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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tennessee Art

Heatin' Up, Berlynne Holman, of Trenton, Tennessee

All That Glitters, Vergil C. Stephens
Tennessee is a long state, from the Mississippi River in the west to the Appalachian "Mountains" in the east. One might expect a vast diversity in the state's art simply as a matter of geography. Strangely, that's not really the case. Perhaps that's because a single city has come to symbolize the whole state--Nashville. However, though music may be the primary export of the "Volunteer State" that product is not a single, homogenized entity but at least three, rock 'n roll in the west out of Memphis, country out of Nashville and mountain music in the East (Knoxville and Chattanooga). Mixed in with this tuneful stew (right) is a generous dose of blues and Dixieland as reflected in Berlynne Holman's watercolor, Heatin' Up (above). And despite Nashville's faithful, full-size replica of the Parthenon, the musical holy temple venerated by all is the old Ryman Auditorium (below) in Nashville where country music's Grand Ole Opry became a nationwide symbol of the state. (It started out as a church, in fact.)

Ryman Auditorium, Michael Doyle
Bait!, 2008, Bonnie Shields
Of course, Tennessee is more than guitars, fiddles, and recording studios. There's also the landscape, the whiskey, the mules, the cities, the people, the history, and one of the strangest looking art museums I've ever seen. Tennessee artists obviously have no shortage of subject matter. However, as is often the case, it's the Tennesseans themselves who serve as the heart of artists best efforts to portray the state. The expressionist Tennessee Couple (below) by Corey Barksdale, while not likely to appear on any tourist brochures, is also quite emblematic of a large segment of Tennessee's eastern mountain population, while Bonnie Shields 2008 Bait! (right) humorously reflects the western Tennessee lifestyle. Her team of iconic Tennessee Mules, (below, right) pretty fairly represents the animal residents.

Tennessee Couple, Corey Barksdale
Tennessee Mules, Bonnie Shields
Tennessee has been deemed by some (mostly Tennesseans) as the buckle on the Bible Belt. Of course, half the states in the south also claim that distinction. Nonetheless, there is a strong religious element in the state's creative output, especially with regard to their landscapes as seen in Steve Norris' nostalgic Missionary Baptist Church, Cades Cove (below), as well as the work of a huge number of other rural landscape painters.

Missionary Baptist Church, Cades Cove, Steve Norris
Donna Littleton, Nashville
Closely related to landscape painting is the whole area of history painting, or perhaps historic paintings from painters out of Tennessee's history. The Civil War, tragic as it was, continues to fascinate Tennessee artists both in depicting battle scenes but also in contrasting the peacetime history of the state as seen in Edward Lamson Henry, In East Tennessee (below, right).

In East Tennessee, Edward Lamson Henry
Tennessee art is not just painting. In looking at the state's sculptors, I came upon Brad Spencer's carved bricks. My guess is his overstuffed sofa (below) is not as comfortable as it looks. The abstract piece by the same artist (below, left) can be found along Chattanooga's Art Trail.

Sofa, Brad Spencer
Brick sculpture by Brad Spencer
I hinted at the beginning that Tennessee is the home of one of the strangest art museums I'd ever seen. It's located in Chattanooga, the Hunter Museum of American Art (below). I know little about the museum itself or its holdings, however the facilities exemplify a problem art museums all across the U.S. and around the world have had in trying to cope with expanding collections beyond the capacity of their walls, often built centuries earlier in the prevailing architectural styles of their times. With the Hunter, we see a southern Georgian mansion with a ghastly cubistic wing seemingly creeping up to devour the original structure. Though difficult, some museums architects have learned to cope with this style disconnect between the then and the now. Apparently, that was not the case in Chattanooga.

Hunter Museum of American Art ,Chattanooga, Tennessee


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