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Artist Bright is back in the spotlight

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Late Shelbyville artist Barney Bright’s famed ‘Louisville Clock’ to be unveiled tonight after years of restoration.

By Lisa King

The mood in downtown Louisville tonight will be one of celebration and of achievement and also for many, a time to remember a native son of Shelbyville.

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The Louisville Clock, created by late artist Barney Bright of Shelbyville, has been out of commission for several years but has been restored and will be dedicated at its new location in Theater Square near 4th Street.  

This iconic, 40-foot-tall structure, which first graced the streets of downtown Louisville in 1976, just a few blocks from its present location, has been undergoing restoration for the past eight years.

Bright’s son, Jeptha Bright, who owns and operates an art sculpture foundry in Louisville, said a new location was chosen for the clock because of the reconfiguration that 4th Street has undergone over the past decade.

“The development of 4th Street as a mall would have put it in the middle of the road,” he said.

The clock has been restored largely through the efforts of Louisville businessman Adam Burkle and his Adam Matthews Foundation at a cost of $1.1 million. It features a huge oval racetrack, 26 feet in diameter, tilted for easier viewing, that is built on a raised platform so people can walk beneath it.

The top features a dome in the shape of a Victorian-style gazebo that contains five historical figures – including Henry Watterson – who are watching five racing figures, Daniel Boone, Thomas Jefferson, King Louis XVI, George Rogers Clark and the Belle of Louisville, depicted as a buxom woman kicking a paddlewheel, as they ae circling an oval track.

The tallest figure is 50 inches tall and weighs 80 pounds, and all of them have moving mechanical parts. Boone is kicking a bear, King Louis is in a chariot, Clark is on a galloping horse with drawn sword and Jefferson is behind a horse.

In the past, the figures have “raced” three times daily, and that schedule will continue, at noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Bright, who, along with his brother and sisters, helped in the restoration by painting the figures, said he said he was amazed at the techniques that went into the restoration and the modern technology that has replaced the big gears and the 30-foot-long bicycle chains that previously ran the huge clock.

“It [the clockworks] was in a box as big as two big footlockers; there were six of those originally, and now you can hold it in the palm of your hand,” he said.

Born in Shelbyville in 1927, Jeptha Barnard Bright was a fourth generation Bright, born to Deanie and Jeptha Barnard Bright Sr.

He graduated from Shelbyville High School a semester early to attend Navy boot camp during World War II and settled in Louisville when he got out of the service. There, he enrolled at the Louisville Art Center Association and met Romuald Kraus, a celebrated sculptor from Austria, who became his mentor.

Over the course of his 50-year career, Bright grew to be a sculptor of considerable renown, especially in Kentucky, creating many well-known sculptures, which have included mayors, governors, historical figures, and even basketball’s famous, “Dr. J,” as well as numerous more abstract works.

The clock was among Barney Bright’s better-known works and was often referred to the “Horse Race Clock” or the “Derby Clock.”

But as impressive as the clock was, Bright’s most famous work is a sculpture that he considered his masterpiece. He finished The Search in 1989, a 13-foot-tall, 3,000-pound sculpture made of up 13 life-sized, intertwined figures, commissioned for the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library in New Albany, Ind., that took eight years to create.

Eight years before Bright died, in 1997 at the age of 70, he created his only piece of art to ever be displayed in his native Shelbyville, a life-size rendering called The Risen Christ, which still graces the chapel at the Church of the Annunciation.

His son, who still operates the art foundry in Louisville that he bought from his father, said it has been a while since any of his father’s old friends from Shelbyville have come around to share stories of the past.

“I worked with Dad for eight years [at the foundry], and people from Shelby County would drop by, and I’d hear stories about things that they did in high school,” he said. “I remember one story about the time he bet a nickel that he would be the first one out of the high school that day. He was on the second floor when the bell rang, so he ran to the window and jumped out.

“So, to win a nickel bet, he broke both his legs!”