ymca

Fiber, Ceramics

Feature: Elmer Lucille Allen


"I love the academic environment. I am a perpetual student." — Elmer Lucille Allen


Artist Elmer Lucille Allen ( Photo by Tom LeGoff)

Artist Elmer Lucille Allen (Photo by Tom LeGoff)

When Kentucky Center for African American Heritage Center Director Aukram Burton describes Elmer Lucille Allen as, “one of our Elders,” he is not just acknowledging that the ceramic and fiber artist is an Octogenarian. The term carries weight in various cultures, but in parts of Africa it specifically denotes a connection to ancestors, the dead who remain vested with mystical power in the kin-group, and the elder’s authority stems from the idea that they are representatives of the ancestors to the contemporary community.

Elmer Lucille Allen is as approachable and convivial as anyone you would ever meet, but she is a “senior” (the far less satisfying American appellation) who has never truly retired. She earned the gold watch, so to speak, after 31 years as a chemist at Brown-Forman, where she was the first African American chemist to be hired (in 1966). In the twenty years since she retired, she has established herself as one of the most important artists in Louisville and an important influence on succeeding generations.

In person, Ms. Allen is an archetypal matriarch, speaking in the unadorned but nurturing language you would expect from any great-grandmother. She exhibits little outward evidence of the depth of her academic background, the years spent as a community activist, and the position she occupies in local history; she never wears her ‘status’ on her sleeve. She puts it this way: “I take it as an honor because what I do is part of who I am.”

"Untitled ELA #5" by Elmer Lucille Allen, Shibori Wall Hanging Red Kona Cotton – Stitched Resist – Dyed Blue Price, $2000 |  BUY NOW

"Untitled ELA #5" by Elmer Lucille Allen, Shibori Wall Hanging Red Kona Cotton – Stitched Resist – Dyed Blue Price, $2000 | BUY NOW

“I became involved in the art scene in the early 1980s when Ken Clay, then head of Renaissance Development, held the first African American (AA) Arts Conference at the Galt House. After this conference, the Kentucky Coalition for Afro-American Arts, Inc. (KCAAA) was formed. I was the first and only president of this organization that lasted 10 years. When I decided that I did not want to continue as President, the treasury was donated to the Arts Council of Louisville. I was a charter member of the ACOL and a treasurer for four years.”

Ms. Allen states she has never felt a bias in the arts, but her history before she was an artist is another matter, and reflects the time. “Remember, I came up through a segregated system and did not have classes with a white person until I was a junior in college. I experienced racial difference when Nazareth College (now Spalding University) graduates in 1953 were looking for a place to host a graduation event. The event was eventually held at the Knights of Columbus Hall.”

“When I graduated I could not get a job as a chemist in Louisville. The only jobs available were teaching. My first job was as a clerk typist in Indianapolis, Indiana, at Fort Benjamin Harrison. There was bias on that job - one person from a city in Indiana had never been around a "colored" person, but you have to be who you are and stand up for what you believe. ‘Speak to a person even if the person does not acknowledge you.’” 

Allen took her first pottery class at Seneca High School in the late 1970’s after her children were all grown and out of the house. She never gave empty nest syndrome a chance, following up with mold ceramics or pottery classes through JCPS and New Albany adult education. But this was still just the beginning: “Then I enrolled in a ceramics class at Metro Arts Center where I studied with Melvin Rowe. Also, while I was a student there I had the pleasure to meet Laura Ross, a national ceramic artist who encouraged me to take classes at the University of Louisville with internationally recognized ceramicist Tom Marsh.”

But studying ad hoc wasn’t enough, and, after retiring she decided to seek a masters in ceramics at U of L. It was while studying for her master’s that she was introduced to a second art media - fiber/textiles. “My thesis exhibition consisted of stenciled wall hangings and over 200 reduction fired porcelain sculptural boxes that were placed on boards on the floor, which meant you had to view the pieces while standing.”

Lucille Allen in a workshop (Photo by Aron Conaway)

Lucille Allen in a workshop (Photo by Aron Conaway)

Whatever racial or gender restrictions she encountered in her earlier life, Allen’s first years in the art world were mostly lacking in such difficulties. “I have not experienced any discrimination as a woman artist or as an artist of color. My work does not depict any culture - it speaks for itself. I create work that I enjoy making. I do not do commissions. I have been fortunate because I did not have to depend on selling art for a living. I retired in 1997 and have been volunteering in some capacity ever since.”

Yet she is not blind that many artists of color find it a challenge to reach wider audiences and secure their place at the larger community table, particularly in the visual arts world. “I think that one organization needs to take control. At the present every organization's president has their own agenda and is not looking out for other persons or organizations, and small organizations normally do not have a specific place, computer equipment, or expertise for such large undertaking.” 

One of the values of being an Elder is that you have been a witness to the changes in the arts and cultural landscape that surrounds you. Allen can recount a time when there was much effort in the name of unity and inclusion. “Years ago, Louisville Visual Art had a large (non-digital) database of artists and arts organizations. The Kentucky Arts Council funded two directories of African American artists in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Two conferences were held, one in Lexington, and one in Louisville. They conducted free workshops for the community at the Chestnut Street YMCA, West End branch of the YWCA, as well as other venues. Bale McKnight, who conducted drum making at the YMCA, created a drum that was in Chickasaw Park, which was the first public art project in the West End. KCAAA was the fiscal agent for Educations Arts and the dance group founded by Harlina Churn.” You see, Elders know the history.

So how does Louisville recapture that level of motivation again? What actions need to be taken today to build a functional community network? Allen feels, “Everyone is waiting for someone else to do the hard work,” but individuals who want to be leaders need to focus on developing their game in crucial ways; Elders also get to give advice:

  • Organizational and leadership skills are a must. 
  • You have to show up and be willing to assume responsibilities. 
  • You must not be afraid to fail. You learn from your mistakes.
  • You, as a leader, must be presentable and responsible for your actions at all times. Remember the golden rule - Do unto others as you want others to do to you.
  • You must be punctual.
  • Respect the time of others. Meetings should have an agenda and should not exceed two hours.
"Untitled ELA #2" by Elmer Lucille Allen, Stenciled Wall Hanging Black Polyester Fabric Price, $750 |  BUY NOW

"Untitled ELA #2" by Elmer Lucille Allen, Stenciled Wall Hanging Black Polyester Fabric Price, $750 | BUY NOW

So how does this near-iconic status affect Elmer Lucille Allen’s work as an artist? Or does it? “My work is not impacted by my place in history,” states Allen. ”The work that I have done since 1981 speaks for itself. I have been the volunteer curator/director of Wayside Christian Mission's Wayside Expressions Gallery since 2005.  My goal is to showcase artists, some of which have never exhibited. My second goal has been to have an African American artist or artists for February. I have done the scheduling, press releases, fliers, finding new artists, etc., from my home. I think my presence in the art world has afforded me the opportunity to be asked to serve as judge for the 2016 Fund for Arts, as a panelist for Metro arts grants, etc.”

“I think that over the years, the community sees who is where and what you are doing. Action speaks louder then words.”

You can see Elmer Lucille Allen’s work as a part of the Louisville Visual Art exhibit Tessile Ora, at Metro Hall, now through May 26, 2017. 

Recognitions/Awards: 
Louisville Defender – Lifetime Community Service Recognition Award (2016)
Outstanding Community Leader by Metro Council (2016) 
Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft’s First Art and Advocacy Award – Bourbon Bash (2015) 
Parkland Rising Up Project (2015) 
Community Spirit Award given by the University of Louisville College of Arts and Science and the Yearlings Club (2015) 
Spalding University Caritas Medal (2011) - the highest honor awarded to an alumnus 

"Untitled ELA #4 – Shibori Wall Hanging" by Elmer Lucille Allen, Natural Silk Noil – Three Panels - Stitched Resist and Pole Wrapped – Dyed Blue, $1000 |  BUY NOW

"Untitled ELA #4 – Shibori Wall Hanging" by Elmer Lucille Allen, Natural Silk Noil – Three Panels - Stitched Resist and Pole Wrapped – Dyed Blue, $1000 | BUY NOW

"Untitled ELA #1" by Elmer Lucille Allen, Stenciled Wall Hanging Black Polyester Fabric Price, $750 |  BUY NOW

"Untitled ELA #1" by Elmer Lucille Allen, Stenciled Wall Hanging Black Polyester Fabric Price, $750 | BUY NOW


This Feature article was written by Keith Waits.
In addition to his work at the LVA, Keith is also the Managing Editor of a website, www.Arts-Louisville.com, which covers local visual arts, theatre, and music in Louisville.


Entire contents copyright © 2016 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved.

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Sculpture

Q&A: Sculptor Mike McCarthy


"I can’t not do my art. My art is a part of who I have become." — Mike McCarthy


McCarthy hard at work in his studio.

McCarthy hard at work in his studio.

Mike McCarthy is a stone sculptor working in limestone, soapstone, alabaster and marble who does both abstract and realistic work. He is a member of PYRO Gallery in Louisville where he will be exhibiting with Debra Lott in a show titled Human-Nature, running August 25 –October 8, 2016.

When did you first think you would be an artist?

I knew I wanted to DO art at around age 8 when I first started carving wood with my grandfather. When I was in high school I started taking art classes and figured out pretty quickly that I really wanted to be an artist, to the point of deciding that I would major in art in college. But it was in high school that I first started identifying myself as an artist. I think I always considered myself an artist but never really knew what that meant until a few years ago. I didn’t really take my art seriously or truly make a commitment until then. So, I guess the bottom line is I really KNEW I would be an artist well after I THOUGHT I would be an artist.

Who or what inspires you now?

My wife. She is my biggest fan and my biggest critic, both of which are necessary, but without her support, it would be very difficult to spend the time and effort art required for what I do. She also puts up with me doing my art when there are a lot of things that need to be done around the house, listens to me while I am constantly talking about art, going with me to all the art events I love to attend, and generally being ok with my obsession with art. 

More specifically, viewing any type of art inspires me. I love to think of the thought process it takes to create a work of art. I am in awe of other artists and seeing their work. While some specific pieces of art do not inspire, the creative process always fascinates me. I think: “How in the world did that person get that idea.” Viewing other work, no matter what it is, always makes me have to go home and carve. 

As for local artists, Don Lawler, Meg White, Bob Lockhart, Matt Weir, Don Cartwright and Albert Nelson inspire me the most. I strive to make work that is on the same level as theirs. Beyond their work, I am very appreciative of their generosity of time, encouragement, and advice. It is not always what they create, but the fact that they created it that inspires me. 

Historically, my two inspirations are Michelangelo and Bernini. My wife and I visited Italy and went to see Michelangelo’s “David”. While it was absolutely stunning, the unfinished work leading up to the David was actually more inspiring to me. I would have loved to carve over the same lines and see what the stone and the tools told me. Just remembering it now makes me want to not finish the rest of these questions and go carve. 

“A View From Above” by Mike McCarthy, 17.5x12x6.5in, Brazilian Soapstone and Walnut Hardwood on a Steel Base. This piece will be available for sale at McCarthy's show opening.

“A View From Above” by Mike McCarthy, 17.5x12x6.5in, Brazilian Soapstone and Walnut Hardwood on a Steel Base. This piece will be available for sale at McCarthy's show opening.

If you could do anything else but make art, what would it be?

I can’t not do my art. My art is a part of who I have become. I am a happier and better person because of my art. After I graduated college, I lacked the confidence to really pursue it. I didn’t have a place where I could carve and I am color-blind so I never really felt confident in my ability to paint or draw. I went to work at a graphic design firm for a year, left that job and went to work for the YMCA, left the YMCA and started my own business, all of which felt so consuming that I thought I didn’t have time for my art. I didn’t really seriously start back until about 6 years ago. I often think now that I am close to 50 years old, how long will I be able to carve? It is really the only fear I have. I think: how can I carve till the day I die. What adaptations will I have to make to be able to carve when I am older. I haven’t answered the questions yet, but for me to be happy, I have to carve so I will have to find a way. I have been through a long period of time where I wasn’t doing my art and I never want to go back there again.

What advice would you give a young artist just out of college?

What ever it takes, keep doing your work!! The only regret I have in my life is that I didn’t continue to work on my art after school. I think, the improvements I have made in the past 6 years, I could have made 20 years ago. You can’t get that time back. Your life will be so much more satisfying if you just stick with your art.

Tell us about an important moment of transition for you as an artist?

Two events happened in 2012 that totally changed my art career. First, through the prodding of Bob Lockhart, I applied for and was accepted into the Yew Dell Garden Sculpture Show. My piece “Sylvanus” was selected as the program cover piece and sold the opening night. It was the first time I had ever worked on a monumental scale. That piece drove me to work even bigger. At the same time, Bob had been pushing me for some time to apply to PYRO Gallery. Bob invited me to show with him and I sold all but 2 pieces, the majority of them on the opening night. While I still struggle with self-confidence, these two events went a long way to helping me put my work out in public.

If you were given a $100,000 what would do with it?

Well, anyone who really knows me would laugh at this, but I would have to use at least a little to buy more stone. I am not a hoarder at all, but when it comes to stone, I can’t get enough. With the majority of the money though, I would buy a piece of land and create a sculpture park! At the park we could do carving symposiums. I attended the Indiana Limestone Symposium this past summer and it was AWESOME! There are not many symposiums around. We could also open the property up to beginning artists who didn’t have a place to carve. 

“Fearsome” by Mike McCarthy, 12x3.5x7.5in, Southern Oregon Soapstone on Wood Base, $600 |  BUY NOW

“Fearsome” by Mike McCarthy, 12x3.5x7.5in, Southern Oregon Soapstone on Wood Base, $600 | BUY NOW

What does art mean to you?

I carve every night. I get lost in it. I actually have to set an alarm on my watch to tell me it is time to stop carving and clean up and go to bed. If not, before I know it, the sun would be up and another day would be starting. If I am not making my art, I am thinking about it or looking at other’s work. People ask for the meaning behind a piece and I am always at a loss. The image or the “thing” I have created does not hold the meaning of the piece. The creation of the piece is the meaning of the piece. The creation of the piece is what I have to do, so the piece becomes me. Imagine putting yourself on a pedestal and inviting a bunch of people in to a big room and saying tell me what you think of me. That is why I collect art. Yes, my wife and I buy pieces that we like visually, but I am more likely to buy a piece from and artist at an opening where I can meet them and try to understand them. After all, I am buying part of them. 

How do you feel about local art scene in Louisville? Would you change anything about it?

Most artists I meet are great about sharing or helping or just taking time to talk with you about their art. I love the variety of work that is available. We have a great visual art community, but we are also rich in other arts as well. We have some amazing public parks that are art in and of them selves. The arts are some of the first to venture out to revitalize neglected areas. I would like to see more outdoor sculpture parks!! On a trip to Washington DC, I spent time at the Smithsonian Modern Art Sculpture Park, the National Mall, and the Hirschhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden. It was amazing. How great would it be if some of our parks took some of their vast land and created small sculpture parks! 

“From the Wild” by Mike McCarthy, 12.5x12x6.5in, Southern Oregon Soapstone and Steel on a Wood Base, $900  |  BUY NOW

“From the Wild” by Mike McCarthy, 12.5x12x6.5in, Southern Oregon Soapstone and Steel on a Wood Base, $900  | BUY NOW

How long do you usually spend on a specific piece of art?

This really varies depending on the scale and type of stone I am using. Some of my small soapstone or alabaster pieces I can do in a day or two. Most of the time I have a few weeks in the medium sized pieces or marble pieces. Then for the monumental scale work I have done, I have not finished any of those pieces in less than 9 months. 

What's the most challenging part when starting on a piece of work of art?

Actually, starting a piece is never a challenge for me other than picking the idea I want to work on. I have more ideas in my head than I will ever be able to complete in my lifetime. For me, the more difficult thing is finishing. When I used to carve wood, if I didn’t it, it went in the fireplace. That way, I didn’t have to deal with the problem I was having with a piece. With stone, you can’t put in the fireplace, and for the large-scale pieces you need a crane to get rid of it, so it has forced me to work through problems. I think it is making me a better artist, although, some pieces still sit there staring at me because I can’t solve the problem with them. There are many times when I wish stone burned!! 

Name: Mike McCarthy
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Age: 49
Education: BA in Fine Arts, Bellarmine University
Website: http://www.mikemccarthysculptor.com
Gallery Representative:  PYRO Gallery and Revelry Boutique Gallery (Louisville), KY Artisan Center (Berea)

“Majestic” by Mike McCarthy, 23.25x20x13in, Black Pearl Soapstone, $3000 |  BUY NOW

“Majestic” by Mike McCarthy, 23.25x20x13in, Black Pearl Soapstone, $3000 | BUY NOW

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Entire contents copyright © 2016 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved.

Please contact    josh@louisvillevisualart.org  for further information on advertising through Artebella.

Please contact josh@louisvillevisualart.org for further information on advertising through Artebella.