Revitalized Paducah draws visitors by celebrating art and artists

Dynamic. Vital. Flourishing. Those words would not have described Paducah before the turn of the 21st century, but this western Kentucky town at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers has undergone a renaissance and is now an established cultural destination that annually attracts thousands of arts and crafts enthusiasts.

In 2013, Paducah was designated a UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art, a recognition of the city’s longstanding tradition of quilt making and its revitalization of LowerTown, a neighborhood that once was a blighted, crime-ridden eyesore, but now is a thriving, 25-block arts district. LowerTown is home to the Paducah School of Art & Design and the fiber artists, painters, printmakers, potters, jewelry makers, and other artists who live and work in the renovated Victorian homes.

The best time to visit is on Second Saturdays (the second Saturday of every month) because many of the galleries and studios are open and often debuting new exhibits or presenting hands-on, creative experiences.

Freda Fairchild, the owner of Studio Miska, is a true LowerTown pioneer. The fiber artist and printmaker arrived in 2001, just a year after the Artist Relocation Program was launched with the goal of restoring Paducah’s oldest residential neighborhood to its former glory. The plan was to attract artists by offering financial incentives that enabled them to purchase dilapidated Victorian homes for a pittance—often as low as $1—but there was a catch. The buyer had to invest in restoring the property.

Back then, the area was pretty dicey, but many artists, like Fairchild, couldn’t resist the allure of inexpensive living, and gallery and studio space.

The Kentucky native spent most of her career in California, but when her work brought her to Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, she made the short drive to Paducah, the small town that was creating a big stir in the arts community.

“I bought a house that day,” Fairchild says with a laugh. “I saw this big, old yellow Victorian and it was so romantic with all the curlicues. It was a huge gamble.”

    “In China, people don’t talk about the Cultural Revolution because the Chinese government is very sensitive about it, but I want people to remember, especially the younger generation. Many are not even aware of it because they don’t learn about it in school.” BiLan Liao

But one that paid off, for both her and the city. The program was so successful that it’s now a national model for other cities looking to the arts for economic development. Open the door of the BiLan Liao Gallery and you are also opening a door on a painful chapter in Chinese history: the Cultural Revolution. China-born artist BiLan Liao’s world was changed forever by the horrors of the radical sociopolitical movement that raged from 1966-1976 under the leadership of communist revolutionary Mao Zedong. Her family was caught in the net of political fervor, and her paintings reflect painful episodes that resulted from refusing to support the Communist party. Liao’s father, a physician, was labeled a capitalist and imprisoned for seven years. “Leaving” is a melancholy work that depicts the anguished man at home with his family just before reporting to prison. Liao’s gallery features poignant, unflinching tableaux of the suffering she and her family endured. Such intimate portrayals of humiliation and grief almost make the viewer feel like a voyeur who should turn away out of respect, but that’s the last thing Liao wants you to do.

Not all of Liao’s paintings are sorrowful. Her favorite is “My Journey,” an oil-on-canvas work full of hope. It depicts her struggle to free herself from the crushing hand of Chinese oppression and become an American citizen entitled to artistic and political freedom, a goal she achieved in 1999.

Other noteworthy stops include Created for U Studio, Terra Cottage Ceramics, and Dixie Leatherworks. But Paducah’s art scene doesn’t end in LowerTown. There’s much to see along the Paducah riverfront, such as a colorful series of flood wall murals that depict the city’s history, and the nearby Yeiser Art Center. Tour the National Quilt Museum and you will find that Paducah’s moniker “Quilt City USA” is well-deserved.

According to museum CEO Frank Bennett, some first-time visitors arrive with the misconception that “they are going to see a bunch of traditional quilts made to be used as bedding,” but these quilts are innovative, contemporary artworks in unexpected shapes, colors, and designs created by professional fiber artists.

In many ways, Paducah is a work of art, created by visionary city leaders who refused to accept the status quo. And like the artists who call it home, Paducah is forever evolving into a better version of itself.

Tracey Tao from March 2015 Issue Paducah draws visitors by celebrating art and artists