Bourbon inspires Kentucky art Makers

If you’ve never visited the many bourbon distilleries that dot Kentucky’s landscape, you’re missing out on a tradition that is as synonymous with the Bluegrass as horses, tobacco and good weed. 

The 50-year-old Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Ky., a winding 30-minute drive from Bardstown, is a good place to start. From the old-timey wooden buildings that house the charred-oak aging barrels to the packaging factory where workers still hand-dip the bottles into the signature red wax, Maker’s Mark is a step back in time where tradition and pride in product remains. 

“The Spirit of the Place” by Jennifer Palmer.

“The Spirit of the Place” by Jennifer Palmer.

“The Mark of Great Art,” an exhibit now on display at the distillery, features 100 new works by 55 Kentucky artists who created their pieces after visiting the Loretto compound.

Twenty-two Louisville artists participated in the show, on display at the distillery through Sept. 21 and then broken up for shows in New York, San Francisco, Chicago — even as far as London. Closer shows include one Sept. 24 at the Mercantile Gallery Lofts (309 E. Market St.) and one in Lexington on Oct. 1 at the Nunn Building Lofts (121 N. Martin Luther King Blvd.). The public will have a chance to vote on its three favorites over the course of the show, with cash prizes up to $3,000 for first place. 

Louisville artist Liz Zeller says the bottle itself inspired her mixed-media piece “Kentucky Classy Lady.” “My first thought when I heard about this project was if they were going to let us use their materials — like the wax and the labels,” she says. “So I created a scene, incorporating the wax and labels, in which Maker’s Mark was being enjoyed.” Zeller’s glossy artwork features a woman having a glass of bourbon inside a café, nestled up to a red-cushion booth against a black-and-white tile floor.

“The Mark of Great Art” incorporates a variety of mediums — from photography and painting to jewelry and sculpture. For her contribution, Louisville artist Jennifer Palmer used an actual barrel head provided by Maker’s Mark and took inspiration from one of bourbon’s key ingredients — the water. In her artist statement, she writes, “The beauty lies in the water that runs through the landscape and is an integral part in the bourbon that is produced.” 

Louisville artist Eric Siegel also formed his piece with ingredients of bourbon. “Limestone Tiles” features five stone-framed squares that highlight wheat, barley, corn, charcoal and oak. 

“The Mark of the Mad Waxer” by Aron Conaway and Hallie Jones.

“The Mark of the Mad Waxer” by Aron Conaway and Hallie Jones.

For artist Shayne Hull, it came down to that familiar Maker’s signature for his “Assembly Line” enamel on panel work. “Among the many points of inspiration from my visit to the distillery,” he writes in his artist statement, “were the obvious dedication of the staff, the quality of the product itself and, of course, that red wax.”

“Dip Line,” made of recycled broken dishes by Ann Stewart Anderson, pays homage to the women who hand-dip the bottles in the wax. The two mosaic portraits resemble a stained glass window — the further you stand from the piece, the clearer the subject becomes. “My art concentrates on women, honoring their everyday experiences,” Anderson writes in her artist statement. “The Maker’s Mark founder’s wife, Margie Samuels, designed the bottle and created the red-wax dip. Today, traditionally it is women who dip the bottles into wax.”

Louisville artists Aron Conaway and Hallie Jones decided to pay tribute to familiar Kentucky icons with their four paintings depicting Abraham Lincoln, Col. Sanders, Daniel Boone and a character named “The Mad Waxer” at the distillery in different settings. “We were inspired by the beauty of the space — its authenticity. And we wanted to celebrate prominent Kentucky icons,” says Conaway. “Maker’s Mark stands as a true Kentucky icon itself. It’s part of the heritage of this state.” 

“Kentucky Classy Lady” by Liz Zeller.

“Kentucky Classy Lady” by Liz Zeller.

‘The Mark of Great Art’

Through Sept. 21

Maker’s Mark Distillery

Loretto, Ky.