Home Cover Story New series at Lexington’s 21C profiles ‘Bluegrass Portraits’

New series at Lexington’s 21C profiles ‘Bluegrass Portraits’

Bluegrass Portraits
No ‘boring headshots’ for 21C series 

By Kevin Nance

When Lexington’s 21c Museum Hotel commissioned photographer James R. Southard to create a series of portraits of artists, writers and other creative types in Central Kentucky last year, he knew right away that he wasn’t going to produce “boring headshots,” as he puts it, or straightforward environmental portraits with the subjects posing simply in their homes or workplaces.

Instead, Southard — a Louisville native and lecturer at the UK’s School of Art and Visual Studies (SAVS), known to his friends as Rob — used Photoshop and other digital tools to create elaborately constructed, deeply personal photo collages that stitch together multiple images including elements of the subjects’ identities and stories, past and present. The effect is similar to Old Master and neoclassical portraiture, in which painters sometimes indicate who their sitters are through their costumes and surroundings, or by including some of their personal items in the picture.  

“Thanks to that technology, I don’t have to think like a photographer — I can think like a painter.” Southard, 39, says in an interview in his studio in the SAVS complex on Bolivar Street. “I don’t want to see what’s in front of me, snap it and then tweak it a bit and that’s the end of the story. I like to start with a sketchpad and imagination, asking what can I make? I’ve got the camera to help me produce whatever I want.”

In “Bluegrass Portraits,” as the series is called, Southard collaborated closely with his subjects, soliciting their input and giving them approval over each iteration of the portraits as they developed. In the process, the subjects — writers Crystal Wilkinson and Silas House, visual artists Lina Tharsing, Crystal Gregory, Robert Beatty, Natalie Baxter and Mike Goodlett, curator Brian Frye, and design preservationist and film enthusiast Lucy Jones — became co-creators of the finished images. They now hang in the lounge of 21c’s restaurant, Lockbox, alongside portraits of Kentucky luminaries by other commissioned artists including 21c co-founder Laura Lee Brown, a painter.

Lina Tharsing

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“I loved the process because it was different from how one usually imagines a portrait being made,” says Wilkinson, the current Kentucky Poet Laureate. “Rob didn’t just take agency on his own; instead, he made it a true collaborative process in which I had to think about what I wanted. I had originally thought of doing something sort of glamorous, but it turned out to be something more earthy and directly related to me.”

In the finished portrait, Wilkinson appears, holding a copy of her book Perfect Black, at the center of a collage created in something like the style of a religious triptych from the Renaissance, surrounded by items evoking her history on a farm in rural Casey County: fresh produce from her cousin’s farm there; her grandmother’s patterned dress, folded in a way that suggests stage curtains; her grandfather’s hat; and part of an antique mirror from the farmhouse that becomes the frame for the overall composition.

House’s portrait incorporates Southard’s portrait of him in his writing studio, while House’s own photo of a favorite lake is superimposed outside the window. Tharsing’s portrait combines numerous elements including the studio and paintbrushes of her late father, Lexington painter and UK professor Robert Tharsing, and the tablecloth of her late mother, gallerist Ann Tower. In Gregory’s portrait, she pours concrete in a way that mimics the pose in an archival photograph of one of her idols, the late painter Helen Frankenthaler. Only Beatty’s hand appears in his portrait, and Goodlett, who died during the planning stages of his, is missing from it entirely, represented instead by examples of his sculpture.

Rob Southard

“Rob is very intellectual in the way he composes all of his images,” says Alex Brooks, 21c’s regional director of museum operators, who supervises the chain’s art projects at its locations in Lexington, Nashville and Durham, N.C. “His work is amazing.”

One of the most intriguing portraits features Jones, who Southard photographed at a window at her home in a pose reminiscent of a scene in her favorite film, Paris, Texas, a 1984 drama about a father and son starring Harry Dean Stanton (Jones is the founder of the Harry Dean Stanton Fest).

The superimposed view outside the window was shot from a high floor at 21c, where Jones helped create the design of a special guest room in the style of the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit in 2021. Jones is holding an old cassette tape player that belonged to her mother, Elizabeth, and that contains a recording made years ago by her for reasons she can’t recall.

“I wasn’t entirely sure what the image would look like at first, but once the process began happening so organically, I started realizing how imbued with meaning the image was,” she says. “I’m wearing my mother’s dress in it, and the recorder still has a tape in it of her voice that I still have not listened to, because there should be some surprises in life. As I thought about what the image meant, I realized I was making a statement about the concept of legacy and my own choice not to have children.”

Southard rounded out the series with a self-portrait at his recently purchased house in Lexington, his remote shutter clicker clearly visible through a window. “Me and my camera,” he says now. “Simple, right?”