Knoxville's Artful Arch: Artist Kelly Brown's New Sculpture Gives 'Props' to the Bicycling Community

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Kelly Brown has nearly completed his as-yet-untitled sculpture—a “controlled chaos,” as he says, of donated bicycles, tricycles, and bike parts tumbling over the back entrance of the new Outdoor Knoxville Adventure Center.

The Adventure Center, funded and run by Legacy Parks, opened in May in the old Knoxville Visitor Center near Volunteer Landing. The back of the building is a pretty drab expanse of unadorned concrete. It is accessible to the public by a raised walkway leading into the second story of the building, but before the bike sculpture there were few clues to draw in potential visitors.

Visible from Hill Avenue, the sculpture arching over the walkway is an eye-catching piece, bigger than initially planned. In the afternoon light, hundreds of grungy wheels and gears cast their shadows against the urban hardscape. The arch echoes the curves of the Henley and Gay Street bridges in the distance. Brown says he “loves curves,” and the arch is a shape he often uses in his work.

“The lines of the bike are kind of wild, but there are elements of symmetry and color” that tie it together, Brown says.

Brown graduated from the University of Tennessee with a master’s in fine arts, and taught at Laurel High for 23 years until its demise in 2011.

His best-known works may be the woven twig sculptures, or “twigaloos,” currently at Ijams Nature Center and Stanley’s Greenhouse. The twigs are dried privet, an abundant invasive shrub he acquires from Ijams privet pulls. The twigaloos do look like igloos made of twigs. They also resemble birds’ nests. The bike arch is only Brown’s second gig under the name of his new business, Bower Bird Sculpture, a business he initially envisioned as building decorative wedding arches. The name Bower Bird was inspired by the bowerbird of New Guinea, a small bird that makes elaborate nests for his mate.

Over time, Brown’s technique has evolved—two sculptures at the Knoxville Botanical Garden (since removed) were made only of twigs; the current ones contain metal supports. The permanency of the bike arch is rare for Brown’s work, though weaving together found or donated materials fits his aesthetic. In art school, Brown cultivated an aversion to traditional sculpture, preferring to use organic, transient materials. In recent years he’s mitigated his position somewhat.

“Permanency has its place,” Brown says.

He welded most of the sections of the arch at home, installing them piece by piece. He estimates he’s spent 70 hours of labor on the project. He did most of the work himself, with assistance from city facilities workers, who seemed enthused to help out on the unusual assignment. City Engineer Stephen King inspected the work.

The sculpture’s bike theme fits with the services and projects of Outdoor Knoxville. Visitors can rent bicycles in the River Sports storefront on the main level of the Adventure Center. Brown praises the new mountain-bike paths, part of the recently opened South Loop Trail built with help from the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club. He supports the mission of Outdoor Knoxville and says he hopes to instill in his own children “an appreciation for the great outdoors.”

Unlike any of Brown’s other public sculptures, this one will be signed. Outdoor Knoxville is planning an official plaque with his name, date, and the title of the piece.

Brown likes the untidy aesthetic of the jumbled up bikes, and initially suggested “Scruffy Little Arch” as a title. Elle Colquitt, Outdoor Knoxville’s communications manager and author of the Mini-Adventure Series’ Bicycling Routes—Knoxville, was unenthusiastic about that one.

There was talk of offering a “Sprocket Award” to the individual who came up with the best name for the sculpted bike arch. I spent all weekend brainstorming ideas, imagining how great it would feel to win a gold spray-painted bike part, which is what I imagined the Sprocket Award to be. Unfortunately, due to rules regarding how the city names public art, they had to drop that idea.

Since the sculpture is not yet named, there still might be an opportunity for community input, just without material reward. So, take a look at the above photo and if an appropriate title strikes you, submit it to outdoors@legacyparks.org. But do it soon. Carol Evans, executive director of Legacy Parks, says the bike sculpture will be officially unveiled to the public within the next three weeks.

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