Higher Ground is the first permanent exhibition devoted to East Tennessee’s artistic achievements. It includes objects from the KMA collection supplemented by important works borrowed from public and private collections. Many of the featured artists spent their entire lives and careers in the area, while some moved away to follow their creative ambitions. Others were drawn to the region by its natural beauty, as the wealth of landscape imagery in this exhibition attests. Together, these artists’ works form the basis of a visual arts legacy in East Tennessee that is both compelling and largely unheralded. Higher Ground allows viewers to follow the history of artistic activity in the region over roughly a century of development and learn about the many exceptionally gifted individuals who have helped shape the area’s visual arts tradition.
While East Tennessee’s earliest inhabitants produced works of art for millennia, it was during the late nineteenth century that the area’s community of professional artists—both trained and untrained—reached a critical mass. This development reflected the prosperity fueled by booming local industries such as marble quarrying, mineral mining, and lumbering. Railroads linking East Tennessee to other urban centers sparked further growth. Knoxville became the hub of economic and artistic activity within the region.
Born in Scotland, James Cameron was one of the first professional painters in East Tennessee, earning a reputation for detailed portraits, and panoramic landscapes reflecting nature’s beauty invaded by settlement. Lloyd Branson returned from studies in Europe in 1878 and became a guiding force for art in Knoxville, both as teacher and artist. After studying with Branson, Catherine Wiley mastered impressionism while studying art in New York and introduced the style to artists and patrons in Knoxville. Often portraying the domestic world of women and children, Wiley’s luminous canvases became increasingly bold and expressive until her career was cut short by mental illness in 1926. Charles Krutch, dubbed the “Corot of the South” for his soft, atmospheric style, was among the earliest local artists to train his brush on the Smokies. From the 1890s until the last years of his life, he traveled deep into the mountains and captured their ever-changing character in scores of oil and watercolor paintings.
Branson, Wiley, and Krutch banded together with other local artists and patrons to form the Nicholson Art League (1906-1923), and organized large-scale art exhibitions for three major cultural expositions held at Knoxville’s Chilhowee Park: the Appalachian Expositions of 1910 and 1911, and the National Conservation Exposition of 1913. Each of these exhibitions included important regional artists’ works along with those by dozens of internationally-known American artists.
Many artists from outside East Tennessee came to the area between 1920 and 1950 in order to capture the wild beauty of the Smoky Mountains. The Smokies had long been inaccessible to all but the most intrepid, but intensive logging and the post-World War I development of mountainside resorts opened roads and trails for visitors. This period of artistic interest in the Smokies coincides with efforts to preserve this unique wilderness area, which culminated in the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934.
Ansel Adams, best known for his epic images of Yosemite and other western landmarks, visited the Smokies in 1948 and produced black and white photographs that capture the area’s lush terrain. Twenty years later, color photography pioneer Eliot Porter’s dye transfer prints of the park generated widespread attention after being featured in the acclaimed monograph Appalachian Wilderness.
Rudolph Ingerle, Louis Jones, and other landscape painters from around the country often spent summers in East Tennessee, journeying deep into the Smokies to make sketches. Jones, a native of Pennsylvania, was so entranced by the area that he permanently settled in Gatlinburg and continued to paint mountain scenes until his death in 1958. Louisiana artist Will Henry Stevens made extended pilgrimages to the Smoky Mountains throughout his career and captured every nuance of the area’s natural beauty in delicately abstracted works.
By the mid 1920s, Knoxville’s once thriving art scene had begun to stagnate as the city’s economic potential failed to materialize and local attitudes grew more conservative. Furthermore, Lloyd Branson’s death in 1925 and Catherine Wiley’s institutionalization in 1926 led to a void in artistic leadership. Other young artists concluded that their best chance for artistic success was to relocate permanently to major art centers.
Brothers Beauford Delaney and Joseph Delaney, facing the additional hurdle of racism, left Knoxville in the mid 1920s to pursue their art careers in larger arenas, but followed very different artistic paths. After studying in Boston, Beauford chose New York and later Paris as the ideal settings for his experiments with expressive abstraction. Joseph headed for Chicago before settling in New York, and remained devoted to urban realism. He returned to Knoxville to visit his family over the years and eventually moved back to his hometown in 1986. Charles Griffin Farr grew up in Knoxville, but left for New York by 1931 and eventually settled in San Francisco. There, he enjoyed a long career as an influential art instructor and devoted realist painter during an era in which abstraction dominated the art world. A young Charles Rain left Knoxville for Nebraska with his mother after his parents divorced and never returned. He studied in Europe before moving to New York, where he established himself as a magic realist painter of extraordinary skill and vision. Knoxville native Edward Hurst was an art prodigy who pursued art training with George Luks at New York’s renowned Art Students League even before graduating from high school. Although Hurst returned to Knoxville frequently to display his elegant society portraits and precisely-crafted still lifes, he spent much of his life mingling with wealthy clientele near his studios in New York and London.
By the late 1940s, a rebellious generation of young artists devised a bold new approach to painting—abstract expressionism—that became the leading international style. The highly spontaneous method fulfilled artists’ desire to express the human condition beyond the visible world in a visual language that was intuitive and unhindered. The style took hold in East Tennessee during the early 1950s shortly after the arrival of C. Kermit “Buck” Ewing as the first head of the University of Tennessee’s art department. He recruited a group of progressive artists—most notably Carl Sublett, Walter Stevens, Robert Birdwell—who exhibited actively in Knoxville as well as other cities throughout the Southeast. They proved highly influential as artists as well as teachers.
While Sublett and Stevens shared an exclusive interest in the landscape as a point of reference for their abstractions, Birdwell and Ewing often found inspiration in urban settings and the human figure. Sometimes they exhibited as a foursome and other times as the “The Knoxville 7” with fellow artists Joanne Higgs Ross, Richard Clarke, and Philip Nichols. Each artist maintained an individual style and utilized varying degrees of abstraction. Together, they produced what are likely the first abstract paintings in Tennessee and helped establish a foothold for modern art in the region.
This period of cultural renewal accelerated as Knoxville gained a more secure economic footing. In 1961 the Knoxville Museum of Art’s predecessor, the Dulin Gallery of Art, opened on Kingston Pike as the area’s dedicated venue for the display and collection of fine art.
During a career that spanned forty years, New York artist Marion Greenwood created paintings, drawings, and prints that championed the lives of indigenous people she encountered during travels to Haiti, India, Africa, Mexico, and other far-flung locales. In 1954, she came to Knoxville when the University of Tennessee commissioned her to create a mural for the new Carolyn P. Brown University Center ballroom. The resulting work, The History of Tennessee, stands as East Tennessee’s largest, most important, and most controversial figural mural painting. Painted on a continuous 30-foot length of canvas, Greenwood’s composition illustrates the distinctive music of the state’s main divisions—the delta blues of West Tennessee, country music of Middle Tennessee, and religious music of East Tennessee.
Media support for this exhibition is provided by: