Kentucky Life looks at the artwork of Thomas Noble. Downtown Mt. Sterling is enjoying a renaissance. Three Toads Farm produces farm-to-vase flowers. The Bread of Life Café combines southern cooking with good works.
The Art of Thomas Noble
Thomas Noble had a very unlikely career path. Before he created artwork that depicted the inhumanity of slavery, he was a captain in the Confederate Army.
Noble was born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1835. His father was a hemp farmer who owned slaves. His grandfather had also been a plantation owner. But Noble was drawn to a different vocation from a young age.
“As a child he’d always shown an interest in art and was fortunate enough to travel abroad to study and to develop his craft,” says Dr. Ashley Jordan, Curator of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
He spent a few years in Paris in the late 1850s and returned to Kentucky in 1859. The rising conflict between the states put his artistic endeavors on hold.
“When he came back to the states, it was around the time the Civil War broke out,” says Jordan. “Although he was not a champion for slavery, he was a statesman. He joined [the Confederate Army] because of his love for Kentucky.”
After the war ended, Noble returned to his art and often used his paintbrush to illustrate the horrors of slavery.
“He earned the name ‘The Reluctant Rebel’ for the fact that while he did fight on the side of the South, through his paintings, he showed these social and political presentations of enslaved people in the United States,” says Jordan. “No one was doing work like this in this time period.
“Noble used his artwork to tell stories, particularly the stories of those who could not speak for themselves,” adds Jordan. “He told the stories of enslaved people and used real life scenarios that would only pertain to them. He would show it in a way that would show them as the victim.”
At the time, many white people professed that the institution of slavery was helpful to black people, Jordan explains, but Noble used his art to show the true atrocities.
“The one piece that shows how detrimental [slavery] was is the piece called ‘The Modern Medea,’” says Jordan.
“The Modern Medea” illustrates a pivotal moment in the story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman who escaped to the North only to be recaptured. When cornered by slave hunters, she killed her young daughter rather than see her trapped in a life of slavery.
“The Garner painting depicts a black woman whose child she has just killed is on the ground,” says art historian Rebecca Bilbo, Ph.D. “Her other children around her trying to pull her back, and these white men are coming in and they’re angry at her because she has destroyed ‘their property.’ Her child. And she went into a rage. It’s a very powerful painting.”
“The Price of Blood” is another one of Noble’s most iconic paintings, showing a white man negotiating the sale of his own son.
“There are two men sitting at a table, with money all over the table, negotiating the price of this young mulatto man.” says Mary Ran, art historian and owner of the Mary Ran Gallery. “He’s very strong, and he’s barefoot. And these two men are at the table haggling over him. Thomas Noble was appalled by that…He was appalled by the fact that families were separated, that children were taken away from their mothers and sold.”
Noble’s courageous artwork and his training in Paris earned him fans and supporters in America’s art community.
“1868 is a very pivotal year,” says Bilbo. “Not only is Thomas Noble riding high on his reputation, as this rising star in the national academy of design, but he’s also the first choice to be the first director at this new design school in Cincinnati.”
Noble earned the post as the head of the McMicken School of Design, which is now the Art Academy of Cincinnati.
“In America we have no art schools or college really until this time,” says Bilbo. “And he’s there trying to figure this all out. What is this new kind of school? What needs to be taught? Noble relies on his past education. The whole idea that the teacher would stay in the classroom and teach every single day as a class session is a new phenomenon and Noble learns how to do this.
“Noble contributed to the design school movement,” adds Bilbo. “He contributed to the development of American landscape art at the end of the 19th century. And as we look back at how we educate artists in the 19th century, he is an instrumental figure.”
Downtown Mt. Sterling
Mt. Sterling is a small town located just off I-64 west of Winchester. The heart of Mt. Sterling is its downtown, which is currently undergoing a revitalization effort.
At the forefront of this effort is Dr. Danielle King, a doctor of internal medicine who is also a member of the city council and owner of Spoonful of Sugar Café. Kentucky Life’s Doug Flynn sat down at Spoonful of Sugar to talk with King and Mt. Sterling tourism director Tracy Pierce about the renaissance in their town.
“I love Mt. Sterling and I do try to devote a lot of my time to community service,” says King. “I’m [head of] the downtown revitalization committee, and I try to do what I preach. This building had not been occupied since 1997 and this is sort of how the whole downtown revitalization started here.”
“As the tourism [director] of the town, I kind of saw that our storefronts downtown were becoming empty,” says Pierce. “And in a town as beautiful as this, it just breaks your heart. You’re thinking, ‘We have just got to get some people down here. We’ve got to get some businesses going.’”
Pierce says that the town’s efforts are working and more drivers on I-64 are making a stop in Mt. Sterling.
“Ruth Hunt Candy is a great business here in town,” says Pierce. “It’s right off the interstate, so we draw a lot of people for that. We also have a beautiful art center. We have a beautiful history museum. And this town, founded in 1792, has tons of history to it.”
New shops and attractions are helping to revitalize the town. King says that locals are embracing the effort, renting spots to open their businesses or buying downtown buildings and renovating them. The city government is contributing to the effort by literally elevating part of Maysville Rd., one of the main streets into downtown.
“The sidewalks were built so that when people got off horses they would step up high,” says King. “The sidewalks are almost two feet off the road. But with a car door these days, that doesn’t work so well.”
Another one of the town’s initiatives is a partnership with the local farmers market.
“We’ve applied for a grant…to continue to renovate the area down by the train depot,” says King. “We’re going to put in a farmers market structure there and we’re really excited about that.”
King’s Spoonful of Sugar was one of the first businesses to embrace the downtown revitalization project.
“I started out doing the baking,” says King. “Thursdays were my day off, and that’s sort of how this concept started. I would come in on Thursdays. We would bake early that morning and sell out for the day. That was at a time when the downtown didn’t have a lot of foot traffic, so one day a week was probably the right move.
“As more people were coming downtown, there was more of a demand, so now we’re open pretty much every day,” King says. “We’ve hired a full-time chef, so I don’t do much of the baking anymore. I just get to boss people around!”
Along with an increasingly vital downtown, Pierce says that the people of Mt. Sterling make it worth a visit.
“We have a really wonderful, friendly community,” she says. “As the tourism director of my town, it makes it so easy because I know when they get here, they’ll love it. So it’s just a matter of me getting people here.”
Three Toads Farm
The local farming movement isn’t just about food. At Three Toads Farm in Winchester, local flowers are the centerpiece of the business.
“The whole movement around people wanting to know where their food comes from, where their clothes were made, and what conditions they’re manufactured in definitely has impacted the farmer-florist movement” says Val Schirmer, partner at Three Toads Farm. “As field-to-table has become more important, field-to-vase has as well. A flower from a local grower is vastly different form something that has been shipped in.”
That mindset has helped make Three Toads’ flowers a good fit for the Lexington farmers market.
“The farmers market has been really good to us in that you meet a lot of people and become friends,” says Charlie Hendricks, partner at Three Toads Farm. “The people always stop by whether they buy something or not, and say hello, so there’s always a crowd around. It’s a nice place to sell flowers.”
Hendricks and his daughter, Elizabeth Hendricks Montgomery, do the growing and cutting themselves along with help from other family members when they’re available.
“We try to cut as close to the market or event as we can just so that they’re fresh as they can be,” says Hendricks. “If someone buys these flowers, they’ll last long.”
Three Toads creates bouquets, centerpieces, and other floral decorations for weddings and events. The designing is Montgomery’s specialty.
“Designing is a passion, and I love every bit of it,” she says. “I want the floral arrangements to be something that you remember for years to come. I love a challenge.”
Montgomery creates her designs using flowers grown at the farm, which adds to that challenge.
“When you’re growing things, you don’t know what you’re going to have until the week of,” she explains. “That’s why instead of choosing a specific type of flower, we go with a color palette.
“Every one of them is different,” she adds. “It just depends on what the bride wants. That’s their most special day. They’re going to have pictures of it for the rest of their life. I just want the things I do to be 100 percent perfect.”
Flower enthusiasts can come to Three Toads and learn about the design process themselves in one of the farm’s workshops.
“People come to the farm; they want to see what we’re doing,” says Schirmer. “They want to learn to do what we’re doing, and we share openly. We have no secrets. We tell people what we grow and how we do it. Then we show them how to make wonderful arrangements. We have the best of everything down on the table in the greenhouse for them.”
“At the end [of the workshops] we go out and take a group photo,” says Montgomery. “Everybody has a completely different arrangement, and they’re all picking from the same table. It’s really cool.”
Bread of Life Café
For fans of classic Southern cooking, The Bread of Life Café outside of Liberty, Ky., is worth the drive. But there’s more to this establishment than comfort food in a welcoming environment. Bread of Life is part of the Galilean Home, a Christian ministry that provides a home for people in need.
The Bread of Life Café was started by Sandy Tucker – known to just about everyone as Mom – and her husband, Jerry.
“[Sandy] said, ‘Let’s start a little Christian bookstore in town,’” Jerry remembers.
Jerry was sure the business wouldn’t be able to succeed in a community as small as Liberty, but he was willing to go along with Sandy’s inspiration.
“She said, ‘If I put a few tables in the corner and start serving sandwiches and soup, we could maybe get a little more business in for the bookstore.’ That exploded into a full-fledged restaurant.”
“The story of Bread of Life Café cannot be told without talking about the Galilean Home Ministry. They’re one and the same,” says Quincy Burt, PR and Development Director at Galilean Home Ministries. “We’ve got the special needs residents in the blessing house. We’ve got the girls in the girls’ dorm that are higher functioning. We also have babies that are born to incarcerated mothers. They’re there until [their mothers] are out, so they get a second chance at a family. We also have the Galilean Christian Academy, and everyone knows when you’re in school, you’re there more than you’re at home, so that’s home during those years.”
The café employs many of the residents at the Galilean home as well as members of the community.
“I grew up at the Galilean Home,” says Zachary Harpin, Kitchen Manager at Bread of Life Café. “I got there when I was probably four or five. I used to help Sandy Tucker – Mom – cook. When we started the café, I was probably around 13 or 14. I would come in after school or on the weekends and I would help cook or wash dishes or whatever needed to be done. And then I grew into my position as kitchen manager probably around 15, 16 years ago.”
There’s a role for everyone at Bread of Life, including the home’s special needs residents.
“They enjoy interacting with other workers and customers,” says Jerry and Sandy’s daughter, Becky Martin, manager of the café. “It makes them feel good every day that they have a job like everyone else. All the proceeds from here benefit the Galilean Children’s home, and so it’s a big asset here in the community.”
Diners at Bread of Life can opt to order off the menu of Southern fare, or head to the all-you-can-eat buffet. The café’s desserts are all homemade from original recipes. But the real culinary draw might be the signature dinner rolls.
“Mom was famous for her homemade rolls,” says Jerry Tucker. “That’s what really sold us at the beginning of this restaurant was the homemade rolls. Big as your fist.”
Sandy Tucker passed away in 2007, but her cause lives on in the extended family surrounding the Galilean Home and Bread of Life Café.
“I think my mom, if she was here right now, would be very pleased,” says Martin. “I feel like we’re living her dream, and knowing that this was what she’s always wanted to do just makes me feel better too.”