Cover Story: Kentucky Woman

Art meets feminism through the Kentucky Foundation for Women

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Emily Maxwell

Millicent Straub Larson

In Northern Kentucky, a number of women struggle to realize their dream of sharing their art and instigating change within their community. The Kentucky Foundation for Women (KFW) hopes to shepherd these women and help them realize their dreams so their voices ultimately will be heard.

KFW Executive Director Judi Jennings says single donor Sallie Bingham founded the organization in 1985 to help support feminist art for social change. Based in Louisville, the foundation assists female artists along the way by awarding grants ranging from $1,000 to $7,500, offering free studio space in their Hopscotch House retreat and providing valuable networking and financial leads for artists. (Find more at the Web site,

Jennings says their very broad definition of feminism recognizes women in two grant categories: Artist Enrichment grants for feminists developing their skills and Art Meets Activism for feminists engaged in social change activities. An ever-changing, independent review panel evaluates grant candidates in four genres: literary, media, visual and performing.

"We've seen over and over again how, with a little bit of money, these small grants can make a big difference not only in the women artists but how their community thinks about women, how they think about change, how they think about beauty and how they think about art," Jennings says. "These resources can really make a difference in giving people the freedom to create something new."

Looking at a finished manuscript, Park Hills resident Rebecca Mitchell Turney fondly credits her "fairy godmother," the KFW, for allowing her to recognize her dream of writing a series of children's books for 8- to 12-year-old girls.

She and her sister, Marie Mitchell, crafted the books to center around young heroines who live in Kentucky during different historical periods.

She says the grant not only enabled the pair to complete the project but provided the opportunity to self-publish the book so publishing houses in New York wouldn't ultimately decide reading choices for fourth graders in Kentucky. KFW is a precious commodity in Kentucky, she says.

"There are all kinds of artists that will wither on the vine if not fed with support, and that can be financial support, emotional support or professional support," Turney says. "It's the difference between 'Well, I have an idea for a book' and 'Here it is sitting in front of me.' "

Living in two separate cities posed a unique problem for collaborative efforts by the sisters, Turney says. The rendezvous point, Hopscotch House, allowed them to be free from all distractions and power through a rough draft in only four days. Besides the lovely vista and gorgeous grounds, she says she found being surrounded by other artists an enlightening experience.

"I'm becoming a better observer of art," Turney says. "Hopscotch House is not only furthering my art, I think it's furthering my appreciation of others'."

As a visual artist, Covington resident Millicent Straub Larson used her KFW grant to create paintings that explored seemingly inconsequential experiences during her childhood that ultimately shaped her life, she says. She describes her earlier work as "memory snapshots" captured in oil, while her newer work comes from a different place, too new to define.

She says the KFW validates the importance and impact of the voice of the woman artists.

"I realized that there are people watching and that my voice is important," she says. "Through my involvement with the organization, I've seen the impact that artists can have on imparting social change."

Fascinated by Appalachian art and literature, Gateway Community and Technical College teacher Melissa Fry used her grant to create a course immersing students in the culture. She says bringing in historians, doll-makers, quilters, storytellers, healers and musicians allowed students to visualize while reading corresponding literature.

Fry says society historically ignores Appalachian women even though they've made great contributions. She credits KFW with making the process accessible and allowing her and her students to participate in such a moving learning experience.

"The KFW is not this ivory tower organization where you have to be competitive," Fry says. "They want you to get their money. They really want to see that ripple effect of change in the community and know these little things really go a long way in changing people's mind sets."

Fort Mitchell resident Stephanie Porter says the KFW awarded a grant to the Frank Duveneck Arts and Cultural Center (FDACC) to fund a three-part workshop, "Dangerous Attractions/Fatal Choices," designed to educate women about choices affecting their health and the health of their families. She and FDACC Executive Director Rena Gibeau assembled the multilayered course to include speakers from a variety of mental health and social service groups, writing assignments focusing on participants' own experiences and then the sharing of those experiences through a variety of artistic genres with the class.

As for teaching, Porter says she finds the practice a humbling privilege everyone should experience. She says each of us carries the responsibility to share with others the knowledge and wisdom gained with age. Organizations like KFW enable women to find their voices and share their experiences with others.

"For a community to realize its full potential it must hear from all its members," Porter says. "Without the opportunities granted by the Kentucky Foundation for Women, these participants would not be heard by their community, and sadly they may not hear their own voices." ©

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