Art meets the earth at Josephine Sculpture Park in Frankfort. Red Bird Mission has been a force for good in southeastern Kentucky since 1921. Fans of the Hilltoppers will enjoy this sneak peek from Kentucky Muse.
Josephine Sculpture Park
In 2008, sculptor Melanie VanHouten and her husband left their careers in Minnesota and returned to Franklin County to create a sculpture park on the family farm. The 20-acre park opened in 2009, and now has 50 sculptures and murals from artists all over the world. The mission, she said, is twofold: “To provide free art experiences to the community while conserving the beauty of the native rural landscape.”
The sculptures and mural come from visiting artists who work on site as well as artists who bring in work. Josephine Sculpture Park also trades sculptures with other parks.
“We really want to have a variety of things in terms of material, scale, concept. You know there are some things that may be a little more realistic or traditional. There are other things that are super wacky and weird. And everything in between,” she said. “Again, that’s to try to connect with a variety of different people.”
The sculptures are on loan from the artists, so the display changes often, VanHouten said, “as does the natural environment of the park.” Besides the changing seasons, the paths also change. “We just mowed grass paths in the meadow,” she said. “We’re really enabling the art and the landscape to co-exist very naturally.”
Art is for everyone, the sculptor says. “You don’t have to know a darn thing about sculpture to come out here and to look at something and be moved by it. And you won’t get that about everything. But certainly there will be some pieces that you think, wow, I got that! And that’s the kind of place we want to be.”
The park is named for VanHouten’s grandmother, Josephine, who encouraged her granddaughter to connect with the land. “A huge piece of what we’re doing out here is trying to connect kids to the outdoors,” she said. “… They can run here. They can pick flowers, they can yell. They can do cartwheels.”
VanHouten said they’ve added more eco-art workshops, and the annual fall arts festival features glass blowing, pottery wheels and tie-dying. VanHouten said the community has been very supportive. Volunteer Chris Schimmoeller said the park offers ready access to art and nature that wasn’t available before. “It is a park with open arms,” she said.
Located at 3355 Lawrenceburg Road, off Interstate 64 and U.S. 127 South in Frankfort, Josephine Sculpture Park is free and open daily dawn to dusk. “I want everyone to come here,” VanHouten says. “Just come. It is a place for you.”
Remote Yet Vital: Red Bird Mission
Red Bird Mission, located in the town of Beverly in Bell County, has been operating since 1921 — first as a mission of the Evangelical Church, now the United Methodist Church. The mission serves Bell, Clay and Leslie counties.
The counties form a tight-knit community in the heart of Appalachia, made up of families who have been here for generations. The mission is 45 minutes away from the nearest town.
The Red Bird Mission includes medical and dental clinics, a community store, and a craft store. They offer a homebound ministry program for the elderly. “Almost 40 percent of the population lives in poverty,” Tracy Nolan, director of community outreach. “About 26 percent of the population are living with disabilities, and the unemployment rate is over 10 percent. So it’s challenging to live here, beautiful, wouldn’t trade it, but it’s challenging.”
Kari Collins, executive director, said Red Bird started as one of the settlement schools established during the social reform movement in the early 1900s. About 200 students now attend the mission’s K-12 school, Collins said, and about 75 percent of those are from the community. “Some of those students are international students,” Collins said. “Eight countries are represented.” The school focuses on developing leadership skills, Collins said. “Over the last two years every one of our students have gone to college,” she said.
The mission’s outreach program includes home repairs done by a work camp made up of volunteers. “Early in the spring we start getting applications from people in the community and they tell us what their needs are around their homes. Some need new roofs, some need porches, some need ramps,” said Collins. Elderly people, people with disabilities, and people with young children get first priority, she said.
“So we pick out over a hundred different kinds of projects for work camps to work on,” said Collins.
The mission also offers a clean water filling station. “We lack access to city water, so Red Bird Mission has worked with multiple partners to address that. We’ve got a kiosk onsite so community members can come and get access to fluorinated city water,” Nolan said.
The Red Mission community store offers household goods and clothes at a discount, and the craft store displays the wares of the local crafters. “Quilts, handmade dolls, there are some beautiful crafted [wooden] bowls that are just breathtaking,” Nolan said. “Again that’s the talent of the people here in the mountains. They’re very gifted.”
Local resident Brenda Hilton said good people from many different walks of life have uplifted the community. “I don’t see how these people could live without Red Bird Mission,” she said.
Singing from the Hilltop
KET recently produced a documentary about the young men of the Hilltoppers 1950s vocal group. The Hilltoppers created a sound that defined romantic music for a generation of teens during the mid-1950s, scoring 21 Top 40 hits. The quartet formed in 1952 on the campus of what was then called Western Kentucky State College in Bowling Green, and is now Western Kentucky University. Jimmy Sacca, Don McGuire, and Seymour Spiegelman were students singing in a barbershop vocal group, and Billy Vaughn, several years older, was a musician from nearby Glasgow.
Sacca, from Lockport, N.Y., and Spiegelman, from Seneca Falls, N.Y., were both at Western on scholarships. So too was McGuire, who was a star basketball player during high school on the other side of the state in Hazard. During his senior year, McGuire caught the eye of Western head basketball coach Ed Diddle, setting him on a path he could have never predicted.
Billy Vaughn had played in a band backing up Sacca in Bowling Green, and believed Sacca’s pure, romantic tenor was tailor-made for wider exposure. Vaughn enlisted Sacca, Spiegelman, and McGuire to join him in recording a song he had written, “Trying.” The group recorded it in the college’s Van Meter Auditorium, and according to McGuire, both his and Sacca’s future wives were present. “And to this day, at least a quarter of a million people claimed to have been there,” he says.
Randy Wood, who owned Dot Records in Gallatin, Tenn., heard “Trying,” signed the group, and pressed a single. “Trying” made its way up the pop charts into Billboard’s Top Ten.
Within weeks, the Hilltoppers were booked on Ed Sullivan’s “The Toast of the Town.” Ann Sacca, Jimmy’s wife, says that most of the members of her hometown church in Mississippi skipped Sunday evening service to watch the Hilltoppers perform on Ed Sullivan’s show.
Despite several members serving stints in the military during the mid-1950s, the Hilltoppers fashioned a solid run on the pop charts, scoring with such odes to youthful romance as “To Be Alone” and “P.S. I Love You.”
“I love the whole story behind ‘Trying.’ it’s just one of those classic pop miracles being in the right place at the right time,” says music journalist and historian Holly George-Warren. “That song ended up opening all of these doors for them.”
Spiegelman, who worked in the music business as a record distributor, died in 1987; and Vaughn, who became an internationally renowned bandleader, died in 1991. Jimmy Sacca worked as a talent booking agent after his performing career. He retired to Lexington and died last year. McGuire worked in real estate and with WKU in his post-Hilltopper years. He lives in Lexington with wife Maxine.