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Mrs. Adalin Wichman

Popular and Fashionable
Jamie Gumbrecht, Herald-Leader Staff Writer, Friday, February 4, 2005

Some people know her as Adalin the clock woman. (You know, the one who designed the giant pendulum at the downtown public library.)

Or they think of Adalin from Keeneland, the elegant artist who hand-finishes each Eclipse Award.

The longer memories recall Adalin the fashion illustrator. She turned piles of wool and cotton into sleek newspaper ads back when Embry's was downtown and Loom and Needle was still around.

Oh, everyone knows Adalin Wichman. They just know her for different reasons.

"Everyone loves her," gushes Karl Reckart, assistant curator at the Headley-Whitney Museum, which will showcase Wichman's work. "We're very surprised that she's never had a show like this before now. She's been so busy, done so many things, maybe she just hasn't had time."

Certainly, the sculptures, portraits, jewelry, furniture, sketches, public art projects and commissions take time.

"I love what I do," Wichman, 82, says. "It's embarrassing to have so much fun."

"I couldn't leave Lexington - too much fun. You don't even have to go anywhere else."

Wichman moved from Paris to Lexington at age 9. Her father, an ophthalmologist, spoiled her, she says. He answered every question with a drawing, teaching her to think visually.

She grew up sketching but never considered a career in art. While attending the University of Kentucky, she made labels for the geology department for 45 cents an hour. She majored in English but filled her schedule with art classes.

"I guess I thought I'd teach," Wichman says. "But I never had long-range plans - just get through today, this week at most."

By the time she began fashion illustrations in the 1950s, she was married to William Wichman. (They met in art class.) She thought the job would be easy for anybody that gave it a try.

"Oh, the first one took me hours. Pencil erases, paint wipes off," Wichman says with a shrug, still believing in the simplicity of a smooth line 50 years later. "You do it again, and it gets better."

Her speed improved over the years, but not her timing. Nobody feared calling her at 1 a.m. because they knew she'd be awake, working. But nobody wanted to call her before noon the day after a deadline.

"She always had too much work to do," says Bill Embry, former chairman of Embry's department store. "She'd draft things so fast, then fly out of there. But then I'd have to wait - 'Adalin, deadline. Where are ya?'

"'I'm working on it now,'" he recalls her saying.

But as photography took over fashion illustrations in the 1960s, Adalin began designing advertisements for Keeneland Race Course.

"We were selling the image of Keeneland more than the race. Adalin was perfect for that," says Jim Williams, Keeneland's communication director. "She had an artist's eye for everything."

It was that artistic eye that scanned the empty Central Library rotunda at the urging of philanthropist Lucille Caudill Little.

"She dreamt she saw a clock, and when I walked into that space, I saw a Foucault pendulum," Wichman says. "No one ever said, 'We can't do that' or 'I don't like that.'"

The clock, with its five-story pendulum, Bluegrass frieze and terrazzo floor, is a tourist destination.

"Any time we talk about the clock, it's Adalin that's the biggest part of it," says Greg Davis, marketing director for the library. "Having someone local created that local interest and then the ripple effect."

The Headley-Whitney show includes works borrowed from Lexington collections, as well as early sketches and some pieces stripped from Wichman's own walls.

"She takes on anything she can create," says the Headley-Whitney's Reckart. "She learned how to weld so she could fix a chair we're showcasing."

The show's title, "Seeing Joy, seemed perfect to describe Wichman, Reckart says. In all those memories of her work, people also remember her smile.

"If I had life to live again, I'd devoutly wish to be a stand-up comic," Wichman says. "Can you imagine anything better than making people laugh?"