About sixty miles away from Louisville and the Ohio River is the small central Kentucky village of Nerinx. It’s smack dab in the middle of an area renowned for its bourbon distilleries, but it also has an older, interesting history. I brought my friend and video artist Julia Oldham with me on one final adventure before her stint as artist in residence at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest comes to an end. On Memorial Day, Julia will be back in her familiar Brooklyn and far from bucolic Kentucky. We started the day by listening to National Public Radio’s story about SETI and the search for intelligent life in the universe. After fifty years of scanning the heavens for “intelligent” radio signals, only once was a signal received that had promise and that was back in 1977. That search for promising signals became a theme for the day and dovetailed nicely into Julia’s latest videos from the Possumhaw Plant Electrics series. I was honored to see her latest artworks which walk the fine line between art and science. It should be fun to see how the rest of the world receives them post Bernheim. After that, it was breakfast at Mammy’s Kitchen in nearby Bardstown, of my Old Kentucky Home fame.
Although Nerinx and The Loretto Motherhouse (which we were seeking) isn’t that far from Bardstown, I managed to get the vehicle turned around on a few occasions. Julia discovered that her global positioning application didn’t really work very well out in the country. Still searching for intelligent signals! Eventually, we just stopped and asked someone and we were set upon the right road. Some of America’s oldest Catholic roots are found in Nerinx. The name is actually a variation on Nerinckx which is the name of the priest who helped found the Motherhouse. We thought his image on his statue looked somewhat like the young Beethoven. Nerinckx was joined by Theodore Badin who would become the first ordained priest in America (1793) and it was they who helped found the Sisters of Loretto in 1812. There is a statue of him too! With the help of sisters Ann and Mary Rhodes, the order set up a school for girls since education in the frontier was often neglected. No statues for them, but there needs to be!
Two hundred years later, the Loretto Motherhouse operates a farm and infirmary. Julia and I were also in Nerinx seeking out an artist friend of mine that is also one of the Sisters of Loretto. Her name is Jeanne Dueber and she is an accomplished sculptor with a wonderful studio and gallery.
Jeanne and Julia share a common friend and so it was nice that we were able to connect. Jeanne’s studio and gallery is called Rhodes Hall and it is a wonderful old structure filled with the artist’s work. It’s practically a retrospective of Jeanne’s life work as an artist. There are more traditional ecclesiastical figurative works, but what I really enjoy are her abstract wood sculptures that just reach for space in all directions. Here are a few views of the installed artworks. Jeanne is not a big person, so it’s all the more amazing she has the energy to wrangle these larger works.
There is literature relating to the Loretto Motherhouse for sale and Julia and I found the donation box to be really charming. The reading glasses are a nice touch. We found little hand-painted signs all around the art works and must be Jeanne’s handiwork as well.
After parting company with Jeanne, Julia and I took a stroll around the grounds. There were beautiful birds singing all around us. It was a beautiful, warm, Kentucky late spring day that made you feel as if you were far away from the concerns of the rest of the world. And we were! Plastic bottles in a small garden caught my eye and I went in for a closer look. Perhaps they were frost protection no longer needed?
The cemetary on the grounds was really interesting! The first few rows of stones remember some of the contemporary, longer lived sisters. It seemed that was quite a string going of people who lived into their 80′s, 90′s, and there were a few 100′s too! This contrasted sharply with the early years where many of the women only lived to be in their 20′s and 30′s. Tuberculosis and various fatal influenza outbreaks during some particularly bad years spoke of the difficulty of life during the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s formative years. Interestingly, there were two large stone slabs set upon the ground that recorded the names of perhaps 30 or so (?) sisters who donated their bodies to science! After the walk through the grounds it was time to return to Bernheim. I said my farewells to Julia and wished her a good trip home. She will be returning to our area in August for a solo show scheduled in New Albany, IN and it will be great to see her again! Julia also wrote up a Loretto Motherhouse story which can be read at her blog, “Bee Sting Brose”. It’s on my blogroll for your convenience!