LOUISVILLE, KY. — WE HAD just driven into downtown Louisville when this quirky little car zipped by -- a blue Honda Civic with vinyl decals and a bumper sticker reading, "Keep Louisville Wild and Woolly." The driver had a thick beard that indeed looked wild and woolly, like Garth Hudson's on the cover of "The Band" album.
The moment seemed unusual and, well, hip -- a scene more fitting for Austin, Texas, or Portland, Ore. -- than for an older city that is mainly known to outsiders for its traditionalism, symbolized by the illustriously unchanging Kentucky Derby.
I wrote down the information advertised on that little car, about a video store called Wild and Woolly specializing in hard-to-find, obscure and "just too weird" films. A good place to visit, I thought. Louisville has some surprises in store, my wife and I surmised.
We had come partly to see the well-regarded 32nd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Because I'm an Ohioan -- Cincinnati -- who was born in Louisville, I wanted to find out what was happening downriver along the Ohio.
Overall, I discovered an intriguing, funky scene and a good-humored, pop-culture-savvy populace . . . plus more. Louisville has an avant-garde, contemporary-art edge. In 2003, the city and county governments merged, increasing Louisville's population to 694,000 from 256,000. Now there seems to be a fresh, invigorating self-image -- the "Possibility City," it calls itself.
I'm going back to Louisville for the 7th annual Kentucky Art Car Weekend (Friday and Saturday), sponsored by the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft and featuring a parade of hand-decorated vehicles, among other events. The Mellwood Arts & Entertainment Center, a partly open-air converted meatpacking plant, will turn into a drive-in theater for one night and host a party on another.
Regrettably, I had to miss Memorial Day's annual Abbey Road on the River Festival, featuring Beatles tribute bands from around the world, and this month's 7th annual Lebowski Fest devoted to all things "Big Lebowski" (there is also such a festival in San Francisco on Sept. 5 and 6, among other places).
But beyond these events, there is another component to the city's cultural transformation. Collectors-investors Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown are out to make the city a national player in contemporary art. Their 21c Museum Hotel, on Main Street downtown, sets the standard for fashionable boutique hotels. It opened in 2006 and has 91 rooms. A second hotel is slated for Austin.
The hotel owes its name to the fact that its owners collect only new art made by artists such as Bill Viola, Tony Oursler, Andres Serrano and Kara Walker. It also sponsors temporary exhibitions in its 9,000 square feet of gallery space, which includes the lobby, an adjacent wing and various surprising nooks and crannies. Even the public restrooms have art -- involving an installation piece with tiny LED monitors in the mirrors.
The hotel's signature red penguin sculptures, standing above the entrance like sentries, make 21c stand out among the 19th century buildings of the Main Street Historical District. It also helps that instead of a streetlight outside the entrance to its epicurean restaurant, Proof on Main, there is a brass chandelier hanging from a wooden gallows pole, outfitted with lights for illumination.
After a comfortable, even luxurious, night's stay at the hotel for a modest $179, we cruised the eclectic shops and cafes along Bardstown Road, not far from downtown, and found Wild and Woolly Video. A Black Sabbath documentary was playing, and an area by the front window was outfitted with a couch and a bookshelf stocked with titles such as "Cult Flicks and Trash Pics" and "Hong Kong Action Cinema." The store's collection was film festival-worthy, with special categories for seemingly everything, including native son Hunter S. Thompson, cannibal movies and plenty of high art.
Beyond this week's Art Car event, I also hope to make it here from Sept. 25 to 27 for IdeaFestival, now in its ninth year and offering presentations by creative thinkers and problem solvers from around the world. And maybe again Nov. 21 to 23, when the Mellwood hosts its third annual Good Folk Festival, featuring outsider visual artists and "primitive" musicians such as Daniel Johnston.
And who knows what other festivals, cool events and art installations will be revving up in 2009? In Louisville today, anything seems possible.