MOREHEAD, KY. — The Kentucky Folk Art Center is full of surprises. For every carved tableau of musicians pickin' and grinnin' on the front porch, there's a phantasmagoric painting of heaven and hell. For every whimsical rooster assembled from tractor parts, there's an imaginary monster on the head of a cane.
That's what happens when you set out to collect the untutored artistic expressions of one of the most expressive parts of the country. The people in this corner of Appalachia have always had a talent for art and music. Tradition is strong, but so is innovation.
The Kentucky Folk Art Center (KFAC) was established nearly 20 years ago to document a renaissance in the state's folk art. As the movement gathered steam, the center gathered art, moving to a former grocery warehouse in 1998 to accommodate the growing collection. The revival has never flagged.
Just as few musicians are playing the barn dance music of 1850, folk artists are no longer whittling daily necessities. "As traditional life gave way to a more generic, homogenized lifestyle," says KFAC curator Adrian Swain, "rural people had less need to work with their hands. But they carried within them a need to be useful and do things. Many of them turned to art."
With its blend of tradition informed by innovation, Morehead's KFAC is a kind of Rosetta Stone for understanding the recent evolution of folk art. It's the place to start a tour of eastern Kentucky galleries, performance venues, and studios where claw-hammer banjo and flat-picked guitar provide a soundtrack for the imagination of the region's self-taught artists.
Berea, 81 miles southwest of Morehead, trumpets itself as the arts and crafts capital of Kentucky. Support for that claim comes from the city's 50 or so galleries and fine crafts studios, including the hand-weaving atelier Churchill Weavers, launched in 1922. The catalyst for this activity was Berea College, which established a handcrafts subsidiary in the 1890s to help support the school, and has since developed strong studio arts offerings in ceramics and fiber arts.
These programs have drawn new blood to the region. Midwesterner Jeff Enge and South Carolinian Sarah Culbreth served in the school's ceramic apprenticeship program before opening Tater Knob Pottery on their 30-acre farm outside town.
"We use eight tons of clay a year from the Mississippi and Ohio rivers," Ms. Culbreth says, sweeping her hand around the pottery's main room. Every flat surface is covered with dinnerware, vases, lamps, bells, and Tater Knob's signature spoonbread baker, a pan used for baking souffle-style corn bread.
She and Mr. Enge were pioneers on their bumpy rural road when they opened a shop in 1992. "Now we have two other potters on the road," she says.
About 25 miles south, the country crossroads of East Bernstadt seems a century removed from Berea's bustle. Lonnie and Twyla Money maintain a studio on their farm, about a mile from where both grew up. Although they continue to raise beef cattle and hay, they've considered themselves full-time folk artists since 1985.
"I've been carving since I was a little boy," Lonnie says. "My first piece was a cane I did for my grandfather when I was 11." Now he carves barnyard animals - big spotted cows, feisty roosters - and constructs more fanciful creatures from dried gourds. The Moneys plant about an acre in gourds, and Lonnie picks and sorts them for inspiration. "This one's a coon," he says, turning a gourd over in his hands. "A gourd like this will be a turkey. She'll have a big tail."
Not all are so obvious. "The enjoyment for me is in the handling and the doing," he says. "The more challenging the better." After Lonnie shapes the critters, Twyla brings them to life with bright paint.
Just 10 miles south of Berea, Renfro Valley has been the Kentucky home of "hillbilly" music since John Lair launched the Barn Dance radio broadcast here in 1939. It is a country and mountain music mecca offering concerts from March through December.
The adjacent Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum complements the performances with a more meditative overview of the state's musical history. A timeline traces Kentucky music from the Elizabethan ballads brought by Scots-Irish settlers in the 1750s to the birth of bluegrass two centuries later. Another exhibit illustrates the evolution of the banjo from its origins in west Africa to the picking styles of eastern Kentucky.
The Kentucky Appalachian Artisan Center opened in Hindman in 2003. "People made what they didn't have," says director Carla Robinson, adding that as living standards have risen, many artisans have abandoned functional pieces for more expressive crafts.
Master carver Russell Rice, who lives nearby in East Point, carves elaborate walking sticks from single pieces of gnarled wood. He estimates he's made roughly 400 since the late 1970s.
Certain pieces aren't for sale - the one that commemorates the Kentucky Derby winners from 1875 to 2003 and the cane circled by a rattlesnake with an owl on its head. "Took me 88 hours," Mr. Rice says.
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