By Rich Copley — Herald-Leader Culture Columnist
After two times around the track with horses, LexArts is basing its newest public art project on another Central Kentucky icon: bourbon barrels.
The idea was floating around for a while and was done by Paris in 2010. But LexArts’ president and CEO, Jim Clark, said it needed the right confluence of events to persuade him to get behind the project.
“We couldn’t think of how to do this in a logical space,” he said Tuesday afternoon at an event to match potential sponsors with barrels. “Then the mayor announced the Town Branch Commons. Town Branch ties into the bourbon industry, and Town Branch is an area we can highlight with the project.”
Town Branch Commons is a proposed 2-mile public space in downtown Lexington that would bring the historic, and buried, waterway to the surface for the first time in more than 100 years. A number of distilleries, including the Pepper Distillery, were along Town Branch; and Alltech, which is supplying barrels for the project, opened its Town Branch Distillery last year.
The process behind The Bourbon Barrel Project on Town Branch should be familiar to folks who followed Horse Mania in 2000 and 2010, or other mass public art projects presented by LexArts and others.
Artists submitted proposals for barrels. LexArts whittled the 120 proposals to 80 and then presented them to prospective sponsors.
Sponsors had a choice: Pay $5,000 to get the barrel made and retain ownership after the display was over; or pay $2,500 to get it made, displayed and offered for auction, with proceeds going to LexArts’ public art fund, other area arts and arts- oriented organizations and an honorarium for the artist.
Last week wrapped up the process of matching barrels to sponsors; as of Friday afternoon, 29 are set to be made.
At Tuesday’s sponsor reception, the remaining designs ran from purely visual designs to works that aimed to tell the stories of Lexington, bourbon and Town Branch. Several highlighted specific historic distilleries, primarily Pepper, although none focused on current operations. LexArts’ design guidelines prohibited designs that could be construed as advertising.
Some were hearty endorsements of Kentucky bourbon, such as Carla Terwilleger’s colorful Old Pepper.
Philip High’s Fire/Water played on a popular nickname for bourbon with a colorful blend of warm-hued flames and splashes of blue water. The phrase “barrel of monkeys” inspired numerous designs, including Melody Bock-Freeman’s Barrel of Monkeys With Shot Glass.
Just as designs in previous projects did, some played on the local landscape and cityscape. For instance, Ann Kindl’s Main Attraction, sponsored by WLEX, features The Kentucky Theatre marquee.
Some expand on the barrel form, such as The Lexington, a bourbon battleship by Damon Farmer, whose 2000 Horse Mania entry Stonewall sold at auction for a sale-topping $53,000.
Wade Christensen’s Kentucky Roots, sponsored by the University of Kentucky Federal Credit Union, will feature a tree design above and below the barrel and, like all the barrels, will rest on its side on a stanchion.
“I wanted them to be displayed in the same way they are when they are working and the bourbon is aging,” Clark says.
There is the bonus that on their sides, the barrels cannot be used as tabletops or for other utilitarian functions.
With the designs now selected, barrels are being distributed to artists. The next public step will be the preview of barrels Sept. 6 and 7. They will be set on the Town Branch trail Sept 10. Clark said the stands will include signs with QR codes that will allow viewers to get more information on the pieces and on the portion of Town Branch where they are. The barrels will remain on display for two months and then be sold at auction Nov. 16.
After that, are there other Lexington icons to be turned into public art?
Clark searches the air in the ArtsPlace theater, where the barrel designs are displayed. “With horses and bourbon barrels,” he said, “I think we have done the major ones.”
If you go
‘The Bourbon Barrel Project on Town Branch’
What: Display of bourbon barrels designed by area artists along the Town Branch waterway that runs under downtown Lexington.
■ Aug. 23: Artists deliver completed barrels.
■ Sept. 6, 7: Public preview.
■ Sept. 10: Barrels go on display.
■ Nov. 16: Gala and auction.
Learn more: Bourbonbarrels.org.