of Louisville and the whole state of Kentucky and put them out there for everyone,” McKnight said. “We want it to feel native to the soil it’s in.”

The sustainability part of Forecastle, he said, expanded the local to the global, a concept McKnight calls “glocal”: “I look at Forecastle as a great representation of Louisville.”

In 2016, Lexington writer Crystal Wilkinson, co-owner of Wild Fig Coffee and Books on North Limestone, was named to the list. The magazine said that Wilkinson’s bookstore had “become something of a town hall where just as many discussions are had over a new best seller as about gentrification, race relations and city issues.”

At least one of the 2017 Southerners honored was cited for work outside the field for which she is known. Singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris of Nashville and her friend, Lisa Stetar, combined their interest in helping rescue animals and at-risk youth to start Crossroads Campus, which shelters young people and employs them to take care of rescue animals on site. The youth also run a retail pet shop and receive job training.

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman