Lexington’s HorseMania helps heal devastated region
STORY AND PHOTOS BY KEVIN NANCE
Camryn LaGrange was already bummed on December 10, 2021. The basketball game the 18-year-old had been scheduled to play that night at Madisonville-North Hopkins High School had already been canceled because of a tornado warning, when she heard on TV that the violent storms moving through the area were the worst ever in Western Kentucky. One tornado was heading straight to nearby Dawson Springs, where her little sister was spending the night with their great-grandmother, sheltering in the basement. Camryn was on the phone with them when she heard someone say, “It’s here.” And then the phone went dead.
“We were freaking out,” Camryn says of the next half hour of radio silence. The phone connection then returned briefly; her family in Dawson Springs were safe, but it had been a near miss. The next morning, she saw in a Facebook video that the tornado had reduced to “complete rubble” an entire subdivision in the town, along with Resurrection Catholic Church, where she had received her first communion. “It missed my great-grandmother’s house by literal feet,” she recalls. “It was terrifying.”
That same morning, Bowling Green High School senior Sam Lowe’s mother was talking her way past National Guard troops guarding an unevenly devastated neighborhood to determine whether his grandmother’s house was still there. (It was.) A few counties west, Mayfield High School’s Lily Insco, 16, was emerging from her uncle’s underground bunker and helping other family members who’d lost their house.
After harrowing experiences like those, some healing was in order. And for Camryn, Sam, Lily and seven other students from hard-hit Western Kentucky communities, the healing is on its way in the form of a horse.
In mid-March, the kids spent a weekend at Lexington’s ArtsPlace Gallery participating in Horse Mania, the third edition of LexArts’ popular public art project, set to gallop into town soon after two years of pandemic-related postponement. Working on Zoom in collaboration with Lexington artists Lennon Michalski, De Selby, and Jerielle Hanlon, the students conceived designs for three Horse Mania entries with an emphasis on themes of hope, memory and renewal.
The finished pieces they created at ArtsPlace will be exhibited in Mayfield, Madisonville and Bowling Green before returning here to join the regular Horse Mania projects (which will begin appearing in May) until an auction next December, with proceeds used for rebuilding projects in their respective hometowns. In the end they’ll be put out to pasture in Western Kentucky as enduring symbols of the resilience of the region and its youth.
“These kids were all just kind of hanging on by their fingertips,” says Di Boyer, Director of Giving at LexArts, who had the idea for the Horse Mania spinoff after the tornado. “They’ve been through a lot, and some of their initial ideas for the horse designs were fairly dark. But once they got into the project, a light switch turned on and suddenly they were talking about happier things, baseball or whatever. It’s been a hard winter for them, but this project is helping them realize that the flowers are going to come back in the spring.”
For funding, Boyer reached out to Independence Bank, which has branches in all three of the worst-hit areas, and is opening a branch in Lexington. The bank funded the three new Horse Mania projects, which provides a $3,000 stipend to the participating Lexington artists, and helped organize the effort to identify the Western Kentucky students and bring them to Lexington. (Separately, the bank also committed to sponsor LexArts’ visual arts programming to the tune of $20,000 annually for the next three years.)
“It was an absolute yes right from the get-go,” says Jacob Reid, the bank’s president. “Being involved in our community is what we’re all about, and however we can assist and be a part of helping out these communities that have been damaged so terribly, we want to do it.” Stacy Berge, president of the bank’s Lexington branch and a veteran of LexArts’s past fundraising campaigns, adds that it wasn’t enough for the students to participate remotely in the project. “We thought, why not bring them to Lexington and make a weekend of it?”
The result is three Horse Mania horses decorated in ways that sometimes subtly recall the devastation of the deadly storm without dwelling on it, preferring to accentuate the positive. The horses’ surfaces fairly swarm with butterflies, flowers and other emblems of recovery and regeneration. Sam’s favorite contribution to the Bowling Green horse, overseen by Michalski, is a caduceus, the staff of Hermes from Greek mythology and a symbol of medicine.
“It’s been fantastic to help bring up these young artists that have been hit hard by the tornado,” Michalski says. He’s well acquainted with the healing power of art, having had pieces featured in Clark Regional Medical Center’s collection, and large-scale work commissioned by UK HealthCare. He was named one of the Hot 100 Southern Artists to watch by Oxford American Magazine. He adds, “It’s not just coming here and painting my design. It’s going back and forth and coming up with a dynamic that reflects their feelings about the disaster and how they’ve grown and matured. I was trying to help them get through those harder times, to reflect what got them through those harder times, and then put that on the horse.”
The Mayfield horse design has the most direct references to the tornado, with wind patterns traced on rice paper and an image of the Graves County Courthouse, which was largely destroyed in the storm. There are also swirling references to Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” and the horse’s four legs are festooned with bright sunflowers. “Initially there was going to be corn growing up the horses’ legs, representing the county’s agricultural character,” Selby notes. “But then when the Ukrainian thing started, they got the idea, ‘Let’s do sunflowers.’”
And the Madisonville/Dawson Springs horse, designed by Camryn and others, features a quilt-like pattern full of direct references to Hopkins County, including barbecue and a local baseball field that will be restored with funds raised through the Horse Mania project. “The quilt isn’t finished because Dawson isn’t finished rebuilding,” Camryn says, “but it’s all about coming together, stitching things together again.”
One horse at a time.
This article also appears on page 8 of the April 2022 print edition of Lexington KY’s Ace Magazine.