On the First Friday of July, traveling artists Jim Clark and Primrose Coke parked their 1959 fire-engine-red Shasta camper near Java in the Old City, taped a hand-lettered sign to a light pole, and opened the doors of Bonanza Jellybean, their portable small-works art gallery named after Coke's favorite Tom Robbins character. "Local artists showcasing work small enough for your pocket or your purse," reads the sign by the door. This little structure, appearing unexpectedly, instantly creates a lively event around a cozy human-sized space. It temporarily reclaims a patch of asphalt for people and their activities, transforming a sterile space, good for nothing but a parked car, to a place of warmth and excitement. How good it feels to be invited in.
Inside the 6'x12' space, original paintings by Coke and Clark hung beside found art on the camper walls. On built-in shelves, visitors viewed an eclectic array of vintage and homemade art. Framed plates from vintage children's books shared space with handmade books of poetry by Jim. Rolls of vintage ribbon were sold by the yard. Unicorn barn art, peep-show boxes, and Coke's specialty, handmade bunting. Visitors were welcome to free tea, cookies, and made-from-scratch brownies on a small counter. Fifty cents bought a shot of Cocke County moonshine in an old film canister.
Coke, originally from a village in Dorset, England, and Clark, originally from Newport, met in 2009 in Troy, N.Y., at Contemporary Artists Center at Woodside. Three months later they married and bought their camper for $200. The decaying Shasta had been sitting neglected in a field in rural Massachusetts. The couple repaired the camper and started traveling down the East Coast, periodically retrofitting it to suit their evolving needs. One day, Coke painted the exterior shiny red with a few cans of Rustoleum.
Clark graduated from the University of Tennessee in 2004 with a BA in painting. Coke graduated the same year from Falmouth College of Arts in Cornwall. In the past, both artists have shown their work in more traditional spaces around town. Clark showed his paintings as a student, and last winter Coke had a show at Lox with her sister-in-law, Maggie Brannon. But they wanted to try something different.
"Us rolling up in our camper, it's unexpected. It takes away some of the boundaries that contemporary art has, viewed in a typical gallery," says Coke.
Bonanza Jellybean debuted on April's First Friday in a parking space in front of the Pilot Light. Since then, the couple hasn't missed a First Friday in Knoxville, and they have taken their gallery to various other cities including Asheville, where they got a citation for selling art on the street. "Knoxville has been so gracious to us, we didn't realize there would be a problem," says Clark.
The couple have plans for a blog and are currently accepting submissions from local artists. "It can't just be us all the time," Coke says, "'cause that would be boring." For the time being, interested artists may contact her by searching for Rosie Coke on Facebook. Visitors can expect to spot this unique gallery parked for a few hours in the Old City during the next First Friday. Or perhaps at World's Fair Park. Or in front of Magpie's Bakery.
"Step right up to our mobile gallery!" Clark calls to a group of gallery-goers, "It's here now, could be gone in a moment. You can see it's on wheels!"