Identity politics: How do you define Louisville? For one ex-pat photographer, it’s in the people

The hokey, mule-brained yarns about Louisville’s identity are rarely in short supply.

Janene Shakir: Photo by Leslie Lyons for  Janene Shakir is the coordinator of community programs for the Peace Education Program

Janene Shakir: Photo by Leslie Lyons for Janene Shakir is the coordinator of community programs for the Peace Education Program

We’re a big city with a small-town feel.
We’re Southern but we’d rather not talk about the sordid history of that because, you know, we were neutral in the Civil War, right? Right?
We’re a polite Midwestern city, but who wants to be Midwestern? Seriously. We’re Southern. And accordingly polite, ma’am.
We’re like a smaller version of Chicago, but without the El. And the vibrant knowledge economy.
We’re a safe city, literally, and a funky city, figuratively.
We’re Possibility City. Uh-huh.
We’re the possessors of Unbridled Spirit. OK.
We’re clusters of people confused about the identity of our city because, being a river town in a time when transportation relied on the mighty Ohio, we are a menagerie. So it’s genetic.
We’re a liberal island in a sea of backwater conservatism.
You can pronounce our name six different ways, all of which are right because, you know, we’re up for anything here!
We balance our self-confidence on a giant baseball bat and building-sized posters of people who don’t live here anymore.

For some reason for which modern science has no accounting, the subject of Louisville’s identity keeps coming up — in bar conversations, coffee shop summits, Chamber of Commerce meetings, at church, at shows, in this newspaper — and nobody knows really what to say about it. We are a city of naturally prideful, boasting people who are, to some degree, unsure about what we’re pitching. In some ways, we grate against our inferiority complex by offering wildly optimistic comparisons: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Austin. It’s hard to just be Louisville.

Aside from the Chamber stuff, there has been an organic boast movement here too, perpetrated in no small part by WHY Louisville, the Highlands shop that aims to bring together local creative-types and sell their wares to the world. Their stickers are becoming ubiquitous.

As well, we exist now amid a barrage of publicity about how our city is changing, becoming more cosmopolitan and trendy, more urban and less white-flight sprawl. And with every dollar spent on some new marketing slogan or campaign for the city — remember those commercial calling out neighboring cities from a few months ago? — we miss the point all over again:
It’s the People, people!

That’s what Leslie Lyons says. She’s a photographer with a long résumé who’s been living in New York City for the past 18 years. Originally from Louisville, Lyons moved back a few months ago to work on a pair of book projects without the distraction (and astronomical rent) of Manhattan.

“I had really just come back to Louisville over the last 18 years to visit family, and I really didn’t know what was going on,” she says.

What she found was a newly cosmopolitan city with its creative palette and pedigree on high display. The only problem was awareness.

“It was a combination of meeting all these really dynamic people and also realizing they didn’t know about each other,” she says. “So that kind of led me to want to create a site that would help cross-pollinate this community.”

FiveOTwo: Louisville artists Jeral Tidwell and Justin Kamerer designed the logo for FiveOTwo, the city-pride group.

FiveOTwo: Louisville artists Jeral Tidwell and Justin Kamerer designed the logo for FiveOTwo, the city-pride group.

Thus, “I Live In Louisville” (, a fascinating documentary project with two explicit goals: To develop an encyclopedia of local ingenuity, and to build a community based on that. The site, which launched May 1, features 15 portraits and short biographies of people who choose to live in Louisville to execute their various extraordinary acts, from the Forecastle Festival’s JK McKnight and filmmaker/gallery owner/green builder Gill Holland to Gray Henry of Fons Vitae, the spirituality books publisher, and Rob Samuels, the son of Maker’s Mark’s Bill Sr., the first of his family to live outside Kentucky since 1780. Now here, he’s the company’s first global marketing director. Starting June 1, Lyons will upload a new profile each week.

The idea for the site came after Brett Jeffreys, an emigre from Toronto and principal in FiveOTwo, another organically grown local-pride organization, read a short item in LEO about Lyons’ return to town several months ago. He sought her out to participate in a FiveOTwo initiative wherein local artists develop their own vision of Louisville for a monthly postcard. Lyons is the fourth artist to create a postcard; Jeral Tidwell and Justin Kamerer designed the group’s logo, which was the first, followed by Bill Green’s brilliant recasting of a famous Hunter S. Thompson photograph and muralist Pat Sheehan’s “The Falls of the Ohio.”

“The surprise factor is exactly what everyone says when they come here,” Jeffreys says. “Or people that live here go, ‘Wow, I’ve lived here for 10 years and didn’t know this was happening…. So that helps the city. And then for FiveOTwo, it becomes a way just to support all these people who are artists in their own right.”

Metro government gives FiveOTwo $500 a month for their efforts; the organization passes it directly to the current postcard artist. Other than that cash, Lyons says she hasn’t made any money off the site, and besides, that’s not the point, although there is undeniable potential: It’s online, so it’s easy to export as recruiting material, not only to bring new people but businesses interested in placing their workers in the middle of some straight-up good culture.

In the end, Lyons wants the same thing all these people trying to reveal the inherent goodness of Louisville do: an authentic representation that leaves an effect.

“I would love it if these people started buying Fons Vitae spiritual books or calling up somebody and volunteering their time to work at the Peace Education Program,” Lyons says. “If people really started learning about each other and getting more involved, that would just be amazing for me. To connect people. That would be the goal of the project for me. And also, you know, if someone in San Francisco found out about the site and decided to move here based on what they’re seeing. The ultimate, ultimate goal would be those two agendas.”

The following three examples are taken from, by Leslie Lyons.

Contact the writer at [email protected]

Kenny Boyd (Youth Alive Classroom)

Kenny Boyd (Youth Alive Classroom): Photo by Leslie Lyons for

Kenny Boyd (Youth Alive Classroom): Photo by Leslie Lyons for

Kenny Boyd started the Youth Alive organization in 1998 with a $10,000 grant from the Louisville Metro Housing Authority. This is ironic because just a few years before, Kenny had been homeless. But his personal journey prepared him to reach out to a community that once had no place for him and find mentors and a means to help troubled youth.

One of his mentors, Bill Stone, the former chairman of the Kentuckiana Minority Supplier Development Council and a local business owner, attended a Christmas party in the mid ’90s at the Urban League and Kenny says he took notice of Bill right away. “I saw this corporate guy with a suit and suspenders on and thought, ‘I wonder what this guy is doing here … where is he from?” Kenny says he wanted to shock Bill, so he invited him to his house and gave the address at 1020 West Market Street, where Kenny lived at a rehabilitation center.

But it was Kenny who was shocked when Bill actually showed up. Kenny says he brought Stone in and said, “Welcome to my home!” That relationship has now lasted over a decade, and it was the catalyst for Kenny to realize that he had something to offer young people as a mentor.

Youth Alive has recently secured its own facility and operates on a half-million-dollar-a-year budget. “Youth Alive is unique,” says Kenny, “because it is a program, not just a recreational facility. We offer classes and tutoring and sometimes I even go to the kids’ schools for meetings with their teachers.

“This city is all about relationships,” Kenny, a transplant from Nashville, says. “Together, people can really grow here.”

Lisa Henderson & Sandra Masters
(B’s Purses Headquarters)

Lisa Henderson and Sandra Masters started their handbag company with designer Susan Guillen (who lives in

Lisa Henderson & Sandra Masters (B’s Purses Headquarters): Photo by Leslie Lyons for

Lisa Henderson & Sandra Masters (B’s Purses Headquarters): Photo by Leslie Lyons for

Birmingham) in 2004 with two goals: By the end of that first year, they wanted to have sold $200,000 worth of merchandise and have 50 reps nationwide. Instead, by the end of the year they had 400 reps who had sold over $1 million.

“We knew we had a niche,” say both Lisa and Sandra in unison.

A modest understatement: American Express released a business report earlier this year that states that of all female-owned businesses in the U.S., only 3 percent make it over $1 million in sales. B’s purses is in that small percentage. So, what is this success all about? “We are the sassy, chic version of the traditional Tupperware party, only we offer textiles and designs for women to create their own styles of bags” says Lisa, “and we decided to go nationwide from day one.” Which means women in areas all over the country were allowed to be B’s reps. Lisa and Sandra say ladies were fighting over who would be the first in their town to be the rep.  

B’s will set up any rep with her own space on the website, provide a starter kit of information and graphics to advertise in their local markets. It is basically like running your own business with the support of Lisa and Sandra, who have everything made in Kentucky, have all of the tech design and support based here and use only local resources.

B’s was just inducted into the High Impact Recognition group of Greater Louisville Inc. and their web company won a Horizon Interactive Award in 2007. The pair say that they love telling people in L.A. and New York (two of their biggest markets) that their company is based in Louisville. “The world of fashion is so hip and chic and we are glad to be ambassadors from Louisville,” say Lisa and Sandra, again almost in unison, “because people start to think that Louisville must be hip and chic as well.”

Gray Henry

Gray Henry  (Childhood Home and Current Residence): Photo by Leslie Lyons for

Gray Henry (Childhood Home and Current Residence): Photo by Leslie Lyons for

(Childhood Home and Current Residence)
Gray Henry is many things: publisher (Fons Vitae Press and Bosnian school books during the war), filmmaker (Timothy Leary Buddhist enlightenment re-enactments), spiritual explorer (has a direct line to the Dalai Lama), globe-trotter and mother (her children were born in Libya and Egypt). Add them all up and you get something resembling a national treasure.

Gray was born in Louisville but educated at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she studied art history and world religions. She took up residence in Manhattan for 10 years where she worked with Leary, but says, “The film studio was really a front for the transformation of the soul” and she eventually decided America was spiritually impoverished. So she took off on a trek across northern Africa in the 1970s. When she and her Venezuelan husband landed in Egypt, she says they met people there from Germany and France and remote places of the world. “I realized,” she says, “that we were an entire generation of people from many countries seeking knowledge and spiritual enlightenment.”  

She and her husband became educators in Egypt before moving to England and becoming publishers of some of the first objective translations of Islamic texts. Hers was a most adventurous and rich life until her parents became sick and elderly back home in Louisville. “My passion was world religion,” Gray explains. “I studied it, I lectured it and published it. But the highest commandment in any religion is to honor your father and mother.

And I realized I was a hypocrite letting my parents die here alone. So, I came home to Kentucky.” And she brought her learned understanding and appreciation for the world with her and set up her publishing company in the basement of her father’s house. There she is surrounded in the flesh by the tangible evidence of her travels, but also by the very real connection to herself and to home.