I woke up on a padded bench inside a metal van, my body stiff. Big Agnes, my sleeping pad, was deflated and crumbled on the floor next to an open bag of tortilla chips and empty plastic wine glasses. The rotary spew of coffee from the Keurig sounded like bliss. Kelly sat my cup on the edge of the narrow Formica counter, unzipped the door as quietly as she could, and stepped out to the gravel parking lot, Casey Jones Distillery. She set her mug on a moonshine barrel, stretched her arms to the clear blue sky, and groaned. Jill was in the back, curled up, still asleep after tripping over the exploded duffle bag on her early morning trip to the toilet. We were three middle-aged women traveling western Kentucky in a sprinter van, and this was day two of our “Common Wealth of Kentucky” tour.
A few months ago, I sat in the kitchen with Kelly Brewer, my exquisitely talented friend. She lost her mother to cancer just before the COVID shutdown and right amidst a presidential election where everyone seemed like they were yelling. It was a rough year where one thing a pandemic couldn’t shut down was the grief of losing one’s mom.
I was just coming up for air myself after a year where I tried to tell a compelling story of school life during COVID. It’s the happy story where teachers and students wear masks all day and must stay six feet apart. No sharing of pencils, sweet teacher hugs, or snaggletooth grins; plenty of regulations, dashboard and email updates, and searching for smiling eyes.
Our pandemic pause button needed a push to ON, so at the end of the school year, when I told Kelly I was looking for a new adventure, she pulled out her mother Jo’s journal and read “the position of the artist is humble. [She] is essentially a channel.” Kelly had an idea, inspired by her mom, and suddenly I found myself in a “blink moment,” filled with promise. Kelly said she wanted to paint the people of Kentucky, as many as she could and from life if possible. She wanted to show our common humanity, all that connects us, through art and portraiture.
At once I heard the name in my brain. “It’s the Common WEALTH of Kentucky,” I said. “But we need a written narrative too. We need to collect their stories in their own voices to complement the stories of their portraits.” She wholeheartedly agreed, ordered a bunch of linen canvas, and started painting immediately. We set up voice memos, so if I wasn’t there, Kelly could record the participants as they answered three simple questions: 1. What is your story? 2. In what way are you connected to Kentucky? 3. How do you see yourself connecting with others. We invited Kentuckians from all walks of life with every story imaginable to Kelly’s studio where she painted them, got to know them, felt their challenges and their energy, and connected. She has painted over 20 portraits to date. Next, it’s time to meet folks outside of central Kentucky.
West we go. Day one, Kelly drove the van straight to Glasgow where Aunt Emmy Lou Dickinson, only sister to Jo and vibrant octogenarian met us with chicken salad on pretzel rolls and homemade oatmeal cookies. She sat in a garden chair, and flanked by a wooden fence and white hydrangeas, she looked at her niece and laughed at their family memories. And she talked about how much things have changed. “Glasgow has been good to me,” she said. But “it’s not as popping as it once was. It’s happening to small towns everywhere I think.” Industries leave and the town gets quiet. “Sometimes we think the grass is greener somewhere else, but I don’t think that’s really true,” she said. “You take yourself wherever you go.”
The next day after a moderately successful night camping at Barren River State Park, we took ourselves to meet Emmy Lou at Paradise Point, a quirky market that makes you laugh before you even arrive. The best advertisers I’ve seen in a while, a billboard on the property compels you with a giant arrow pointing to the front door, “Coffee makes you poop. Turn Here.” Say no more, I thought. Collections and creations of folk art, old cars, and signs with message like, “mind your own business” and be nice or leave,” were everywhere, too many to see. Walk inside and it smells like your grandmother’s kitchen, then turn left and it’s your favorite funky boutique. We connected with owners, fellow artists, and colorful duo, John and Serena making new friends even before 10 A.M.
Jill Johnson, friend, community advocate, and world class conversationalist is a valued member of our collaboration. On day two of our trip, she interviewed and fell completely in love with Shelby Bale. Shelby is an artist, vocalist, historian and more. He was born in Louisville, grew up in Elizabethtown, and landed in Glasgow after as short stint in Salt Lake City and retirement from 31 years at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. where he ran the editorial branch. Shelby’s home reflects a lifetime dedication to art and literature. Almost every inch of his white-washed wormwood living room walls is covered in beautiful portraits, landscapes, and miniatures. He pointed out a painting of his mother, Joy Bale Boone, a Kentucky poet laureate. He read aloud one of his favorite poems, and then he said, “a lot of the things you collect in your life become clutter because what is going to happen to them when you aren’t here. Maybe the things you remember are the most valuable.” A day later, well on our way to Paducah and in a very random moment, Jill blurted, “I miss Shelby.” She was remembering.
After painting Shelby, we loaded Kelly’s portable easel into the van for the second time, and I entered the address of Casey Jones Distillery with the directive of avoiding highways. We found the distillery through Harvest Hosts, a group that sources off-the-beaten-path locations for RV overnights. AJ Jones, Master Distiller, waived us in. We parallel parked, shockingly well, right next to his distribution warehouse in front of an old timey car. The juxtaposition of the two vehicles did not escape me.
Arlon Casey Jones and his wife Peg (“the pegulator”)-these two embody the “Common Wealth of Kentucky” project with their effusive energy, dedication to their employees, love of visitors, and steroidal hospitality. We rode around with AJ on his golf cart. He told us their story of the total eclipse in 2017, the center passing just four miles from their farm. The two days surrounding the eclipse they hosted 6,000 people and 850 RV campers, and their lives changed—cosmically. AJ showed us a picture with former Governor Bevin. “We are Republicans, you know, so they come out here for gatherings sometimes. But we like it when the other party comes out here too.” He’s not sure where we stand as he says it, but he means it, and as we travel the state, as we inhale a taste of moonshine, take in the sounds of the banjo and the folk voices, as we learn the stories of the people we meet, where we stand makes little difference.
“As connected as I feel to everyone we’ve met, I feel like I’m in a different state,” Kelly said as we drove west. The geography is different than central Kentucky. Flat two-lane roads led us through labyrinths of corn that in the sun looked like golden velour woven with green threads. Jill drove the van like a mini, quick stops anytime Kelly shouted “barn!” I grabbed my gear before it crashed to the floor. Kelly jumped out to explore while I took pictures of cows bathing in the shade. “There’s my mom!” Kelly shouted when a heron flew over a shallow pond and landed on the other side. We took pictures of that too. We drove through dairy farms where old tractors with flat wheels garnished the land like veggies in a salad. Cows chewed on something and watched us roll by. We connected briefly with an Amish family pulling a horse-drawn wagon load of watermelons, their five beautiful children bouncing along on top.
Paducah was next. The confluence of two rivers, the Ohio and Tennessee, marks the furthest point of the state and where Senior District Judge Thomas B. Russell and his extremely talented wife and photographer, Phyllis, graciously welcomed us to their home. You would never know Judge Russell was short if folks didn’t call him “Stumpy.” That is his age-old nickname believe it or not, but his brilliance, humor, and humility make him very tall.
One of the first stories he told was his first day on the bench as a commissioned Federal Judge. “They didn’t tell me I had to buy my own robe, so I didn’t have one.” Urgent, he borrowed his predecessor’s, Judge Johnstone’s, who happened to be 6’5’’. “The bottom of the robe was about a foot too long,” Judge Russell said. “So, when I walked up to the bench for the very first time, I tripped on the fabric and fell flat on my face!”
A little levity is necessary when you oversee a federal court. Judge Russell presided over some significant national cases including the largest anti-trust settlement in the history of the United States, U.S. Tobacco vs. Conwood and the capital murder case involving the Mahmudiyah rape and killings. His stories were riveting, and his delivery was fair. “Did you agree with the decision?” Jill asked. “It is not my job to agree or disagree,” he said. “I listen. The jury decides.”
There are so many things I could share, but I’m going to be patient and share them as we have planned, through portraits and oral and written narrative over time in glimpses and all at once complete. The endeavor is underway, and you can follow along in a variety of ways. This video is the first in a series, and we are sharing photos and stories on social media, mostly on Kelly’s Instagram and Facebook pages. Join us in feeling the positive energy and education in this project.
We are fired up and dedicated, and it is because there is something so sweet about this state. I have lived here for 22 years. I wonder how much time it takes for Kentucky to saturate your cells with summer corn, bourbon balls, horses that smell like sweet feed, and my face feeling the breeze of blue grass? There is a sweetness here even when the world has gone mad divisive, confusing a pandemic with politics and politics with personal protection. As Jo Robertson wrote in her journal, “open wide the eyes of my soul that I might see good in all things.”
And the stories are all around us, everywhere we look. There is something deep and unique in a state where an entire farm grieves with swollen eyes when a horse they love dies from a disease that just happens, or local restaurateurs take on the opioid crisis one employee at a time, or where dozens of Kentuckians open their homes and their hearts to the suggestion that every human’s story, as peculiar and complex as it is can connect us in some way as members of this mass of humanity where we are good, bad, sweet, and sour but all in this together. So many people, so little time. Let’s get busy.
Eventually, our journey will lead to a big celebration, a multimedia art exhibit, and book that will be a lasting tribute to the people and culture of this Common Wealth of Kentucky. Proceeds will benefit the Jo B. Robertson Charitable Foundation serving those in need.