Artists’ Village Historic First Resident - Frank X Walker

The Artists’ Village welcomed its first resident in August 2019, someone who would soon become a champion for the vision of this neighborhood development. Frank X Walker, noted author, visual artist, and Kentucky’s first African American Poet Laureate first learned of the concept through conversations with Art Inc. President, Mark Johnson. “Mark emailed me about the project, looking for help to identify artists that might be interested. The more he talked about it, the more interested I became. At some point the conversation switched, and I started asking him all the questions.” That conversation would lay the foundation for Walker’s journey back to the East End community he had come to know and love.

The Artists’ Village is the latest project from Art Inc. Kentucky. The Artists’ Village provides live/work space for artists and creative entrepreneurs who wish to own their home and studio space and to live in the heart of Lexington’s historic and culturally rich East End. Multiple floor plans back up to a community green space that, upon completion of the project, will be the home for weekend art fairs, live performances, art classes, and musical events. Artists’ Village is a part of Art Inc. Kentucky, a social enterprise created through Community Ventures, and funded by generous partners including the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, Republic Services Foundation, Blue Grass Community Foundation, U.S. Small Business Administration, Women’s Business Center of Kentucky, Kentucky Arts Council, Kresge Foundation, WesBanco, Fifth Third Bank, German American Bank, Old National Bank, and Stantec Consulting.

Walker has been drawn to the arts since childhood. “When I was a kid, my city gave away free paint to encourage people to paint fire hydrants in patriotic colors and images throughout the town. I took the paint, and I painted every fire
hydrant in my neighborhood. Before I knew it, I was painting fire hydrants four blocks away from my home when I finally ran out of paint. Back then, art wasn’t something I thought I could do for a living - it was just a good
outlet.” This passion would only grow as Walker entered his formative years as a student at the University of Kentucky.

“I was looking for opportunities to be involved and I started teaching art classes for the Living Arts & Sciences Center. I also ran a few Nia Day camps in the summer, all in the East End. LaVon Williams and I painted a mural together inside the Bluegrass Aspendale Teen Center. That was a high moment - working with another artist and having a chance for that work to be appreciated by young people, because it always seemed to go towards those who needed it. The kids I worked with reminded me of what I was like when I was a kid.”

While growing his love for the visual arts, Walker was also developing a love and appreciation for the Lexington’s East End community. “The East End reminded me of where I grew up in Danville, KY. The same kind of working class, marginalized, multicultural community. I think people gravitate where they are comfortable. That was the East End for me. These are my people.” Walker would continue to hone his skills while serving this community for which his love grew. “I worked on the first Roots & Heritage festivals in Lexington. I used to paint a large Kente cloth pattern on the street in the 1980’s. Kids would come out and begin filling in the colors in the pattern before I could finish.”

Now, several decades later since those initial murals and street art and classes, Walker has returned to the East End community with a new vision. “One of the things I’m most excited about with the Artists’ Village is what it does for young people.” Walker hopes to resume teaching his art classes, collaborating with other artists, and showcasing his work in an effort to inspire and empower young people to explore their own passion for the arts. “We want to have a rotating opportunity for kids in the community to have free art classes, writing class, wood carving class, all these different classes - to allow kids to investigate their interest in the arts.”

Walker and his family would be the first family to join this new residential development for artists. The Walkers worked with CV staff to pick a lot and to finalize their floor plan. “The highlight for us was Myron Agnew - he was amazing.” Myron worked with the family throughout the construction process to make sure the home would meet all their needs and expectations. Even when they ran into construction delays, and problems with their former landlord, Myron was there to get them through. “Had Myron not been there, we probably would have changed our mind and not done it. He would always find ways to make it easier for us.” Walker describes the excitement he had from the groundbreaking through completion of the home. “The beauty of the thing was seeing the home start on paper. I would ride my bike or walk over to the site almost every single day, back when it was just a plot of land, then the foundation, then the concrete blocks. I took pictures of every aspect of the construction. We visited every chance we could get. Even our kids would come in, before the walls had gone up, and they would stand in a portion of the slab and say this is where their room would be.” After months of construction, the Walker family would finally close on their new home and move in during the Fall of 2019.

The vision for Art Inc. is simple - to provide opportunities for artists to build their business, to gain exposure for their work to generate revenue, and to stimulate cultural, social and economic activity in the community. Walker, a world-renowned author and poet, knows the importance of this mission. “Back in the 80’s and 90’s, I made an attempt to be a full-time artist, but I could barely sell anything for more than $100 in Lexington. There was no market for it. People appreciated my work and they enjoyed. But no one was buying. I lived the starving artist life, no insurance, skipping meals. I lived in a one room studio, and it was rough.” This lifestyle isn’t atypical for young artists like Frank. Art Inc. strives to close that gap so that more artists can achieve sustainability through their work.

By offering studio space, gallery space, and now the opportunity for homeownership at the Artists’ Village, Art Inc. is developing a generation of artists with resources and support needed to pursue their work in a financially feasible way. As residents of the Artists’ Village, these artists will be able to achieve the dream of homeownership, with all its long term financial benefits, while also being an integral part of this community. “I think about the completed MET project, and the completed Artists’ Village, and try to imagine people out and about, walking through the neighborhood, seeing these spaces that are so warm and positive that they draw people to the community.”

Walker is hopeful that the new development will reach beyond the East End, drawing new people to this historic part of Lexington. “We hope that the Artists’ Village will help reshape people’s perceptions about the East End. People are still afraid to come down here because the perception is so negative. But things are happening right now…I imagine the MET filled to capacity, the gallery filled, our kids walking to Franks Donuts, people walking on the Legacy Trail.” Walker is also hopeful about the contributions the artists can make to this community. “Everyone should have art from artists they’ve met. Art is part of your quality of life.” Going further, Walker understands the significance of artists’ presence in a predominately African-American community like the East End. In a time of civil unrest throughout the country, Walker sees art as an
important vehicle for expression. “Black art matters. When we’re finished here - there will be no doubt of that.”

For his fellow artists who are considering the Artists’ Village as a potential home for them, Walker offers a bit of advice. “Look at your options. I would dare any artist to find a warmer, more art-friendly place.”

To explore the work of Frank X Walker, visit www.frankxwalker.com. To learn more about the Artists’ Village residential development, visit www.artinckentucky.org/artists-village.