Tom Eblen

His real life began after he quit work

Theo Edmonds spent the first 15 years of his adult life chasing traditional success.

From his native Breathitt County, he moved to Lexington and earned an art and theater degree from Transylvania University.

Then he went to New Orleans, where he earned a master's degree in health care administration and a law degree from Tulane University. He was admitted to the Louisiana Bar and had good jobs in corporate America.

Then, one day, it hit him: "I realized I was doing something that wasn't making me happy on any level. I knew I needed to be creative. So I called in one morning and quit."

He returned to Lexington, where he spent much of the past two years in a rented industrial building on Manchester Street writing poetry, painting and creating large mixed-media pieces of art.

Edmonds, 39, is now finding a new kind of success with his art, thanks to talent, hard work and a generous patron. For the past five months, he has been living and working in New York City, where he opens a two-week show Thursday in rented space in Manhattan's SoHo district.

After the show, Edmonds will move to France and create work for a solo show in September in Deauville, Lexington's sister city, during its annual American Film Festival. After that, another show of his work is planned in Dublin, Ireland.

Edmonds was having modest success as an artist in Lexington, where he said the contemporary art scene has begun to blossom. "Lexington has immense potential," he said. "It's an amazing place; you never know what's going to happen."

But living and working in Harlem has been a whole 'nother world.

"The influence and energy in New York has been incredible," he said. "My work has fundamentally changed and evolved since I've been here. It has become much more varied. I have more confidence in my work. I feel very blessed; I don't know how else to say it."

Many of Edmonds' pieces are a combination of paint and castoff items that tell stories, often Appalachian stories.

"The idea of things having a second life is authentic to me, and very Appalachian," said Edmonds, whose father, Teddy Edmonds, represents Breathitt, Lee and Estill counties in the General Assembly.

Since moving to New York, Theo Edmonds also has spent a lot of time in art museums. He has studied the work of fellow abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and he has developed a new appreciation for the old masters.

"If you don't know where you came from, you don't know where you might be able to go," he said.

Edmonds' show is built around three themes: Appalachian storytelling pieces he created in Lexington; a series called Gabba Gabba Hey, inspired by New York street culture; and a series called Circus Maximus, which uses circus characters to tell universal human stories.

Edmonds' work in New York and France is being made possible by patron Martine Head, who comes from a French horse-breeding family and now lives in Lexington.

Head said she met Edmonds last May at a show of his work in Lexington and was impressed. "I think that Theo has got depth," she said. "He's a true artist ... a profound soul."

Lexington has always embraced traditional art. Since moving to Lexington, Head has noticed a growing appreciation for contemporary art. Still, many fine local artists receive little recognition.

Head remembered the first time she visited Tuska Studio, which exhibits the work of the late Lexington sculptor John Tuska in his former home near downtown. "I walked into that house and thought, Wow! There is this gem in Lexington and nobody knows it's here," she said.

Head thought that living and working in New York and Europe would allow Edmonds to develop his artistic talent and receive more exposure.

While Edmonds has spent most of his time in New York painting, he also has been writing poetry. On April 5, three Kentucky poets flew up and joined him in a performance at the Bowery Poetry Club.

The opening reception for Edmonds' show in SoHo will have a decidedly Kentucky flavor: Acoustic music, country ham hors d'oeuvres, bourbon and Ale 8 One.

Edmonds said he is proud of his Appalachian roots and is surprised by how many other proud Kentuckians he has met in New York.

"It's a city of people like me who have a burning desire to say something through their art," he said. "But hopes and fears and joys are the same in New York as they are in Breathitt County."

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