Knoxville Artists Explain the Ups and Downs of the Local Art Scene
by Chris Barrett
Artists are a curious lot. And art, as a subject of conversation, is often more dreaded than religion or politics in these parts. Still, Knoxville remains home to a handful of some of America's finest artists--both successful and those aspiring to greater success. And opportunities to encounter art are greater than ever. The Knoxville Museum of Art has become a destination for art seekers from all over the region. A<\h>1 Gallery, home to challenging and controversial exhibits of all sorts, is going on a year old. Before the leaves turn, Bennett Galleries, local purveyors of high-end art and decor, will swell to fill its new location and become "the largest gallery of its kind in the Southeast."
Is Knoxville a good place to make art? Is Knoxville a good place to appreciate art? We barged into some studios and offices to find out.
Rush tells a favorite story that helps to illustrate the role and visibility of the visual artist in Knoxville.
"This was a few years ago, when Whittle was still going strong," says the bouyant, ever-smiling Rush. "Richard was showing at a gallery in New York. A Whittle executive, who apparently worked both in Knoxville and New York, saw the art and was very impressed. He asked a gallery employee where the artist lived, and they told him 'Knoxville, Tennessee.'
"The Whittle executive then argued with the person who worked at the gallery--'That's impossible. I live in Knoxville, Tennessee. If an artist was doing this quality of work in Knoxville, I would know them.'"
Jolley has been working in Knoxville since 1976, and still is. One can only speculate on the whereabouts of the Whittle chap. But the fact that a person sensitive to Jolley's work might have been the artist's neighbor, or possibly stood in the same grocery line with him and never knew it, tells something about the often disparate lives and livelihoods of Knoxville's artists. Their work is world famous, but they still have to flash ID to cash a check.
Jolley says that for artists, like everyone else, the decision of where to live is a matter of personal choice.
"I jokingly tell people who haven't been here that Knoxville is not very nice at all," Jolley says. "But you have to admit we live in God's country. And we're in a growth area. The arts tend to thrive in growth areas."
Making glass art on the scale that Jolley and Rush do, in order to supply more galleries than they can remember the names of, is both time consuming and labor intensive. The multiple processes involved (melting, coloring, annealing, blowing, shaping, etc.) often call for more than one pair of hands. But since Knoxville is not exactly a hot spot for glass art, it's been a challenge for them to find and keep studio assistants.
Selling, however, and getting the finished work out of Knoxville is another story altogether. Reliable shipping services can get their work anywhere in the world.
"Artists and their careers are twofold," Jolley explains. "Vision and aesthetics can be developed anywhere. Then there's the career, which can be enhanced by living some place like New York or Seattle or the Bay area. I believe that there is the same proportion of people interested in the arts in Knoxville as there is in Atlanta or New York, though. The quality of life is pretty good in Knoxville."
Rush says that there used to be advantages to living the loft life in New York's seedy art enclaves, but most of them were social. Now, the trend is for artists to endure the hardships of the city only long enough to become established in galleries there, then flee to the outskirts, or further. As far as culture is concerned, the urban centers no longer corner that market. Jolley refers to a recent Sunday New York Times.
"Three days after B.B. King and the Neville Brothers played at Carnegie Hall," he points out, "they played at the World's Fair Park in Knoxville."
Robin Surber graduated ten years ago from UT with a BFA in ceramics. The manner in which she expresses herself, along with an immersion in other arts provided by the opportunity to work and shop for Hanson Artsource, another Knoxville gallery, led her from clay to canvas and wood. A solo exhibition of her work, titled "Mostly Sunny," now fills a gallery at Hanson. In a brief decade, her work has become so popular that collectors were waiting in the parking lot, calling dibs on new works, as she unloaded them for the show.
Surber's passion for her art led her to adapt her talent in innovative ways so she could afford to continue her own creative painting. She calls her business Clinch Avenue Studios (after her first studio in Fort Sanders) and markets her impressive talents as a mural artist through an area interior designer. She is typically booked for mural work three months or more in advance and works all over the country. You'll see her distinctive, Matisse-like lines in Knoxville's Italian Market and Grill, as well as plush new mansions in the Florida Keys.
Surber and her husband live on a lush recycled farm in south Knox County. Their home is a renovated barn, and her studio was a shed in a former life. In her kitchen, she smoothes a wrinkle in a rug with her foot just to make sure it's not a snake. ("We get them in here," she says matter-of-factly. "Copperheads.")
"I knew when I graduated that I would find a way to work as an artist," says Surber. "I tried the craft fair thing. But I'm not mass production-oriented at all. I couldn't match a cup to save my life."
Surber's muralist livelihood is only marginally separated from her studio painting. Her style, however, is consistent throughout her work. She used the same bold, dynamic lines to create a harbor scene at Chesapeake's downtown that she used to capture Black-eyed Susans for her Hanson show.
"You just have to sell yourself," she explains of both endeavors. "I think it's hard to be an artist anywhere. Different people find different opportunities. People usually leave not because of Knoxville, but because they have an opportunity elsewhere. I'm that rare bird that's making a living at it."
"I wish the university was more involved here," Surber adds. "As far as artists learning how to promote themselves, that's not really taught. Talent is such a gift, and it's too bad when people can't use it because they have to do other things."
Lyons is no exception. An active studio artist, he has spent most of his days for the past 11 years as an art professor at UT. He teaches printmaking, but judging by the works that fill his west Knoxville home (which he shares with his wife, photographer Diane Fox, and their son Benjamin), he can express himself in just about any way he pleases.
Lyons agrees with Surber, that university art programs have a responsibility to prepare students for making their way in the real world.
"I think something every artist needs to learn is to be a generalist," says Lyons. "You need a big toolbox to get by in the world. Some artists frown on corporate art or selling out because it compromises your artistic integrity. Well, not eating or not having health insurance compromises you artistic integrity too."
He emphasizes and shares professional standards with his students, along with examples--of which Surber is one--of adapting one's art to create a livelihood. Teaching, like creating murals, is a way to do that. He sees the university system as a vast and established network of arts patronage.
"It's just like having a historian in the community," he says. "You want that person's knowledge, but you can't really pay them to read books all the time. So you find ways to make them useful."
It is hoped that university faculty artists will cultivate reputations that flatter the school. Lyons and most of his colleagues make good on that expectation, showing and writing for a national audience. Photographer Baldwin Lee, painters Thomas Reising and Marcia Goldenstein, and many others have exhibited and been collected far and wide.
"You can see the glass as either half empty or half full," says Lyons, considering Knoxville as a place for creating art. "It seems half empty when you realize that the community basically ignores the arts. When you look at what we spend on art compared to what we spend on bass boats, you can become disheartened. That suggests that the university isn't doing its part as far as arts education is concerned."
Any shortcomings in the university's enlightenment of the masses are sure to get shorter. Studio classes are full of art majors. So the odd accountant or nurse wishing to round out an education is likely to be disappointed. Last spring, two faculty positions in the art department were sacrificed to budget cuts, and more are sure to come.
"You see the glass as half full," Lyons says, "when you think of someone like Andrew Saftel."
Saftel came to Knoxville in 1986 after living on both coasts and in the Rocky Mountains. He moved through Knoxville's art community as if he were guided by a divining rod--he hung shows for the Ewing Gallery on campus; he taught school children in KMA's Meet The Masters program; when he had an idea that no one was ready to buy, like his imaginative architectural friezes, he'd make one to give away so people could get used to it and then come looking for more.
His divining rod, he'll tell you, was his art. In 1994, less than 10 years after hitting town, Saftel was the first Knoxvillian to exhibit solo at KMA. And now, if you could find the right banker, Saftel's paintings would make for extra collateral against just about any new sport utility vehicle.
"I feel like Knoxville's the best place in the world to live," says Saftel. "You can make anything happen."
Just over a year ago, Saftel followed love (he married art writer Susan Knowles, who works in Nashville) and more suitable studio space to the Sequatchie Valley.
A cynic who'd never seen Saftel's distinctive work or met the man might be suspicious of an artistic spirit so successful but untainted. Yet the 37-year-old is modest and unassuming. Ask him what led him through different turns in his career and Saftel will quote for you voices he heard in dreams or unrelated advice from uncles that just happened to apply to a current problem.
"I feel like it's a gift," he says. "If it's coming from the right place and with integrity, the art will lead you. And you can just follow it through the world."
Saftel's first gallery show was in Atlanta, in1988. A dealer with ties to the Ewing had seen his work and invited him to try it. Even after several sales and a sizable check, Saftel says it took a lot of convincing when another dealer tried to persuade him to abandon his part-time Knoxville construction job and go full-time in the studio. His most recent return to Atlanta was to install a large mixed- media work in the international concourse of that city's airport.
"The gallery life is a hard life," says Saftel. "You've got to be hard ass. You've got to go to the openings and talk about the art with people you just met. That's a hard thing to do."
On September 29, gallery space in Knoxville will increase considerably. Bennett Galleries, which currently occupies 3,000 square feet in Western Plaza, will expand to fill the 20,000-plus square foot Capri building. The fine arts space that gallery director Marga Hayes Ingram can fill will increase significantly. Along with two large downstairs galleries, the new location has a sprawling mezzanine, illuminated by the wall of glass that faces Kingston Pike.
Ingram says that the 80 studio artists she currently sells (over half of whom are local) will make it easy to fill that space with fine work.
Rick Bennett, proprietor of Bennett Galleries, is making no assumptions about the local market for the massive new store.
"Knoxville's a good place to do business," says the man from Nashville who hung his shingle here 23 years ago. "I don't know that there's a market; I just believe in what I'm doing."
The gallery space at the renovated building is enormous and, even unfinished, impressive. Artists, including those who show elsewhere, look to Bennett's new space as a way to make more Knoxvillians sensitive to art in general.
Saftel remembers the Atlanta dealer who first sold his work. He says the man's sales-speak was new to him, but made sense.
"He would elevate the collector to the same level as the artist," says Saftel. "He would say that the artists create the art, but the collector creates the culture in which that art is meaningful and can support artists. I think Rick also does that very well. He's a businessman, there's no doubt. But I think he's in the business for the right reasons."
Bennett downplays the business importance of sales through his gallery, using another artist as an example.
"Look at Rick Jolley," says Bennett. "I work for Rick. Rick doesn't need me, he doesn't need to sell in Knoxville at all. He can show anywhere. But I want Knoxville to have access to Rick's work. I'm just trying to make Knoxville a better place to live."
Ingram says one thing that has allowed Bennett Galleries to expand is the fact that their customers have grown with them.
"A lot of our customers are young people," she explains. "They buy less expensive items, whatever they can afford. That's the same way it was 20 years ago when Rick was selling posters at the frame shop. But many of those customers have stayed with Rick, and now they're buying $10,000 paintings.
"It's been wonderful to watch the cultural maturation of Knoxville. KMA has certainly helped in that respect."
So Knoxville is home to a large, diverse group of art buyers that has grown with the city's art opportunities. Ingram says that she knows of no hard-core investors, like the buyers in Chaim Potok novels who salt away Stellas and Pollocks in the attic in lieu of savings accounts. "People here tend to simply buy what they love," she adds.
Another catalyst for arts appreciation has been KMA's Collector's Circle, beginning its third year. Members pay a premium membership fee ($500--90 percent of which goes towards acquisitions for the museum--on top of the $150 or greater Patron museum membership). Currently, there are around 75 members, mostly couples who, through lectures and excursions, learn about buying art and also make selections for KMA's permanent collection. An upcoming jaunt for KMA's collectors will be to Atlanta, to view Saftel's installation.
Bennett Galleries is what Ingram calls a small town gallery, and can't afford to specialize the way galleries in larger cities do. For some, however, the juxtaposition of fine art and furniture in the (almost) same space sticks in the craw. It's an objection with which she is familiar.
"At first, some of the artists from New York were like, 'Oh? You do that too?'" Ingram recalls. "But once they realize exactly what we're doing, that we're keeping the galleries pristine, they're more open to it. Plus, while the more specialized galleries that represented those artists in places like New York were going out of business, we were selling their stuff."
Saftel expects the new Bennett gallery to affect Knoxville positively, as much as KMA has. Jolley says that Bennett makes it easier for people to comprehend owning art by placing it near familiar household objects.
And it deserves to be said that the Bennett venture is fanning the flames of the Knoxville gallery landscape in general. Hanson Artsource, the gallery that represents Surber in Knoxville and specializes in fine, craft-oriented arts, will be hosting a show of nationally renowned glass artists this fall. Diane Hanson says it's the largest, most important show they've hosted since she and her husband Doug opened their gallery in 1988. Hanson will also be changing its name from Artsource to the more direct Hanson and Hanson Galleries, as well as collaborating to show work by faculty at Arrowmont School in Gatlinburg, one of the region's richest and least easily reached sources of art.
A-1 is operated by LAB, a Knoxville artists' cooperative. LAB's goal for A-1 is to provide a space for visual arts caught, by choice or circumstance, in the gap between retail spaces like Bennett and more restricted non-commercial spaces. Boston's work, difficult to imagine almost anywhere else in town, is a fair measure of A-1's success. Other member artists participating in the show at A-1 include UT faculty members (perhaps most notably Art Department head Norman Magden), retirees, and UT undergrads.
If Knoxville does indeed have a community of artists, it may be the network provided by LAB that binds it. Members are both accomplished and struggling artists. Supporters come from all walks of the community. KMA's preparator Joel House is on the board of directors. Knoxville's professional artists use A-1, and its nearly constant, challenging programming, to keep tabs on adventurous or up-and-coming artists. And A-1 is a regular stop for Stephen Wicks, KMA curator.
"Before A-1 came along there weren't a whole lot of opportunities for artists who were doing art that was more about ideas than pleasant imagery," says Wicks. "As a former artist myself, I know that the one thing you want is an opportunity to have your work seen."
Sharon Kangas is another example of how A-1 interconnects the varied camps of Knoxville arts and artists. She's a curator at A-1, a UT graduate painter, currently working in projection-oriented installations, a part-time member of KMA's staff, and a church organist. She's also attuned to the brutal economic realities of working in media that, in Knoxville presently, aren't especially marketable.
"Finding a studio space that I can afford in Knoxville is a big problem," says the artist, who lives at home with her parents. "The jobs keep me busy, but none of them are high paying. The combination of not having a lot of money from the jobs to rent a studio space plus not having a lot of time because of that stuff, my artwork hasn't been progressing as much as I would like."
The hardship of multiple jobs coupled with minimal opportunities to make art has Kangas casting an eye elsewhere for the kinds of opportunities Surber mentioned. She'll be leaving as soon as she's able to pursue her MFA. Whether or not Knoxville gets her back will depend on how favorably Knoxville compares with the opportunities she encounters abroad.
KMA, one of Kangas's part-time employers, has played an enormous part in Knoxville's growth as an arts town, even without selling. Artists or art lovers with an itch to see Rodin or Robert Longo or Julian Schnabel six years ago would have needed a plane ticket. Even though "Knoxville Museum of Art" means that the institution is charged with bringing important art of the world to Knoxville--not to highlight Knoxville artists--over 80 local artists have shown there. Since many of the museum's staff members are artists themselves, Wicks says he receives a steady stream of positive feedback relating to inspiration and encouragement provided by its programming.
The Ewing Gallery at UT also makes great use of its space and freedom, with a whirlwind pace of changing exhibitions and thought- provoking work. Usually faculty or alumni, many local artists show at the Ewing in the course of a year.
Both Lyons and Wicks opined that community leaders could do much more to promote the arts. The commissioning of works for public spaces or providing incentives for those who own public spaces to incorporate original local art would be ways to do that. Wicks is hopeful that recent endeavors by waterfront developers to involve local artists will set a precedent.
Some Knoxville businesses and restaurants also provide alternative spaces to show and see art. Places like JFG Coffeehouse, Tjaarda's, the Stir Fry Cafˇ, the pal'it, and many others show original, local art and even provide minimal selling services. Chroma, a self-serve gallery space on the mezzanine of the Bijou Theatre, is another great place to see local art.
The Tomato Head on Market Square shows art by a different artist each month and has top-notch facilities for showing. The Tomato Head has also become something of a regular venue for the family of Steve Pogue and Kathi Freeman. Pogue and Freeman have lived in art-heavy environs like Manhattan and Los Angeles, but have found a way to balance art and a more satisfying lifestyle in and around Knoxville. Both Freeman and Pogue say that the social distractions in those places precluded artistic productivity and that East Tennessee has been a much better place to raise their two artist sons, Charles and Ollie.
"The best places to make art aren't necessarily good places to live," says Freeman. "Knoxville's not a great place to make art, but it is a good place to live."
A good deal on a house recently led the family from Mechanicsville to nearby Loudon. Freeman is a painter and silk screen artist--if you own a Tomato Head T-shirt, you own a collaboration between her and Charles or Ollie. Pogue paints portraits by commission lately, in a unique hard-edged style, to supplement his income. He commutes to his day job at McKay's CDs on Kingston Pike.
Pogue says that even though art is not his primary means of support, selling the art remains the main incentive to make it.
"I couldn't really support myself working the kind of lame jobs I work," he says, not entirely in jest.
"The question you have to ask," says the down to earth but not discouraged Lyons, "is when they excavate Knoxville, what are they going to find? They'll find some great elevated highways. But will there be any prints or paintings?"
When you find a piece of art that sings to you in every way art can, you'll find it impressively affordable, no matter how much it costs. Lyons says you'll spend more to have a tree removed from your yard than you will investing in original art. And you probably don't even need a tree removed. Do you?