Knoxville's People-Driven Public Art

There's public art, and then there's the art of the public, what might be called the people's art—small neighborhood committees, less organized groups, or individuals acting alone, committing random acts of art in unexpected places. It springs up despite a lack of funding. Small grants are scraped together. Fund-raisers are held, volunteers give their time and energy, college students experiment. And it appears to be the main driver of public art in Knoxville today; it is the public art that we're getting despite the fact that we can't seem to officially get public art.

The people's art comes in the form of things like murals, "yarn bombs," folk traditions such as bottle trees, experimental installation pieces, sculpture made from salvaged materials, and even graffiti. Though looked down upon by city officials and law enforcement, graffiti is sometimes the only sign of life in urban areas plagued by too much concrete. It can be a statement that jolts you awake, shifts your perspective, if just for a moment, like the red-lettered "All things new again," painted onto a loading dock at Knox Rail Salvage in the Old City.

It was with a kind of if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em philosophy, then, that SJ Van Der Berg and Jayne McGowan undertook the task of revamping downtown's alleyways by facilitating a kind of controlled graffiti (although, of course, actual graffiti is necessarily unauthorized).

In what they called the Artist Alley Revamp Project, Van Der Berg and McGowan organized the painting of Armstrong Alley between Market Square and Gay Street by more than 50 artists over the course of 30 days last fall. There were no requirements except the prohibition of foul language and nudity, Van Der Berg says. Other than that, the volunteer artists had free range. They worked at their own pace, moving aside their paints and tools each afternoon when the garbage truck came through. The overall goal of the project was to reduce litter and vandalism and increase foot traffic in the alley. Now, says Van Der Berg, "business owners and their patrons have developed a respect and appreciation for this space."

Primer, rollers, paints, drop cloths, and sealant were donated. "Basically, it was done with zero money," says McGowan. She walks me through the alley, pointing out different pieces. On two parallel panes of plywood that cover holes where windows once were, black crows perch on branches in front of a golden sunset. A blue giraffe with purple spots and octopus tentacles on its bottom half guards a back entrance. A mottled full moon floats against a background of glittering, triangle-shaped panes of color.

McGowan says that now people are seeing the alley as a walkway through downtown. "There's been a lot of respect for what we did back there," she says.

Murals are the close kin of the alley revamp project. Another public art of the grassroots, they can be painted with donated paint or paint salvaged from dumps and recycling centers. Because of their size and scope, they can incorporate the visions and voices of many different people; usually a team works together to create a mural. Often children are involved. The process of painting a mural ends up being just as community-building as the end result.

On the side of a Magnolia Avenue building at the edge of Parkridge, an area long overlooked by the city, young residents have painted a huge, bright mural that depicts critters gardening and cooking. A rabbit and a turtle are working together to pull up a carrot. A bird and a snail help to cook up a pot of soup over a fire.

The mural embodies themes of cooperation, diversity, trust, sharing, and empowerment—values practiced by Groundswell, the community center on which it is painted. Groundswell provides a space for community members to hold workshops and classes, use computers, read books, and play music, or anything else they might want to do. Outside, there is a community garden. The mural celebrates the community-building that Groundswell facilitates as well as the highly collaborative process used to create the mural itself.

"I think the collaborative process is the most interesting part, and also the most difficult to define," says organizer Lauren Hulse as she stands gazing at the mural that she and others completed last fall. "Working together, you sort of learn how to exist in the world with each other." We are standing in front of a section of the mural that shows raccoons, a pig, an owl, a mouse, a crow, and other animals sitting down at a long table to eat together.

Organizer Elias Attea wrote a blog post about the mural. "A community that is strong and cooperative is more is likely to overcome the difficulties of underprivileged life and improve the conditions of the neighborhood through grassroots participation."

Also at the edge of Parkridge, along the blank—or sometimes graffiti-speckled—gray expanse of an interstate underpass, residents have begun to paint a mural in the hopes of reducing litter and creating a safer place to walk. "The massive concrete underpass is a classic example of urban blight," says organizer Calvin Chappelle, who is also executive director of the Mabry-Hazen House and a resident of Parkridge. "Over the years it has attracted graffiti and litter."

After Parkridge resident Lynne Sullivan secured a Knoxville Parks and Recreation grant of $2,500, the mural committee that had formed raised another $2,500 to match.

The design, chosen by a panel of judges and by a community vote, is by Per-Ole Lind of 17th Street Studios. It features the names of three historic neighborhoods that converge there—Parkridge, Fourth and Gill, and Old North—written in a Southeastern woodblock typography against solid block colors.

Chappelle and other organizers hope the mural will emphasize the connection between the historic neighborhoods, which have been fragmented by the interstate. They also want to bring attention to the nearby First Creek Greenway entrance. They hope to transform a neglected, demoralizing concrete underpass into "a place of community pride," Chappelle says. "The beautification of the Sixth Avenue underpass will be something for everyone to enjoy." (The Knoxville Utilities Board Geographic Information System estimates around 1,700 people travel on Sixth Avenue daily.) The simple design has enabled community members to take part in the painting of the mural.

And there are other signs of life. One of the most uplifting is the annual Labor Day Sunflower installation, a celebration of the collective work of volunteer participants who grow sunflowers all over Knoxville. Local artists Gerry Moll and Josh Bremseth, who started the annual event in 2007, have built a free-standing chain-link fence onto which participants weave their sunflowers. The result is a massive circle of bright yellow sunflower heads that Moll says represents "the harvest of individual efforts" over the past year. The installation, which will be in Krutch Park this year, lasts just a few days. At the culmination, Circle Modern Dance will perform, and seeds will be distributed for planting the following year. The many sunflowers growing all over town this summer, then, can be seen as a powerful gesture of interconnectedness; they will beautify the city just as much or more as the installation piece. The project is funded by small grants, fund-raising, and, this year, the Central Business Improvement District.

There are also the "twigaloos" at Ijams Nature Center, little igloo-like huts of sticks made by Kelly Brown of Bower Bird Sculptures. The twigaloos speak to the human inclination to build shelter, he says, and echo artistic forms in nature that inspire him, like birds' nests and beaver dams. Invoking feelings of home, Brown's sculptures are places, he says, "where something can happen," places to linger. "The viewer is allowed to enter them or to sit under them, but they're also visually interesting," he says.

Last year, Legacy Parks commissioned Brown to build a vaulted arch of thrown-away old bicycles and bike parts to serve as an entryway to the Outdoor Knoxville Adventure Center and the Second Creek Greenway. The arch frames downtown's shiniest, tallest buildings, the BB&T and First Tennessee skyscrapers. It lends a grungier feel and reminds us, Brown says, "that the outdoor community is a big part of the future here."

Hiking on a trail last fall in Knoxville's Urban Wilderness, I came across a structure similar to Brown's twigaloos. It was a privet turned into a kind of nest, its branches bent and lashed into a shelter, and I sat down on the little platform inside. When I asked Kelly Brown if he had made that one, he told me that Jason Brown had made it with his students for a land-art class. Though a little out of the way and obscure, it was still public art, and it was special to find it there. This is the fun of public art, perhaps, like visual messages we can send and receive anonymously within our public spaces.

And there is the dancing man made of old mufflers down the road from me on Magnolia Avenue. And the outside wall of the Bottoms Up Lounge, painted with a man playing his heart out on a trumpet. And there is the "yarn bomb" down the street from me, like a big soft coozie for a telephone pole. The beautiful face of Elvis has been painted onto a temporary wall on Gay Street. There is the gorgeously bold graffiti piece on the Fireproof Storage building in the Old City, the octopus shooting out a cloud of ink at the old Graning Paint on Broadway, and the bottle trees that bewitch South Knoxville. All this is to say that there is art happening here. It is not necessarily in the city's official collection of public art, not always technically in the public space, but nonetheless visible, and not even necessarily legal. But it should be celebrated.