New project embeds artists in Lexington city hall
The City of Lexington is taking the phrase, “Life imitates art,” to a new level.
Three local artists are now working within city government offices, a part of Lexington’s new “Civic Artist-in-Residence,” or CAIR, program. CAIR is the brainchild of nonprofit CivicLex, the City of Lexington and the Blue Grass Community Foundation.
The program pairs the three artists with a different department within the city. Megan Gulla, director of programs for CivicLex, said the vision behind CAIR is to bring public attention to the work of local government, as well as to provide a fresh, creative perspective of doing that work.
“We think artists have a unique way of approaching stuck aspects of work or problems,” Gulla said. “With the CAIR program, we’re hoping the artists can work with city government staff to celebrate their work and build stronger connections with the public through art.”
According to Gulla, the program will be a year-long process that involves a month of orientation, three months of observing the departments, three months of developing projects and six months of implementing those projects.
She said applications opened in January and ran through late March; they asked for candidates to live in Fayette County and to have “direct, lived experience in marginalized communities.” A selection team, working with the individual government departments, chose the three finalists.
The applicant pool of 56 “featured artists from many ethnic and cultural backgrounds, with different levels of experience and establishment, a wide range of ages, and an equitable gender ratio,” Gulla said.
The finalists, Hannah Allen, Anthony Gilmore and Debra Faulk each specialize in different art forms and will work in varying departments within the local government.
HANNAH ALLEN: NOT YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S QUILTER
Allen is a Lexington native, School for the Creative and Performing Arts alumna and artist specializing in textiles, specifically quilting.
Moving away from the Bluegrass when she was 16, she returned in 2019 after pursuing her bachelor’s degree in geography and her master’s in historic preservation, working in that field for several years. After taking a 10-year hiatus from her sewing machine, Allen said she rekindled her love of quilting four years ago.
She said she sees CAIR as her “formal coming out of retirement” after stepping away from her art. “I live here now, again, but it’s very funny that last time I lived in Lexington, I was 16 and making art,” Allen said. “And here I am again, living in Lexington and making art.”
Allen will be working in the City of Lexington’s Finance Department, a pairing she says is “the most unexpected” among the three artists.
“I’m going to have to be a little bit more interpretive, on top of the fact that I’m going to be making quilts about the finance department, which is a challenge in and of itself, but one that I’m excited for,” she said.
She hopes to show Lexingtonians that they can invest themselves in the local government, rather than being a passive member of society — something her undergraduate degree taught her. “In geography, we talk about cultural identity a lot, but also how to get people, all different types of folks, involved in their civic systems…and also recognizing that different people have different needs, and how you as an advocate can bridge those barriers,” Allen said.
Allen also hopes that her position will inspire a new generation of quilters to continue the rich tradition here in Kentucky. Although it is an intricate process, she said it is one that allows quilters to collaborate and create something unique.
“A quilt can be whatever you want it to be,” she said. “I’m really excited just to share with people, this as an art form. And hopefully, I get some new Kentucky quilters quilting.”
ANTHONY GILMORE: A FULL PASSPORT AND A FILM REEL
A filmmaker and writer from Nebraska, Gilmore hopes to bring a creative perspective to Lexington’s Environmental Quality and Public Works Department.
After living in Japan for 12 years, Gilmore moved to Lexington with his wife and children. While living abroad, he started a production company called Nameless Interactive, working with clients like Adidas, Toyota and Toys R Us.
His wife’s job brought them to the Bluegrass around three years ago. “Lexington is a safe, just a great city, especially for raising kids, so we just thought this was just a great opportunity for us, so we moved here,” Gilmore said.
He heard about the CAIR program from other artist friends and knew he wanted to apply.
“I just thought it would be really neat to see what my film-making and creative skill-set could bring to the city,” he said. “Honestly, I had never actually heard of any kind of residency like that, or at least an artistic residence like that, so I thought it would just be really neat, so that’s kind of why I applied.”
The department Gilmore will be working with is one of the largest in the city, containing branches like waste management, water quality and road maintenance. He said he is excited to learn about the department and how he can best use his skills.
“As a filmmaker, I’m already thinking of ideas for a film. But one thing that I’ve been asked, and I agree that I need to do, is to not jump into it until I’ve had the opportunity to really understand the department as a whole, so I’m definitely trying to do that. Just learn as much as I can,” he said.
Gilmore said he hopes to create more public awareness of how much the local government does. “It’s just been really nice to put a face to the things that I take for granted every day,” he said.
“It’s very easy for us to get to take for granted or to not recognize the people that kind of make our lives just go every day…I just don’t think as residents we take the time enough to, you know, appreciate that there is an entire army of people that are just making our lives better,” Gilmore said. “I really want to bring those people forward, I want to find a way to use my art to highlight them.”
DEBRA FAULK: THE STAND-UP WHO STANDS OUT
A professional stand-up comedienne and Lexington native, Faulk is a firm believer in the healing power of comedy.
At 16, she went to California, hoping to become a singer. Instead, she found stand-up and has been performing ever since, using her art to bring hope.
“Yeah, I do stand-up, but I’m also a standout comedian who stands up for you,” she said.
Faulk will be working with the Department of Social Services’ Family Care Center, and she said this provides her the opportunity to give back.
“The name of one of my lectures is called From the P.H.D. to a PhD. And when people ask, ‘What P.H.D. are you from?’ I say the project housing development, because I started in the East End project. And my father became an entrepreneur, as well as my mother, but we use these programs, such as Section eight and food stamps in the beginning, to help the family,” she said. “It was very important for me to come back to give back.”
This intimate knowledge of Social Services lends Faulk a unique perspective of the department. “You know, I understand how the programs work from the inside and from the outside, and I think I have an understanding of how we can better connect so that everyone in the city will benefit and not just people in the program,” she said.
Faulk hopes to use her comedy to bring healing to those who need it. She sees it as a way to convey emotions and feelings in a way that normal conversation cannot.
“A lot of drama comes out of comedy, because it’s a way of turning pain and poison into medicine,” she said. “I believe that through my comedy. I can help everyone achieve laughter, and maybe we can laugh about all the stuff that we’re all stuck up about, or, you know, just find a way just to find a way to celebrate one another — every moment, every day.”
To Faulk, perspective is everything, and she said she tries to “find the joy” in whatever she does, whether it be her stand-up, her work with the children at Winburn Middle School or her nonprofit organization Lina’s Byrd Nest.
“You know, I believe that artists, we have a third eye, whether you’re a filmmaker, or quilt maker or a comedian, we definitely have something to give, and how do we do that? We see things differently. And in addition to that, the wonderful thing about my position is some people are comics, and some people are comedians. Comics say funny things. I’m a comedienne, saying things funny. So it all depends on how you look at it, how you approach it,” Faulk said.
Article originally appeared in the Lexington-Herald Leader.