Two new public art projects celebrate local talent, spirit, and creativity

July will be alive with public art in Covington and Northern Kentucky, celebrating the region’s fascination with bourbon, as well as its spirit of innovation.

The NKY Innovator Gallery, which officially kicks off today, July 7, honors 13 pioneering Northern Kentuckians in an art installation at 31 Innovation Alley. Thirteen local artists have drawn portraits of the carefully chosen innovators, and the pieces will be viewed in a composite gallery on the side of the building.

The 36-by-36-foot mural depicts portraits of innovators spanning two centuries in science, manufacturing, civil rights, inventing and songwriting. QR codes give biographical information on all 13, which includes the man behind the Roebling Suspension Bridge (Amos Shinkle), and the woman who helped inspire the opening of St. Elizabeth Hospital (Henrietta Cleveland).

“For the last year, we’ve been working to add vibrancy to Innovation Alley,” says Nick Wade, executive director of Renaissance Covington.

The organizers want to highlight the block-long route that stretches east-west between Russell and Washington streets a half-block north of Pike Street. Named in 2016 to honor Covington’s early entrepreneurs, Innovation Alley saw the beginnings of small businesses like Grainwell, The Delish Dish, Craft & Vines, and Kickstart Kitchen and is home to Gravity Diagnostics and Bexion Pharmaceuticals.

The Innovation Celebration event will take place from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. July 7 at the NKU Collaborative for Economic Engagement at 112 W. Pike St. – the back of which opens onto the Alley itself. Many of the artists who created the 13 art pieces will be present.

In the meantime, artists are putting final touches on 100 bourbon barrels that will have distinct designs related to the region and the barrel’s sponsors.

“We're calling it the NKY Bourbon Barrel Walk,“ says Jill Morenz, director of community initiatives and communications for the Catalytic Development Funding Corp. of Northern Kentucky. “The placement of the barrels is going to be a long path that we've decided upon. The idea is that when you're standing at one, you'll be able to see the next one, (guiding you) through the entertainment district. You can discover new places like new restaurants and bars and shops as you do the walk,” Morenz says.

The barrels will be distributed to outdoor spots in the river cities on July 23. Each will have a QR code so you can discover the theme, the artist, and the sponsor, as well as directions to the next barrel.

For three days beforehand, all 100 barrels will be housed at the Gallery at Newport on the Levee. If you wish to see all 100 barrels there – the only chance to see them altogether – mark your calendar for 7 p.m. Thursday, July 21, at the Gallery in Newport on the Levee. A “Roll Out the Barrels” event will unveil the custom-painted bourbon barrels for the public.

A ribbon cutting will take place at 7:15 p.m. marking the start of the yearlong NKY Bourbon Barrel Walk. There's an opportunity to meet some of the artists and sponsors. There will be a cash bar. Morenz said it’s a chance to enjoy a unique combination of art, bourbon, and local businesses, plus see the art up close.

“Bourbon is the big rage now,” says barrel sponsor Steve Crawford of Assured Partners, an insurance company in Bellevue. “So, anything that has to do with bourbon seems to attract people's attention and interest.”

Another sponsor, Pat Frew, executive director of Covington Business Council, says the project “is a great way to spotlight the vitality of Covington’s business districts while helping the participating businesses and sponsors brand their organizations in a supportive way to the community.

“This also serves as an informal first step in improving wayfinding in Northern Kentucky’s largest city, which takes on added importance with all the major development projects in the works such as the Covington Central Riverfront Development (the former IRS site) and the nearby Hayden at Roebling Point, the apartment, retail mixed used development at the site of the former Kenton County Administration Building,” Frew says.

Jennifer Baldwin, an accomplished artist, retired Dixie Heights High School art teacher, and professional framer, is busy finishing up five barrels for the project. Among them is one for altafiber, formerly Cincinnati Bell, which has fibers weaving in and out of Northern Kentucky buildings.

Another client is an actual bourbon bar, Globe Bar in Covington. “So, I'm making the entire barrel look like a glass of bourbon, over the rocks,” Baldwin says. “It's art that people can interact with. You know, you can get around it, get under it, go through it, and see it from all different kinds of perspectives. And I think public art is needed more and more,” Baldwin says.

The Cincinnati region has proven that public art is here to stay. The Big Pig Gig kicked off the millennium and made a repeat visit in 2012.

“I know when we had the Big Pig Gig here. My Ohio artist friends and I decided that we were going to rate the pigs. We had a little rating scale. A tail between the legs was not very good. Then the rating went from one curl (of the tail) to two curls and three curls tight. Three curls tight was a really good pig,” Baldwin recalls with a laugh.

BLINK, the nation’s largest art, projection mapping, and light-based event, debuted in 2017, then drew 1.3 million visitors in 2019. BLINK, the Illuminated Future City, returns Oct 13-16 for a 30-block, outdoor art experience.

“I love that BLINK and ArtWorks bring these nationally and internationally renowned artists to town to put up the murals,” says Wade, who directs the Innovators project. “I love them, but I also love creating opportunities for local artists who may not otherwise have these opportunities to create pieces on a large scale. … And so, for me, it really is that celebration of local talent, local spirit, local creativity,” Wade says.

The vibrancy of public art has been shown to be a good thing, Morenz says, even to the point of causing property values to rise. “But in addition to that, I think it creates a sense of place ... The (communities) that do something to make themselves more unusual, it really has like a cascading effect,” she says.

“You know,” Morenz muses, “Covington has really embraced public art. And it really has a vibe that some of the other cities haven't. It's an appreciation of quirkiness.”