“This isn’t the Jay McChord you’re familiar with, and this isn’t a story about the Lexington city council, the World Equestrian Games, sewage problems or issues concerning our water supply. It’s a story of unrecognized and unrealized artistic talent, aesthetic angst and the gratification of perseverance through inspiration and imagination.
Unbeknownst to most, behind the charismatic city councilman for the 9th District lies a seasoned creative hand, the kind that brings images to life with only a sharpened pencil and a blank sheet of paper.
McChord graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1991 with a degree in fine art, after nurturing, with the help of others, his talents through his younger years.
“I was one of those kids that was drawing all the time,” he said. “I had an encouraging mother who was just one of those moms who not only encouraged you to draw and told you you did great and put it up on the fridge, but really was a good artist herself. We would sit around and challenge each other to who could draw the better barn — she would just smoke me.
“I was also one of those kids in elementary school who didn’t really realize school counted for anything, so I would just draw all day long. Teachers would say, ‘Stop, do your math.’”
Aside from his mother, the artist had many inspirational and fortifying figures through his early years — Ron Pennington, his art teacher and football coach at Jesse Clark Middle School; Nancy Clifton (now Nancy Nardiello), an art teacher at Lafayette High School; and most recently, his wife, Julie.
“Artistically, my life has been a baton race that started with my mom,” he said. “I had some incredible teachers; now it’s firmly in the hands of my wife.”
Another instrumental character in his creative pursuits was Arturo Sandoval, his art advisor at UK, who not only dissuaded McChord from dropping out of college, but also planted the seed for a project that has been 10 years in the making.
McChord’s last project as a college senior is a portrait of nine Vietnam soldiers, drawn from an old photograph taken during their downtime. After graduating, the image found a home in a dormant portfolio. Six years later, in 1997, happenstance found the artist.
While making a copy of the image at Kinko’s for a White House Fellowship application, McChord chanced upon Sandoval, a Vietnam veteran, who was floored by the reminiscence the striking images elicited.
“He said, ‘This is really powerful stuff. If you could ever get to a place where veterans could get you their pictures and turn them into artwork, you’d really be onto something.’”
This offhand remark, which was innocent enough, sparked an idea that has worn on McChord’s mind and muses for the past 10 years. Buttressed by the catalyst of Sandoval’s words, McChord began amassing other images and stories, which began to form a loose body of work around an undefined theme.
“There’s always been in the back of my head (this question of) how do I do this in a way that honors veterans, but that also has a commercial side to it. People would want to buy this, they want to participate in this,” he said. “And so for 10 years, I’ve approached all kinds of veterans groups, non-profit groups that help homeless veterans, and said, ‘I’m willing to do this,’ but it never connected. What happened was we never solidified a format.”
That revelation came earlier this year when a friend suggested that McChord turn the project into a coffee table book that would honor Kentucky veterans of all wars, where McChord would transform old pictures into character sketches alongside the service members’ memories from those turbulent times surrounding the image.
Still, McChord reasoned, something was lacking — one missing ingredient that would ensure every veteran in Kentucky would want the keepsake. The answer was five blank pages at the end of the book, where the recipient or the purchaser of the book could include their or their families’ stories, which could become a feeder system for future editions and a legacy piece for the family. And with that, Uncommon Valor in the Commonwealth was born from an artist’s longing for relevant expression blended with the respect of military service.
“What we’re really hoping for is a book that will prompt more stories,” McChord said. “I think that we’re in a season where we’re losing over a thousand World War II vets a day. That’s what inspired Ken Burns’ documentary, The War. Certainly we need to do what we can to get those stories out there, but what we found is that when you show this artwork to folks, when you tell them what you’re doing, it prompts them to start telling their stories. It’s just very unsolicited. I think that there’s something very healing about that, something really honoring in that.”
Aside from honoring people in the military service, Uncommon Valor in the Commonwealth, for McChord, is creative solace for an artist who hasn’t been obliged to his natural gifts.
There was an intrinsic frustration upon graduating from UK with a fine arts degree and not being able to find work that embellished his talent, and then when the proverbial real world came knocking, along with the inherent pressures, and the young professional migrated to the financial service world. For McChord, this is an artistic reckoning.
“For me, this is something that nobody really knows I do. Until this book cropped up, I didn’t really have a reason to show anybody my work,” McChord said. “In our culture today, we just don’t get to know one another I think (my work) surprises people, for whatever reason.”
With great talent comes great responsibility, and many artists, like McChord, feel it is incumbent to use their natural facilities for the betterment of their fellow man. It’s the idea of creating not just for the sake of creating, but for serving a greater purpose. McChord’s visual collections, though merely some graphite on a sheet of paper on the surface, are a vital relic of honor and artistry.
“At the end of the day, it’s just about taking a gift, a talent you’ve got, and using it to try and help other people. You try to take what you’ve been given and give it back in some other way. This is just something that was sitting in the closet for a long time, or behind the curtain, and I’ll hopefully have the opportunity to start giving it back.”
Currently, Jay McChord is still collecting images and stories for inclusion in the first edition of Uncommon Valor in the Commonwealth. If you would like to be a participant, or know somebody who would be interested, you can e-mail the artist at Jay@workplacebuzz.com, or write to: Uncommon Valor in the Commonwealth, P.O. Box 910542, Lexington, KY, 40591.