Sunday, April 16, 2017

Ray Papka, mixed-media artist at Wallace Station, has a long and varied life of inspiration for his work

Ray Papka's "Tree of Life" is in Honeywood, the new restaurant of his daughter, chef Ouita Michel, in Lexington.
Story and photographs by Austyn Gaffney
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Ray Papka, a Midway resident for the past seven years, claims most people know him as the father of one of his three kids: Ouita Michel, Perry Papka, or Paige Walker. When I met Papka at a community dinner at Midway Christian Church he told me he was famous for nothing.

“Most people call me OF or PF,” Papka joked, “Ouita’s Father or Paige or Perry’s Father.”

But in fact, Papka has a long legacy of accomplishments, including more than 30 years as a Ph.D. and educator in the field of brain and nerve sciences, and his current work as a mixed-media artist.

Papka in his studio on Old Frankfort Pike at Wallace Station
Unless he’s traveling, Papka can be found laboring in his two basement studios at his house on Old Frankfort Pike at Wallace Station. When I visited, the first piece he showed me was created for his daughter Ouita Michel’s new restaurant, Honeywood, at the Fritz Farm shopping center at the corner of Nicholasville Road and Man O’ War Boulevard.

“Ouita was very attached to her mother and her mother’s favorite birds were cardinals, which is also the Kentucky state bird. So I added some cardinals for that reason and to add some color to the background,” said Papka. “It represents the family coming together, and then reaping the benefits of the family’s hard work.”

The restaurant is named after the late Honeywood Parrish, a neighbor of the Holly Hill Inn, Ouita Michel’s first restaurant. Keeping to the theme of family, Papka incorporated photographs of letters from her family on the border of the wood panels. In the middle, separated from the letters by a thin line of red metal, a large tree branches out across a yellow background, the cardinals resting on its limbs.

“It’s the tree of life,” Michel explained. “My father’s creativity really knows no bounds. He is a woodworker. He’s made bedroom furniture, lamps, candlesticks, and ashtrays. He’s re-roofed our home, paneled our kitchen out of scavenged barnwood, and hand-painted Native American symbols on the walls. He’s made shutters, picture frames, and sandwich boards and utensil caddies for my other restaurants. He grew up in a time when people had to be more self-reliant.”

Papka’s upbringing strongly influences his art. He grew up in Thermopolis, the largest town (population 3,000) and seat of Hot Springs County in Wyoming. His family, originally from South Dakota, earned their living as sod farmers and then carpenters as oil towns boomed in the early 20th century. His father continued that legacy by moving his family around the country for the first few years of Papka’s life. 

“Basically, my family was a mess,” said Papka, laughing. “My dad had the wanderlust. He did not want to sit down and do a job. He wanted us to live in a trailer house and be pulled all over the country and my mother finally had to put her foot down and say, no way, Thermopolis is the last stop.”

His father ended up doing ironwork on railroad bridges and building missile silos in South Dakota. But eventually, he abandoned the family, following construction work to Los Angeles. His mother supported Papka and his three siblings as a motel maid, and the kids had paper routes, lawn-mowing jobs in the summer and snow-shoveling jobs in the winter to help support the family.

“We became very independent and survivalist,” Papka said. “My childhood was as close as I can possibly imagine to a Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn life. We built rafts to float down the river, and we ran through the hills and sagebrush to shoot rabbits for dinner. Mom would kick us out of the house early in the morning, and we had this laundry whistle they would ring at noon and five o’clock. My mom would say come home when the whistle blows for dinner, and in the meantime get out of here.”

Papka with his "Semper Femina," or "always women"
Papka’s upbringing shows in his work.

“I like old things like rustic maps. I mean, when I was a kid I probably spent more time reading maps then I did books because they were like stories to me, and in a sense, I wanted to know how everything was connected.”

Much of his artwork features embellishments of old, dusty objects he finds at flea markets and digging through scraps. When I visited his studio, Papka showed me rusty pieces of an old radio he was using to create jewelry that he found in a burn pile in Santorini, Greece.  The jewelry is for a series of female characters called "Semper Femina," a name he borrowed from the title of musician Laura Marling’s album. "Semper Femina" is taken from the Marines motto, Semper Fidelis, which means always faithful, and repurposed into always women. The series is a tribute to the strong women in Papka’s life.

The collection, consisting of 11 unique pieces, was created with one of Papka’s favorite mediums, old books. A corner of his large studio is dedicated to floor-to-ceiling bookshelves towering with old encyclopedias and hundreds of salvaged books once fated to be thrown into landfills or fires. The Woodford County Public Library has learned to call Papka before it disposes of any literature. Along with books and found objects, Papka uses an ancient form of painting called encaustic to create the restored feeling of his mixed media work. Encaustic painting takes hot wax and sometimes adds pigment to create protective layers of coating over paper, photographs, found media, and other objects of Papka’s work.

Papka's bookshelves also hold "found objects" for his work.
Michel calls her father’s studio the work of a “scientifically organized hoarder,” and like many artists, Papka is heavily influenced by his life as a scientist. Leaving Thermopolis to attend the University of Wyoming, he  wanted to become a forest ranger.

“You’d never know it from the way I talk now,” said Papka, “but growing up I was extremely shy and introverted, and becoming a game warden all by myself would have been just perfect.”

Pretty soon though, his intellect outpaced his plans. His advisor in the zoology department convinced him to go to graduate school for anatomy at Tulane University. The program came with a full tuition reimbursement, money for travel and research, and a living stipend. These scholarships reflected Papka’s work ethic and were also the only way he could support his growing family. He had married his first wife, Pam, right out of high school after she became pregnant with Ouita. He was 19, she was 18.

Michel, who was between three and five at the time, has a vague memory of their car catching on fire in Louisiana on the way to New Orleans.

“Sharecroppers along the side of the road came up and helped us empty our trailer,” Michel recalled. “But I never felt afraid. My father was always confident. When I decided to buy the Holly Hill Inn, my mother’s reaction was fear-based. She thought the prices were too high and I would go out of business. But my dad said, ‘You got this,’ and came down to help put padding on the tables. He’s always been super pragmatic. His response to stress is to work hard, and when our car was burning, he was a blur of activity emptying that trailer.”

Papka’s hard work led to a long and successful career as a neuroscientist. His first job was at the University of Kentucky, where he spent more than a decade teaching and growing his family to three children. It also led to the splintering of his family when Pam Papka became involved with a close friend and co-worker, Robert Sexton, a history professor at UK.

“I had a sabbatical coming up in Australia,” Papka recalled, “so I told my former spouse, we can go down there and work things out together away from all the trappings of home, or you can stay here and figure it out for yourself, but when I come back you need to know what you want to do.”

Pam decided to stay in Kentucky, and Papka took Michel, then 16, to Adelaide, South Australia, for a year instead.

“It was really upsetting at first, because we were so homesick,” Michel recalled. “But it was a fantastic experience. Australia brought us closer and it was a real confidence builder. He just dropped me off at school in a foreign country half-way around the world and expected me to figure it out.”

"Time Piece," one of several Papka works dealing with the topic
Papka’s life continued to be a series of moves. He left UK for the University of Oklahoma, where he spent a decade. His last teaching position was at the Northeast Ohio University College of Medicine, where he was chairman of neurobiology and ended up as vice president of research. He also traveled extensively, and held positions in Europe, including Hungary and Denmark. One of his pieces features a subway map of London in the background, and much of his work revolves around time, travel, and navigation. When I visited his studio, he was working on creating compasses out of discarded objects.

“Doing artwork is kind of like doing lab work to me because in my scientific career I’d set up a hypothesis and go into the lab and do the research and test it,” he said. “Now in my artwork, I set up a title first, and I go into the studio and working on that piece becomes an experiment because the story is coming out of me as I’m working on it. So I’m doing the same thing,” Papka reasoned, “using the same neurological pathways in my brain.”

People who see Papka’s work at New Editions Gallery in Lexington are always intrigued by his process, said owner Frankie York.

Papka had several works in progress during our visit.
“I think his [scientific] background and his intellectual process really influence how he composes things,” York said. “There’s so much involved in each piece, and we asked him to turn in a short paragraph, that he actually turned into two paragraphs, so we could tell people what’s going on in each piece. It’s actually fairly complex and not random at all.”

The complexity of Papka’s life may be what comes through most in his art. He is a deep thinker, and works through his own thoughts, memories, hopes and fears when he creates his pieces. For now, this life is centered in Kentucky. He moved to Midway in 2010 to be near his family. He has considered moving back to the mountain west, a place he misses from his childhood. During his academic career he applied for jobs there, but ultimately chose not to return, even when his second wife returned to Wyoming in 2011. He said the divorce was amicable, and he helped her pack up her things and drove the U-Haul to set up her new life. Three years later, Pam Sexton’s obituary included him among the survivors, as the father of her children.

Ray Papka’s life has been full of changes, but it seems he has found what he wants in his basement studio, his prolific artwork, and his family. Spending time with his kids and his grandkids in between his travels keeps him rooted in the Bluegrass. But he is always looking for where to go next, and says he will soon start research to visit C√≥rdoba, Spain, a major Islamic center during the Middle Ages, or take a road trip down historic U.S. Route 66 through America’s arid southwest. With a full life and a full schedule, it doesn’t seem like his art will run out of inspiration anytime soon.

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