PADUCAH, KY. – Within the borders of this small city on the Ohio River — population of about 25,000 — art has a large presence.
Gloria Ballard, For The Tennessean
It covers the massive floodwall that keeps the Ohio from flowing into the historical streets and buildings downtown. It spreads throughout and energizes a revitalized neighborhood. It entices residents and visitors to explore and experience their own creative energy and ideas.
Paducah is also the home of the National Quilt Museum, and for a week each spring, it draws as many as 30,000 visitors whose passion is a very specific type of art — quilting — and who come here for the American Quilters Society’s annual QuiltWeek-Paducah to celebrate fiber arts.
It’s because of this that the city was named a City of Crafts and Folk Art by UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — in 2013, says Laura Schaumburg, marketing director at the Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau. A UNESCO Creative City is recognized for preserving intangible cultural assets and traditions, she says.
“Paducah has that rich tradition in quilting,” Schaumburg says. But there are many other supporting arts and venues for art enjoyment and education, and the creative energy spills over into other events, activities and businesses throughout the city.
Rivers and art
Paducah has a complicated history with its rivers. The city, which was founded in 1827 by William Clark (of Lewis and Clark), is at the confluence of the Ohio and the Tennessee rivers. The Cumberland River joins the Ohio about 25 miles to the east, so river travel and trade were — and continue to be — key to the city’s prosperity.
In 1937, a flood swamped the entire city, with floodwaters rising to the second floors of commercial buildings downtown. Shortly afterward, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work on a flood barrier — 9.2 miles of earthen levee and 3 miles of concrete — to protect the city.
In the mid-1990s, a citizens’ advisory board commissioned Louisiana muralist Robert Dafford to paint the downtown concrete portion of the floodwall with murals depicting scenes from throughout the history of Paducah. The Paducah Wall to Wall mural comprises 50 scenes painted on the floodwall panels and covers three blocks downtown, from Jefferson Street to Washington Street.
The travel website TripAdvisor named Paducah’s floodwall mural the top attraction in Kentucky last year, based on traveler reviews. “It’s available 24/7, and it’s accessible and eye-catching,” says Schaumburg at the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
There are drive-through gates and walk-through doors in the floodwall to allow access to the river from downtown. On the river side of the wall, a park with walkways and trees, planters and historical markers, a stage with stadium seating, and picnic tables and benches allow pedestrians to enjoy views of the river and the leafy Illinois shore on the other side.
Fortunately, severe flooding is rare. In 2011, the last time the river threatened the city, the water rose to a level of five feet up the floodwall, Schaumburg says. It takes about 20 hours for crews to seal off the floodwall, but that year, with the gates and doors in place, the rising water couldn’t flow into the historical streets and buildings of downtown Paducah.
The Historic Downtown, Market House and LowerTown Arts District areas are where art and creativity thrive. In the downtown commercial and Market House districts, visitors will find a lively array of restaurants, entertainment venues, specialty shops, museums, studios and galleries in the revitalized mid-19th- to early 20th-century buildings. Public parking is free in two large lots at the foot of Broadway, across from the floodwall, and sidewalks and crosswalks make the area pedestrian-friendly.
The LowerTown Arts District, a few blocks north of the downtown district, is home to a variety of artists, studios and venues that resulted from the city’s Artist Relocation Program, which began in 2000 to offer incentives to artists to revitalize the area’s historical but dilapidated structures.
There are currently about 40 working artists in the LowerTown Arts District, says Fowler Black, sales director at the Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Paducah School of Art and Design is at the district’s western edge, and the students there add to the area’s creative energy. Galleries and studios are spread throughout the 26 blocks of the LowerTown Arts District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Artists hold special hours and events every month during the Second Saturday Studio/Gallery Walk.
“That much of an influx of artists has an amazing effect,” says Kristin Williams, owner of Ephemera Paducah, an art workshop space in the LowerTown Arts District.
Six times in the past year, Allison Revetta of Franklin has come here with art club friends to take mixed-media classes and workshops at Ephemera. The studio and retail space are bright and spacious, and Williams brings artists from across the country to lead one-, two- and three-day workshops in a variety of media.
The women of Revetta’s art club call themselves TennGRITS — Tennessee Girls Rubberstamping in the South — and all enjoy the chance for an occasional getaway to recharge their creative energy.
“There’s just nothing like taking a class with other people who love the same things that you love,” says Williams, who opened Ephemera three years ago. “The relationships that you make can enhance your own art in ways that you can’t imagine.”
At MAKE, a workshop and retail space that opened downtown in March, guests come in to create and take home their own craft projects, or to shop for a variety of handmade crafts and gifts.
“Here you get inspiration, help and guidance,” says MAKE owner Kijsa Housman, a classically trained artist who also has a studio gallery in the LowerTown Arts District and a “very active” Etsy shop online. “We have projects for everyone, from the fine artist to someone who has never held a paintbrush.”
These hands-on opportunities, along with new restaurants and businesses that have joined the longstanding attractions, are emblematic of the way the city’s creative culture connects local residents and attracts visitors, Schaumburg says.
Quilts as art
Every April, thousands of quilt artists and enthusiasts pour into Paducah for the American Quilters Society’s QuiltWeek, and the entire city celebrates quilting and continuation of the art form.
“It’s a bucket-list experience for quilters to come to Paducah,” Schaumburg says. “These are the best of the best recognized quilters and artists from all over the world.”
Last month’s convention was the society’s 31st, and brought about 30,000 artists and enthusiasts to the city. “AQS QuiltWeek has established Paducah as Quilt City USA,” Schaumburg says.
The four-day event was held at the Paducah-McCracken County Convention and Expo Center, but quilts are displayed and celebrated all year at the National Quilt Museum. The nationally recognized art museum at 215 Jefferson St., downtown near the river, opened in 1991 and exhibits the finest fiber arts in the world.
It’s one of the important ways Paducah is preserving those intangible cultural traditions that UNESCO recognizes, Schaumburg says. “UNESCO has elevated our platform to showcase Paducah in many ways.”
If you go
Paducah, Ky., is about a two-hour drive from Nashville via I-24 West. Exit 4 of U.S. Highway 60 provides a direct route to downtown Paducah.
Where to stay
There are more than 30 national branded hotels and motels in the area. Several condos, guest houses and a bed and breakfast are available in the Historic Downtown and LowerTown Arts District. The Fox Briar Inn at RiverPlace offers 10 suites in a block of restored buildings on Broadway, some with a view of the Paducah Wall to Wall murals and the Ohio River. 1-877-FOX-INN1; www.foxbriarinn.com
Where to eat
Only-in-Paducah offerings include Kirchhoff’s Deli, a fifth-generation German bakery serving pastries, sandwiches on Kirchhoff’s bread, local vegetables and in-house soups. 114-118 South Second St. www.kirchhoffsbakery.net.
Italian Grill on Broadway offers homemade sauces, build-your-own pizza and pasta and daily specials, sourced locally and made from scratch. Recently opened at 314 Broadway, it is housed in a former railroad depot. Open at 4 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday. www.italiangrillonbroadway.com.
Cynthia’s Ristorante serves “California Tuscan” cuisine, the chef’s American twist on traditional Italian. The menu, featuring seasonally available ingredients, changes weekly, and there are nightly specials. 125 Market Square. Open at 5 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday. www.cynthiasristorante.com.
Gold Rush Café & Catering offers breakfast, burgers, sandwiches, homestyle platters and desserts in a casual atmosphere. 400 Broadway, open Monday–Saturday 7 a.m.–8 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m.–2 p.m. Complete menu is available at the restaurant’s Facebook page.
The National Quilt Museum, a contemporary 27,000-square-foot-structure at 215 Jefferson St., features three galleries that showcase a collection of contemporary art quilts and changing exhibitions that celebrate the talent and diversity of the quilting community worldwide. Currently on display: Food For Thought, exploring many aspects of food, through July 8; A Tradition of Variations, featuring traditional quilts with unique styles, through Aug. 17. www.quiltmuseum.org.
Yeiser Art Center, in the 1905 Market House at 200 Broadway, spotlights a range of art forms, styles and techniques by regional and international artists. On display through June 6, Fantastic Fibers; opening June 20, Art Through the Lens. www.theyeiser.org.
River Discovery Center, at 117 S. Water St., across from the floodwall on the Ohio River, explores the history, art, music and taste of the river. Visitors can “pilot” a barge using the same high-tech simulator as riverboat captains. http://riverdiscoverycenter.org.
To learn more
The Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau is located at 128 Broadway in Historic Downtown. Pick up information and brochures, including a guide to a Paducah cellphone walking tour. 1-800-PADUCAH, www.paducah.travel.
What’s new in Paducah?
Pipers Tea and Coffee House offers handcrafted signature blends for tea enthusiasts and connoisseurs. The shop opened recently at 3121 Broadway, in the historical Coca-Cola bottling plant. www.cupofpipers.com.
Paducah Beerwerks craft brewery, housed in a refurbished Greyhound bus terminal downtown at 301 N. Fourth St., offers a selection of house-made beers and ales. www.paducahbeerwerks.com.
Dry Ground Brewing Company, in the historical Coca-Cola plant at 3121 Broadway, is a microbrewery serving original craft beers and guest taps including classic brews and hard ciders. www.drygroundbrewing.com.
Paducah Distilled Spirits (The Moonshine Company), open since September, produces traditional Kentucky moonshine in the historical building at 407 Jefferson St. in downtown Paducah. Visitors can see antique and working whiskey stills in the Moonshine Museum. www.paducahdistilledspirits.com.
MAKE Paducah, opened in March by artist Kijsa Housman, offers scheduled workshops as well as uninstructed creating opportunities. Housman also hosts private creative functions and has retail space featuring a variety of handcrafted gifts and items for the home. 628 Broadway in the Historic Downtown district. www.makepaducah.com.
At Ephemera Paducah, owner Kristin Williams draws from local and nationally recognized mixed-media and fiber art instructors to provide educational opportunities for all at her art and craft workshop space and retail center. 333 N. Ninth St. in the LowerTown Arts District, www.ephemerapaducah.com.
Paducah School of Art and Design offers a series of Master Artist workshops featuring instruction by a variety of ceramics, jewelry and metal artists this summer. The schedule is available at http://paducahschoolofartanddesign.org.
Coming up in Paducah
June 18: Meet the Artists: A Celebration of Art and Community is a new event with more than 50 artists sharing their stories and showing their art. The free event will be held from 4–8 p.m. at the historical Coca-Cola bottling plant at 3141 Broadway.
July 4: Independence Day Celebration, Historic Downtown and Riverfront.
August 5–9: Eighth of August Emancipation Celebration, Upper Town and Historic Downtown.
Sept. 19: Dragon Boat Festival, hosted by the River Discovery Center at the Paducah Riverfront.
Oct. 17: Maiden Alley Oktoberfest, Maiden Alley, Historic Downtown.