Kara Nichols is bold, frank, hard-working, inclusive, unafraid and just a little bit feisty. When she sets her sights on something, it will be done. And if you aren’t with her, you’re against her. But perhaps this is just what Louisville needs right now — someone who addresses injustice with honesty and compassion. Her overarching goal with opening 1619 Flux — a new art gallery/community center/nonprofit in west Louisville — is to desegregate the city.
As Nichols and her team worked to finalize the space for Friday night’s opening celebration, they paused for a few minutes to talk about their mission and vision for the organization.
Nichols, who grew up in Louisville and lived in various cities from New York to L.A. while working as an artist and clinical psychologist, says when she moved back to town three years ago, she was baffled by how segregated Louisville really was. She spent some time in the East End and noticed everywhere she went, it was predominantly white people.
She moved downtown, and while the mix of cultures and backgrounds was a little better, she still couldn’t overlook the great divide that existed at Ninth Street. She began reaching out to organizations and businesses in west Louisville, offering support, but she noticed a lot of times, a one-day event would be held that would bring people together, and then they’d go their separate ways.
“I thought, ‘What’s a sustainable way to bring people together in a real way for a reason?’ and that led me to the art component,” she says. “Bringing all these people together, I feel like I’m creating a piece of art right now. All the people involved, all the people I meet — it’s about being a part of this community and stepping up. This influences all of us.”
Nichols found an empty warehouse space at 1619 W. Main St. and quickly began amassing her ideas and team. She envisions it as much more than an art gallery — and mentions facilitating a grocery store and even affordable housing in the future. The second part of the space’s name, Flux, comes from the fact that it’s not a solid concept — it’s always changing.
“This is a work of art that’s still being created,” says Nichols. “I have no idea what all is going to happen here. I have my mission and my ideas, but there are so many. It’s in flux, it’s in movement.”
And the reason she kept the address as part of the name was pure serendipity, she believes. After doing some research on 1619, she discovered that was the first year slaves were brought to the United States.
“I feel like that happened for a reason, so I thought it was important to have that address in there,” she says.
She walks the neighborhood on a regular basis to spread the word and garner interest in the project, and she stresses that 1619 Flux is just as much everyone’s space as it is hers.
“You have to get out there, walk around and talk to people. My thing from the beginning is we are accommodating to this area of town — west Louisville, Portland,” she says. “I do want something from the people of west Louisville. What I want is them to feel connected to the space, I want their opinions, I want their voice. I want them to feel important. That’s what I want. Other than that, I don’t want anything.”
Some of Nichols’ team consists of Jesse Levesque, artistic director; Michelle Bickelman, operations director; Lance Newman, community outreach director; and many more who share her common vision.
Newman, an artist and poet, agrees it’s important to reach out to the neighborhood and make everyone feel included. So many businesses and companies tend to drop in the West End and make a splash, he says, referencing the proposed methane plant. And sometimes the neighborhood pushes back.
“Just being where we’re at is one part of the activism piece,” he says. “The things we will coordinate in this building, I believe, will be transformative instead of transactional — a phrase I got from Rev. Al Herring.”
Nichols says so far, she hasn’t gotten any resistance from anyone, and she believes it’s because they don’t have any hidden agendas.
“It’s about being accommodating to the neighborhood and not having the neighborhood accommodate to us,” she explains. “It’s a collaborative process.”
They’ve reached out to artists and local businesses and vendors for their opening night festivities, and it sounds like it’s going to be quite the event. The art component features 20 artists — both well known (Stephen Rolfe Powell, Matt Weir) and new — as well as live music, performances from Theatre , a light installation, and food available from Stevie J’s BBQ and Sweet Peaches, among others. (It runs from 6-10 p.m. on Friday, April 15, and is free and open to all.)
Artistic director Levesque also is busy producing the B.Kind: A Compassionate Cities Project, which will be held in Louisville for the first time from April 17-21. 1619 Flux is one of several venues that’ll host “mindful experiences” to help citizens feel more connected.
Levesque says the events are designed to appeal to all types of learning — from visual and aural to kinesthetic and participatory. Everything from spoken-word performances by Newman on a trolley and walking tours of the West End by J.P. Begley to live music by WuWoo & Krew and free acupuncture is planned. (Click here for a schedule or see below.)
She says the Louisville event is part of the national Compassion Movement, and so far 300 cities worldwide have signed on as well. It’s not based on religion or any set of beliefs other than to treat others as you want them to treat you.
That Golden Rule, as some call it, fits in tandem with what Nichols hopes to accomplish with 1619 Flux.
“Maybe it’s crazy to think we can do it, but if someone doesn’t start somewhere and say, ‘I’m just going to do it,’ it’s never going to happen,” says Nichols. “I don’t have a lot of fear. But it’s going to take a while.”