Quilt piece "Summer Garden," by Cynthia Morgan, courtesy National Quilt Museum
Published February 14, 2014
The heavenly smell of smoked meat greets me as I walk into bbQ and More. After hearing of Paducah, Kentucky’s, famous barbecue scene, I am eager to sample some local barbecue for myself.
The restaurant’s menu offers intriguing twists. Instead of the traditional sandwich, I order the barbecue quesadillas and barbecue nachos. The unexpected combinations of flavors prove savory and satisfying. As I eat, I learn that instead of a signature barbecue sauce, Paducah is known for how the meat is cooked: low and slow.
This Paducah restaurant and boutique specializes in smoked meat. The owners host the yearly Barbecue On the River, and owner Susie Coiner described how the nonprofit festival has grown from a small event into a three-day meat extravaganza that raises thousands of dollars for worthy causes. This September will mark its 20th anniversary.
“We call ourselves small-business incubators,” says Coiner. “We have local barbecue sauces for sample and sale. We can host dinners or lunches here. We can also customize crafts for groups to make and take home.”
Combining barbecue with art? This fun additional surprise is one of many I’ll discover in Paducah. The river town revels in the unexpected with a thriving art scene, a preserved history and a strong sense of culture.
Down by the River
With a full and happy stomach, I explore historic downtown Paducah. Architecturally impressive brick buildings and walkways line the streets to connect me with its past as a bustling river port. Now, eclectic shops — antique stores, jewelers, bakeries — and restaurants fill the 19th-century buildings.
“We’re at the hub of several waterways,” says Laura Schaumburg, marketing director for Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Everything kind of points to Paducah. Our river location has really shaped our culture and heritage.”
At the Grace Episcopal Church of Paducah, I admire the 1873 church’s slate roof and stained-glass windows. The building’s interior is even more striking, with a gorgeous dark-wood ceiling and early-20th-century altar tiles.
“The wooden Gothic Revival architecture meant the church to look like a ship turned upside down,” says Libby Wade, church rector. “That is because the ship is a symbol of the church.”
Wade also points out the 17th-century Bible, the early-20th-century Moravian tiles and other historic aspects of the church.
Later, I pass colorful flood-wall murals depicting important moments in Paducah’s history before reaching the historic brick building that houses the River Discovery Center.
“We are at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers in Paducah’s oldest building,” says E.J. Abell, director of education for the center. “It was built in 1843 as a bank. We have an excavation exhibit showing the building’s root cellar and what pieces found tell about what happened here 150 years ago.”
As I walk past a collection of model steamboats, wildlife habitat exhibits and a model depicting how quickly floods form, music stations help set the mood by playing traditional songs once sung by steamboat crews.
I try my hand at captaining a ship at the center’s simulator. When I rock the wheel back and forth, the giant screen makes the motion of the water so convincing that I almost forget I am standing on solid ground.
At Shandies, I enjoy a hearty meal in a building full of character before heading to the Carson Center to watch “Million Dollar Quartet.” I leave with the music of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash still playing in my head after the feel-good show.
The 1,806-seat performing arts center presents touring Broadway productions, as well as the center’s Family Series and faith-based Myre Series.
“For our Myre Series, we go out of our way to make the tickets more affordable than they would normally be,” says Brian Laczko, executive director of the Carson Center. “We wanted those who normally didn’t have the money to have a way of being here. Our faith-based shows have done rather well thus far.”
A yak to welcome you
A giant red yak drew my attention to the Yeiser Art Center in downtown Paducah. The statue plays an important part in the branding of the art center, the purpose of which is to nurture artists, both local and otherwise.
“We help artists make a living,” says Joshua White, executive director. “We teach them how to price their work and sell it. We carry as many Paducah-specific products as we can.”
I browse some of the local artwork in the center’s gift shop, which displays a variety of art mediums, among them clay flowers, jewelry and handmade kites. Inside the gallery, the center hosts art shows throughout the year, such as the Teen Spirit Exhibition, the Yeiser Members’ Show and the Fantastic Fibers Show.
The Fantastic Fibers Show attracts artists and visitors from all over the world, as it takes place during Paducah’s popular Quilt Week in April. The week brings 30,000 international and domestic quilters for contests, lectures and other special events celebrating the modern quilter.
The town’s connection with quilting and other art mediums has earned Paducah the designation of UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art, the world’s seventh city with that distinction.
After the Yeiser Art Center, I enter the site that helped garner Paducah so much international quilting attention: the National Quilt Museum. With my scarce knowledge of quilting, I start my tour not sure what to expect. Walking in, I am struck by the remarkably detailed designs the quilters have produced from a canvas of fabric.
“We are a national art museum where everything we have is made out of fiber,” says Frank Bennett, CEO of the museum. “Most of what we have is from professional artists. It is like any other art form, except that quilters have much more patience than any of us ever have.”
Shocked by their multiple layers and the depth of design, I examine the creations to try to understand how the painting-like quilts were made. Caryl Bryer Fallert’s vibrantly colored works especially draw my eye for their appearance of movement.
“A lot of people come here knowing little about quilting,” says Bennett. “In the main galleries, we show different styles and types of quilting to introduce them to the art form. A lot of what make the difference in quilting is the balance. It’s very mathematical.”
Having left the museum to dine on New Orleans-style seafood at Whaler’s Catch, I reflect on the disparity between the typical quilts sewn by grandmothers I had expected and the museum’s professional works of art.
With an excited grin, Kijsa Housman ushers me into her art studio where she sells her work and offers art classes.
“My whole mantra is accessible art,” says Housman. “That has evolved into more decorative works as well as art classes. I want people to come into the studio and leave feeling good about art. Art is all about connecting.”
While I look around in her authentically busy studio space, she recounts how she started as a classically trained artist before morphing into someone passionate about spreading the love of art to others.
Though I have trouble cutting in a straight line, she assures me her pressed photo craft will give me no trouble. Using a copy of a historic photo of downtown Paducah, I rub the image onto another sheet of paper using Citra Solv. The result produces what appears to be a historic sepia-toned postcard of Paducah. I proudly sign my incredibly easy craft.
“There is something that is being created here every day,” says Housman. “I think that’s the neat part. Groups can come and be part of an artist’s space. It’s time with an artist.”
Kijsa Housman Studios turns out to be only one of many artist studios in Paducah’s LowerTown Arts District. The 26-square-block area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I pass by potters, jewelrymakers and bookbinders on my way to Ephemera.
Unlike the typical art shop, many of Ephemera’s products come from local flea markets and yard sales. Kristin Williams, proprietor, scours thrift shops for salvaged items, such as buttons, keys and old photos, to inspire creative art crafts. However, Ephemera’s focus is on art classes and workshops.
“It’s fun to watch groups creating art,” says Williams. “At a certain point, their 6-year-old concentration kicks in, and they get immersed in the process.”
Groups of up to 56 people can participate in creating crafts as easy as Christmas gift tags and as intricate as sewing a block of quilt art. Williams has also helped groups craft a sign with their favorite Bible verse.
“My love is mixed media,” says Williams. “It has lots of layers with paint and different elements in the work. My goal is to not be pigeon-holed.”
No one would accuse Williams of limiting herself, just as Paducah refuses to be a typical Kentucky river town.
Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau