Uncommon Ground

Two exhibits offer views into nearby into worlds most of us never see

As part of a program called Growing Tennessee: Rural Youth Cultivate Common Ground, young people whose families come to Tennessee as seasonal laborers were given digital cameras and access to ceramics materials and were mentored by accomplished local artists. The results offer a glimpse into the worlds and portable households of a group of people not easily accessed by outsiders. Indeed, this is a group of people too easily overlooked, too often rendered invisible by their circumstances.

Ceramics and photography seem ideal choices for the program. What do you still have from your early attempts at art, or those of your children? Probably not the Crayola neighborhoods and monsters that once cluttered the refrigerator. Probably, if not on display, you at least know where the three-dimensional objects are in the basement or attic.

Photographs, no matter how dilettante or unknowing, all have or represent eyes, and by extension life and its too-fleeting nature. The life they capture passes on. And that may be why we can't bring ourselves to discard photographs. Not all photographs are art. But all photographs tell us something, even if it's how not to use a camera or to keep a pocket mirror handy.

The ceramics on view in Knoxville Museum of Art's teensy lower level Education Gallery are terrifically charming. The artists are middle school 4H Club members from Cocke County, guided by Knoxville ceramist Christal Yost. Most would fit in your pocket. And most speak volumes about these young rural artists who spend at least part of their lives nearby, but whom you'll probably never meet.

Eighth-grader Haley Hawkins has made what may be the most poignant little plate you'll ever see. There are birds' wings, drawn with the tip of a finger, maybe. Between the wingtips the words FREE BIRD, carved with a pencil point. Beneath that, RIP JOEY HAWKINS. And either Haley or a kiln has fractured the plate nearly in two. Sixth-grader Morgan Rowland shows two nicely hand-built rectilinear plates, ornamented by exquisitely detailed naked ears of corn. Fair enough. Why would you need a plate, why would you need 4H, without corn?

The constant among the pieces attributed to youngsters with Hispanic-sounding names seems to be little crosses, often at the edges of bigger ideas.

The photos speak for themselves, and you should visit so they're able to. Arm's-length self-portraits, family members who obviously don't have the time but can't say no to the photographer. Moments that come and go—like these migrant workers—by the thousands every day.

It's an engaging small exhibition. You're given tender cause to think about young people who are most likely beyond your own circle of experience. And, it should be said, you will be given cause (by this program, funded by Telemon Corporation in partnership with Peyton Manning's PeyBack Foundation) to wonder why it should fall to non-profits and philanthropists to bring art education to these neighbors.

Running concurrently with Growing Tennessee, not far across Cumberland Avenue at the University of Tennessee's Ewing Gallery, is the aptly named multimedia immersion Crossing the BLVD. A dense combination of manipulated photos and overlapping audio productions, Crossing the BLVD offers a glimpse of the energy, frustration, and compassion that is concentrated in Queens, New York, supposedly the most ethnically diverse locality in America. The Queens infrastructure was laid out with industry in mind. So what now function as city streets in a densely populated vertical city are in fact highways, 13 lanes wide in some places, that might as well be oceans to pedestrians incapable of sprinting. The effect is one of communal isolation. Bhutanese immigrants share stairwells with Ukrainian refugees. Asylum seekers from Central Europe shop at the same open-air stalls as Central Asians who have fled religious persecution or conscription as human traffic in the international sex trade.

Photographer Warren Lehrer and theater/audio producer Judith Sloan collaborated on the project, which also exists as a book/CD combination. As experienced at the Ewing Gallery, Crossing the BLVD is about as close as you can get to experiencing a CD-ROM without a desktop computer. The photos are fragmented and layered in a way that almost animates them. The audio productions, accessible by headset stations adjacent to the photo installations, tell stories of those photographed, in their own words or translation, with lush overlays of relevant music and natural sound.

The photographs are sharp and vivid. The audio productions are transporting and utterly self-sufficient; you can see these people and places with your eyes closed. In presentation, Crossing the BLVD and Growing Tennessee could not be more different. One is tempted to imagine the people represented in both shows—the subjects of Crossing the BLVD and the artists featured in Growing Tennessee—encountering the manner in which they are presented to museum- and gallery-goers far away.