My Bernheim Story: Dennis Shaffner

By Bernheim

Almost fifty years ago, after arriving from Pennsylvania to Bullitt County as a secondary public school art teacher, I was introduced to the two hidden treasures of Shepherdsville, Kentucky.  Alma Lesch, who had block printed animal motif patterned curtains commissioned by Bernheim Forest (for their A-framed visitor center, now the Education Center) agreed to speak with our student art club members.  For decades, the Center served as an art gallery featuring the work of Bernheim’s annual artist-in-residence. The curtains, now archived in storage for their protection, depicted inserts, birds and related lifeforms from within the second Bullitt County treasure, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.

The natural plant bounty surrounding Clermont inspired Lesch’s 1970 publication of Vegetable Dyeing: 151 Color Recipes for dyeing yarns and fabrics with natural materials published by Watson-Guptil.

Mrs. Lesch and her Shepherdsville pharmacist husband, Ted Lesch shared the friendship and advice of Frank Bunce, then manager of Bernheim Forest, who retired in 1973. Fishing was their passion and community bond. The Kingfisher Pond with lily pads, carp and plant life became a dominant theme in my paintings inspired by my first trip to Europe in 1976. Looking at the Mediterranean off the coast of L’Estaque reminded me of the goldfish beneath the surface of Kingfisher Pond. A week later, walking through the Forest at Fontainebleau outside Versailles made me flash to Bernheim Forest across the pond.  I was convinced; staying in Kentucky was in my future. A painting from this series is in the permanent collection of Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science in Indiana. Another ‘Bernheim Carp’ was juror selected by Smithsonian curator Harry Rand for Glenmore Distilleries’ corporate collection. Many Bernheim Forest watercolors and acrylic paintings hang in Cedar Grove Coffee House for commuters along Interstate 65.

Bernheim Forest was my sanctuary as well as an inspiration to classroom assignments and connections to nature. The Courier-Journal Sunday rotogravure magazine featured me on its cover standing at Kingfisher Pond in a feature of Bernheim nature lovers. Birds inspired my eventual exploration in weaving ‘nest’ forms. Video tape of Kingfisher Pond brought Bernheim into my studio for media study and classroom music videos in the mid-1980s. Removing invasive species as honeysuckle vine, which Bernheim allowed me to harvest, became material for basket weaving from the forest. I also have taught a basket weaving workshop at the lakefront studio arranged by Claude Stephens, then Bernheim’s Director of Education (he is now the Facilitator of Outreach and Regenerative Design).

Snake Hollow by Patrick Dougherty, 2012

My recent BASKETbowl and birdNEST sculpture forms remain for sale at Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft and Craft(s)Gallery in Metro Louisville.  Alma Lesch, adjunct professor of art at U of L, encouraged me to study Japanese traditional basketry with Hisako Sekijima after completing my graduate work in textiles at University of Louisville under her expert eye. Bullitt County is fortunate to have a foundation as Bernheim which now features world renowned artists bringing community together as did Patrick Dougherty in 2012 when I participated in the group construction of Snake Hollow woven from local willow saplings which launched their current series of visiting artisans and craftsmen, called Sited@Bernheim.

-Dennis Shaffner, Bernheim Member
Superintendent of Arts and Crafts, Kentucky State Fair since 2001

In honor of Bernheim’s 90th anniversary in 2019, we are making a conscious effort to collect stories and memories of Bernheim. In addition to your stories, both old and new, we are seeking any photographs, video footage and historical information you may have about Bernheim from the past 90 years.  Please let us know if you or someone you know has a great Bernheim story to share by contacting us at

Please note: Any information provided to grants Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest the permission to reuse this information in print and/or digital formats, as well as other public display for the promotion of its 90th anniversary in 2019 and beyond, to further the efforts of our mission in connecting people with nature.

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