Mount Sterling unveils arts center in former church

MOUNT STERLING — The Big Band music emanating Sunday from the Lewis Apperson White Performance Hall at Mount Sterling's new Gateway Regional Center for the Arts was probably nothing like the sound that came out of that room in its previous 126 years.

In its past life, the arts center building was home to First United Methodist Church, and the performance hall was the church's sanctuary.

Now, eight years after the church moved out of the big yellow building, which it had called home since 1883, the historic Gothic structure has a new purpose.

It took raising $1.2 million, mainly for buying the building and doing renovation work, and a lot of volunteers, but now the building is a place where work by local, state and national artists is displayed, musical and theatrical performances can be staged and people can come to practice their art.

Hundreds of people strolled through the new Gateway Regional Center for the Arts on Sunday during its grand opening celebration.

Greeting visitors in the main foyer was a 12-foot-long wall sculpture of a muse beckoning to the arts, created by Lexington artist Federico Pizzurro.

"It's made mostly of wood," said the artist, who was on hand for the grand opening. "I did a wall sculpture for Reba McEntire a few years ago, but it wasn't that big."

Pizzurro said the center piece, with a background containing abstract elements and the figure done in more of a classical style, has a message for art students: They need to know about classical style before they advance to the next step, he said.

On Sunday, the center's Gallery for the Arts featured more sculptures and dozens of paintings and photographs. There was a watercolor of irises by Mount Sterling artist Ray Beam and a pastel of Elmo, a cat, by cat lover Helen Perkins. Photographs by photographer Bobbie Haddix were also on display.

The works of several Lexington artists were in the mix. One of the pieces was a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln (price tag: $9,750) by Louisville artist Ed Hamilton.

The works will be on display through late October. Five of them were sold Saturday night during a gala honoring major donors to the new center, said Cay Lane, executive director of the Montgomery County Council for the Arts and a member of the team that helped make the new center a reality.

Also at the new center is a library/board/community room where there are 350 donated books and artwork on the walls by contemporary Kenyan artists, which were donated by Ruth Hunt Wood of Lexington.

The list of contributors to the new arts center took up several pages of the program for Saturday's gala. At the top of that list were James and Elise Boyd of Lexington, who contributed $500,000 in memory of Elise Boyd's father, who had been a prominent Mount Sterling lawyer.

"I'm just really excited. We're lucky to have this in our community," said Shelia Albright, program director for Gateway Children's Services. She said that children her agency serves have helped get the new arts center going.

"Sometimes art's a good form of therapy," she said.

Visitor Ashleigh Donaldson, who is studying arts administration in college, said she thinks the new arts center will bring people together and is especially good for the youth of the area.

"My passion is theater. I hope to be very involved," she added.

Retired banker Marion Dempsey, who was in charge of the renovation, said the biggest challenge was bringing the building up to state building code requirements. Besides that, he said in jest, the hardest part of the job was eliminating "the backbiting and bellyaching" that went on among renovation workers.

"I love to work with my hands. I did quite a bit of the hands-on work," he said.

Lane said that $300,000 more is needed to renovate the basement of the 12,000-square-foot building and for theater lighting and chairs. Plans for the basement include a commercial kitchen, a café and a classroom.