Christine Huskisson

Christine Huskisson is Co-Publisher of UnderMain, Co-Founder of the Studio Visits Project and Critical Mass Series. She is also a Contemporary Portraitist, whose media are words, pastels and oils. Her subject has been her numerous acquaintances and colleagues in the arts for more than thirty years.


A Tapestry of Talent: An Interview with Kōan Jeff Baysa

In December 2019, I met with Kōan Jeff Baysa, the elected presider over UnderMain’s fourth running of the Critical Mass Series (CMIV) as the incoming Critic-in-Residence (CIR) with the Great Meadows Foundation (GMF). As we sat in a window seat at Nyonya in Manhattan’s NoLita neighborhood, I shared details about UnderMain and why the Critical Mass Series was founded, primarily as an effort to bring a multitude of talent together in critical discourse about the role of contemporary art in the region.

I explained my original concerns about the lack of critical writing and the ongoing battle against stereotypical notions of Kentucky as a backwater, and that Critical Mass had become my passion. Over the last three years, I’d reached out to various leaders in our community and worked with interns, artists, and writers to include their voices. UnderMain funded the program in its entirety. Then, in 2019, The Great Meadows Foundation recognized our efforts and a common goal for the two organizations: Both were intent on developing Kentucky’s collective voice in the world of contemporary art and, as a result, GMF granted funding to UnderMain to support CMIV, CMV, and CMVI.

Kōan had visited Kentucky before, and from the range of topics that flowed from appetizer to entree to tea, I knew CMIV would succeed on a grander scale than in years past. Kōan’s approach was clearly global; together we began weaving an even larger tapestry.

From our meeting, two topics remained at the forefront of my mind: First, Kōan’s comments after speaking with Fred Wilson about the museological approach underpinning his installation at the Maryland Historical Society titled Mining the Museum – namely to challenge all narratives presented to us – and second, Kōan’s intrigue with The Rubin Museum, which I later toured for the first time. This was a remarkable collection of contemporary works in conversation with the collection of Himalayan art. These talking points were harbingers of what would develop in the coming months with Kōan leading the 2020 Critical Mass Series – open discourse was at the center of both.

The Wilson and Rubin discussions would also lead to an exhibition proposal that UnderMain agreed to mount in partnership with 21c Museum Hotel and the GMF, Icon Interventions, which Kōan curated and discusses further in the interview conducted with him here.

Kōan later joked that our lunch had ranged from ‘cabbages to kings’ and that was just the beginning. Under usual circumstances, he was to spend approximately eighty hours in Kentucky artists’ studios and help raise the level of critical discourse among artists in the region.

In March 2020, the circumstance was far from usual, and while the pandemic robbed us all of what we might have done together, what we could have learned first hand from Kōan Jeff Baysa, and what outcomes we may have been able to build upon for 2021, it also meant the residency spanned four months and influenced many more conversations than we had anticipated, much of which is discussed in this in-depth interview.

Kōan requested that I include the caveat that his findings revealed in this interview are in no way comprehensive of the Kentucky art scene, that all errors of omissions are his alone, and that his comments are based on limited observations with mostly personal impressions guiding him.

CH: How many artists did you visit across the state of Kentucky?

KJ: Over the two months (Feb-March 2019) that I was invited to serve as the third Critic-in-Residence (CIR) for the Great Meadows Foundation (GMF), and for the two additional months (April-May) prompted by the advent of the COVID-19, I interfaced with just short of ninety individuals in Kentucky’s creative communities. For the first six weeks these interactions were actual studio visits, then via virtual interviews, successively from the INhouse in New Albany, to a private apartment in NuLu, and then the Speed Mansion in Old Louisville.

CH: How did you determine which artists to include?

KJ: Some groundwork had been laid when I made my first visit to Louisville in 2005. I did a studio visit with Steve Irwin, was introduced to Julien Robson at the Speed Museum, met Ed Hamilton in his studio, visited Zephyr Gallery, and toured 21C in its original location. Fast forward to 2020. In the interim, Steve passed, Swanson Gallery closed, and 21C grew to nine locations, among other changes. As a curator and critic, in the fifteen-year period of living in Honolulu, Los Angeles, and New York City, I wasn’t able to keep track of what was happening in Kentucky contemporary art.

Anna Olivia Blake, GMF assistant

Chris Reitz, with Joey Yates, Henry Heuser Jr. at the Cressman Center for Visual Arts

In advance of my arrival in Kentucky on the first of February 2020, the Great Meadows Foundation let me know they hired an intern, Anna Olivia Blake, to work as my assistant. She was a pleasure to work with, a local resident enrolled in the curatorial studies program run by Chris Reitz at the Hite Institute of the University of Louisville. I told her of my interests in everything outside the mainstream art world:  the intersection of art and science, underrepresented communities, especially the differently enabled, the incarcerated, LGBTQA, Asian and native American artists, performance art, outsider art, art with novel uses of materials and surprising concepts. In retrospect, I also wish that I had been able to experience more new media, chemosensory, and sound works.

Dinner at Al’s with art community leaders

Group of artists at Al’s

Koan, Al Shands, Julien Robson

Venice Four: Sandra Charles, Toya Northington, Ramona Lindsey, Lucy Azubuike

Al Shands and Julien Robson had the foresight to host a dinner with a dozen leaders from Kentucky arts organizations and two large groups of artists. As an icebreaker, I asked individual artists to introduce themselves to the rest of the group. The icebreaker generated conversations between adjacent “strangers,” all of whom were all members of the same creative community but were previously unaware of their neighbors’ roles and contributions. I largely met my goal of meeting every artist present, encouraging each to contact me for a studio visit as Anna helped collate the lists of artists.

It was my first time meeting the group of four women artists funded by GMF to experience the 58th Venice Biennale 2019: Sandra Charles, Toya Northington, Ramona Lindsey, and Lucy Azubuike. As I settled into my role as CIR, I attended openings, panel discussions, poetry slams, and other gatherings. One of the first openings in Louisville I attended was African-American Women: Celebrating Diversity in Art at Kore Gallery, commemorating Black History Month when I was introduced to the artist Elmer Lucille Allen.

Elmer Lucille Allen at Kore Gallery opening

Lance Newman at KMAC poetry slam

At KMAC’s poetry slam Anna introduced me to visual artist Lance Newman who organized the impressive showcase of talent that evening. An invitation by Ramona Lindsey, Program Officer at Hadley Creatives, to conduct critiques offered another opportunity to meet artists. Visiting regional art collectors and viewing their collections was a good way to know works and artists in concentrated forums.

Ramona Lindsey at Kore Gallery opening

Larry Shapin and Ladonna Nicola in their home; Julien Robson

Larry Shapin and Ladonna Nicola focus primarily on collecting and displaying the works of Kentucky artists in their spacious home, and are now planning another structure on the property for art. Gil Holland, who is credited with branding and developing the NuLu and Portland neighborhoods, gave me a virtual walkthrough of his home collection. John Brooks and Erik Eaker generously shared their select private collection with me.

John Brooks and Erik Eaker; Ramona Lindsey, Toya Northington

Dinner with Susan Moremen and Gaela Erwin, Susan’s home

I was privileged to have several walkthroughs of the extensive art collection at Al Shands’ Great Meadows home and grounds. Invitations to private homes for properly socially distanced meals provided additional opportunities to see works by local artists: dinner at gallerist Susan Moremen’s with artist Gaela Ewin, and lunch with the retired pioneer photography educator CJ Pressman and the former zoo curator Marcelle Gianelloni, who have amassed an astounding collection of regional folk art and contemporary photography.

Chris Radtke in her home with work by Steve Irwin.

CJ Pressman and Marcelle Gianelloni in their home

Chris Radtke, one of the founders of Zephyr Gallery, gave a gracious tour of her home, her artwork, and extensive art collection. I was also able to view artworks collected by Henry Heuser, Jr. in the offices of the Community Foundation of Louisville.

CH: What regions of the state did you reach?

KJ: My directive was to visit artists living within the one hundred twenty counties of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and two adjacent counties across the Ohio River in Indiana. I went north to attend a panel discussion at the Kennedy Heights Art Center in Cincinnati featuring Kentucky artists John Brooks and Kiah Celeste. Venturing south to Western University Kentucky in Bowling Green, I saw artists and instructors Yvonne Petkus and Kristina Arnold.

John Brooks and Kiah Celeste, panel discussion at Kennedy Heights Art Center, IN

Yvonne Petkus at Western Kentucky University

Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator and Museum Director; Nico Jorcino23, Director Of Museum Design and Planning, 21C Museum Hotels

Josh Azzarella at home

I drove to Nashville where Tiffany Calvert and Josh Azzarella opened their joint exhibition at Tinney Contemporary, east to Morehead State University to visit Melissa and Adam Yungbluth and photographer Robyn Moore. Through the kindness of Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator and Museum Director, and Nico Jorcino, Director of Museum Design & Planning, of the 21C Museum Hotels, arrangements were made for me to stay at and tour the current shows and collections at 21C locations in Lexington, Nashville, and Cincinnati.

Melissa and Jason Yuthblud, Morehead State University

Robyn Moore at Morehead State University

Lacy Hale, Appalachia

Robert Gipe, Appalachia

I was fortunate to get in touch with creatives and organizers working near and in Appalachia. With prior affiliations to Appalshop, Lacy Hale and Robert Gipe gave insights into the hardships of surviving as artists and art advocates in the area.

Crystal Wilkinson, Affrilachia

Frank X Walker, Affrilachia

Writers for Affrilachia, Crystal Wilkinson and Frank X Walker gave strong insights into the origins of Black art, craft and literature in Appalachia. I was able to visit the shows: Black Before I Was Born curated by Ashley Cathey at the Roots 101 African-American Museum founded by Lamont Collins; the beautifully installed solo show by Megan Bickel at the Georgetown College Gallery; the handiwork of Danny Seim and the art installed at the Portland Museum; and a chance to meet Daniel Pfalzgraf who curated the work of Eke Alexis in Permanent and Natural at the Carnegie Center in New Albany.

Curator, Ashley Cathey; Lamont Collins, Director at Roots 101

Megan Bickel, Jacob Wilson, Kōan, art collectors at Georgetown College Gallery

Danny Seim, Portland Museum

Eke Alexis’ work in Permanent and Natural at Carnegie Center, New Albany. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Center New Albany.

Given the opportunity, I would have further explored lesser-known art venues, researched more black artists and queer artists in Appalachia and visited the artist Julie Baldyga. I had plans for explorations to Paducah further to the west, Whitesburg to the east, and Covington in the north, but the pandemic truncated those travel plans.

CH: What genres were represented by the artists you visited?

KJ: All 2D and 3D genres were well represented, and I was especially interested in works that crossed disciplines and combined platforms, so I specifically reached out to Teddy Abrams, widely acclaimed Music Director of the Louisville Orchestra; Robert Curran, the iconoclastic Artistic Director of the Louisville Ballet, and Matt Wallace, the Director/Facilitator of the Shakespeare Behind Bars program at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex. In other genres, I approached Edward Taylor in fashion, Amberly Simpson in dance, and Jane Jones, a playwright. Fortunate to be given a tour of the artworks installed in the expansive UK HealthCare Center in Lexington, I am grateful to Jason Akhtarekhavari, the Manager of the UK Arts in HealthCare program.

Matt Wallace, Director/Facilitator of Shakespeare Behind Bars program

Edward Taylor, fashion designer

Jason Akhtarekhavari, Manager, Arts in HealthCare Program, UK HealthCare Center

Jenny Zeller, Visual Arts Coordinator, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

I also wish to acknowledge the art programs at outdoor sculpture parks that expand the scope of contemporary art experiences for the public, especially for school age youths and for hosting international artist-in-residence programs. I was invited by Jenny Zeller, the Visual Arts Coordinator at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest to tour artworks installed on the grounds. Besides the wildly popular Forest Giants, especially notable is Earth Measure (2013) the large sculptural installation by Matt Weir. Similarly, Josephine Sculpture Park Director Melanie Van Houten gave me a tour of the installations in the landscape.

Matt Weir sculpture, ‘Earth Measure’, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

Lucy Azubuike, Josephine Sculpture Park

Near the entrance is a remarkable installation by Lucy Azubuike whose arc of tall poles presents previews of tree-based pareidolia found in the park and constitutes the basis for exciting discoveries by children. Innovative Louisville exhibition spaces include the exhibition space Houseguest, as well as the front room of the home of artist Megan Bickel and chef Jacob Wilson. Art-related dinners are hosted in that same space. Sheherazade is the converted downstairs garage space of the studio home of Julie Leidner. On a busily trafficked street, the shows are observed through windows in the rollup garage door.

Megan Bickel, Jacob Wilson, Guesthouse

Julie Leidner, Sheherazade

CH: What are some themes or topics that the artists you visited seem to hold in common?

KJ: Identity politics of race, gender, and class are being universally addressed. Artists can be effective catalysts for change, so the crucial issues of segregation, homelessness, opioid addiction, institutionalized incarceration, toxic masculinity, the legacy of slavery, serial exploitation of Appalachia, immigration, and other hot-button topics, could be further explored. Critical discourses are hampered in part by the culture of regimented politeness and lingering segregation. Kentucky is fractured into 120 counties within which there is underrepresentation of Asian-American, LGBTQA, and indigenous artists.

Skylar Smith, Ballot Box exhibition

Brianna Harlan, Ballot Box exhibition

Jaylin Stewart

Thaniel Ion Lee, Moremen Gallery

Particularly arresting and poignant, Brianna Harlan’s installation in Skylar Smith’s exhibition Ballot Box, at Louisville Metro Hall, chronicled her grandmother being denied voting because she, on command by an election official, allegedly sang the Star Spangled Banner off-key. I appreciate the energy and dedication that self-taught artist Jaylin Stewart invests in her painted portrait series that she also executes in chalk on city streets. I was not able to experience the powerful poetry and performances of Hannah Drake but we spoke about her forceful enacted oratories on social justice. I was struck by the art of Thaniel Ion Lee that transcends physical restrictions and takes flight in highly detailed drawings, photo self-portraits, fine digital images, and instructional word-images.

CH: Does ‘Kentucky art’ have a distinguishing character of its own?

KJ: Some may look to the KMAC Triennial as an example, but I am not aware of any characteristics that would distinguish works as “Kentucky art.” When I posed the question regarding the existence of a “School of Kentucky Art” and what Kentucky art is known for, the conversation often turned to the crafts in Kentucky, especially art from Appalachia. The institution’s name – Kentucky Museum of Art & Craft – reflects its historical emphasis on craft, and evokes longstanding discussions regarding art and craft.

Letitia Quesenberry, studio

Steve Irwin, early magazine work

When conducting a straw poll on “famous Kentucky artists” the names mentioned most often included Ed Hamilton, Keltie Ferris, Letitia Quesenberry, and Steve Irwin. Hamilton is a world-renown sculptor based in Louisville. Ferris, who lives and works in Brooklyn, is known as an artist from Kentucky locally noted for having “made it” by being represented by an established gallery in Manhattan. Quesenberry has also shown in New York, lives and works in Louisville, noted for her work with light installations, and her work with the Louisville Ballet. Irwin was an acclaimed, charismatic, and beloved Louisville artist famous for his hedonistic lifestyle. Undergoing cardiac bypass surgery in his 20s, he bore a precarious cardiac status and died at age 51 of a massive heart attack. Certainly not to the exclusion of other organizations, I acknowledge the significant contributions of the Great Meadows Foundation, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the insightful leadership of artist director John Brooks at Quappi Projects, and the adept stewardship of Susan Moremen in directing her eponymous gallery. I am grateful to Warhol Grant awardee Paul Michael Brown in Lexington for introducing me to Institute 193 and its mission of championing quality relevant works over commercial viability.

John Edward Brooks in his studio

Paul Michael Brown, Institute 193, Lexington

CH: Are there a few artists whose work really stood out?

KJ:  I’m very much interested in surprising processes and the novel manipulation of material; I’m totally entranced by the approach that Vian Sora employs to initiate her stunning abstract paintings with evolving figurative references. The scale of her polyptychs approximate immersive experiences. The fabric-based series by Crystal Gregory revolve around her concept of “material interrogation” that involves the astonishing use of cloth in conjunction with glass, pewter, and concrete.

Vian Sora, home studio

Crystal Gregory, Office of Al Shands

The head of the glass program at the Hite Art Institute of the University of Louisville, Che Rhodes demonstrates his creative mettle of working outside of the mainstream glass studio practice with controlled explosion glass-within-glass pieces.

Che Rhodes, Hite Institute

Tiffany Calvert, Hite Institute

By layering digital and physical masking, digital printing and painting, a particular series by Tiffany Calvert reads as Dutch still lifes with technologic flourishes.

Ian Pemberton

Jacob Heustis in his studio

Andrew Marsh

Stan Squirewell, at home studio

Having studied traditional Asian ceramic glazing and firing techniques, Ian Pemberton challenges himself by altering the processes from engineering perspectives to produce “relics for the future.” In addition, I like the scaled-up scratched mirror pieces by Jacob Heustis, the repurposing of metal and wood, experimental cast metal work by Andrew Marsh, driven by a personal history of physical trauma and chronic pain and the brilliant epoch-collapsing social commentary collages of Stan Squirewell.

Ebony G. Patterson, large work with C21 Nashville gallery guide

Vinhay Keo, Photo courtesy Susan Moremen Gallery

Having taught as Associate Professor in Painting and Mixed Media at the University of Kentucky, Jamaica-born Ebony G. Patterson creates eye-dazzling socially conscious large-scale works that are placed in many collections, including in several of the 21C Museum Hotels. From Cambodia, Vinhay Keo creates self-referential photographs, performances, and installations that embody an important rising immigrant voice. Having completed his studies at the Kentucky College of Art and Design, the talented artist now lives and works in Los Angeles.

Penny Sisto

Cynthia Norton

Among the several artists that working with fabric, the standout is the quilted work of Penny Sisto for her exquisitely detailed large-scale portraits of select iconic individuals. I’m fascinated with the scope of concepts tackled by Mary Carothers, especially her ambitious encasing an entire car frozen in ice. I was enchanted by my studio visit with Cynthia Norton and her performances as alter ego “Ninnie Noises Nonesuch” of rural Kentucky accompanied by her self-made musical instruments.

I have yet to see the finished sculpture that Maker’s Mark commissioned Matt Weir to create. Over two separate visits totaling nearly hours, I reviewed his tremendous range of works and was particularly impressed with the specialized tools that the artist invented and built for the precision work required to execute Earth Measure and his current commission.

CH: We understand that you were able to connect artists with larger art world experiences. Can you elaborate on those?

KJ: I habitually make individualized recommendations to artists with each encounter. These include suggestions of reference articles, other works of art, and art residencies with whom I am affiliated: Omi International Arts Center, Residency Unlimited, iBiennale, Joshua Treenial (California), Fresh Winds Biennale (Iceland), Kaus Australis (Netherlands), Young Congo Biennale (DR Congo), and other connections. My written recommendations made for the artists of Hadley Creatives were copied and collected by its program officer. As CIR, I was first generously housed at INhouse, in the Silver Hills section of New Albany. I envisioned it as a meeting place for artists. Unfortunately, grand plans for a multisensory dining event fell through at the last minute. On one evening, Julien organized an introductory meeting with members of the critical discourse group Ruckus. The event that I was happiest with was an elaborate meet-and-greet event that centered around the four female artists from Kentucky who were funded by the Great Meadows Foundation to experience the most recent Venice Biennale. I coordinated a potluck BYOB event of ten artists, each of whom was asked to bring a guest. Each person was then expected to share his/her/their work with the group. The happening encouraged lively dinner conversations, enthusiastic discussions of the presentations, and the making of new friends and potential collaborations.

The other large opportunity that was scuttled by the pandemic was Icon Interventions at the 21C Museum Hotel in Lexington. The concept was to have works by Kentucky artists in conversation with works in the then current exhibition Pop Stars!. Supported chiefly by 21C, Great Meadows Foundation, and UnderMain, the associated conference, Critical Mass IV – led by Christine Huskisson – was drawing audiences from New York, Cincinnati, Nashville, and elsewhere. It was a golden opportunity to showcase art by Kentucky artists, introducing them to larger audiences of curators, museum directors, critics, bloggers, and others from outside the state. I offered to support the application of a Kentucky artist with arthrogryposis to a funded position at Omi International Arts Center in upstate New York. An artist with the same condition was invited to the residency program several years ago and I shared that artist’s work with the potential applicant. Another instance was referring Letitia Quesenberry to the career of friend Eric Orr, a California Light and Space artist whose works were previously unknown to her. A further example is putting Mary Carothers, a prior visitor to the Faroe Islands, in conversation with artists Brandur Patursson and his father, well-established artists there. I met the island artist when I served as the Curatorial Advisor for the Fresh Winds Biennale VI in Iceland.

CH: How did the regions’ public/communities compare in terms of engagement and support of artists?

KJ: As a bona fide erstwhile farmer producing the gourmet goat cheese, chevre, I’ve often made the analogy of a healthy art ecosystem with a well balanced milking stool. In a gross oversimplification, the contemporary art world is made up of a several components that are analogized to the legs that support the stability of the stool: producers (artists), consumers (individual collectors, institutions), and facilitators (gallerists, critics, curators, museum directors, nonprofit facility directors, etc) that work between the two. Art activities in Kentucky are centered mainly around the more populous cities of Lexington and Louisville, and towns with colleges and universities with art departments. Kentucky has an imbalance in the components of the art world ecosystem: a pool of talented producers/artists in all disciplines, modest exhibition-promotional-sales sectors, and a limited consumer/collector base. The more “legs” equitable in position and in length, the more stable the entire structure. The ongoing challenge is how to grow the individual and corporate collector bases to support the artist communities, perhaps from younger generations with wealth, innovative concepts, and new definitions of collecting. There is a disproportionate number of exhibition venues for the numbers of artists. Admirably, Quappi Projects, Roots 101 and the Portland Museum are proactively building diverse audiences and constituencies. Real estate developers, architects, and designers should be engaged in this discussion. The dependence of the Kentucky art market as primarily in-house sales-driven should be reassessed. Critical discourse in Kentucky is ably served by organizations like Ruckus and UnderMain, and should be scaled up. The upcoming careers of curators-in-training at the Hite Institute should be encouraged and supported early on in their careers. Most importantly, active conversations between these various components of the Kentucky art ecosystem should be encouraged and sustained rather than being siloed, for that just maintains the status quo.

CH: What steps could/should be taken to strengthen the Kentucky visual arts communities?

KJ: Strive to correct the imbalances as described. This was also answered in part previously. Take initiative. “Chance favors the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur. Don’t be shy asking for help. “Not trying guarantees failure 100% of the time.” Take advantage of the resources offered by existing local resources like Great Meadows Foundation, Kentucky Foundation for Women, UnderMain, Louisville Visual Arts, and like organizations. Start with the individual artist. Professional development, available through programs and through personal initiative, is crucial. Artists should be articulate and conversant about their work from a personal perspective and within the larger context of the art world. Read, research, and experiment. Be curious. Satisfy that curiosity. Share resources and knowledge. Form, join, and participate in artist discussion and critique groups, in addition to those in academic settings, of mentors, peers, and juniors is important for personal and professional growth. Become an art collector. It’s not elitist to collect art. Herbert and Dorothy Vogel were civil servants who amassed one of the most important post-1960’s art collections in the U.S. One can start modestly by buying or trading works with other artists. Get to know art dealers and art advisors. Propose an installment plan and/or ask for discount with purchase, as many art dealers are willing to work with collectors. Be mutually supportive. Seek out and attend as many openings, receptions, award ceremonies, campus activities as practical. Introduce yourself to a “new stranger,” an artist you don’t know or whose work you’re unfamiliar with. Discover what you have in common or just make a new friend. Be voracious in looking at art.

If you feel that you’ve seen everything in your town, travel to see exhibitions whenever possible, whether actually or virtually. Proactively invite more people to your studio. If you’ve gone through the “usual suspects” regionally, find out which visiting art persons are around and approach them. Curate an exhibition. Whether solo or group exhibition, the process of mounting an exhibition will be educational. Critique an exhibition. Express yourself. If not for publication with Ruckus or UnderMain, put it on your blog and share it with colleagues. The characteristics of “Southern hospitality” include humility, courtesy, good behavior, modesty, and “knowing one’s place.” Genteel Southern upbringing discourages disparaging one’s neighbor, especially in smaller communities where everyone knows each other’s business, and particularly in the subpopulations of the art world. This is keenly impactful in the subject of critical discourse in Kentucky, where reviews may be perceived as more descriptive than critical, but commendable efforts by organizations like UnderMain and Ruckus are reversing the trend. Surprised to discover that Louisville was among the top ten most segregated cities in the U.S. along with neighboring Nashville and Cincinnati, I learned of Louisville’s notorious “Ninth Street Divide.” Acknowledging its Sisyphean challenge, I encourage and support all measures that promote bidirectional porosity and the ultimate breakdown of this physical and mental barrier. The origin of the name Kentucky as the “dark and bloody ground” is arguably ambiguous, but the double entendre evokes historical and current events of racial and gun violence.

CH: Do you feel that the artists in Kentucky have access to enough outlets (galleries, publications, critical review, collectors) to develop their work to its fullest potential?

KJ: No. But access is not just limited to these outlets, for they are moderated by psychological, socio-economic, temporal factors as well. Notably, direct person-to-person communication is effective, but vastly under-utilized and integral to professional development. Also see prior responses. And Yes. The internet is a vast ocean of information with remarkable potentials for developing access to these outlets. Also see prior responses. 

CH: What can Kentucky do to begin a collective conversation (together with the artists from all areas of the state) with the larger world of contemporary artists? 

KJ: Collective conversations have already been initiated with organizations like Great Meadows Foundation. By funding artist experiences outside of Kentucky, it has importantly extended and increased the exposure of Kentucky artists to the larger world of contemporary art. Again, I cite the funding of Sandra Charles, Toya Northington, Ramona Lindsey, and Lucy Azubuike to the recent Venice Biennale. In addition, GMF’s invitation to Dan Cameron, Natalia Zuluaga, and myself to interface with Kentucky artists exposes those artists to our respective networks, resources and conversations.

Sandra Charles

Toya Northington

By attracting well-heeled and well-traveled individuals to the various 21C Museum Hotels and restaurants, this hospitality group plays a significant role in increasing exposure to and awareness of the Kentucky artists’ works represented in its collections. I viewed my postponed curatorial project, Icon Interventions, at 21C Lexington, as a similar potential force. In addition to changing exhibitions at the museum, the KMAC Triennial, organized through a committee led by curator Joey Yates, is a welcome format encouraging further dialogues between Kentucky artists while fostering attention from beyond the state’s borders.

Group of artists at Al Shands

Joey Yates, KMAC Curator

Requiring funding and an enterprising spirit, national and international art events, including biennials, art fairs, and out-of-state group exhibitions offer more opportunities for Kentucky artists to gain further visibility. To gain further insight into the growth of the Kentucky Art ecosystem, fundamental issues require scrutiny:

        • Do Kentucky artists want these conversations or are many satisfied with the status quo?
            • What are the motivations, goals, and desired results to have these conversations?
        • A rising Kentucky artist moves away to pursue further education.
            • Will this artist return? Why or why not?
        • A talented artist moves to Kentucky for a faculty position and lower living expenses.
            • How does one encourage this artist to stay?
            • How does one attract other talented artists to come and settle here?
        • A certain Kentucky artist has the skills and reputation that could serve this artist well in larger cities like Los Angeles and New York.
            • What keeps this artist in Kentucky?
            • How does Kentucky keep this artist from moving away for other opportunities in larger cities?

To be fair, my comments are made with the presumption that artists hunger to extend their reach further. Some may not. There may be a case for maintaining the status quo. In the exhibition catalog for Here, contributor Mark Harris remarks, “Paradoxically, the circumstances that prevent this art from circulating at a national level are the same that enable it to gain its distinctive local color and depth.” Throughout my rewarding four month long experience as Critic-in-Residence for the Great Meadows Foundation, it has been a distinct honor and an absolute pleasure to work with all of you and especially with several extraordinarily gifted artists. I am invested in the creative communities of Kentucky, and offer my continued support and friendship from Los Angeles, Honolulu, and New York.

Mahalo nui loa!

Photo credits: Kōan Jeff Baysa

Please follow and like us:
original works

Small Gestures

Two weeks into this pandemic with fear and uncertainty persistent, UnderMain reached out to the arts community in an attempt to reconnect. Since then, we have partnered with various organizations to help provide emergency grants to those most in need.  We have encouraged regional leaders and many of our writers to share their views of the world Post-COVID. We have invited various constituents to join our weekly meetings as we revaluate our mission and our role.

Pressed into unbearable corners physically, emotionally, and financially as the landscape continues to tilt, UnderMain supports efforts to enact systemic change to our fragile industry. Balance and sanity also direct us toward the small gestures that seed change in each of us.

This is that.

Near the end of March, we reached out to Jim Betts – a contributor to UnderMain whose words always soothe – and he shared his project, Notecard Essays. The cathartic nature of his pen to paper was clear; so, we thought it might be nice to share. Below is Jim’s methodology for making these notecards – it’s a kind of process that incorporates a ritual and serves to gently reveal personal truths and, for Jim, unlocks something even more universal.


I sit, usually following a walk, with a notecard spread blank before me.  Hopefully on the walk I have come up with a topic, a “through line” which I will pursue. Sometimes I am particularly writing to a person, sometimes he/she is just next on the list. I address the card, date it, address the envelope and, thus committed, I approach the pure white canvas. I try to have a point. I try to broach the subject from a specific example, expanding out to some universal or at least personal truth. I embellish with flowery, poetic, philosophical language depending on topic/reader. I do not write the letter to him/her, but the person receiving it colors the presentation. And that to be presented colors the recipient.  I do not/cannot edit, it is a one shot deal. So like zen calligraphy, I sit down, gather myself, write and emerge somehow transformed from the practice. That is what is known as a good day.

None of this matters. It is how I do it. It really can be revelatory. I am frequently surprised by what comes off my pen. I copy them on my printer, seal the envelope with a wax seal (Why not? It heightens the drama, gift wraps the card and lets me play with fire.  By the way, the dripping and stamping is also part of the zen practice…), stamp them and put them in my home mailbox with the little flag up to announce their merry presence.  All in all it is a good use of an hour.


Photo by Christine Huskisson from the woods above a long bend in the Kentucky River.

Here are a few of Jim’s notecards:


Dearest Mother, 3/11/2018
I watch with some amusement and lots of amazement as the mockingbird patrols the back yard. We have a line of feeders spaced 20-30 feet apart. The mockingbird zooms back and forth from feeder to feeder, flaring his wings and strafing any bird bold enough to transgress. And of course they do. He is only one bird and when his back is turned, they whiz in for a quick seed. He of course cannot allow this, so back he goes, over and over again. I can’t imagine the energy demands on both body and spirit that kind of selfish behavior must exact. The little birds still sneak in and gain a crumb and whatever joy is present in the pastoral life of a bird, seems denied the mockingbird, save that of a bully. And despite his stingy dominion, I don’t see him overrode than anyone else. How much simpler it would be, from my non-avian perspective, to sit in the gathered trees, sing the joys of spring and share in the bounty available to all. I’m sure there is a metaphor for my life glaringly present. Suffice to say, in a land of plenty, sharing with open heart would seem the path towards greater peace.
All my love, Jim.


Dear Kristine,
I’ve discovered the joys of notecards. This little rectangle of open promise provides a perfect warp for the weft of words a moment in time inspires. Not short and thoughtless like a text, not interrupted by “Get Well Soon!,” not endless like a sheet of paper (why stop at the end? Just get another sheet!) this untrammeled snowfield invites a quiet stroll, a thoughtful communion, a short exploration of an idea or occurrence. These cards are the haiku of essays; succinct, evocative, pithy yet playful. They are tailored to an individual and informed by a moment yet, if properly realized, address a broader, deeper examination of topic. Perhaps I am being overly significant, saddling this pretty stock with greater weight than it is comfortable. But I view them as a wonderful conversation with a close friend, say, like after the second glass of wine has been poured. When, while your partner takes a sip, you are free to expound on some matter of great import, to her delight (hopefully) or to the unburdening of mind. They are a short, one-sided exchange which allow me, the writer, to share the process of fleshing out an idea with a kindred soul. This little rectangle frames the thought, shaping beginning and end, allowing for creative middling. Thanks for understanding.


Photo by Christine Huskisson from the woods above a long bend in the Kentucky River.

Dear Alary,
We watched a movie the other night, a lovely, brooding film called “The Hours.” In it, one of the characters, the Poet, says something like “I spent my whole life trying to describe a single day…and I couldn’t do it!” I’ve been waking a lot, reveling in the glories of a Kentucky spring. After a bit of grumbling about the weather, I have adopted a no-expectations mantra, breathed rapturously at the start: “Show me the glories of this day.” And each day is magical. Whether it is the unexpected sighting of a Scarlet Tanager, whose bold red and black mimic the appearance of our typical Cardinal. Or the wind-driven, sun-dappled sway of the spring maples, suffused with an almost holy light. Or the buttery warmth of the sun as it wrestles it’s way through the morning’s clouds. I could brush over all these, paying sensuous tribute, but I could not begin to factor in the manifold years and years of magic sun, crisp crescent moon, summers, fall, hard frozen winters which yield with gracious tenacity to the moment I am breathing in now. And all that everythingness that informs my experience of the world is mine. It shares a passing glance, a moment or two with yours, but the vastness of your life escapes me. I feel an honest embrace of that which moves me, with gracious allowance for what moves you, is a life well lived.


Dear Nicole,
My daily walks have invigorated me such that I regularly take evening walks. And this very familiar landscape takes on an ominous hue with the coming of the gloaming. This is a different space, evoking an implicit threat, a time of stealth and shadow, Dark Magic. The sounds carry further and quicken the heart. This is the time of raccoons, opossums, owls, elves. A time of scheming, quick treachery and surprise. I contrast that with the day’s magic. Light, airy, inviting, joyful. Equally capable of seducing you from your appointed path, but with the tinkling of little bells or the gentle waving of gaily sun-dappled flowers. The birds sing lustily from the tree tops, the wind playfully rustles the gossamer and chenille of the spring wardrobe. This is the time of faeries, a glad sweet time. I find myself loosening my winter’s jacket and lengthening my stride. My spirit soars in communion. At night I huddle more, tucking myself in, still the open perception but this one more wary. During the days wave to fellow travelers as they pass in their cars. At night, I slide behind trees, shy of the headlights but more, husbanding my invisibility. As a creature of sight, I cleave to the day, savoring the visual feast surrounding me. As a creator of adventure, the night pulls in visceral ways, a Siren promising wild beauty but also potential rocks.

Photo by Christine Huskisson from the woods above a long bend in the Kentucky River.


The day broke mottled, cold winter grey punctuated by spring’s golden glory.  The sun-washed the nascent green leaves and caused one to loosen one’s jacket.  I got to the road, preparing to enter the courtly secluded neighborhood next to mine when a car drove by.  My eyes were drawn to the liquid cardinal flights all around me when I heard a sound much like a fast-food cup being run over. I looked and saw a squirrel on the verge of the road, clearly run over.  I stood, shocked, silently hoping the car had run over an already dead squirrel, when I saw it feebly twitch its tail a few times, then nothing. The speed with which spring’s joy was stifled was stunning. A certain luster to the day faded. In this time of unseen rapid death, the peace with which I walk deflated and I was once again afraid and sad. Uttering a prayer for vision and wisdom, I pressed on grimly. Birds sang and chased, squirrels gamboled, the delicate seedpods of the maples swang in the breeze like a flapper girl’s dress. A hawk groomed himself atop a light pole, blossoming like all else around. Yet not from sun and rain but flesh and blood. He was a harbinger of death, beneficiary of such like the vulture or the maggot. The roundness of life emerged, the symbiotic grace of it. From the perspective of the individual, the ego, life begins and ends, has a quality of fairness or not, but from the universal, the aggregate is beautiful.

Please follow and like us:
original works

Ron Isaacs: Shelf Life

What an odd thing a shelf is. A shelf is just a shelf really, right? Put a thing on it, though, and it is immediately transformed into something else. Once we begin to populate our shelves with objects – whether with precious memorabilia, beautiful images, feathers, or found knots – the whole thing becomes something else. We put objects on shelves to somehow honor them or know them better; we may even wonder if time will reveal something more about them. We might also believe that they could withstand the test of time – simply by being placed on a shelf.

On a recent couple of visits to the home and studio of Ron Isaacs and his wife Judy – both avid art collectors – I could not help but wonder if there was some parallel between the object-laden shelves I saw there and the work of the artist himself. Was it the manner in which they were so masterfully composed or something else? Something life-giving? So, I decided to look a little closer and to listen.

The artist Claes Oldenburg once declared that the harder he looked at a thing, the more mysterious it became.  “I know the feeling,” Ron writes in his artist’s statement – quoting the Modern/Pop artist often. “Objects have voiceless, inscrutable physical presences, and memories, as well; these memories are borne on their surfaces as signs of growth or manufacture, use or care, neglect or entropy.”

Ron Isaacs was trained as a painter, receiving a bachelor’s degree in art from Berea College in 1963 and an M.F.A. in painting from Indiana University in 1965. For many years he worked and taught as a painter, and considers the period from 1969 to 1973 as one of rapid development in his artistic career. In the early 1970s, he began collaging elements, attaching three-dimensional objects to his canvases and then painting this and that to combine. They were, in his words, clunky. Then, after a little experimentation, Ron had an epiphany realizing he could make a painting any shape he wanted. He threw out the canvas and discovered instead Finnish birch plywood constructions, what is now his signature medium. For over 45 years, Ron has created nearly 15 works per year in wood.

Enormously prolific, Ron has found a home for his works in many collections across the nation, including the Racine Art Museum, the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center, the Huntsville Museum of Art, the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, the Yeiser Art Center, Berea College, and Chase Manhattan Bank to name only a few.

“My work stakes out a territory almost exactly halfway between painting and sculpture,” Ron explained as we examined an old painting and his first plywood construction. The move from Camel Ride, 1970 to Jigsaw No. 1, 1971 (the first wood construction) to Ron’s Plywood London Fog Freaks Out, 1973 clearly shows the artist’s growth toward his mature style. Where heavy black line once unified disparate elements, considerable finesse and a good deal of sanding are now employed to unite later compositions.

Camel Ride, 1970, acrylic on canvas and wood, 30″ x 22″

Jigsaw No. 1, 1971, Acrylic on fir plywood construction. 28 1/2″ x 26″ x 2 1/2″ Collection of Bert and Cherie Mutersbaugh

Ron’s Plywood London Fog Freaks Out, 1973, acrylic on fir plywood construction and coat hanger, 42″ x 30″ x 6 1/2″

In the end, his goal is to trick the eye, but unlike traditional trompe l’oeil painters, the illusion of real objects is not Ron’s primary concern. “The illusion is an interesting and useful byproduct of my attempt to make a strong image that has the authority of direct observation.  If the illusion fails, which it always ultimately does either sooner or later, you still have an image to respond to, which is pretty much what you get with any painting or sculpture.”

Why would a trompe l’oeil artist want the illusion to fail? This is one of Isaacs’ chief strategies: he sets out to render something ‘real’ and then interrupts our impression with metamorphosis or paradox – turning the final construction to a thing more surreal.

In the series of images below, the process of creating these works is illustrated. Ron moves from the composition of real objects on a grid board, to tracing paper patterns with detailed instructions for the final shapes, to contour line patterns, then transfers these shapes to varying thicknesses of birch plywood, sawing, sanding and the gluing, to compose a final form.

Trained as a formalist, composition is one of Ron’s major concerns, as his works take on freer shapes on the wall. He understands that negative space is as important as the form and shape of each of the objects included. This construction was in its beginning phase on my first visit and completed on my second, one week later. It is titled Just a Thought and is just 8 1/2 inches tall by fifteen wide.

Juxtaposing man-made garments and natural objects in most of his constructions, Ron delves deeper into the mysteries of both; for him this combination reminds us of our relationship with nature – “either being a part of it or apart from it.” Alter Ego (Waterfall), 2008 and Birdies, 2015 bears witness to these dueling realities.

Ron also admits to liking the fact that, “the garment is fixed in time and the leaves are anytime.” Although he rarely works on more than one construction at a time, he will, when necessary, turn to a natural object that will eventually fade or die and recreate it for use in a future work.

The vintage garments, on the other hand, have a more stable shelf life and Ron’s friends like to joke that he has more dresses hanging around than his wife. For Ron, these garments have rich structures, colors, and shapes which lend themselves to endless design possibilities. “They continue the life of the past into the present, and they function in my work as anthropomorphic presences which become effective stand-ins for the human figure.”

Ron Isaacs,"Alter Ego (Waterfall), birch plywood construction prior to painting

Alter Ego (Waterfall) in process, 2008, 44″ x 33 3/4″ x 7 3/4″, collection of John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Ron Isaacs, "Alter Ego (Waterfall)"

Alter Ego (Waterfall), 2008, 44″ x 33 3/4″ x 7 3/4″, collection of John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin


Birdies, Finnish birch construction, 2015, 22 3/4″ x 18 1/2″ x 2 1/4″

"Birdies," 2015

Birdies, 2015, 22 3/4″ x 18 1/2″ x 2 1/4″

“Trompe l’oeil (‘fool the eye’) could be a gimmick for an artist to show off technical skills, a fairly shallow if entertaining enterprise, but its devices seem an appropriate response to my love of the visual world.  I am still enamored with the old simple discovery of resemblance, the first idea of art after tools and shelter:  It means that an object or image made of one material can share the outward appearance and therefore some of the ‘reality’ of another.”

Sticks are crucial. In design terms, a stick is basically a line for Ron Isaacs; he frequently uses them to draw forms as in Alter Ego and Metaphor.

"Metaphor," 2005

Metaphor, 2005, 24″ x 51 1/4″ x 8″

Ron does not consider himself a conceptual artist, but I couldn’t help but see a bit of ideation playing equal part to the aesthetics in works like Coincidence from 2014. In fact, this composition had more to do with his sense of humor than anything much deeper; he commented, “It was even more fun, when the actual stick – the inspiration for both of my sticks – was still around.” Quoting from American writer and poet Joyce Kilmer’s short poem titled ‘Trees’ from 1913, Ron humbly states:

Maybe, ‘Only God can make a tree’, but I can make a pretty good stick.

"Coincidence," 2014

Coincidence, 2014, 2 parts; 26″ x 9″ x 1 1/2″, overall

Ron considers his job is to make things that are evocative and allow viewers to interpret his works as they will. While not all easily accessible, ‘simplicity’ and ‘directness’ are two terms used by Rick Snyderman, Principle of Snyderman-Works Galleries in Philadelphia, when describing Ron’s works (catalogue essay to accompany Ron Isaacs: A Retrospective in 2 1/2 D). Isaacs connects the viewer in tight constructs, but never requires a specific interpretation. The content is open content.

Muted gray, brown, and off-white are favorites in Isaacs’ palette. Just a Thought is a good example. However, given that all of this is to challenge himself, he will work in bolder colors as in Recurring Dream in Red from 2011. If a particular object requires that he push himself, he turns always to his judgment and artistic licensure. Ron does all of this because he must; he cannot really say in words exactly why. His works are visual poems, frequently quoting American realist painter and printmaker Edward Hopper:

If I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.

Recurring Dream in Red, 2011, 36 1/4″ x 55″ x 3 1/2 Collection of Michael and Christine Huskisson

If only you could say it in words. “I combine imagery, often using paradoxical interruptions and metamorphoses, in hopes of creating visual ‘poems’ of sorts; these suggest metaphors for the relationships of human life and nature, memory, and the passage of time.” In fact, the inspiration for Improve Each Shining Hour from 2010 is a poem by Isaac Watts titled How Doth the Little Busy Bee.

Mediating the artistic experience in words is, we all know, a difficult thing to do. So, thank you, Ron for improving each hour by bringing to us these masterful compositions. May they sit forever on our shelves of life.

"Improve Each Shining Hour," 2010


How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower! How skillfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

– Isaac Watts (1674-1748)


Ron is represented in Kentucky by Heike Pickett Gallery in Versailles.

The artist’s retrospective Ron Isaacs: A Retrospective in 2 1/2 D was held in the fall of 2011 at the Doris Ulmann Galleries at Berea College.

Related in UnderMain: Other Lexington artists who mix mediums

Patrick Adams: Lights Mystery 

Patrick McNeese in Scene&Heard

Please follow and like us:

It Just Kinda Dawned on Us

..and the sun keeps comin’ up…

This venture has been a long and healthy haul – and now our future is even more robust. When we (my Co-Publishers Tom Martin, Art Shechet and I) first launched UnderMain in 2014, we were simply having fun. We enjoyed uncovering what we thought was hidden in the shadows or living under the main thoroughfares of the then-present consciousness of art and culture in our region.

That was the way this all started: With caffeine and laughter, many morning meetings turned to their adjacent afternoons full of new ideas. Sitting at the same table at Le Matin Bakery, one Wednesday after the next, we came up with the title of our ad-free, visually rich digital magazine: UnderMain. We decided then that its primary mission would be to shine a light on artists, writers, gallerists, creative spaces and ideas, collectors, curators, and critics who work hard everyday and struggle to be heard and seen.

I am not sure why we were searching the darkened spaces or if we just felt there was not enough visibility in print publications, but no matter – because now we’ve flipped the switch in this little digital space. Whether it was passion, fatigue, frustration, ideation, or the simply act of creating, we had it and found enough of it mirrored in you to thrive all these years.

So, as your UMPrez, I am delighted to announce that UnderMain has received a three-year commitment from the Great Meadows Foundation (GMF) to continue our programming.

It should be noted that the generosity of the Great Meadows Foundation is supported by a near equal match of anonymous donations and in-kind contributions from so many. The writing, management, coordination, editing, curation of our content is brought to you by an undying commitment from our contributors and editors, many of whom work in an entirely philanthropic manner. Together we have remained consistent and fresh over the last five years and, with this three-year commitment, all that we have done means all the more there is to do.

As I elaborated in our proposal to the Great Meadows Foundation, UnderMain must now move beyond our light-and-shadows naiveté into a more prominent place of advancing the level of discourse in Kentucky about visual art and culture. These three programs are at the heart of that effort:

Studio Visit Series 

In 2014, we ventured out and into area artists’ studios. I was privileged to write and publish a few of those first visits  (“Ron Isaacs: Shelf Life”and “Dark Dualities: David Kenton Kring”) and now I spend more time connecting writers with artists and publishing their stories. There comes with that a certain reward, a specific joy in connecting two individuals who learn from one another as these writers and artists did: Keith Banner visits Michael Goodlett and Jim Fields visits Skylar Smith. Jim’s own words might say it best:

I began writing exclusively for UnderMain three years ago with a primary focus on artists, their work and what inspires them. For me, ‘the blank page is both exhilarating and intimidating and, like creating a work of art, writing is a process that requires both vision and revision. It is about making certain choices, being aware of various connections, and synthesizing information in order to give my ideas shape and meaning. Working with artists in their studio settings requires implicit mutual confidence and trust, with equal vulnerability, and being ever mindful to not be blinded by the obvious. I am honored to have been selected as one of the writers to participate in Under-Main’s Studio Visits Series under the auspices of The Great Meadows Foundation. While I am grateful for the stipend I received, my real reward for writing ‘A Studio Visit with Skylar Smith: Her Story’ came from the artist herself when she emailed me shortly after the article was published: “You gave voice to things I have not been able to articulate, yet resonate for me—thank you for this.”

In 2019, with our first funding commitment from the GMF, our focus has narrowed to Kentucky artists and we have thus far published eight studio visits, those above and the following: Miles Turner visits Mia Cinelli, Emily Elizabeth Goodman visits Melissa Vandenberg, Hunter Kissel visits Harry Sanchez, Jr. , Miriam Keinle visits Lori Larusso, Sso-Rha Kang visits Carlos Gamez De Francisco, and Natalie Weis visits Vian Sora.

Upcoming is a visit by the Speed Museum’s Miranda Lash with Louisville artist John Brooks, Paul Michael Brown’s visit with Lexington artist Robert Beatty, and Cooper Gibson’s visit with James Lyons.

In 2020, UnderMain will organize thirteen studio visits with Kentucky artists and our writers will not only be paid a stipend for their work, but – at the request of Sso-Rha Kang – I have included a small amount for travel expenses as I have always tried to connect artist and writer from different areas of this region.

Critical Mass Symposium

In 2016, we launched the Critical Mass Series, a symposium intended to advance critical thinking in the arts and promote further discussion about Kentucky’s position as it relates to the broader art community.

Critical Mass I  took place in 2016 at the University of Kentucky Art Museum and was moderated by Stuart Horodner. Then in 2018, we followed that with Critical Mass II at KMAC with Joey Yates moderating – fully intending the symposium as a biennial. The discussions however, generated such enthusiasm that it led us to rethink that idea – and in 2019 Matt Distel of The Carnegie in Covington held Critical Mass III.

Critical Mass IV is being planned for March of 202o and will feature the GMF Critic-in-Residence Koan Jeff Baysa.  So, please watch our site for upcoming details.

Critical Reviews of Local Exhibitions 

Since inception, we have held this as one of our highest priorities and, at year end, we are encouraged by the impact these reviews have had. They have exposed the curatorial work of many institutions in Kentucky and the Central Kentucky region, including: The Moreman Gallery and KMAC in Louisville; 21c Museum Hotel, Mary Rezny Gallery, Institute 193, and the University of Kentucky Art Museum in Lexington; the Solway Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio; and the Kleinhelter Gallery in New Albany, Indiana.

Engaging critical writing from both within and outside of our state has helped to advance the level of critical discourse about contemporary art and its role in defining our regional identity. With the support of the Great Meadows Foundation, UnderMain will increase the publication of these reviews to twenty per year with an increase in pay to our writers.

Thanks to all who support our endeavor. The UnderMain concept is growing, and with new programming like UMRadio – a recurring feature of the weekly program Eastern Standard on WEKU, a local NPR station, and UMDingers, a surprise treat coming in 2020 – we continue to aim higher. And, when that big ball hits the top, we’ll move into the dawn of the dusk knowing full well how to light the way.

Please follow and like us:

Critical Mass: From III to IV

In March of this year, UnderMain held its third panel discussion of the Critical Mass Series. The series was founded and is undertaken annually as a way to examine the role that criticism plays for Kentucky artists and institutions. The co-founders and regional partners believe that critical discourse can help us engage in a more meaningful dialogue regionally and with the national and international contemporary art world.

Collaboration is vital to the Critical Mass Series and as UnderMain hosts the series in a different part of Kentucky each year, we seek out new partners. Critical Mass I (2016) was conducted in partnership with the University of Kentucky Art Museum in Lexington, while Critical Mass II (2017) was held at KMAC in Louisville. This year, we brought in The Carnegie Center in Covington with Exhibitions Director Matt Distel moderating. 

In keeping with his curatorial style known as Open Source, Distel invited five artists (Harry Sanches Jr., Joey Versoza, David Wischer, Lindsey Whittle, and Sky Cubacub) to join three curators/writers working in the region. CMIII:In The Mid (2019) specifically addressed the topic of regionalism and its impact on artists and writers working in the mid-West. Distel set out to ask: What is a healthy arts discourse and does it exist in this region? What are the practical concerns for artists that are working outside of major arts centers? What role does art criticism and critical dialogue in general play in the careers of “regional” artists?

The symposium featured The Great Meadows Foundation Critic-in-Residence and Miami-based curator, Natalia Zuluaga, who shared some of what she learned during her March residency in Kentucky where she made studio visits to the studios of more than thirty artists.  Natalia was joined by Valentine Umansky, Curatorial Fellow at the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati; Annie dell’Aria, Assistant Professor at Miami University and writer for AEQAI; and Sarah Rose Sharp, Detroit-based activist and multi-media artist and writer for HyperAllergic, Art in America, Flash Art, and Sculpure Magazine.

For those of you who could not join us, below is an interview with Christine Huskisson and Matt Distel on the WEKU current affairs program Eastern Standard explaining a bit about The Critical Mass Series, as well as a short video of the symposium itself. We hope you enjoy.

Planning for Critical Mass IV is underway. More on that soon.

Interview with Christine Huskisson, co-founder and curator of The Critical Mass Series and Matt Distel, moderator of CMIII:In The Mid.

Video and Audio

© 2019 UnderMain, Inc.


UnderMain, Inc. would like to acknowledge the following for helping us organize Critical Mass III and producing this short video:

Curation and Administration

Christine Huskisson, Co-Founder and Curator of The Critical Mass Series

Tom Martin and Art Shechet, Co-Founders of The Critical Mass Series

Matt Distel, Moderator of CMIII and Exhibitions Director of The Carnegie Center

Savannah Wills, Coordinator of CMIII and Chellgren scholar

Julien Robson, Advisor to UnderMain for the CM Series and Director of the Great Meadows Foundation

The staff at The Carnegie Center in Covington, Kentucky


Due to audio complications, the artists discussion was not properly recorded.

We value highly the visual content and the sharing of artistic practices for discussion purposes.

Thanks goes out to:

Harry Sanches Jr. 

Joey Versoza

David Wischer

Lindsey Whittle

Sky Cubacub


Natalia Zuluaga, Miami-based Independent Curator and Critic-in-Residence with the Great Meadows Foundation

Valentine Umansky, Curatorial Fellow at the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati

Annie dell’Aria, Assistant Professor at Miami University and writer for AEQAI

Sarah Rose Sharp, Detroit-based activist and multi-media artist and

writer for HyperAllergic, Art in America, Flash Art, and Sculpure Magazine

John Williams, Principal Photographer / Producer SoundART Management™



 Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation, launched in 2016 by contemporary art collector and philanthropist Al Shands. Named for the home that Al and his late wife Mary created, the mission of Great Meadows Foundation is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world. (

The Carnegie Center provides an extraordinary venue for the arts and arts education made possible through the generosity of individuals, private foundations and businesses in our community. They receive operating support from the ArtsWave, the Kentucky Arts Council, The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation and Kenton County Fiscal Courts.






Published by UnderMain, Inc., P.O. Box 575, Lexington, Kentucky 40388

Please follow and like us:

Critical Mass II: A Short Video Summary

On Wednesday, March 28th, 2018, UnderMain held its second Critical Mass panel discussion on critical thinking in the arts, examining, in part, what role criticism plays as Kentucky artists and institutions engage more readily with a national and international dialogue. This year, our partners were The Great Meadows Foundation and KMAC Museum, with KMAC Curator Joey Yates moderating. We conducted Critical Mass I in 2016 in partnership with the University of Kentucky Art Museum. Critical Mass III will take place in Northern Kentucky in 2020.

Our featured panelist this year was New York-based curator Dan Cameron. Dan shared his extensive experience as a curator, writer, and critic as well as the inaugural Critic-in-Residence for the Great Meadows Foundation. During his March residency he made studio visits to a number of artists in the region as part of the foundation’s goal to help strengthen and support the critical growth of Kentucky artists’ work.

UnderMain promotes robust critical discourse in our region as it aids in the development of the individual artist and an awareness about Kentucky’s position within the larger art world.  Missions aligned as these three partners believe that exposure to criticism plays an essential part in an artist’s development and a community’s growth. Dan’s thoughts were well-balanced by the insights of our three other panelists, Emily Elizabeth Goodman, Tiffany Calvert, and Vinhay Keo.

For those of you who could not join us, we have composed a short video for you. Ten minutes or so of the juiciest stuff. Hope you enjoy. 

Video and Audio
© 2018 UnderMain, Inc.
UnderMain, Inc. would like to acknowledge the following for helping us organize Critical Mass II and producing this short video:
Julien Robson, Director, Great Meadows Foundation
Joey Yates, Curator, KMAC Museum
John Williams, Principal Photographer / Producer SoundART Management™
Eric Cade Schoenborn, Designer, Culture on Demand
Raleigh Dailey, Pianist/Composer
Savannah Wills, Chellgren scholar
KMAC Staff


Dan Cameron

Along with his ongoing curatorial projects, Cameron is a widely published art critic, with several hundred book, magazine and catalog essays to his credit. Along with teaching on the graduate faculties of Columbia University, NYU and the School of Visual Arts, Cameron is a frequent lecturer at museums and university campuses around the world. He currently serves on the Advisory Boards of the Madison Park Art Conservancy in NYC and the ARC/Athens Artist Residency in Greece. He has received numerous awards for his curatorial and scholarly work, most recently the 2010 Service to the Arts Award by the Anderson Ranch in Aspen, Colorado, and the 2015 Eminent Scholar award from the American Cultural Association/Popular Culture Association.

Emily Elizabeth Goodman

Emily Elizabeth Goodman is a Lexington, KY-based art historian, curator and critic and Assistant Professor of Art History at Transylvania University. She received her B.A. from McGill University and her MA and Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego. Her doctoral research focused on the use of food culture in feminist art in New York and California during the era of the “Second Wave.” Her more recent scholarship and curatorial work — which includes the exhibition New Domesticity concurrently at the Morlan Gallery and the Parachute Factory — has focused on contemporary women artists’ examination of craft and domestic labor in the American South. She is the author of a forthcoming article in the journal Performance Research and writes for various art publications including Number magazine and Hyperallergic.

Tiffany Calvert

Tiffany Calvert is Assistant Professor of Painting at the Hite Art Institute at the University of Louisville. Tiffany’s work has been exhibited in group and solo exhibitions including Lawrimore Project in Seattle, Visual Arts Gallery at SVA New York, and Carl & Sloan Contemporary in Portland, OR.  She has been a recipient of a Geraldine R. Dodge Fellowship and residencies at the ArtOmi International Arts Center (NY) and Djerassi Resident Artists Program (CA). In 2010 she was awarded a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant.

Vinhay Keo

Vinhay Keo is originally from Cambodia, where he spent the first 10 years of his childhood. He earned his BFA from the Kentucky College of Art + Design at Spalding University. He received the Ellen Battell Stoeckel Fellowship to study at Yale Norfolk Summer School of Art, a Great Meadows Foundation recipient, participated in workshops such as Anderson Ranch Art Center and Anne West’s writing reflection. His work has been exhibited throughout galleries in Louisville, Kentucky with a recent solo exhibition at Moremen Moloney Contemporary Gallery.

Vinhay Keo, “Model Minority” from the Confront 2017 series shown at the Moremen Moloney Contemporary Gallery, Louisville, Kentucky


UnderMain, Inc. – a Kentucky 501(c)(3) – is an arts, cultural, and topical online publication that has a wide bandwidth. Cultural affairs is a big basket. Arts of all kinds, community issues, controversies, contests, events, people, and critical reviews. UM is serious and fun. We love playing in the digital sandbox and presenting vivid content to you, ad-free, as we offer support to some of Kentucky’s most talented writers, artists, and performers. (

 Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation, launched in 2016 by contemporary art collector and philanthropist Al Shands. Named for the home that Al and his late wife Mary created, the mission of Great Meadows Foundation is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world. (

 KMAC Museum is a contemporary art museum located in the West Main District of downtown Louisville KY. Through exhibitions and educational programs the museum examines the multifaceted landscape of contemporary artistic production and material culture. (






Published by UnderMain, Inc., P.O. Box 575, Lexington, Kentucky 40388

Please follow and like us:

The Brain and Baya: The Grey Art Gallery

On a recent trip to New York, I decided to visit the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, located in historic Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. The mission of this university gallery is to collect, preserve, study, document, interpret, and exhibit the evidence of human culture.

My mission was simply to check out the exhibition titled “The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal” after reading a review by Roberta Smith in the New York Times. I ended up seeing a second show that made me realize that if we are each to be seen as one of the humans that makes up that culture, we must first be visible.

“The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal”

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Synaptic contacts in the cerebellum, 1930s, Ink and pencil on paper, No. 9

The drawings in this exhibition are small and enormously captivating. Based on microscopic observations of cells, neurons, and gray matter of the brain, they morph into surreal abstractions. The compositions grow into poetic – even tragic – realities with descriptive titles like “pathways mediating the vomiting and coughing reflexes”, “a cut nerve stump of a rabbit six hours after damage” and “neurons in the cerebellum of a drowned man”.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “Axons of Purkinje neurons in the cerebellum of a drowned man”, date unknown, Ink and pencil on paper, No. 66

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) is considered the father of modern neuroscience. He was also an artist. Working with a microscope, pen, pencil and paper, he drew these images freehand as a way to evidence his scientific discoveries. As a neuroanatomist working at the turn of the century, his work is equal in stature to Charles Darwin or Louis Pasteur, albeit relatively unknown to the general public.

In 1906 he received The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery now known as the Neuron Doctrine. As Roberta Smith sees it, Cajal was famous for uncovering the fact that “neurons were in touch, without touching”.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Astrocytes in the hippocampus of the human brain, Pen and ink,

There are more than 80 of Cajal’s drawings in the show, selected from over 2500 drawings, made between 1890 and 1933. Originating at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, this show opened in January of 2017, arrived at NYU this year and will remain on view there until March 31, 2018. The following dates then fill out the tour for this traveling show.

  • MAY 2, 2018 – JANUARY 1, 2019 | MIT Museum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
  • JANUARY 27 – APRIL 7, 2019 | Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA

While solely dedicated to Cajal’s work, the show also includes adjacent galleries with more colorful, technology-driven imagery made by neuroscientists working today. These images demonstrate the validity of many of Cajal’s arguments – explained in wall text and in a 207-page catalogue with an essay by Janet M. Dubinsky titled, “Seeing the Beautiful Brain Today”.

In the digital image below, Dubinsky provides evidence of one of Cajal’s foundational arguments. The synaptic vesicles (small white spheres) that release chemical messages at each synapse are shown in the axon branches (transparent colors) surrounding the dendrite. Dubinsky states that:

Synapses strengthen or weaken with practice or disuse, a property that underscores learning at the cellular level. This variability is referred to as synaptic plasticity, an idea Cajal embraced as necessary for mental function

From “The Beautiful Brain: Seeing The Beautiful Brain Today” by Janet M. Dubinsky. with 3-D view of synapses on several spines along a cortical dendrite in a mouse cortex.

The “Glass Brain Flythrough” demonstrates how information is carried through the brain and was captured by MRI brain scans of the cerebral cortex (gray matter) and bundles of nerve fibers (white matter).

Glass Brain Flythrough, 2014, Short clip of the animation, Gazzeley Lab and Neuroscape Lab, University of California, San Francisco, with the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience, University of California, San Diego, Syntrogi Labs, Matt Omernick, and Oleg Knoings, Lent by Adam Gazzeley

In an attempt to stimulate a little grey matter, I had visited a few other shows on this trip, including: Auguste Rodin, Michelangelo and David Hockney exhibitions at the Metroplolitan Museum of Art, Carolee Schneemann at MOMA PS1, and Laura Owens and Jimmie Durham at The Whitney Museum of America Art.

For intriguing content that made me want to learn more, “The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal” was on the top of my list, until I decided to take the stairs to the lower level of the Grey Art Gallery.

Baya: A Woman of Algiers

At the bottom of the steps, I found a quiet gallery filled with color and familiar shapes. At first glance, it looked like five or six covered pedestals held Picasso-esque ceramics and on the walls hung vibrant paintings of various women in long dresses with fanciful hats and/or hair.

The introductory wall text clearly explained that this exhibition is about Baya Mahieddine (1931-1998), known as Baya, a female artist who was orphaned at age five. An artist who had never been the focus of a solo exhibition in North America until now.

Baya: A Woman in Algers, installation view at the Grey Gallery at New York University

Pablo Picasso, Bearded Man’s Wife,1953, White Earthenware clay, decoration in engobes, knife-engraved under partial glaze, 500 copies produced, Grey Art Gallery, NYU, Gift of Homer Kripke

Curated by Natasha Boas and accompanied by a 57-page catalogue that describes Baya as a woman veiled, a woman trapped in traditional roles, marginalized as a painter in her own country of Algiers, a woman who even by her own signature is enigmatic, a one-eyed woman peering out from behind her own multi-cultural identity and the denial of labels like “outsider artist” and “art brut”. A woman who, according to Boas, by seeing, is finally seen.

Femme sur fond bleu (Woman on a blue background), 1947, Gouache on board, Collection Isabelle Maeght, Paris

Boas’ essay, titled “Baya: The Naked Eye” introduces us to Baya, who was “born Fatma Haddad in 1931 outside Bordj el-Kiffan, a Mediterranean beach-town suburb of Algiers, to a small rural tribe of mixed Kabyle and Arab heritage that relied entirely on an oral tradition of storytelling and folklore”.

Later adopted by a French intellectual, she was encouraged as an artist and given access to prominent figures in the art world, including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, André Breton, Jean Dubuffet and Joan Miró. During this time, Baya entered a rare period of recognition for an artist of her training, one that could be viewed, so the curator states, as “Baya stepping into the visible”.

Boas states that, in 1945, Amié Maeght, a prominent French art dealer discovered Baya, and that her work – created largely from her imagination and her dreams from a very young age – was subsequently included in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in July of 1947.

Due to her success in Paris, she was later invited to an artist-in-residency program at the Madoura ceramic studio in Vallauris in the South of France, where she met Picasso.

Derriére le Miroir (Behind the Mirror), sixth edition, 1947

Pablo Picasso, “Jacqueline’s Profile”, 1956, White earthenware clay, engraving accentuated with glaze, and black-patinated ground, 500 copies produced

From the wall text for “Jacqueline’s Profile” we learn that from 1948 to 1952, Baya spent her summers in the French coastal town of Vallauris working alongside Picasso, who attributed his work in ceramic to her influence. Later, embarking on his seminal “Women of Algiers” series (1954-55), Boas reiterates,

Picasso again cited Baya as his inspiration.

Was it Baya or Baya’s artistic style that influenced Picasso? Why does this show not include the ceramics made by Baya during her time in Vallauris?

In 1953, Baya left France and her adopted mother to return to Algiers. She married a traditional Muslim, who was thirty years her senior, and settled into family life giving birth to six children. According to the curator, Baya did not show work again until 1963 and then exhibited annually until her death in 1998.

Femme allongée au visage bleu (Reclining woman with blue face), 1947, gouache on board, Collection of Isabelle Might, Paris

From one of the supporting essays in the catalogue it is suggested that this image is self-portrait of the young Baya who, lying down to sleep, contemplates her sad and lonely state as an orphan.

If the date on this painting – and all of the paintings in this show – is accurate, 1947, might not Baya have been thinking something entirely different than about her sad and lonely condition? Was inclusion in the Exposition Internationale and her residency a blue period for this young artist?

Was there something that forced her back to Algiers? Could it have been life as a creative in a male dominated world of art wherein she could be little more than muse? Was she, in fact, lying down to sleep? Why did she return to a life removed from making art? Does this show help us see who Baya really was?

Boas makes a final point that Baya’s paintings could be read as culturally subversive in that they “can look back on modernist art history from today’s vantage point and be seen”. But is that with both eyes wide open or through the single lens of another?

These two exhibitions, Cajal and Baya, are inaugural exhibitions making visible for us a kind of brilliance in the human species and, in doing so, adhere to the mission of the Grey Art Gallery. Both will strengthen your synaptic plasticity and are on view through March 31, 2018.

Please follow and like us:

Dark Dualities: David Kenton Kring

David Kenton Kring, Get Out of Your Head, 2016, ceramic

Oh man, that is so creepy!

This, David Kenton Kring acknowledges, is a common response to his figurative works and that makes him feel just fine.

Kring is after a response from the viewer with his figural works and no apologies are needed if your first reaction is to be creeped out, turned off, or experience an unpleasant feeling of fear or unease. His motivation, however, is much deeper than mere shock value.

Kring wants to get your attention and then hold onto it long enough to present his intended juxtapositions – dualities that he likes to butt right up against one another. He pairs darkness with humor, contrasts smooth, brightly-patterned surfaces with blemished, crackled and peeling ones. And, with a broader brush, he hopes to examine the dual cultural realities of folk versus high art.

The artist’s figurative work is multilayered with metaphor and mystery, but the characters themselves come from specific memories of the ‘blue-collar folk’ that used to hang out in Kring’s family-owned clothing store in Frankfort, Kentucky.

While working his first summer job at Mitchell’s Clothing Store – where his father always had pot of coffee on – guys from the neighborhood would stop in looking for a little work. They’d tell dirty jokes and tall tales and, like the character referenced in I Can Do It Myself, always seemed to be just scraping by.

David Kenton Kring, I Can Do It Myself, 2014, ceramic

Kring admits that there is a little of himself in the figurative works as well. “Timid, for instance, recalls a specific point in my life when I was working non-stop in the studio,” Kring told UnderMain in our recent interview. “I was ramping up to begin a new and extensive body of work and I found myself too timid to go out and be with people – when I tried to take a break from myself, it was hard to take a break from myself.”


David Kenton Kring, Timid, 2015, ceramic

David Kenton Kring makes a living as an artist in Kentucky and getting to this stage in his artistic career had everything to do with taking it ‘slow and steady’. When asked what advice he might give other young artists trying to break onto the scene, he suggested that working for free – in the beginning – is necessary if you want to get connected.

At a critical juncture in his career, Kring found a job with Kentucky Mud Works where he realized that he could pay the bills by selling his pottery – coffee cups for the most part. But, he acknowledges that the figural work enables him to connect with his viewers in a much more meaningful way; they offer Kring the needed motivation to make art.

I am paying my mortgage with my pottery and then balancing my life with the figurative work, which inspires me most.

David Kenton Kring, Pottery in process, 2017

David Kenton Kring, Face Mugs, 2012-2014

David Kenton Kring, Face Mugs, 2012-2014

David Kenton Kring, Face Mugs, 2012-2014

Because Kring works in ceramics, many people consider him to be a folk artist and this puzzles him as he is professionally trained having graduated from Transylvania University where he studied under Dan Selter. The artist’s newest body of work titled Masks, examines the duality of folk art versus high art.

David Kring with Breakdown, 2016

In my artwork, I focus on the figure using the outlets of ceramics and mixed media. My art offers an emotional charge through gestures, facial expression, and painting techniques. My surfaces are extremely worked; I rely on bends, folds, and crevasses to create depth and character in my work. I tend to work metaphorically, narratively, and autobiographically with the inspiration I find in various styles of music, entertainment, and history. Raised in a small family owned men’s work wear business, I became obsessed with the stories people would trade with each other. Because of this exposure, my work tends to convey themes of the disturbed and delusional personality, the duality of good and evil, the supernatural form of being, and dark humor. The goal of my work is to provide a narrative, offering the viewer a chance to connect with the characters I depict. – artist’s statement. Visit the artist’s website. 

Please follow and like us: