If you’re Dr. Bombay, who’s scheduled to appear this Saturday at the metalwork and carpentry shop known as Ironwood Studios, you may need some directions: It’s barely north by northwest of downtown, between Old Gray Cemetery and the currently defunct Corner Lounge. Just go north on Central, and take a decided left turn onto Jennings Street.
What you’ll find at No. 119 is a brick building, handsome by the standards of 1920s industrial architecture, a onetime bus-repair garage now painted in surprising hues of gold and green. It’s a giant workshop that produces custom-made furniture, ornamental ironwork, and, now and then, inspired works of sculpture.
The biggest room in the building divides cleanly into two parts. On the west side of the building is McGilvray Woodworks, where Cleveland, Ohio, native John McGilvray works with a dozen skilled craftsmen from all over the country, building cabinets and bookcases out of cherry and cypress. On the east side, across a corridor, a smaller number of men work with torches and hoods, working large pieces of metal into wrought-iron fences, kitchen appliances, furniture, and sculpture. They’re the company known as Aespyre, whose lead artisan is Preston Farabow. Today they’re at work on some unusual fencing, fashioned from scrap iron, for a new nightspot a few blocks up Central.
“John runs the building much more effectively than I do,” Farabow acknowledges. They occasionally work together on a cabinet or kitchen project, but otherwise they toil independently in a kind of a yin-and-yang harmony.
In a neatly trimmed beard, McGilvray would raise no eyebrows if he put on a jacket and walked into Club LeConte; but Farabow, who sports a soul patch beneath his lip, dangerous sideburns, and a certain intensity in his affect, might be more comfortable aboard the Black Pearl. His workshop is adorned with large parts of wrecked stock cars and, prominent on a shelf, a gallon jar of a grayish coiled flesh that looks like a biological specimen that government scientists don’t want you to know about. “That’s pickled baloney,” Farabow says, if you ask. “I don’t know why I bought it. But I had to try it, and it tastes as bad as it looks.” Gesturing toward a gooey drip descending from the metal lid, he adds, “And it looks like it’s trying to get out.”
Though the two are best known to their well-heeled clients as fine craftsmen, downtown party-hounds know them as gracious hosts. They’re known to welcome friends and strangers with premiums, including food, and not just party snacks, but hot, spicy feasts. Their New Year’s Eve celebration, an open party which featured several live bands, drew a reported 700 revelers. They’ve held fund-raisers for Second Harvest and they will, at least temporarily, be the home of the newly itinerant Actors Co-op, which will stage its next production, an interpretation of the controversial German play Marat/Sade, in May.
This Saturday, they’ll host an Art Carnival, featuring the works of over 50 artists as well as music, magicians, jugglers and, as always, food. Amanda Starnes, who is organizing the event, says it’s in the spirit of the Big Art Show, the Philadelphia-based, traveling mini-festival held at Ironwood about a year ago. Entertainment will include the avant-garde jazz of Dr. Bombay, the music-art collaboration known as the Andy Show, and the Booze Hound Gandy Dance, a hobo-folk troupe, for lack of a better term.
“It will be a non-exclusive art show with a little bit of a circus flair to it,” Farabow says. “Just a fun carnival, with performance art, music, great art, crappy art, and mediocre art.”
Some even credit Farabow as the animus behind First Friday, the downtown gallery night that seems to turn up its variety and popularity almost every month. Since his current studio opened about a year and a half ago, Ironwood has been an irregular attraction, vibrating at a different speed, slightly off the First Friday grid.
The monthly pocket arts festival whose popularity has surprised even artsy optimists may have more than one source; monthly art-gallery nights have been a national trend for several years, and cities from Philadelphia to Honolulu have something called First Friday. Today, Knoxville’s First Friday is coordinated by the Arts & Culture Alliance.
But the first artist to host a First Friday in Knoxville was probably Preston Farabow. Originally from North Carolina, Farabow settled in Knoxville in the ’80s when he was in the college-scholars program at the University of Tennessee. “People I went to school with moved to New York, Los Angeles, Seattle. I’m gonna stay here, because I love it here. The mountains, the interesting people, a real community of creative people. And I can afford to do what I want here. In a huge city I’d have to get another job. Knoxville allowed me to live this life.”
About 10 years ago, the open party that became First Friday emerged when his studio occupied an even sketchier part of town, in a ruined industrial building far underneath a highway interchange between downtown and Mechanicsville known as the Spaghetti Bowl. To begin with, First Friday was just a big monthly lunch, a mid-day banquet for his employees and anybody else who happened to hear about it and dared to leave the paved roads beneath the viaducts to find it. He was especially famous for his highly spiced crawfish, heated with metalworking equipment. Sometimes it stretched well into the afternoon.
By the end of the century, he had begun throwing his party at night, supplemented with live entertainment: not just rock ’n’ roll bands, but sometimes interactive gallery shows making use of an abandoned boxcar, and performance artists like the notorious Sideshow Benny, and his iron pours, the melting of scrap metal in a great vat. The party got bigger and bigger, as word got around, sometimes drawing hundreds to a previously desolate spot under the highway.
There never seemed to be any strings attached. Farabow does almost all of his work by contract, doesn’t often present his work in galleries or shops, and never had much of a way to make money off having strangers over. So why did he do it?
“I like a party,” he says. “I like food. I’ve always hoped there’s something bigger to what I do than making pretty shit for rich people. I want to make a valuable contribution to the community I live in.
“My concept has never been about selling things. Mine was about cooking and putting people together you would not see otherwise: Hookers, politicians, artists, business people, whoever. The idea was for everybody to bring what they have, whether it’s a dish or a joke.”
He has no complaint about First Friday, but his participation is now desultory. On any given First Friday, Farabow says, “If the doors are open, they’re open. If they’re not, they’re not.” Word of Ironwood parties often spreads in the galleries during openings.
Farabow moved downtown, finally settling in the Ironwood building on Jennings Street in 2006. McGilvray was a craftsman he’d known years earlier when both of them were working in the Old City, and both became interested in the building Farabow had been acquainted with when it was Specialty Metals, a supplier he often visited for raw materials.
They talked the owner into selling them the building about two years ago. The facade features a marble block inscribed “1924 BUILT-BY T.B. HARBEN / W.H. GILDARD ARCHITECT.”
Originally a garage for repairing buses, the building has proved agreeable to Farabow and McGilvray’s work, and to their appreciation for eccentricity. Upstairs is an apartment where bus drivers used to stay while their buses were being worked on. When newer buses were taller than the old ones, Farabow says, the building became obsolete, whereupon parts of the building did time as a speakeasy and as a bordello.
Farabow is especially fond of the “open feeling” of the main floor they share, which encompasses 11,000 square feet, with, high above it, a long clerestory, or “lantern,” a glass house emerging from the roof that serves only to admit light below. They’ve fashioned a kitchen break-room and, in the best-lit room in the building, a proper art gallery, where they often hang their friends’ art. They also own the alley between their building and the carpet-storage building next door, and use it for public events.
“I get inspired by downtown,” says McGilvray. “I like the interesting buildings, and the angles.” In this part of downtown, the 90-degree corner may be the exception. “And the interesting buildings.”
They share their interesting building with a couple of interesting tenants. ABANA, the Artist Blacksmith Association of North America, keeps its local headquarters here, as does the energy drink Red Bull, which uses the reportedly innovative basement for most of its local storage. The basement, they’ve learned, is of a concrete-and-steel composition invented just a few years before its construction.
Red Bull is, not coincidentally, one of Farabow’s main clients. He makes metal sculptures live in festival settings at Red Bull events, especially car races, most recently the Daytona 500. Farabow works on iconic sculpture in the infield as the race is in progress. He says Red Bull has given him the latitude to render a steel sculpture as the inspiration comes to him. All they ask is that it have the Red Bull logo on it somewhere.
He has become a regular fixture at some races, and has befriended some drivers. “My interest in racing is mainly at an existential level,” Farabow admits. “It’s the idea of going around and around and not getting anywhere.” As men race around at speeds of 180 mph, Farabow sculpts. “It’s a kind of performance art. My unspoken gig is to demystify what I do for a living.”
The car parts, including the sheet metal sheered, accidentally, at high speeds, are both decoration for his workshop and raw material.
Farabow and McGilvray have put a lot of money into the building, beginning with a pretty daunting clean-up job; McGilvray says that one of the more recent tenants was an engine-rebuilding shop, and after 80-odd years of automotive-oriented businesses, the concrete floors were soaked in motor oil. They took advantage of the city’s facade-grant program to fix up this previously neglected part of town that has just recently been the focus of mayoral-office attention. That was worth $50,000. They got additional money through a low-interest loan via TVA and Home Federal.
Farabow is optimistic about the neighborhood. It’s still mainly warehouse-industrial, and perhaps underused but Farabow says, “I’ve always seen it as artists’ studios here. I call it the Orchard. It’s a fertile ground for artists. A little subversive—central, accessible, but at the same time a little off the beaten path.
“We need some cafes down here,” he acknowledges; the nearby Corner Lounge, which made an admirable experiment with serving lunch a year or two ago, is currently closed. “But walking it’s just 20 minutes to Market Square, and that’s stopping to bullshit along the way.”
Farabow, who has a couple of young kids, cites one surprising amenity. “Old Gray is the best place in the world to teach a kid to ride a bike,” he says. The hilly Victorian cemetery is laced with narrow, curving lanes that see maybe one car an hour.
He acknowledges one issue that doesn’t align as well with active parenting, though to the artistic mind it compensates in other ways. “It’s Downtown North. This little pocket of urban decay, a palette for some poetry.” Farabow admits he’s inspired to write some verse now and then.
“Who was it that said all art came from death and sex? From my window I can see hookers with their backs to the cemetery. There’s a real beauty in that to me.”
And there are some poets buried across that fence, as well as some of the most famous artists in Knoxville-area history: impressionist Catherine Wiley, her mentor, award-winning painter and sometime sculptor Lloyd Branson, among many others. They may rate a gallery crawl, as well. m