artbeat (2006-25)

The Good, Bad and Beautiful First Friday

Where the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo

by Kevin Crowe

It has been raining since 5 p.m.

The temperature has fallen to 65. It doesn’t feel like summer. Yet lines of umbrellas continue to march up and down Gay St., hither and thither, in and out of galleries, eating, box-wining and talking about art.

I don’t care about the art. I only care about the food and the women.

You’ll overhear them as people make their way down Gay Street. When there’s wine, everyone has an opinion. Wannabes will play the game, look at each piece, and comment. It’s what they’re supposed to do. It’s what we’re doing, too, even before we step into the World Grotto. We’re critics.

The first piece to catch our eyes is Karly Stribling’s eco-reminder; “Keep Knoxville Repressed” is written across a color sketch of the skyline, Sunsphere included. “Trash Your City Every Fall.” It’s a haunting reminder of the separation between art and sport in this town.

On the Grotto’s walls are portraits of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, jazz exemplars, figureheads of America’s first original art form. These portraits, painted in dark oils, also act as reminders that there isn’t much difference between the high and low arts. Sometimes greatness comes out of the most unexpected places. Sometimes it comes out of your backyard.

It’s hard to believe that someone did that with a brush.

We walk into the new Art Market Gallery on the 500 block of Gay Street, next door to the Downtown Grill, where the patio is full of people who’re escaping the rain, people who nevertheless don’t want to go home. Gentle harp music plays throughout the gallery. Here lives yet another gallery that has survived and migrated downtown, after the fallout from the Candy Factory.

We stare into the eyes of Mignon Naegli’s “Poseidon,” a hyperreal portrayal of godliness. And, then, our eyes find Kathy Holland’s “A Possum Resemblance.” It’s a dead possum, centered on the canvas, its limbs and neck twisted unnaturally, frozen in rigor mortis. The possum’s hair has been delicately fanned onto the canvas, giving it the appearance of a third dimension.

Holland’s work feels Southern. The dead possum is not far from a Beverly Hillbilly or Hee Haw notion of art. “A Possum Resemblance” is something that people would expect to find hanging in a gallery in Knoxville. But there’s something universal in the depiction. Emblazoned on the canvas is a visceral desire to be seen and understood. It’s the goal of any serious artist, and it comes alive on First Friday, in no particular genre, all along Gay Street.

Hell yeah! Let’s do some shots! No beer! It has to be a shot!

Eventually, everyone seems to funnel toward the 100 block, where the concentration of galleries is greatest. They come in from the bars, perhaps hoping to find enough stimulation to complement a good buzz. Maybe they’re just walking off a hearty Friday dinner. Maybe art finally has a voice that’s loud enough to reach all of Knoxville.

“The work has really matured over the years,” says Liza Zenni, Executive Director of the Arts and Culture Alliance. “Everything is more mature.” She takes us on a madcap journey through the Emporium Center. “Look at this. No shit. It’s just unbelievable.” She then points to a large painting, a Knoxvillian’s take on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. “Whether you like it or not, that’s a pretty friggin’ gorgeous piece of anatomy.”

I’m going to go into a diabetic coma in a few minutes.

Everyone’s eating. No one seems to be heading toward the doors as 9 p.m. draws near. As we work our way towards the exit, we bump into Jocelyne and Mike Shiner, who have been turning junk wood into sculpture for the past eight years. “A lot of it is just searching around and seeing what’s in the wood already,” Mike Shiner says. “There’s a lot of character in the wood we find, most of it’s driftwood.... We’ll go down in the river when it’s low tide and look for pieces, pull ones out that have character in them, a figure in them already, or some kind of burl or something.”

In many ways their art is like cloud gazing. They don’t approach a project with anything in mind; they let the wood inspire them. “She had a piece,” Mike says, pointing at his wife, “and she said, ‘Can’t you see the face?’ And I couldn’t. After she described it and worked with it, it was a little easier to see.”

“Working side-by-side,” Jocelyne Shiner adds, “you’re going to inspire each other. We’re going to have conversations, but it’s also a very individual thing as far as what the goal is or what we actually see.”

The driftwood-turned-art represents what happens on Gay Street every First Friday. There are conversations, sure, but not everyone can see the end product. Not yet. There’s no telling how big it will get. It may never be Neylandian in scope, but it’s growing each month.

There are still plenty of people who haven’t seen it yet. But, they’re talking about it, trying to see it. And, they’re downtown, gathered around art, even when it’s ugly outside.