Kentucky Derby far more than a race

Painting classes featuring Louisville native Carla Terwilleger's work have become popular events leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Photo courtesy Carla Terwilleger

For the rest of the world, the Kentucky Derby might be the greatest two minutes in sports, but for its hometown of Louisville, it often works its way into family traditions and professional lives.

Case in point: artist Carla Terwilleger.

The evening of April 19, the Louisville native will debut her "Twiggy Originals Second Annual Derby Collection: Derby City Glamour" at Regalo on Fourth Street. The show will be up for three days and available for private showings afterward.

"Since they're in the hype of downtown, and Thunder Over Louisville is April 20, we thought it would be a great way to kick off the Derby festivities," Terwilleger said. "They have an amazing space with great light that lends itself perfectly to artwork -- especially the colorful and glitterful Twiggy Originals paintings."

Part of Louisville's Kentucky Derby Festival, Thunder Over Louisville is the nation's largest annual fireworks event. The day-long celebration also features one of the top air shows in the country, and those in the know show up early in the day to stake their claim on prime viewing spots.

Last year, more than 400,000 spectators gathered on the banks of the Ohio River to take part. You read that right … 400,000. For Thunder Over Louisville, that is actually a low attendance figure, as Mother Nature kept patrons away.

The record for attendance occurred in 2006 and '07, when the event drew an estimated 800,000 people. Keep in mind, that figure doesn't include the thousands of people who watched from area rooftops at parties that boasted views of the fireworks.

"It's truly the prelude to the summer," Terwilleger said of the run-up to the Run for the Roses. "Derby wakes this city up. The excitement mixed with colorful and fun fashions gets everyone out of the house, where they've been cuddled all winter, and into the sunshine. It's a celebration of everything Kentucky stands for -- fast horses and beautiful, fun people."

She isn't exaggerating. In 2011, the Derby Festival conducted an economic impact study that determined Thunder Over Louisville generated more than $56 million for the local economy, and the total economic impact of the 70 events of the Derby Festival for both greater Louisville and southern Indiana is estimated at $127.9 million. In 2001, the last time a study was done, the Derby itself was estimated to be worth at least $217.8 million.

While the Kentucky Derby will be celebrating its 139th running this year -- extending its reign as the longest continuously held sporting event in the country -- the modern-day Kentucky Derby Festival has been held in Louisville every year since 1956. The 2013 edition kicked off March 28 with a sold-out fashion show, and upcoming activities include the Kentucky Derby Marathon/miniMarathon and the Pegasus Parade.

Like many Louisvillians, Terwilleger and her family have participated in most of the festival's events.

"Although my parents are originally from New York, they embraced the Derby as soon as they moved to Louisville in the late 1970s and used to throw huge Derby parties at our home," Terwilleger said. "My mom even used to organize Derby parties for my girlfriends when I was in kindergarten, with fake bets and little horses to race.

"We were also raised as Derby Festival lovers. My parents used to wake us up at 5 a.m. for the balloon race. From there, we would go to the mini marathon, which my dad ran once and all my friends now run. My dad used to volunteer for the Pegasus Parade, and we always frequent the Chow Wagon. My brothers and dad also compete in the hole-in-one tournament every year. Additionally, my mom has three full sets of Derby glasses for us kids, and dad has every Derby pin -- original, gold and silver -- for every year since they started making them."

Life eventually took Terwilleger to Los Angeles, and the years she couldn't make it home for the Derby, she would throw huge parties for her friends in California. However, she recently moved back to her home city and again is looking forward to the run-up to the Derby. Although the Kentucky Oaks long reigned as "the day for the locals," its growing popularity means that many have now turned to the Thursday before the Derby … or, as they call it, Thurby.

"I started physically going to the Derby when I was a freshman in high school, but only to the infield," Terwilleger said. "My days of the infield are long gone, as I have graduated from infield to the grandstands and even a box. This year will be my first Thurby, so I'll have to report back after on that."

If you ask Terwilleger when she became an artist, she can't give you a direct answer because she can't exactly remember.

"My parents let me paint all over my bedroom walls, so I guess the proper answer is 'since I could hold a paintbrush,'" she said. "I started my line of femme fatales, the true brand DNA of Twiggy Originals, in 1999, and since then Twiggy Originals has evolved to Twiggy Bridal and Twiggy Baby."

If you are wondering about the name Twiggy, that goes back to family, too.

"Twiggy derived from my last name," Terwilleger explained. "My dad's brother used to race snowmobiles and other various vehicles in New York and coined the name Twig, which I can only imagine was because Terwilleger was a mouthful for an announcer to say. Everyone called my uncle and my dad Twig, so it was only natural that I began being called Twiggy."

Terwilleger does not focus her work on the equestrian world, and her résumé includes a national ad campaign for Thalia eyewear, as well as being commissioned by the University of Kentucky to paint 150 original pieces for new dorms. That said, being born and raised in Louisville has left its mark on her career.

In addition to her Derby line, Terwilleger took part in the 2009 Gallopalooza, which Louisville staged to beautify the community, showcase local artists and generate civic pride. The event, which is not affiliated with the Derby, was an initiative presented by Brightside.

Terwilleger submitted designs and three were chosen, two of which were sponsored by none other than Churchill Downs. One of her horses was placed at Gate 17, one of the track's busiest entrances. In all, 132 horses were placed around Louisville that year, and the herd raised more than $350,000 for beautification projects.

Furthermore, Terwilleger's wedding line led to creating a wedding gift for champion jockey Julien Leparoux. She was commissioned by a colleague of his who wanted her to paint a portrait of Leparoux and his future bride as a wedding present.

It is little surprise, then, that the Derby has a place in Terwilleger's painting schedule.

"Some love Christmas, some love their birthday, I love the Kentucky Derby," she said. "It's my favorite day of the year, and I've only missed two in my adult life. Everything the Derby encompasses -- beautiful people, great fashion, fabulous parties, specialty cocktails -- is what a true Twiggy girl or guy loves, so it was only fitting to make a line specific to the Derby."

The city seems to agree with her. The artist has a partnership with Louisville's branch of Uptown Art Uncorked, a national company that invites people to come make paintings and maybe have a glass or two of wine with friends while doing it.

Four Twiggy classes will be on the calendar this year, two of which involve the Run for the Roses. With Derby season upon the city, two classes were offered to amateur painters to make their own Derby girls based on Terwilleger's work. The first sold out in a couple of days, long before it was held on March 29, and the second one, scheduled for April 25, is almost full.

"The partnership is very unique in that I wouldn't typically allow people to paint my artwork for a class, but it's such a perfect fit, I couldn't resist," Terwilleger said. "Every Louisville girl who loves Twiggy Originals loves the Derby, too. It's a match made in heaven."

For more information on the Kentucky Derby Festival, visit kdf.org. For more information on Twiggy Originals, visit www.facebook.com/Twiggy.Originals.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.