citybeat (2007-15)

The sudden disappearance of street art on Wall Avenue

Wednesday, April 4

A Clean Canvas?

Wall Avenue's wall of art has always been unpredictable, and last week when the whole thing disappeared under a coat of dull red paint, which covered even band posters, pedestrians wondered whether it was a case of blanket censorship or a particularly arrogant artistic statement. Some conspiracy theorists assumed Dogwood Arts was behind the obliteration; others that the Haslam administration was finally clamping down. As it happens, it may have been something along the lines of an overzealous mistake.

For the last two years, this 30-yard length of plywood protecting the side of a problematic building at 36 Market Square has earned a reputation as a free gallery of street art. Known variously as the Art Wall or the Wall of Freedom, something about it drew artists of several stripes, both professionals and amateurs, along with an inevitable few smartass vandals.

The art was of such variety and quality that it often slowed down curious pedestrians, and often drew a small crowd. In February, 2006, it was subject of a Metro Pulse photo feature. When most of the available plywood was covered in art, Bernadette Trent West, one of the building's owners, removed and stored the original plywood, and replaced it with more blank plywood for more art. More art it got, almost immediately, several square yards of it, from some of the artists of the original wall. Among them were works in oil by Cynthia Markert, whose portraits of wistful women sometimes sell for thousands of dollars in urban boutiques; and some younger artists, like Brandon Rogers . (Also known as Postmodern Nobody, Rogers has a current show of his unusual surrealist drawings at the Basement Gallery in the Old City.)

Bernadette West originally intended to auction off the original panels for Katrina relief, but was distracted by personal turmoil. She's currently serving a sentence of almost two years for her part in a complicated marijuana-trafficking and money-laundering scheme.

Though the professional-quality art returned after the replacement, the wall seemed a little meaner this time, with more conventional graffiti and ordinary tagging-style signatures. But someone thought to write, "Thanks, Bernadette," for supplying the forum.

Last Friday, all of it was painted over, the good and the bad, in a mundane crimson. It was victim of an anti-graffiti sweep sponsored by Keep Knoxville Beautiful (KKB), the organization that does much to improve the looks of the old town. Hardly ever a subject of controversy, the KKB programs like their massive litter pickups generally leave us with a better-looking city than maybe we deserve.

Last Friday morning, dozens of volunteers, many of them young students, met with police officers on Market Square, and divided into three squads wielding spray paint and rollers. Many were young and not necessarily downtown sorts, perhaps unacquainted with the wall's two-year reputation as an outdoor art gallery.

Artist Rogers holds a day job as a sales clerk at Earth to Old City. In painting on the plywood, he had the permission and encouragement of the West family, who then owned the building and said he had intentions of finishing some of the work he started there, then removing it when the plywood was replaced. He had heard no complaints about any of it, and didn't know his art was even threatened until he walked to Gay Street for coffee Friday and was dismayed to find it completely painted over. Jim and Vada West, Bernadette West's parents-in-law, who still run Oodles restaurant nearby, were also disappointed by the obliteration.

Staffers at the KKB office, which is barely a block from the art wall, say the wall was never discussed nor specifically targeted by their anti-graffiti campaign. Executive Director Tom Salter says the program was a broad-brush response to a plague of tagging-style graffiti. He says though KKB sponsored it, staffers were not directly in touch with building owners. The sweep was administered by the Knoxville Police Department and carried out by volunteers.

What was targeted, says program director Stephanie Hood, were the mostly undistinguished marks of taggers--graffiti spray-painters who usually just spray a word or symbol repeatedly. "They are not producing art," she says of the taggers. The replacement wall did seem to attract more ordinary graffiti than the original did.

"Everything was done through requests," says Hood. "The Knoxville Police Department contacted building owners who signed a waiver if they didn't want their graffiti painted over." (At least one downtown owner, whom she declined to mention by name, did indicate that he preferred to "take care of it himself.")

The problem with the Art Wall, perhaps, is that its current owner is the U.S. Treasury Department, which seized the Wests' buildings after Bernadette and her husband Scott West were convicted. Knoxville Police Officer Matthew Cook--who, for the record, says he liked some of the art on the wall, though he thought the best had been defaced--did call Jimmy Gibson, whose name is listed on the door of 36 Market Square. Gibson is the "holding agent" for the building: "I have custody of the building until it's sold," he says. Gibson, whose real-estate business has offices in Morristown and Knoxville, says he remembers an officer calling him, asking if he would mind if "graffiti" were removed from the building. He gave his permission. "I'll be honest with you," he says. "I don't even know what all was on that wall." Gibson has been out of town, and didn't know the action had been taken until he was called this week.

The Wall of Freedom's days may be numbered, anyway. Gibson estimates 36 Market Square will be auctioned off along with the rest of the Wests' buildings within 90 days, and what happens to the building after that is anyone's guess. But street art, like spring flora, is persistent: there were signs that art was sneaking back in around the edges.



Wednesday, April 4

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Tuesday, April 10