Finding vibrant art cultures, miles from downtown
Emory Place may be coming back to life
Wednesday, Aug. 16
"A lot of people, when they see Sutherland, say to me, ‘This place could really be something,’” says Sara Blair, the director at Sutherland’s Agora Gallery. “I think, slowly but surely, we’re getting there…. There’s such a great energy, and it’s about time Knoxville is waking up to the arts. There are so many artists in the area. It’s all here, but it’s just trying to get out there.”
Earlier this year, a Metro Pulse cover story labeled Sutherland Avenue as probably the most internationally diverse business district in East Tennessee, an admixture of Mexican, Asian and Indian-Pakistani flavors. It’s also home to many of UT’s graduate students, most of whom are international students, the students who have brought exotic appetites and customs to an otherwise ordinary street.
“I’ve always thought that Knoxville had potential,” Blair adds. “Now, it has potential and is just a step away from being really incredible. You got to give a lot of credit to Three Flights Up and all the people on Gay Street. They really got the ball moving, and if it wasn’t for them, I don’t think we’d be successful either.”
On Aug. 11, at Agora’s most recent open gallery, the resident artists showcased their diversity. Robin Coe’s work has been called a mixture of poetry and watercolor. And, in the back at Steve O’Connor’s workspace, there’s freestyle rap. O’Connor, along with Kafele Foster, record as tIME & sPaCE, sporting the monikers S.M.O. and 9-Ether.
You see the art gallery behind me , Foster raps. It’s pictures, exhibits / They don’t understand that there’s more than this .
This is how we provin’ / Keeping them trippin’ like they shroomin’ / Man, keep it phat like a lipid / Even if the beat’s skippin’ / Or trippin’ like it’s gone / Like Timothy Leary back in the day / O, Lord! / Man, we gotta keep it movin’ , O’Connor chimes in. Your boy, he’s the hardest / He’s an artist / Why don’t you buy some work / He’s berserk.
This energy goes beyond Sutherland. Whitney Leland, professor of painting at UT, believes that David Wolff’s Fluorescent Gallery on Central Avenue taps into a creative energy that’s been missing since the ’80s, back when the 200 East Cooperative was bringing both bohemians and socialites into the Old City for makeshift art festivals.
“That was kind of a unique thing,” Leyland says of 200 East. “As far as something going on that would resemble that, I’d look at Florescent Gallery. There’s no business plan behind it. [Wolff] has his heart in the right place. It’s been done with the right attitude…. He just wanted to start up conversations with other artists. It’s not commercial. It’s pretty high-level art.”
On Central, there’s the Time Warp Tea Room, Corner Lounge, Taoist Tai Chi Society and the XYZ Club, enough quirk to feed an art community.
Similarly, on Sutherland, filling the space between the Mighty Mud Gallery, Wild Wood Gallery and Menagerie, there’s an industrial supplier, a tattoo shop, a garden supply store, a boot store and a billiards hall, all of it ensconced within Sutherland’s international atmosphere. “It’s all different, and that’s the cool thing,” says Scott Etheridge, owner and proprietor of Agora. “We’re into several different mediums, so there’s something for everyone. No one’s pigeonholed into just one technique.”
O’Connor agrees: “You can come in here and paint, sculpt, draw and all that stuff, and at the same time, we can hook up the laptop and start recording. Because of the foot traffic, because there’re a lot of people in the store, there are a lot of people seeing our artwork. It’s a good opportunity to make some money with the works. If not, then at least people are seeing it and noticing that you’re doing it.”
But Leland warns that there may not be a viable support for contemporary art in Knoxville, not yet at least. “[Knoxville’s artists are] associated with academics, not with any real community. You have groups of artists that have similar interests. But for the viewer, it’s important that they get something out of it, that they know something about art.”
Foster retorts, in a rap:
Nowadays, though, it’s pretty quiet. The interior of one eastside storefront is littered with remnants from a former business: telephone cords, rubber bands, scraps of paper, a broken office chair. Another is strung from wall to wall with Christmas wreaths, a curious sight to behold on this muggy August afternoon.
But on the other side of the street, there are signs of life. Mechanics hover around the doorway of a auto-parts shop at the Central end of the block, and at the other end, construction workers are busy painting the interior of a red-brick corner building a vivid shade of blue.
Glenn Bullock, the architect/engineer who, among other projects, spearheaded the mid-’70s renovation of the Bijou Theatre, steps outside. He’s moving his architecture firm, The Bullock Group, into this 126-year-old building, North Knoxville’s post office in a former life, on Thursday. “I like these historical buildings,” he says, gesturing at the arched windows and neoclassical detailing of the building row across the street.
Bullock isn’t alone. Both the Metropolitan Planning Commission and some area residents have big plans for the future of Emory Place as a gateway between downtown and the rapidly improving historic neighborhoods of Fourth and Gill and Old North Knox.
“Those areas are revitalizing, gaining momentum, but you have some spaces in between that still need a lot of work,” explains MPC planner Renee Davis. A task force is now in the process of preparing a Broadway/Central/Emory Place small area plan, building on the city’s façade-grant program, that will address signage, lighting, sidewalk and street condition issues, as well as strategize on how to attract businesses and deter homelessness.
Since Emory Place feeds into Gay Street and is wedged between the two other main northern arteries into downtown, Broadway and Central, it seems a natural component of the plan. “We see more urban downtown-type forms extending to the north—vertical, mixed-use development and transportation improvements that will make it easier to walk and bike downtown if you’re living in one of those neighborhoods,” Davis says.
At the moment, car and non-car commuters still have a jigsaw puzzle of a route to get to downtown, since the section of N. Gay beneath I-40 remains closed, even though the Gay Street Viaduct has reopened. But those undeveloped spaces under the interstate are, according to Davis, also part of the plan.
“There’s a lot you can do underneath the interstate that would be a positive use of the space,” she says, reciting a long list of creative under-freeway developments other cities have implemented: dog parks, running trails, open-air markets, skate parks, rock-climbing walls, sports parks, and even open cultural spaces with lights, sculptures and painting. More practically, she says, it could be used for city maintenance and storage facilities, opening up their former locations to be redeveloped into commercial/residential/office spaces.
Right now, thought, it’s all discussion, says Davis. The next couple of years will likely be spent planning, with the plan being implemented after I-40’s downtown construction is completed, probably in 2008. Part of the planning process, Davis notes, is collecting public input, and the public is invited to the second meeting of the Broadway/Central/Emory Place small area plan this Monday, Aug. 28. The meeting will be at 7 p.m. at Central Methodist Church, 201 Third Ave. If you missed the last meeting, a review of the MPC’s presentation and a summary of comments are available at www.knoxmpc.org .
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