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Austrian returns to arts community

BY LAUREL BLACK lblack@paducahsun.com

As a young woman, Elisabeth Melkonyan-Mayr explored America the hard way.

She traveled by Greyhound bus - mostly at night, to avoid the cost of hotels - and lived on fast food. Her skin, she said, was a disaster.

The Austrian native's visits to the United States look a little different these days. During her two residencies in Paducah, the multimedia artist has traded buses for motorcycles - she's visited the Free Spirit Biker Church a handful of times - and exchanged hours on the road for time spent teaching and learning about art.

"Traveling is always something very special. I learn a lot," said Melkonyan-Mayr, whose passport includes stamps from Japan, Egypt and Turkey.

Melkonyan-Mayr wound up in Paducah in 2011 through a meeting with Lower Town resident and artist Paul Lorenz. The connections she made with local artists during her stay helped facilitate the inclusion of five of them at the "Wide West" exhibit, held at the Imperial Palace in Innsbruck in April 2013.

The artist returned to town Feb. 8 for a second residency, during which she learned about nontoxic printmaking from artist Freda Fairchild and made presentations to classes at the Paducah School of Art & Design.

"(The school) is a fantastic place," she said. "It's very open-minded and relaxed, but I also see that they work a lot."

For Melkonyan-Mayr, open-mindedness is an important trait, and one that she hopes to impart to her students in Austria.

"We're a little bit narrow-minded in Tyrol," she said of her hometown. "I would like to change that."

Melkonyan-Mayr will leave Paducah on Saturday, but she'll carry the techniques she's learned, the connections she's made and her impressions of the town back to Austria.

"(Paducah) is such a small town, but you have so many artists nearby and you make friends so easily," she said. "And I like the countryside, the rivers ... and also this American way of living, which is a little bit different from Austria."

The Paducah Arts Alliance began hosting international visitors through the Artist-in-Residence program in 2008. The artists who make up the alliance see the program as a way of bringing the larger world to Paducah.

"If you're living in New York or any large cities, you have access to people from all over the world. So we thought this would be a way of bringing the world here," Fairchild said.

And when they come here, they find that this place is also rather unique. This is a different slice of life in America, I think, than you find in the big cities."

The next resident artists, Russian documentary photographers Oksana Yushko and Arthur Bondar, are set to arrive in Paducah next month.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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