For the last 25 years, the door at 221 Cumberland Avenue, just downhill from Gay Street, has been closed, locked, and unmarked, the windows boarded. You might guess it was never anything but the basement of the 1924 Cook Building, which fronts on Gay.
But over the years, it housed, in turn, a cab company, a “colored” laundry, a photo shop—and, for the longest period, an establishment called the Huddle, a liberal-minded and surprisingly durable beer joint that thrived there beginning sometime around 1950. Known for its tolerance, it was popular with gays, lesbians, transvestites, prostitutes, newspapermen, and other fringe sorts who didn’t always feel quite as comfortable at, say, Howard Johnson’s. The Huddle is a recurring setting of Cormac McCarthy’s subversively specific novel, Suttree, set in the early 1950s. In the narrative, the Huddle serves as a kind of home base for severe eccentrics where beer is served as it should be, in fishbowls. As a result of that exposure, no single Knoxville business is better known in American literature. About a year ago I wrote about a recording jazz/rock band in Germany, Buddy and the Huddle, which named themselves in homage to the stories of the place. Some of their songs are even set in this Knoxville bar, which the songwriters never visited except through German translations of the novel.
Sometime in the early ‘80s, the Huddle closed, and its former space has been vacant and silent since. Suddenly, though, there’s life in the old joint: the Deka Bakari Gallery debuted at last month’s First Friday. It’s a cheerful, well-lit and open-minded little gallery of art, sculpture, and photography.
It also serves as the studio for one Thaddeus George. He didn’t expect to be an artist. Born in Ohio but raised in Jefferson City, George had gotten some encouragement about his art in high school. “I painted a little in high school, but never took it that serious,” he says. For close to 15 years, he’d worked setting up audiovisual equipment at TVA. He hurt his back on the job, and after several surgeries still wasn’t able to move around much. He took up painting to pass the time. It was just after Hurricane Katrina. George knew New Orleans only from visits, but was affected by the tragedy. “It’s such a beautiful place,” he says. “It was kind of heartbreaking.” He painted an abstract of the event; he sells prints of it. Soon he was painting other things.
His wife, Jane George, was impressed. “Personally, I think you’re good,” she said, as if surprised, and urged him to show it off. In recent months, his work has appeared at several of the downtown galleries— the Basement Gallery, Agora, A-1.
“My wife asked me what I wanted for my birthday,” he recalls. “I said I wanted a space.” She helped him find the old Huddle and fit it out for a new purpose.
A former bar-owner herself, she knew something of its old reputation, and cherishes the connections. “I hoped to find old whiskey bottles, or coins, or something. I just found an old Coke bottle. The building was very clean. It was kind of disappointing.” Still, the site tends to cough up its past. “Since we started here, I’ve heard stories about a lady with a pet rooster she’d bring into the bar on a leash.” She says the old Huddle sign, or one of them, is still outside, but covered up.
It took several months to get this old 1,500-square-foot space looking something like an art gallery. There’s not much trace of the old Huddle inside; the long mahogany bar is gone. It’s better lit now than the Huddle ever was, the stairway to the upstairs restaurant has been walled off, codes made them cover the once-exposed plumbing in the ceiling, and a split level now maximizes the gallery space.
Deka Bakari might sound like a leftist guerrilla front, but are African words that just mean “promising” and “pleasing,” a nice thing to say about any business venture. Thaddeus, who has African heritage, and his wife chose the words from a book of baby names. “I couldn’t decide between the two, so I decided to keep them both.”
Despite being just a few paces from Gay Street, the location may be a little bit of a challenge. “A lot of people don’t realize this is Cumberland,” says Jane. “When they think of Cumberland, they think of the Strip. Federal Express had to call and find out where we were.”
“We need more attention given to the south side down here,” she adds. In spite of a few worthy attractions, the buzz of a weekend downtown, especially on artsy First Fridays, doesn’t extend much south of Clinch Avenue.
It’s a labor of love, the Georges admit, but they’ve also done some business. They sold Karly Stribling’s innovative—and enormous—steel light sculpture, “The Cone,” for $600.
For now, they’re going to feature artists of a different theme each month. With the First Friday opening this week, January will highlight “Women’s Works,” featuring artists Ashley Hearn, Cynthia Markert, Sara Holland, Denise Sanabria, Wendy Williams, and Jenna Prestegard. February will have an African-American theme.
Before they opened, when they were converting the place from a long-gone bar into a fresh new art gallery, a contractor came in to work on the ceiling. He said, “I paint a little bit. Think this is good enough?” and showed Thaddeus a delicately rendered landscape of a mill in a forest. The new gallery proprietor was so impressed with it, he put it on the wall with a four-figure price tag.
“That’s why Knoxville’s so beautiful, there are artists everywhere. Ever since I started painting, I’ve met waiters, cooks, bartenders, contractors who are artists,” says Thaddeus. “You gotta do what you gotta do.” m