Paducah’s Art Scene
After arriving in Paducah, I was ushered into an art studio by Kijsa Housman, a local artist who sells her work and offers classes as part of Paducah’s LowerTown Arts District. The 26-square-block area has recently begun offering interactive group tours of the various art studios of the area.
“My whole mantra is accessible art,” said Housman. “That has evolved into more decorative works, as well as art classes. I want people to come into the studio and leave feeling good about art. Art is all about connecting.”
Using a copy of a historic photo of downtown Paducah, I rubbed the image onto another sheet of paper using Citra Solv, producing what appeared to be a historic, sepia-tone postcard of Paducah. I proudly signed my incredibly easy craft.
I left Kijsa Housman Studios to see the historic brick building that houses the River Discovery Center.
“We are at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers in Paducah’s oldest building,” said E.J. Abell, director of education for the center. “It was built in 1843 as a bank. We have an excavation exhibit showing the building’s root cellar and what pieces found tell about what happened here 150 years ago.”
I felt immersed in the river culture while walking past a collection of model steamboats, wildlife habitat exhibits and a model depicting how quickly floods form. At the center’s simulator, I tried my hand at captaining a ship. When I rocked the wheel back and forth, the giant screen made the motion of the water so convincing, I almost forgot I was standing on solid ground.
My next stop was the site that garners Paducah so much international quilting attention: the National Quilt Museum. With my scarce knowledge of quilting, I was not sure what to expect. I was immediately impressed by the remarkably detailed designs the quilters could produce from a canvas of fabric.
“We are a national art museum where everything we have is made out of fiber,” said Frank Bennett, CEO of the museum. “It is like any other art form, except that quilters have much more patience than any of us ever have.”
I closely examined the quilts, shocked by their multiple layers and the depth of their creativity. It was difficult to understand how these quilts that so resembled paintings could exist.
History and Bourbon in Bardstown
If Daniel Boone, Jesse James and Stephen Foster strode back into Bardstown, they would hardly seem out of place. The 1780 town retains many of its centuries-old buildings, including 300 homes listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
Despite this close tie with the past, Bardstown continues to surprise, especially in its ever-growing bourbon scene. The 3-year-old Willett Distillery is one of the newest bourbon distilleries in town.
As I admired the charming buildings of the small distillery site, I listened to the story of how the second and third generations of the Willett family banded together to reopen and restore the 1936 distillery to its original greatness.
I left one of the smallest family-owned distilleries in the country to visit one of the largest family-owned distilleries in the country. Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center highlights both the history and the process of making bourbon with a tasting area in the middle.
“Heaven Hill is great for groups because it gives them the history and heritage of bourbon,” said Dawn Przystal, vice president of tourism expansion and marketing for Visit Bardstown. “It’s not brandcentric. It tells you why we’re known as the bourbon capital of the world by giving a historic perspective of bourbon.”
A trip to Bardstown wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the famous My Old Kentucky Home. The 1795 home served as the inspiration for Stephen Foster’s popular song of the same name.
I toured the gardens and shady grounds of the former plantation before learning about life in the historic home. The Rowan family’s original furniture and belongings still furnish the house, including books from the 1600s, a piano with mother-of-pearl keys and a fluffed feather bed.
“Many children shared beds at the time,” said my guide at My Old Kentucky Home. “You have to remember, there was no heat, running water or electricity, so you were happy to share a bed. You didn’t want to be the odd man out; you wanted to be cuddled together.”
Groups visiting can purchase a package deal that includes the home tour, a meal under the site’s scenic rotunda and a performance of “The Stephen Foster Story,” which plays in an outdoor amphitheater each summer.
Bardstown also recently developed its Holy Land Tour for an immersive experience of the area’s religious tradition, including the monastery Gethsemane. I loved the tranquil feeling that enveloped me as I walked around the remote monastery where well-known scholar Thomas Merton lived, wrote and is buried.