Paul Sawyier, beloved American Impressionist painter, most likely spent his boyhood days playing on the Old Capitol lawn during the healing of our nation following the Civil War.
In 1870, he came to live in Frankfort at the age of five with his family, moving in with his grandparents on Broadway Street. The house was just a stone’s throw from Kentucky’s seat of government and sat directly on the site of the Thomas D. Clark Center for History.
It was in Frankfort more than a century ago that he met the love of his life, Mayme Bull. It was near Frankfort that he lived on a houseboat and painted famous scenes of the High Bridge and Elkhorn Creek and the Kentucky River. It was in Frankfort where he strolled the downtown streets and slipped into “the taproom” now and again for a taste of bourbon with friends.
Today, Frankfort children still romp on the Old Capitol lawn. People still ride the river and run the creek. A summer’s evening always sees friends gathered for a week’s end celebratory drink. And, no doubt, there are local artists at work capturing the new memories of our fair city.
It’s about love
Paul Sawyier, according to playwright Don Coffey and director Karen Hatter, is an important figure in Frankfort’s history. They have collaborated to create, produce and direct the play “Two Loves and a River.” Appropriately, it will be performed on the banks of the Kentucky River at the Ward Oates Amphitheatre.
Coffey said, “It [the play] encompasses Paul Sawyier’s life but features his romance with Mayme Bull. Although they never married, Paul Sawyier considered Mayme as the love of his life.”
When asked about the title, Coffey explained, “I played around with several options, but kept coming back to the central role of the Kentucky River in Paul’s life, so I decided ‘river’ had to be in the title. Then there was the stark fact that he deeply loved his art and Mayme Bull.”
Coffey said that for years he wanted to know more about Paul Sawyier, especially because the popular rumors of him being a lifelong drunk somehow didn’t ring true. Early in his research, he asked people what they knew about Paul Sawyier. Over and over again, those he asked said that they knew he was a good artist.
The second opinion typically expressed was that Paul Sawyier was generally thought of as a drunk.
After two years of research “fishing through records,” at the state archives, the University of Louisville Art Library and the Kentucky Historical Society as well as reading other biographies and fictional accounts, Coffey said he found this was not true.
“Like most of his contemporaries, Paul liked the taste of bourbon, but he was not the alcoholic that so many believe. He was wonderfully talented, completely focused on his art, with a pleasant personality. Everyone liked him. This is the man I have tried to portray in the play,” he said.
From his research, Coffey first wrote a biographical play about Paul Sawyier. Then, he said his wife Sylvia pointed out that he had enough research to write a full biography, which he recently published.
Writing the book, “Paul Sawyier, Kentucky Artist” took such a comprehensive effort, according to Coffey, that “I discovered the play wasn’t good enough, so I wrote it all over again!”
A natural storyteller, Coffey said that both Russ and Karen Hatter have been extremely helpful, lending their expertise to the project. “Russ has an extensive library of Frankfort anecdotes that he let me read. It helped me write more knowledgably within that era of time.”
Coffey and Karen Hatter first collaborated on a Thorn Hill Education Center production called “Legends of the Great Hall.” Hatter said, “So, when this play about Paul Sawyier came along, Russell (Hatter) and I both liked it very much and could see great potential for an opportunity for Frankfort residents, as well as tourists, to learn about the person whose art many, many Frankfortians have hanging in their living rooms."
“The play will be a wonderful activity for the entire community. There should be a draw for those who are interested in theater, history or visual arts. It’s an intriguing way to learn about Paul Sawyier’s life,” Hatter said.
A fundraiser for the Capital City Museum, the play is financed by the Frankfort Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites. “We are keeping the ticket prices low so that everyone can afford to come. We want it to be a community event.”
The play has not been without its challenges for Hatter and others working with the production. It’s a two-act play with a cast of 35.
That means there will need to be things like a tent for costume changes and lighting that will most likely have to come down each night after the play. She said with the help of technical director Andrew Tippett and stage director Sami Allison, they will make it work.
The cast, according to Hatter, has really “bought into” the production. “They’re engaged and enthused about the show,” she said.
She went on to explain that even though there are only two main characters, Paul Sawyier (John Downs) and Mayme Bull (Katy Dole), the cast has been researching their characters. Within the cast are many local residents, as well as seasoned actors.
For additional research, there are plans to take the cast on an historic tour of the city and the Frankfort cemetery in order to get a better feel for where and how Paul Sawyier lived. The cast will also have an opportunity to view original Paul Sawyier paintings that hang in a part of The History Center that is closed to the public.
Coffey is optimistic about Frankfort’s future and feels the play is an interlocking piece in the renaissance of downtown. “I really believe that Frankfort is a wonderful town in which to live. I feel honored to live here. You know, the more you give [of yourself] to the town, the more you like living here.” Coffey smiled as he said, “Paul Sawyier liked to call Frankfort, ‘this sweet old town’.”
Hatter said, “If the play is well-received, we would look at doing it every year. It could be great for Frankfort.”
Tickets, priced at $5 general admission and $3 for seniors and students, are available at Capital City Museum, Parks Department, Farmers Bank East, West and Franklin Square locations.
For more information, visit www.capitalcitymuseum.com.