UK students plan “Art After Dark” to celebrate Lexington artist Louis Bickett

UK students plan “Art After Dark” to celebrate Lexington artist Louis Bickett

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UK students plan “Art After Dark” to celebrate Lexington artist

Driven by the shared belief of art in unlikely places, 20 students from the University of Kentucky created “Art After Dark” to celebrate Lexington artist Louis Zoellar Bickett and his exhibit, “Saving Myself.”

Bickett’s voice for the arts in Lexington was prescient decades ago, when he wrote of Arturo Sandoval in 1991, “Those are the things that tell you this odd thing is about a flag and its country. This black work, ‘State of the Union No. 11 – Silence is Acceptance,’ was made for the 1989 University of Kentucky Faculty Show at the Contemporary Museum of Art in Lexington. It has an overall appearance of a burnt object and image — or of a thing that was buried in the earth for a long time. Burnt by a terrorist? Or the artist? Buried by a freedom fighter? A funeral shroud or relic (true or false one)? I could list the associations for several pages of all the things I thought of when I first viewed this work two years ago. It is a work of beauty and terror. If you don’t think of what freedom is and its importance to society, ours and others, and if you don’t think of our current liberty endangerments — voter apathy, poverty, war, racism, etc — when viewing this work, then you don’t think.”

As part of the Arts Entrepreneurship class at the University of Kentucky, students are asked to impact the community through original arts programming. This semester, they worked with the UK Art Museum in an effort to engage the community and bring attention to the museum.

“The UK Art Museum is in the heart of campus, but many people don’t know about it,” says Matthew McMahon, Executive Director of the event. “You don’t need to have an artistic background to see the importance of art, it matters to everyone.”

The current exhibition at the UK Art Museum is “Louis Zoellar Bickett: Saving Myself.” With the desire to showcase work from local artists and with Bickett’s diagnosis last year of ALS, the museum knew it was time for a community-wide retrospective of what Bickett’s been doing for the past 40 years. Additional exhibits this Fall at 21C Museum Hotel, Institute 193, and UK Hospital have curated various aspects of his life’s work.

ace archives - fall 1989
ace archives – fall 1989

In 1972, Bickett’s interest in documenting ordinary objects peaked after watching his mother sort family photos. Soon after, he began collecting and cataloging thousands of items from his daily life. This ongoing project has become known as “The Archive,” and contains everything from dirt from the grave of Patrick Edward Madden to a knife and fork used by Seamus Heamy at a la lucie in 2006.

As a self taught artist who uses his life and the city of Lexington as his canvas, Bickett argues there is no separation between being in the world and making art. Items in his collection include self written post cards, coffee cups, receipts, photographs, newspaper clippings, and even bodily fluids.

While Bickett is best known for his ongoing archive, as well as being one of Lexington’s best known restaurant servers at A la Lucie’s, he works in various mediums. Throughout the past four decades, Bickett has created hundred of projects, many that are object-based, along with photographic essays, sculptures and poetry.

Bickett’s describes his works as a construction of identity more than an autobiography. Although he prefers not to be labeled a “political artist,” Bickett’s art takes on themes such as inequality, sexuality, and racial violence.

In 1989, Bickett began his performance work in cultural “mudding.” During these performance pieces, Bickett applied mud to nude models while live music or recorded sounds played in the background. The most recent mudding performance took place at Al’s Bar last year. With this project, his work transitions from object based to concept based. As expected, mild controversy accompanied these live performances, yet Bickett didn’t offer an explanation, claiming “you either get it or you don’t.”

ace archives May 1993 - Cultural mud shots
ace archives May 1993 – Cultural mud shots

Bickett was diagnosed with ALS shortly after his days as a server came to an end when A la Lucie’s closed. He faced the challenge of supporting himself while preserving his archive. With Bickett’s health slowing him down, he moved into a one-level home.

As Bickett began boxing up his collection, Stuart Horodner, director of the UK art museum, was prepared to begin assembling a retrospective.

Ace cover story of Stuart Horodner. Photo credit: Alan Rideout.
Ace cover story of Stuart Horodner. Photo credit: Alan Rideout.

A New York native and former art director in Atlanta, Horodner came to Lexington in hopes of finding a good bagel along with the goal to engage more unique, local artists with the art museum. Horodner recognizes the uniqueness of Bickett’s work, forgetting sometimes that it’s art through its simple meaning and tactful approach.

When planning the exhibit, Horodner was able to choose what pieces he’d incorporate from “The Archive.” Bickett gives curators the freedom to compare and contrast, as well as take items from various projects within his collection. Through this open collaboration, curators and museum directors can help tell Bickett’s story.

“Stuart wanted to represent a range of Louis’s collections, such as works he’s created by altering found objects, like books or lawn jockeys,” explained Janie Welker, Curator of Exhibitions & Collections for the UK Art Museum.

Horodner also came up with the title “Saving Myself” as a play on words. The UK art museum describes the exhibit as “the story of one man’s awareness of time, place and connectivity to others.”

“Louis’s collection consists of belongings, gifts, and souvenirs he has saved.” Welker continues, “But for a true artist, the act of making art is really what saves them. Louis’s life is his art.”

ace archives
ace archives

“Saving Myself” examines Bickett’s work regarding religion, sexuality, civil war and regional history. Besides jars of objects and self sent postcards, the exhibit has boxes on display that serve as architectural devices. Horodner believes the presence of these boxes need to be part of the story, stockpiling everything the artist has done previously.

Along with Horodner’s efforts to give the community a look at Bickett’s work, other arts organizations, including Lexington Art League, 21C Hotel and Museum, and Institute 193 have special exhibits dedicated to Bickett.

The Art After Dark event will include a tour of the art museum in addition to fall activities and food. An “#ArtMatters because…” canvas wall will be set up to engage attendees with the exhibit and museum culture.

“We want people to leave Art After Dark thinking about Bickett’s exhibit and wanting to come back to the museum,” said McMahon.

“The name of his exhibit says it all: art has the power to save your life.”

Ceramic dog from "Saving Myself" exhibit
Ceramic dog from “Saving Myself” exhibit

The “Art After Dark” event will be at the UK Art Museum on Friday, November 18 from 6-9 pm. 

“Louis Zoellar Bickett: Saving Myself” will continue to be on exhibit at the UK Art Museum until November 27.

Read more about Louis Bickett in his Ace artist profile from the fall 1989 issue. His 1991 piece on Arturo Sandoval is here.

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