(you can read this cover story in last week's Ace Weekly, which is still on stands ;-)
by Kim Thomas
What comes to mind when you hear the word “barrel?” Pickles? Fish? Bourbon? Scotch? Wine? Beer? Oil? Going over Niagara Falls in a barrel? More fun than a barrel full of monkeys? I guess I am holding you over a barrel when I ask such a question, right? That may be a double-barreled question, though the answer may come as easily as shooting fish in a barrel. And does one bad apple really spoil the whole barrel? Seems as if barrels are everywhere, even if (thankfully) the fad of making furniture out of them breathed its last uncomfortable polyester pillowed-and-splintery breath in the living rooms of the 1970s, and went the way of the daisy-print dinosaurs, along with all the avocado toned appliances in the kitchen.
According to its somewhat sordid and sketchy history, barrels of all sorts have been around since at least 300 B.C., when Celtic woodworkers fashioned them to transport precious cargo out of the abundant timber in Northern Europe. Unfortunately for the Celts, the Roman Empire soon spread to the Alps and overran them. Bad for the Celts. Great for barrel making. Over the centuries, discoveries were made about spoilage and fermentation in wine making; and that naturally spilled over into the wonderful world of whiskey.
So it seems that barrels have been rolling around for a long time (even the Bible refers to barrels) – but here in Kentucky, in Bourbon country, when someone says "barrel," it is the Bourbon Barrel that we consider. After all, apart from Kentucky Fried Chicken's bucket, the barrel is chock-full of the single-most identifying product of our Commonwealth. We all know that you can fry chicken anywhere, but you only get honest and trustworthy Bourbon right here, right where we live, in the Bluegrass. Ask any traveler, and they will agree: you can go anywhere in the world and folks will know two things about our state: KFC and Bourbon.
Of course, the kicker starts in the barrel, that age old wooden vessel of so many of life's necessities over time, and any whiskey worthy of being called Bourbon had its coming of age whilst soaking in the traditional oaken barrel. Hence, the barrel is the inspiration, and the subject of TONIGHT's Spirits of Giving benefit (at Buster's, in the Distillery District...natch). The barrels were decorated by local artists, and will be auctioned off to raise money for the Nash Brighton Project. The Global Gain project's initiatives help the impoverished seaside village of Brighton in Jamaica. The Nash Brighton Project is the non-profit organized effort founded by Nathan Cryder along with John and Lillian Nash. Both Cryder and the Nashes were profoundly moved by the living conditions in Jamaica and thus were inspired to coordinate efforts and establish a foundation to help Brighton break the cycle of poverty. Their vision includes building schools and community centers as well as developing an adopt-a-family program to further aid the people of Brighton.
When Cryder put out call to local artists, he rounded up some of the area's best, and charged them with the task of creating works of art from oaken bourbon barrels. As expected, each artist interpreted their work in unique style and visual voice.
Two barrels of tears will not heal a bruise” – Chinese proverb
Lavon Williams, a member of the 1978 UK basketball championship team and now acclaimed artist admits he was intrigued with the barrel concept. "I've never done a 360 degree piece before, and have really been wanting to do one. I just wanted to see what would happen. It represented possibilities. I thought it would be extremely challenging, but because the wood was so nice to work with, it was actually easier than I thought it would be. The oak that they use for those barrels is definitely special oak. It moves really easy -- about on the same level as poplar -- and has a nice, even grain to it. The biggest challenge was actually getting it through the door. I just recently had hernia surgery, and that thing was really, really heavy. I was afraid it might put me back in the hospital," he laughs.
Williams states, “I think the Distillery District is one of the most exciting projects I've heard about in many years. If they do it right, it will be a big boost for Lexington and attract kids to the universities and colleges. It would be great if it became a home to local artists. Lots of other cities have these kinds of art districts, but Lexington needs it. It seems like 10 or 20 years ago, all the artists in the area knew each other and regularly hung out with each other, but you don't have that anymore."
Sam Wilson - Creative Rebirth
Wilson emphasizes this piece "definitely was inspired by what is happening in Lexington right now, and a big part of this transformation is the Distillery District. It isn't just about the so-called 'creative class.' The only avenue into a vibrant future for all Lexingtonians is one we must travel together."
In keeping with his progressive thinking, Wilson's journey into the barrel art event took the heretofore unconventional path through social media. “I learned about the project through Twitter. Though I and everyone involved with our piece had little time to devote, it seemed like an opportunity to make a statement, so we carved out the time and effort. The result was well worth it.”
Wilson admits that his barrel concept “required some engineering to complete. This added significantly to the time and cost...the barrel took about 3 months to complete.” Wilson’s barrel theme is Creative Rebirth, "how, through collaborative reinvention we create the future from the legacy of the past. Lexington has a rich and proud history, and we are of the opinion that its best days are ahead of it. That is what this piece is about."
Wilson, who remains secretive about the particulars of his artwork for Spirits of Giving, reveals that the greatest difficulty in completing this project "had to do with the functional aspects of the barrel."
“The empty vessel giveth a greater sound than the full barrel.”John Lyly
Anna Dickens and Joshua Gregory – Vessel
Lexington artist Dickens and woodworker Gregory confirmed that this is their first collaborative project. However, Dickens explains they had considered barrel art before. "Josh and I had already mentioned to one another that it would be interesting to do some sort of art project by using a bourbon barrel. Then I saw something about the project, actually on facebook. I mentioned something to Josh, and we created a proposal. Shortly thereafter we received the go ahead and the barrel." Dickens says they worked on the barrel over a process of a few weeks. We both work day jobs, so we worked after work and on the weekends.
The theme of their barrel is entitled "Vessel." It uses the repetitive forms of the staves of the barrel to create a new sculpture which references and relates to other natural forms.
Dickens believes that taking the barrel apart was definitely the biggest challenge. "We both gained an amazing appreciation and respect for the cooper's craft. Since we had never worked with the medium before, we spent a lot of time experimenting with possible designs. In fact, our first idea for the sculpture didn't work out. We underestimated the weight of the staves, and the end result would not stand on its own. Luckily, we ended up liking our final design even better."
Dickens and Gregory's artists' statement describes the piece: "The sculpture at hand is created from a bourbon barrel. While maintaining some recognition of its former self, the barrel has been deconstructed to create a new form which references ideas and patterns found within the natural environment. Through simplicity of design and construction the repetitive forms draw connections to patterns in nature like the spirals in a sea shell, waves upon the shore, or light broken and shining through a forest. Like all sculpture, the object should be walked around to experience the organic and exponential changes from different vantage points."
"The form itself draws to mind a Vessel or container. The material's former life as a Vessel or barrel is not completely forgotten, and one can imagine the new form as a nest or container, actively sculpting and holding the negative space. Although the sculpture is autonomous and a unique form, it participates in the natural environment and draws reference to its principles."
"Incidentally, the artists have also dubbed this piece as a kind of traveling or installable art. The sculpture can be folded up, transported by the ropes, and then installed in various locations with ease." (Anna Dickens has a B.A. in painting and art history from Asbury College. Joshua Gregory is a woodworker who studied at the Columbus College of Art and Design and currently works with his family at Gregory Designs Inc.)
Tim Jones – Barrel Full of Monkeys
Jones finds that “the more I work, the more happy accidents fall my way. So I keep busy. I'm a designer and photographer by day so I try and use that knowledge and experience to make new things that keep me up at night. Cutting out what is unnecessary and leaving only what conveys a message and evokes emotion is the challenge of being a graphic designer. This barrel reflects those challenges and has transformed into an icon that most everyone can relate to. Have fun with it."
Nathan Cryder asked me if I wanted to participate after a conversation via twitter. I liked the idea and said yes. I have worked a little here and there on my barrel for a few months. Not too sure how many hours from concept to finished piece but it’s been quite a few.”
“As a graphic designer concept and message is a large part of what I do. So immediately I started to think of a concept. I knew I wanted the barrel itself to be the main part of the idea and be as interactive as possible. I wrote down several different things that included a barrel and began to think how each one would translate over to an actual bourbon barrel. By choosing a Barrel of Monkeys it allowed me to communicate everything I wanted it to say and do. I cut out everything that was unnecessary and left only what conveys the message. This barrel has transformed into an icon that most everyone can relate to, and the best part you can play with it just as we all did as kids. He adds, "The finished monkeys are yellow and are a blast to play with!”
Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. -- Bill Clinton
Jennifer Palmer - Spirit of Kentucky
Palmer points out that location influences her artwork. “I am inspired by the events that I experience in my daily life. I paint from the rural setting of my studio and incorporate these environments into the artwork. My focus is on the process and the materials. When working with wood, my goal is to keep the integrity of the material and allow the natural beauty of the wood grain to become a focal point."
"For this piece, I was influenced by the beauty of the wood in the barrel and I wanted to capture its essence and allow it to be the focus of the piece. I also wanted to have a subtle hint that this piece came from a bourbon barrel. I suggested that with the selection of materials and the process of creating the final piece. Inspired by the barrel and the horse spirit of Kentucky, I decided to do a portrait of a horse. I wanted to capture that spirit into the piece by using a subtle and elegant line drawing of an abstracted portrait of one of my horses onto the head of the barrel. I chose to use charcoal and ink washes to create a contrast between the raw wood and the background. The charcoal was used as a metaphor for the charring of the interior of the barrels for the process of aging the bourbon."
Palmer became involved in this project after seeing the call for entries and sending in a application. "As an artist, it is great to be able to use our talents to benefit a cause. I worked on the barrel for about a month. The large part of the process was deconstructing the barrel down to this section that I chose. And after completing the charcoal drawing and the background, I did glazes of color to create a subtle shift between the raw wood of the horse and the background. The process of glazing is slow and tedious, since you need to let one layer dry before you do the next. However, it is a wonderful technique for creating subtle shifts in color."
"I wanted the barrel to retain the integrity of the wood and the process of making bourbon. I reflected this in the materials I chose and I decided to do an abstracted charcoal drawing of the horse to reference the spirit of the horse that Kentucky has. The tricky part was just working with deconstructing the barrel, due to the hardness of the wood and the awkwardness of cutting a barrel. The wood was amazingly strong."
A barrel full of certainties won’t roll very far. – Gerd deLay
Staci McKnight – Heritage
Maney submitted her concept after a call for artists through LexArts, and worked for “a little over three weeks to complete the barrel. My barrel has eleven layers of brushwork. Maney admits that the main challenge for her was working on a 3-dimensional image. “I work primarily on canvas and with fiber, and the only place in my house that I had room to work on it is in my entry way, so people entering or leaving my house had to squeeze by this big barrel in various paint stages - for three weeks!" she laughs.
The concept for this piece was inspired by the bourbon barrel itself. The images displayed on the barrel show a glimpse of Kentucky’s bourbon making past. Particular emphasis is given to the distilleries within Lexington. Some of the paper used is from an etiquette book. The pages selected were giving the proper etiquette on how to entertain.
After sealing the barrel, rescued old book pages were applied. Multiple layers of acrylic washes were painted to create depth and lend a sense of age to the piece. Then the images were transferred. The work was again sealed and lacquered. Finally, the recycled silk yarn was attached to the piece to add more dimension. This piece contains a total of eleven layers of paint, paper, transfers, and yarn.
She defines her artist’s objective as, "To express the duality of language, combine the mundane with the extraordinary, and evoke thought and emotion through painted mixed media and fiber art."
“Found objects provide the inspiration for many of my pieces. The themes that resonate through my art are: the beauty of the familiar, the duality of language, the combination of the mundane and the extraordinary, and the meeting of the sacred with the irreverent."
Maney's art can be seen currently at the Nancy Barron & Associates Art Fever 2009.
When I die I want to decompose in a barrel of porter and have it served in all the pubs in Dublin.” J. P. Donleavy
Katie M. Blair – Spirit of the Bluegrass
Blair has B. A. in Fine Arts with an emphasis in sculpture from Asbury College, has experience as a painter, “but I also have and extensive background in sculpture. This project gave the opportunity to combine both. My inspiration for this piece was derived from a series of my own paintings that focused on the abstraction of string instruments. The idea originated from my past work with the human figure and the similarity they share with violins, guitars and cellos. This is significant because the majority of our lives are surrounded and affected by music; Kentucky itself is known for Bluegrass Music.”
Blair’s goal for this piece was to “encompass traditional views of Kentucky and represent them in an extraordinary light. The Bluegrass experience is about is all about horses, music and life. This bourbon barrel is a reflection of the true spirit of the Bluegrass.
Blair states that she was “looking to get more involved in the art community and saw facebook ad for a call to artists willing to submit work for the bourbon barrel charity project. I saw the project as a great opportunity and challenge to utilize my sculpture background and painting in order to execute this project. Blair worked on her piece for “three solid weeks. I had to continuously walk around the barrel each time I painted on it to make sure that the piece was fluid and cohesive. The layering consumed a lot of the time but i felt it was important to have a built of color and texture.”
She says the toughest task was one of brawn, not brains, and that was "Finding men that were able transport the barrel!"
ECONOMY, n. Purchasing the barrel of whiskey that you do not need for the price of the cow that you cannot afford.” Ambrose Bierce
Elizabeth Quinley - Time in the Wind
Quinley got involved with the project with LexArt because "Nathan sent an email and I thought it looked like fun and for a good cause. The hardest part was getting the barrel's wood to stick together." Quinley explains, “This piece is a mixing of the turning of time in the wind. The iron wraps are the wind and the wood represents time in the shape of an hour glass. The painting itself also reiterates this theme. What time has lain down is now being stripped away with the wind. The wind is ripping the color away and then the landscape itself.
Quinley’s inspiration for this theme came from moving here. “I lived in a mountainous area and when I moved here I noticed the increase in the amount of wind. It took about 4 to 4 1/2 weeks to complete the barrel after I got it a part. That was a beast!”
I do not know if you remember the tale of the girl who saves the ship under mutiny by sitting on the powder barrel with her lighted torch and all the time knowing that it is empty? This has seemed to me a charming image of the women of my time. There they were, keeping the world in order by sitting on the mystery of life, and knowing themselves that there was no mystery.” – Isak Dinesen
Pat Gerhard - Children
Third Street Stuff's Pat Gerhard agreed to paint the barrel without knowing much about the project. “I know Nathan, though, and just kind of assumed it would be a worthwhile cause…and the more that I have found out about the project the more I love it! It reminds me of the 3 cups of Tea story -- building schools in Afghanistan, doing fund raising in order to educate children; though this is Jamaica, there is still a village, and a taking care of community, and a sustainability element! I think it is very beautiful, and I'm really glad to participate. Sometimes it is hard to give a check to projects you want to send good thoughts, good energy, hope, to, but artists sometimes get asked just to give some work/time, and that is a wonderful gift to be able to give."
"My barrel is about children anywhere, or perhaps a little bit islander looking, having a wonderful time, as children do. It has lots of color, lots of high fives…some sunshine, some fish,
some sparkles, big smiles!"
"The barrel is very heavy, oak and all, so that was the biggest challenge. I couldn't get it upstairs to my paint, so my paint had to come downstairs to the barrel. I love to paint, I love lots of colors, I love to play with these elements, so the barrel is a lot of fun to paint, and I'm almost done with it!"
LFUCG Council Member Jay McChord thinks this project shows great potential. “I love projects like this because it gives me a great opportunity to show my Kindergarten-age daughter how to look at creative solves for problems that may have exponential benefits." Since there will be babysitting at this event, so barrel on down Manchester Street to Buster’s on Tuesday, and have a barrel of fun for the whole family!
Kim Thomas is a legal asisstant at a downtown law firm,
an NKU graduate, a member of the Chancel Choir,
a Commissioned Stephen Minister, and a fan of single barrel anything.