Get the picture: Visual art is everywhere in Covington

Dig into Covington’s history and you’ll keep bumping into Frank Duveneck (1848-1919), the son of working-class German immigrants who became an eminent artist. His stepfather operated a beer garden at 1226 Greenup St.; today, it’s the site of the artist’s home and studio, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Duveneck began studying art at age 15 with the Benedictine brothers at the local Institute of Catholic Art; he apprenticed with a firm that decorated churches. At 21, he went abroad to study painting in Munich, where he perfected his dark, realistic style using rapid brushwork and strong light-and-dark contrasts to depict everyday subjects, especially working-class people. There’s a good example at the Taft Museum of Art, the cigar-smoking “Cobbler’s Apprentice” (1887). Near Great American Ball Park you can see a humorously modified version of the painting as a mural with a baseball bat replacing the boy’s cigar.

Duveneck’s work took a while to be noticed locally, but critics and collectors on America’s East Coast and in Europe increasingly admired the young artist. Renowned author Henry James called him “the unsuspected genius” and famed painter John Singer Sargent declared him “the greatest genius of the American brush.”

His wife died unexpectedly, an event that caused the grieving artist to return to Covington from Europe. He continued to paint and became a teacher at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He eventually was named the dean, enabling him to have a spacious studio on the Cincinnati Art Museum’s top floor. He mentored many students who went on to important artistic careers, including Covington artist Dixie Selden (1868-1934).

An example of Duveneck’s work can be viewed at Covington’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption. Between 1905 and 1909, he painted a large triptych mural of Christ’s crucifixion, an exceptional example of sacred art. More of his work is on display in the Cincinnati Wing at the CAM. Following his death in 1919, he was buried at Covington’s Mother of God Cemetery.

Duveneck’s career has impacted art and history in Covington for the past century. In the mid-1960s, a campaign sought to restore his Greenup Street home and studio. It resulted in the formation of the Northern Kentucky Heritage League and the creation of the Duveneck Gallery at the Kenton Country Public Library. The Duveneck Memorial Art Show, now managed by the Baker Hunt Art & Cultural Center, is held annually in May at the George Rogers Clark Park on Riverside Drive.

Baker Hunt represents another strand of art DNA in Covington via another historic figure, Margaretta Baker Hunt (1845-1930). She wasn’t an artist herself, but when she and her niece Kate Scudder (1849-1926) established the Baker Hunt Foundation in 1922, they had a lasting impact on art and education in Covington.

Margaretta Baker HuntRay Kingsbury, executive director of the Foundation, says Margaretta’s family came to Cincinnati in 1838 and had a shop on Fourth Street where they sold candle wax and whale oil; it soon became a profitable business in gas lighting fixtures. But due to the frail health of several family members, Kingsbury says, “A physician told them to move to the country. The ‘country’ was simply six blocks south of the river — at 620 Greenup St. in Covington,” just a few blocks north of Duveneck’s home.

Despite the healthier location, Margaretta’s husband and daughter both died, but she refused to withdraw to grieve.

“Margaretta connected with the community and children,” Kingsbury says. “Her niece Kate came into her life, really a feminist, activist kind of person, who was interested in things like the acquisition of Devou Park and the creation of the Carnegie Library, today’s Carnegie Art Center. Together they established the foundation that would provide accessibility to the arts for common individuals.”

Margaretta and Kate owned adjacent homes on Greenup Street’s beautiful tree-lined neighborhood, today’s Historic Licking River District. In 1929 they donated the buildings as a campus where the foundation continues to offer classes in drawing, painting, photography, pottery, dance and music.

“Margaretta never wanted this place to be a mausoleum,” Kingsbury says. “She wanted it to be an active, engaging kind of place. In fact, 95 years ago, she was a huge pioneer of creative placemaking.”

Kingsbury says the center “is a safe place for people to come and explore the arts. We’re not a spectator sport. You come here and get your hands dirty. Our youngest artist is 3 years old, our oldest artists are well into their 80s. It’s a real opportunity for people to get involved in the arts.”

The center’s grounds and gardens add to its appeal. “The experience of coming onto the campus is important,” Kingsbury says. “Margaretta’s spirit pervades the place. The beautiful buildings inspire a certain reverence.”

A 95-year-old institution in historic buildings needs to be maintained. “Margaretta never let much grass grow under her feet,” Kingsbury says. “Looking to the future, we’ve created a master plan with the help of GBBN Architects to upgrade our facilities and sustain the beauty of the place.”

Another institution built on a beautiful historic foundation was originally a library. Thanks to the advocacy of Kate Scudder and others, the Covington Public Library opened in 1904 through the generosity of philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. In 1906 a theater was added, serving as a town hall for the community. Abandoned in the 1950s, the building began deteriorating, but in the 1970s, historic preservationists stepped in to create the Northern Kentucky Arts Council. It later became the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center, and today it’s simply known today as The Carnegie — with an innovative art gallery, a beautifully renovated theater (modeled after a 19th-century French opera house) and modern classroom space in the Eva G. Farris Education Center.

The Carnegie’s building is a work of art, a fine example of Beaux-Arts architecture. Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and invention, is represented on a pediment sculpture by Covington artist J. C. Meyerberg. There’s a glorious stained-glass interior dome (refurbished in 2005) in a rotunda above the gallery space.

Matt Distel manages The Carnegie’s 5,000 square feet of gallery space, under the rotunda and in several rooms on the second floor. “We are one of the very few institutions that has a theater, a gallery and a very active educational program,” he says. “Those three departments are the pillars of what we do, and our programs all interact and engage with one another.”

Distel, a veteran of Cincinnati’s visual arts scene, curates seasons of shows. “We’re regionally focused,” he explains. “The artists we support are from this region, broadly the Tristate, within a circle from Columbus to Indianapolis, Louisville, Lexington — not just Greater Cincinnati. There aren’t many local venues as staunchly focused on artists from our region as The Carnegie.”

Distel loves the building’s historic spaces. “I’m constantly thinking how we can break up the space, how we can rotate shows, what we use the spaces for. I’m always rethinking what kinds of artists we can invite in and what types of shows we can present.”

He follows two broad strategies: “One is to highlight artists not recognized as broadly as they should be.” Recent exhibitions have focused on outsider artist Raymond Thunder-Sky and painter Edie Harper. “The other thing I like to do is to take a big unwieldy topic like drawing or abstraction or landscape and do a regional survey.”

He also plays a role beyond The Carnegie’s walls as an active member of Covington’s burgeoning arts community. “It really feels like The Carnegie is sitting up here as an anchor that can move things,” Distel observes.

“Drive up Scott Street and you’ll see development creeping this way. The Center for Great Neighborhoods in the old Hellman Lumber building is bringing it from the other direction.” Distel regularly interacts with The Center, helping with art installations in their offices.

“The way that I approach curating exhibitions and organizing seasons,” Distel says, “has always been by being out in the community and looking and talking. It’s about getting The Carnegie’s voice out there.”

Not far from a life-size bronze statue of Frank Duveneck in a small park at the intersection of Pike and Washington streets in Covington is a relatively new gallery, Pique, opened in 2015 by Lindsey Whittle and Annie Brown. The playful name is a word with several meanings — a “peek” at something visual, a burst of anger, a “peak” experience, even a dance term, “piqué,” a quick turn.
Whittle and Brown met in 2007, shortly after Whittle graduated from the Art Academy and began teaching at Baker Hunt. Brown brought her kids to classes — and stuck around to do art with them. The women’s friendship led to numerous creative events.

In 2014, Whittle and her husband, Clint Basinger, a comic-book artist, purchased a historic building at 210 E. Pike, thinking it would be their home and maybe a future gallery. Sooner than expected, the gallery took shape. Whittle and Basinger landed on a novel approach, converting the first floor — gallery and all — into a weekday Airbnb, which helps pay the mortgage. (Since opening two years ago, they’ve hosted nearly 900 guests, including visitors from Canada, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. Most visitors aren’t seeking art, but many have enjoyed the unique quarters — often sticking around to enjoy openings.)

Brown and Whittle are co-conspirators in the gallery, which they prefer not to categorize. “We want people to be surprised every time they come here,” says Whittle. “If we ever get to a place where it can be characterized, that might be the time to shut the doors. We want to keep challenging it and turning it on its head.”

Brown chimes in, “It’s fun when someone comes to us and says, ‘I want to do this? Can I?’ We’re like, ‘Sure!’”

Brown continues, “Anyone who wants to come in is welcome here. Sometimes we have a hard time getting people in the door.” She recalls a honeymooning couple peering in the window during a recent show that featured elements of a Korean Buddhist wedding ceremony. “We had to encourage them to come in, but they did and they had a blast,” she says. A Lyft driver who brought a guest to the same opening came in to check it out: “He had a ball — stayed for the whole performance.”

BLDG are Pique's neighbors in the burgeoning Pike Street arts district. Both women grew up near Covington and were eager to locate their gallery there. “We love the passionate, grass-roots energy that’s coming out of the walls in Covington,” they say. “It’s coming together, even more cohesive now.” They credit the Center for Great Neighborhoods as a catalyst, as well as Renaissance Covington, which is focused on activating the city’s downtown through community efforts and partnerships.

“Covington is a city that really values the arts and wants to see their city grow together with all these people. What’s more,” Whittle adds, “everybody is rooting for everybody down here. We’re not competing.” When BLDG, another creative operation nearby at 30 E. Pike, has an opening, “We’re going to plug it.”

One more opportunity to see how visual arts celebrate Covington: Check out the Roebling Murals, along Riverside Drive on the Ohio River floodwall between Greenup and Scott streets. Between 2002 and 2007, muralist Robert Dafford supervised the ambitious painting of 18 large panels, tracing local history from 800 B.C. to the present. About halfway along the wall there’s a representation of none other than Frank Duveneck — bringing the story of art and community in Covington full circle.

There’s a lot to see, wherever you look, in Covington.

The Northern Kentucky Fund of theGreater Cincinnati Foundation is proud to underwrite Soapbox’s On the Ground: Covington series. The Northern Kentucky Fund believes that highlighting the successes and challenges in our community fosters effective dialog and action, creating communities where everyone can thrive. Other On the Ground partners include The Center for Great Neighborhoods, which is working collaboratively toward community transformation with series sponsor Place Matters partners LISC and United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center.
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