The Impulsive Traveler: Paducah, Ky., will bring out the artist in you


Downtown Paducah has undergone a renaissance. (Nancy Trejos/The Washington Post)
April 15, 2011

I hate gelatin. Sorry, Bill Cosby. But I just can’t bring myself to eat something that’s used to bind meat in a can.

So when artist Char Downs proposed teaching me how to make prints using gelatin, I was intrigued.

I had my pick of art workshops all over Paducah, Ky. For more than a decade, this small western Kentucky town (pop. 26,000) has been luring artists from around the country with grants and other incentives through its Artist Relocation Program. More than two dozen galleries specializing in fabric arts, quilting, jewelry-making, bookbinding and just about any other art technique you can think of — or never would have thought of — line the streets of the LowerTown Arts District. Once a dilapidated ghost town, the neighborhood is now a charming, bustling community that reminded me a bit of New Orleans’s Garden District before Hurricane Katrina.

That commitment to the arts recently earned Paducah the Fan Favorite award among the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2011 Dozen Distinctive Destinations. Twenty blocks of downtown are on the National Register of Historic Places. “I’ve waited all my life to find this neighborhood,” said Char, who relocated from San Francisco six years ago. “You get inspired.”

I needed inspiration when she presented me with a slab of unsweetened gelatin at her Pinecone Art Studio. Was I supposed to paint on it or with it? Char coached me through the process, handing me a tiny roller with red paint and instructing me to coat the block of gelatin. Then she led me to a box of stencils, leaves, stamps, string and other items for creating images on the gelatin. “Go crazy,” she told me.


Timidly, I picked a single leaf and pressed it onto the gelatin. Then I put a piece of paper over it and rubbed gently with my fingertips. Peeling off the paper, I had, to my surprise, a nice-looking if amateurish print. Something I wouldn’t mind displaying on my refrigerator door.

I kept going, and with each print, I got more adventurous. A little bit of string here. A button there. My brush strokes grew increasingly impulsive. I was inspired. “That looks like a Jackson Pollock,” Char said when I showed her one print with a mish-mash of colors and shapes.

Walking out of class with my portfolio of art, I felt triumphant. But I wanted to see what the professionals could come up with, so I headed to the National Quilt Museum.

When I think of quilts, I think of my grandmother’s bedspread or the many bed and breakfasts I’ve stayed at. What I found at the museum was much more creative. None of the museum’s contemporary collection of quilts was made before 1980, and they definitely weren’t the kind of thing you’d tuck yourself under in bed.

Take “Sedona Rose” by Sharon Schamber, which won the Best in Show prize at the 2006 National Quilt Society’s Quilt Show and Contest. It’s embedded with 130,000 Swarovski crystals. Mark Sherman’s “Wisteria” looks like a stained glass window, with vibrant blue, green and yellow ovals. “The Map Makers” by Cassandra Williams, portraying Lewis and Clark and their guide, Sacagawea, is more painting than quilt. I was amazed by the detail in the faces: Lewis’s arched eyebrows, Sacagawea’s flared nostrils.

And then there was the wooden quilt. “Floating” by Fraser Smith is made of carved basswood stained with watercolor. From afar, I couldn’t even tell that it was made of wood.

I’d thought I’d be bored, but I actually had to pull myself away from the quilts to walk to the Yeiser Art Center in the historic Market House downtown. The April exhibit there, “Fantastic Fibers,” featured conceptual garments, felt sculptures and contemporary baskets. “Osmose,” by Briguitte Amarger, consisted of 11 male figures made from X-ray film. I got as close as I could without toppling the figures to see where the pieces of film were sewn together. It looked like something out of “The X-Files.”

Paducah is a river town — it hugsthe Ohio below the mouth of the Tennessee — so I made my way down to the water. And what did I find there? More art, of course.

A series of murals along the floodwall, painted over the past 15 years by Robert Dafford and a team of artists, depict scenes from Paducah’s history. (The town was formed in 1815 as a community of Native Americans and white settlers. Explorer William Clark inherited the land from an older brother in 1827 and named it after Paduke, a Chickasaw Indian chief who’d lived there.) One of the more than 50 murals portrays life in a Native American village. Another shows the three riverboat “queens” — the American Queen, the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen — visiting Paducah. Still another portrays the 1937 flood that sent thousands of residents fleeing to higher ground.

When the wind started to pick up, I ducked into the River Discovery Center, a museum about the Ohio in the oldest surviving antebellum building in town. In the pilothouse simulator, I tried my hand at piloting a speedboat, a Coast Guard vessel and a rowboat. The rowboat was the most difficult to maneuver, requiring the skillful ma­nipu­la­tion of two throttles. The speedboat was much easier, though I still managed to crash it. After that, I was reluctant to speed with the Coast Guard vessel. “Give it some power,” urged employee Virginia Manchester.

Back in LowerTown, I strolled past the 19th-century storefronts, popping into gallery after gallery. The artists welcomed me into their studios, which also double as their homes and, in some cases, as B&Bs. I stayed in one of the suites at the Egg and I gallery, where Carol Gabany carves images of tigers, roses, fish and fruit into emu, ostrich, duck, goose and chicken eggs.

At Bryerpatch Studio, Caryl Bryer Fallert, one of the country’s most successful quilters, gave me a tour of her workspace and living quarters. My favorite quilt of hers, which happened to be hers as well, was “On the Wings of a Dream,” a self-portrait she made after the death of her husband. “It’s about moving forward,” she said.

Moving to Paducah from a Chicago suburb was also a way of moving forward for the former flight attendant. “As an artist, it’s nice to be part of an artist community,” she said. “As a human, it’s nice to be a part of a community, period.”

After just two short days in Paducah, I almost felt part of the community, too.

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