What’s true for the Smoky Mountains appears to be true for art inspired by them: Your experience is only as good as your guide. Mountain Splendor, a special exhibition at the East Tennessee History Center of various works depicting or otherwise connected to the Smokies, was guest-curated by Steve Cotham, manager of the McClung Collection. Technically, a librarian is really only expected to be able to navigate his or her particular system of storage. But one does not swim in history for 30 years, as Cotham has, and not absorb some stories. This gathering of oils, watercolors, photographs, drawings, prints, and personal objects benefits a great deal from Cotham’s career-long immersion in the region’s history.
One interesting effect of these works, mostly from the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, is the way they temporarily dissolve the arbitrary, man-made boundaries that now form our favorite national park. You’ll see views of and from hotels and other leisure destinations that once stood on park property. And you’ll see images of Sevierville and Cocke County rendered by artists who were equally charmed by those spots. It’s good to be reminded that the Great Smoky Mountains describes just about any landscape—or portion of it—that you’ll see when you look up from this paper.
Some of this art is familiar because you’ve seen it, such as requisite works by painter Charles Krutch and photographer Jim Thompson. Other pieces are familiar for different reasons. Thanks to his well-marketed estate, most of us can clock Ansel Adams from across the room. Here is his Mt. LeConte. One of the most compelling pieces in the room is a small 1934 aquatint by Leon Perscheret, entitled “Little Pigeon, Tenn.” The title seems accurate enough upon close examination. But the technique, mixing elements one associates with Japanese printmaking and French travel posters of the same era, makes the block-print riverside cabin and single-colored trees seem much more exotic and distant than Blount County.
Another uncommon view of the Smokies comes from Indiana native Will Henry Stevens. Stevens taught at Newcomb College in New Orleans and spent his summers in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, painting and sometimes teaching. Biographers contend that Stevens’ dreamy impressionism stemmed from his fascination with the work of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, which he followed closely. Stevens does appear to be sitting on a fence, pondering the promise of the objective and the non-objective and why not both? But it’s also been noted that while studying Asian art, Stevens became attracted to Taoism. Stevens’ pastels of mountain vistas and the Sevierville “skyline” as it existed nearly a hundred years ago suggest that the artist is experiencing the place in ways more deeply meaningful and more active than simple, detached observation. The Taoist appreciates what can be done by not doing. And with his broad strokes and colorful implications, Stevens more successfully transports a viewer to this place and time than any amount of grit and detail might.
Whatever vocabulary you choose to comprehend his methods, Stevens enhanced the nearby mountains by importing a way of looking at them. His contemporary, painter Fuller Potter, did something like the opposite. The New York-born Potter developed his painting skills by painting Cocke County landscapes in and around Newport. Over time, he gave himself over completely to abstract painting, and was a member of the New York School and a drinking buddy of Jackson Pollock’s. If abstract painting has ever baffled you and you’ve had to wonder how and what these people are seeing, Cotham’s selections of Potter’s work are a great place to start. To see Potter’s pen-and-ink drawings of rural scenes—barn and fields, woman milking cow—and then his oil portrait of his daughter, Mary (“Girl With Red Cap,” 1947), and then go on to the kinetic knots of line and color that earned him his living internationally, it’s like hearing Thelonious Monk play a standard like “Just You, Just Me.” The arrival and destination make more sense and have greater weight once you know something of the origin and journey.