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Constance Alexander: Mayfield gallery, art guild thrive through community’s generosity

In the downtown historic district of Mayfield, the streets were quiet. In exactly two weeks it would be Christmas Eve, with children nestled all snug in their beds, straining to hear the sounds of Santa. That night, December 10, holiday lights and seasonal decorations fluttered and swayed with intermittent gusts of wind.

Ice House Gallery director, Nanc Gunn, remembers the scene from a year ago. All day, news reports warned that a combination of unique factors could lead to unstable weather.

“I knew to close early,” Gunn said.

The Gallery following the tornado (Photo from Nanc Gunn)

In case of a lightning strike, she disconnected the computers before locking the doors for the night, and then headed home, about eight miles north of town. Later, when the power went out, she and her husband tracked the approaching tornado by watching its progress on her phone.

“We saw it on the radar and held our breath. In fifty seconds,” she recalled, “it went right through Mayfield.”

The next morning, the couple drove to town to survey the damage. En route, things looked normal. When they reached the crest of the bridge arching over the train tracks, the landscape was topsy-turvy; the world was turned upside-down.

In the face of breathtaking destruction, the gallery’s situation seemed dismal. The sturdy brick building was leveled.

“Everywhere we looked, everything was destroyed, every telephone pole. Everything,” Gunn said.

Dark days ensued as the future of the Ice House seemed bleak.

“The lowest point for me,“ Gunn remarked, “was on Good Friday, the day the Ice House was bulldozed.”

Between December and April, there was no time to dwell on losses. Gunn concentrated on keeping the spirit of the gallery alive, even without a space to call their own. At first, the top priority was to stay in contact with the 109 artists whose work had been destroyed or damaged in the tornado.

“Our insurance was all paid up,” she reported, “and all the artists got checks. It was a high point to be able to tell everyone their work was insured.”

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

When the tornado hit, the Ice House had a full schedule of workshops and exhibits set up for the new year. Gunn called upon the other art guilds in the region for input and assistance so the events could happen, even without a place to call home.

“The other art guilds were a sounding board. They helped us raise money and hosted art shows,” she said.

As a result, more than 12 facilities in the area opened their doors to host classes and exhibits and provide space for kids’ summer art camps.

“The arts bring people together,” Gunn explained. “And all the other art guilds and non-profits pitched in and helped us get through the year.”

Gunn also gives credit to George Bray, Paducah’s mayor, and city planner Nicolas Hutchison for clearing the way for three art shows to be displayed in the rotunda of City Hall.

“Our gallery in the Ice House was the size of their entryway,” Gunn explained. “City Hall was quite a space to showcase the artists.”

Another willing helper was Paul Aho of Paducah’s School of Art and Design.

“He’s my personal hero,” Gunn exclaimed.

Aho had the expertise to repair damage to a valuable painting the gallery owned by Helen LaFrance. A self-taught Black artist born in Graves County, her irreplaceable painting had been rescued from the Ice House after the tornado, intact but damaged.

Support from the region’s art guilds continues, but the Ice House is still homeless. In April, a year after the demolition, Murray’s Art Guild will host a fundraiser for the Mayfield group.

“If we could pick up what they have done in Murray and import it to Mayfield,” Gunn declared, “that would be great. They have a fabulous plan.”

Good news and expert assistance for the Ice House continue. “We’ve been gifted property,” Nanc Gunn announced recently.

The website celebrated the good fortune. “We have a PLAN!” it says.

Dana Heath donated her father’s Standard Oil plant buildings and property to the Ice House.

“We are raising upwards of $500,000 to renovate these two historic buildings,” Gunn said. ”Phase I of fundraising will get us into the smaller building.”

Other projects designed to generate much-needed cash include an online auction of 45 artworks currently on display in Mayfield’s Creative Interiors, and “Horses of Hope,” the sale of life-size painted horse figures, created by local high school students.

Asked if she has changed from all the turmoil caused by the tornado, Gunn said, “I hope I haven’t. I’m still the same person with the same passion. And hope,” she added.

Fundraising for the new Mayfield Graves County Art Guild has begun. For more information, contact Nanc Gunn at icehousearts@gmail.com. The website is icehousearts.org.

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