Whitesburg puts itself on art map

WHITESBURG — They can shut down Main Street for the bike show — why not for art? That's what John Pellegrini, a Whitesburg doctor and art collector, wanted to know.

So, on Saturday, when the city has its second art walk, they will close the street to traffic so that the work of more than 20 local and regional artists can be shown downtown. Artists say it's a sign that the city, long a source of art, is slowly becoming a destination to see art.

"There has not been a lot of opportunity to display visual arts," said painter Jeff Chapman Crane, who has been working in Letcher County for 27 years. "Things seem to be coming together in the last couple of years."

Whitesburg has long been a center of creativity and artistic endeavor. Appalshop, a non-profit that focuses mainly on filmmaking, music and storytelling, sometimes exhibits visual art in its building, and restaurants and the public library periodically show artists' work. Pellegrini, a general surgeon, displays his art collection in his business office downtown.

Across the street from Pellegrini's office, the owners of the restaurant Summit City are renovating a storefront, to be called 260 Gallery, that will be the city's first full-time gallery, according to local artists.

"The way we look at it is that there's just so many amazing artists from this area — usually to get a place to show, they've got to go to population centers," said Summit City owner Joel Beverly. Developing space in Whitesburg gives the locals a chance to see local artists, he said.

Pellegrini uses his business office, where he has three employees and a lot of storage space, to display art and said he is surprised by the interest.

"I just didn't think the appetite for art existed here," he said.

On Saturday, he's taking the opportunity to show off 105 Salvador Dali lithographs he's had hidden in books for 10 years. He bought Dali's illustrated Bible, the Biblia Sacra, at an auction and has toyed ever since with the idea of removing the lithograph illustrations and framing them for display. The coming art walk gave him a reason.

"The great pleasure is in showing people the art," Pellegrini said.

This year the number of art venues for the walk has doubled, and live music has been added — so Main Street will close to car traffic for a few hours.

Such events are uncommon but not unheard of in small towns, said Ed Lawrence, communications director for the Kentucky Arts Council.

"It depends on how much arts momentum exists in a community," he said. In Whitesburg, the foundation is there, he said, pointing to longtime arts advocates who founded and came through Appalshop and to the Letcher County Tourism and Convention Commission, which is organizing the art walks.

During the art walk in December, Pellegrini ran out of wine and cheese, when more than 100 people came through the office. More would have come if the doors hadn't been closed at 10 p.m., said his office manager, Delta Craft.

The success of the previous walk wasn't lost on West Liberty painter Pam Oldfield Meade, who will display in Whitesburg again this weekend.

"It was impressive what the town had put together," she said. "It really worked."