LEXINGTON, Ky. — Mention Kentucky, and you”re likely to inspire images of bourbon, Col. Sanders and the Derby. Bluegrass stereotyping also includes hillbillies (generally toothless and barefooted) who chug moonshine and hang out at NASCAR tracks.
“You know you’re from Kentucky if your house is mobile and your three cars aren’t,” goes one Kentucky joke.
For the record, the spry old Colonel and his inimitable cloud of hair and marbled Southern tongue are not as omnipresent here as they seem to be in other states. Visitors to the heart of horse country, Lexington, are hard-pressed to spot a single KFC sign.
Displacing positive, mostly equine-oriented Kentucky stereotypes is not that easy. Not with all those horse farms that are everywhere as you head out of Blue Grass Airport along Man O’War Boulevard, where corrals stretch to the horizon.
Many visitors, no doubt, become giddy just imagining what it must have been like to see Man O’War and other gallant steeds barreling down the stretch. Inevitably, though, the question arises: What is there to do in this place that doesn’t involve horses? Plenty, it turns out.
Visitors who venture beyond standard spotlight stealers such as the Oaks Brunch, hosted on the morning of the Derby by Louisville’s Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft — and beyond the region’s inevitable stables and rolling hills — stand to discover the real Kentucky heartland and its endless small towns, farmhouses, quaint shops and cozy bed-and-breakfasts.
Visitors aren’t likely to stumble upon stills, mine wars or family feuds. They have a much better chance of encountering potters, painters and carvers of all ages and skill levels who dream about something other than finagling an ownership stake in the next Secretariat or Seabiscuit. Namely, making a name for themselves in the world of art.
Aficionados won’t find the breadth of talent that’s available to them in, say, New York or Paris or perhaps even Washington, but when it comes to art, Kentucky happens to be, well, no Podunk.
The savvy slicker will enjoy an edge over fellow big-city brethren prone to fits when they can’t find a Starbucks simply by taking advantage of bargains that galleries in Soho and other high-maintenance beacons of haute couture cannot match. They just need to know where to look for them.
The Bluegrass State has plenty of contemporary galleries in thriving, modern communities such as Berea, home of Berea College. This tuition-free institution, founded by abolitionists, has been showcasing the work of hundreds of talented, budding young artists for 113 years at its student craft store.
The best deals await those who don”t mind negotiating often captivating Kentucky back roads, where they”ll find a vast selection of work, much of it produced by self-taught artists, some whose reputations extend far beyond their studio barns.
Take Lonnie and Twyla Money, who retired from farming about nine years ago to fashion animals from gourds. The handiwork of this prolific husband-and-wife team includes everything from abstract roosters to pigs and flights of fantasy such as their signature, best-selling “Book Worm.” Mr. Money once saw a white fox carting off a neighbor”s capon; that inspired him to create “Large Fox With a Chicken,” another of the couple’s more popular pieces.
Potential customers may be able to dredge up info about the Moneys online, but they will find no Web site for them and no printed catalog. Many of the couple dozen art dealers throughout the country who sell the Moneys’ work at often hefty markups stock up simply by dropping by the studio, a converted milk barn about six miles from East Bernstadt, population 5,390.
The Moneys, both self-taught, work together on all of their pieces. Mr. Money, 57, fashions the burgeoning menagerie, while Mrs. Money, 54, finishes off the pieces with extraordinary bursts of paint that include large polka-dot patterns. The duo deliberately keep prices low because they believe that raising them would be immoral and unnecessary.
Collectors who don’t mind traversing the winding roads, past cow pastures and black barns stuffed with curing tobacco, can save dramatically by buying abstract opossums, skunks and fox-eating chickens direct, the same as city dealers who stock Money art. There are no signs or landmarks to look for, just a black-and-white cow mailbox.
Folk-art dealer Larry Hackley discovered the Moneys at a folk festival in 1986 and was so impressed by their craftsmanship that he placed an order for walking canes, followed by one for painted carvings. The Moneys soon began focusing on animals, and demand for their work has kept growing.
Baseball and basketball players have become part of their repertoire, too, along with a three-tiered rendition of the biblical ark that depicts Noah and his wife loading animals, two by two, into an olive-and-red vessel.
Gallery exhibitions tend to display the stark, surprising, often one-of-a-kind pieces created by the Moneys, whose work has appeared in numerous craft magazines, folk-art exhibitions and private collections worldwide.
Not far away in London is Mike Angel, an affable former agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and officer of the Kentucky State Police who turned to making rocking chairs and other traditional comfort furniture while recovering from a leg wound sustained during a 1987 drug raid.
Inspired by the popularity of rocking chairs, Mr. Angel learned about the craft from his immigrant Romanian grandfather. People of all classes — American Indians, slaves, laborers and landed gentry — used them, he discovered. Storytellers preserved their oral family histories by spinning stories on rocking chairs. John F. Kennedy conducted foreign policy from one he kept in the Oval Office.
A native of the region, Mr. Angel, 64, became so consumed with woodcrafting that in 1994, he gave up chasing down bad guys for the ATF in Cleveland and focused on his craft.
After restoring hickory-bottom chairs built nearly a century ago, he adopted this art by making chairs from scratch under the banner of Red Dog & Co., named after a beloved family mutt. These days, he specializes in fashioning rockers, which he sells for about $750, along with other traditional furniture pieces.
Mr. Angel assembles his mule-ear chairs, woven-seat settees, benches, captains chairs, stools and tables the old-fashioned way, using vintage drawknives, hollow augers, and spoke shaves, along with power tools to size each part. Then he steams the uprights and slats into their proper shapes. To ensure that the joinery remains tight, he uses a traditional green-wood technique — rather than metal fasteners — at the time of assembly. Though the chairs theoretically require no glue, he uses it as a precaution.
Hickory, walnut, cherry and oak are Mr. Angel’s woods of choice for his Red Dog chairs. Each chair arm features customized signature fingers that fit the hand like an abstracted glove rather than traditional round or square shapes. The armrests and tilts also are fitted to individual customers.
Mr. Angel”s 2,400-square-foot shop and showroom depends on local craftspeople, chair weavers, woodcarvers, sawyers and loggers. Basically, however, Red Dog remains a family enterprise, consisting of his sister, artist Ann Eberhardt, who hand-paints custom designs on solid seat benches and chair slats, and his wife, Fredi, who keeps track of company records, inquiries, sales and shipping.
Minutes away, also in London, is Jim Sams Wood Art. This self-taught artist honed his skills by studying the techniques of local blacksmiths; weavers; and basket, quilt and furniture makers. Mr. Sams has always loved to draw and paint, but his strength is woodcarving. He’s been doing it for the past 24 years, using tupelo gum, bass and hickory to fashion his amazingly lifelike menagerie of animals and birds. In addition, he carves bloodroots, shooting stars, yellow lady’s slippers and other exotic flowers so detailed that visitors often believe they’re real.
Among his repertoire are four types of orchids, pink and yellow lady’s slippers, and a bleeding heart. His carvings range in price from $400 to $1,200. Mr. Sams’ work has appeared in numerous craft shows, including one sponsored last year by the Smithsonian. His current order backlog is two years.
An artist hub of sorts is the Artisan Center at Berea, which features whimsical garden sculptures, hand-woven shawls, pewter jewelry, books by Kentucky authors, paintings of Kentucky landscapes, recordings of dulcimer music, photos of Kentucky wildflowers, barbecue sauces, hand-carved canes, silver jewelry, classical music recordings, Kentucky notecards, and honeysuckle baskets. Shops and working studios can be found at College Square, in Old Towne and along Chestnut Street. The center is alongside Interstate 75 at Exit 77, 40 miles south of Lexington and 2½ miles from downtown Berea.
Visitors who want to see the work of other artists can follow the Artisan Loop from the Center at Berea.
Watercolorist Diana Killburn, whose work has been displayed throughout the U.S. and Europe, offers watercolor workshops in her home on Lake Road in London that include meals. Get there by taking Kentucky Route 80 west, turning right onto Highway 1956, then following Lake Road.
If basket weaving is your shtick, take a gander at Truett’s Quality Baskets & Crafts, 243 Mildred Road, where Patricia Truett, a weaver for 23 years, makes baskets of every size and color by using round and flat reeds on white-oak handles.
At Tater Knob Pottery, in an area known as “the Knobs” along the Pottery Trail, owners Sarah Culbreth and Jeff Enge offer an extensive selection of their work.
If you’re interested in getting a replica of the kind of log cabin where Abe Lincoln grew up, go to email@example.com. Owner Duane Armstrong might be able to help. He uses old shipping pallets to fashion cabins, trucks, birdhouses, etc.
Visitors can obtain more information about lodging, dining and other attractions by calling 877-TOUR-SEKY www.tourseky.com. When in Kentucky, they can call 511 to access traffic and travel information.
Boone Tavern Inn, 100 Main St., Berea, KY 40404; visit www.boonetavernhotel.com; phone 800/366-9358 or 859/985-3700
Snug Hollow Farm & Country Inn, 790 McSwain Branch, Irvine, KY 40336; ; www.snughollow.com; 606/723-4786
The Vintage House Restaurant, 215 Roy Kidd Ave., Corbin, KY 40701; www.thevintagehouserestaurant.com; 606/526-1916
Brain Boggs Chairmakers, 118 Lester St., Berea, KY 40403; www.brianboggschairs.com; 859/986-4638
Money’s Folk Art, 431 Money Road, East Bernstadt, KY 40729; 606/843-7783
Red Dog & Co., 994 Cold Hill Road-Angel’s Acres, London, KY 40741; 606/878-8555
Tater Knob Pottery, 260 Wolf Gap Road, Berea, KY 40407; www.taterknob.com; phone 859/986-2167
Jim Sams Wood Art, 1509 Willie Green Road, London, KY 40741; www.jimsamswoodart.com; 606/878-6949
LeDales Custom Framing and Crafts, where Wanda Hammons showcases the portraits, murals and other oils she has been painting since 1986, is a mile past the sign for Tyler City.