Visit Exhibition
Higher Ground : A Century of Visual Art in East Tennessee Ongoing | Free

Overview of Exhibition

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.

Smoky Mountain landscape, 1925
Rudolph F. Ingerle (1879-1950)
Oil on Board
30 x 36 inches
Exhibition Notes

One | Grand Ambitions

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.

The Higher Ground story begins in the second half of the 19th century, which is the first period in which East Tennessee boasted a community of active, professional artists. This development stemmed from a period of prosperity fueled by booming local industries such as marble quarrying, mineral mining, and lumbering. Railroads soon linked East Tennessee to other urban centers and sparked further growth. Knoxville became the hub of economic and artistic activity within the region.

In the early days of East Tennessee’s first community of professional artists, several painters loom large. Native son and child prodigy Lloyd Branson returned from studies in Europe and became a guiding force for art in Knoxville, both as teacher and as a painter of portraits and landscapes. After studying with Branson, Catherine Wiley mastered impressionism while studying art in New York and introduced the style to artists and patrons in her hometown. 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 focus his brush on the Smokies. 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 art 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 Exposition 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 of the day, including Mary Cassatt, Robert Henri, John White. Alexander, and Ernest Lawson.

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Two | Lure of the Smokies

Many artists from outside East Tennessee came to the area between 1920 and 1950 in order to capture the untamed beauty of the Smoky Mountains. The Smokies had long been largely inaccessible, 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 coincided 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 the late 1940s and produced several black and white photographs that capture the area’s lush terrain. Chauncey Ryder, Rudolph Ingerle and other landscape painters from around the country often spent summers in East Tennessee, journeying deep into the Smokies to make sketches. Pennsylvania native Louis Jones 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.

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Three | Changing Fortunes, Changing Scenes

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. Younger 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. 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.

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Additional Resources

Frederick Moffatt - Dine and Discover Lecture

Four | Post-War Revival

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 “Knoxville Seven” with fellow artists Joanna Higgs, 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 Dulin Gallery opened on Kingston Pike as the area’s dedicated venue for the display and collection of fine art. In the late 1980s the Dulin Gallery became the Knoxville Museum of Art.

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Five | Greenwood Mural

Introduction

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. Greenwood was selected by a search committee headed by art department chairman C. Kermit “Buck” Ewing, and was offered a one-year teaching assignment as well. After considering many themes for the mural, Greenwood decided her work would pay tribute to the state’s musical heritage. She worked on the mural largely at night, and recruited university students and faculty as models for many of the 28 figures that would be featured in the completed work. By day, Greenwood taught art and traveled across the state to get ideas for the mural, visiting moonshine suppliers in the east and dockworkers in the west.

The “Singing Mural” Narrative

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. On the left, Memphis Beale Street jazz musicians play for dancers on a background of riverboats and the booming cotton industry. To their right, a fieldworker sings to a young girl as he rests with his cotton sack. In Middle Tennessee, a country square dance takes place in a barn amid bundles of drying tobacco and stalks of sorghum. Continuing to the right, the mural depicts East Tennessee basket weaving and cotton spinning. A young boy plays the harmonica while a mother covers her child with a homemade quilt. At the end of the mural, surrounded by mountain laurel and rhododendron, a group sings hymns in front of a clapboard church.

The completed “Singing Mural,” as it was commonly known, was unveiled in the University Center’s ballroom on June 5, 1955 before a commencement crowd of 300 or so people. Records indicate it was well received by university representatives, and Greenwood considered it to be her best work in the United States. The mural remained on view for 15 years without objection. During those years, however, former UT president Andy Holt found it to be a distracting backdrop for his speeches, and had a curtain placed in front of the mural before each of his addresses.

Vandalism, Controversy, and Covering the Mural

Greenwood’s decision to include African Americans in a mural dedicated to the history of Tennessee was a progressive and daring move during the 1950s Jim Crow era. However, the world changed rapidly in the following two decades and what was almost certainly a bold insistence on diversity and inclusion came to be seen as something quite different by a new generation. By the 1970s, amid the political unrest sweeping through American colleges and universities, Greenwood’s mural came to be regarded as a blatant symbol of racism by many students in UT’s civil rights organizations. As the only work of art on campus depicting people of color, its images of what appeared to be happy black folk singing and playing jazz instruments were seen as a sharp reminder of Jim Crow and a blow to African-American dignity and self worth.

In the course of student unrest in the spring of 1970, the mural was vandalized by unknown parties. The painting was restored, and kept under guard. Responding to the threat of vandalism and growing criticism about the depiction of African-Americans in the mural, in 1972 a wall was built in front of it and The History of Tennessee disappeared from public view for more than more than three decades.

Uncovering and Restoration

Although it was hidden away for a generation, Greenwood’s mural and the controversy surrounding it were never completely forgotten. In 2006, following a successful two-year effort by a team of UT students and administrators, the mural was uncovered for public viewing for the first time in several decades. In 2008, planning began for a new, larger student center on campus, and by 2010 it was announced that the Carolyn P. Brown Memorial University Center would be razed. Discussions ensued about safely removing Greenwood’s mural, and identifying a location for its long-term display. In 2013, a national conservation firm was hired to clean the mural, remove it from the cinderblock wall of the University Center, and place it on a special apparatus designed to store the mural safely until a permanent home could be identified. Since the new university center design contained no suitable space for the mural, administrators explored off-campus display options and approached the KMA as an ideal venue. In 2014, shortly after the mural was featured in a special display at the University’s Downtown Gallery, the university and the KMA reached an agreement through which the university retains ownership of the mural, but has placed it in the KMA’s care on long-term loan. This insures that visitors for years to come will have access to the mural and can assess its history, significance, and meaning, and view it in the context of contemporary artistic developments in Knoxville and the region.

The Artist

Greenwood was born in Brooklyn on April 6, 1909. Considered a child prodigy, she left high school at 15 after winning a scholarship to study at New York’s Art Students League, which at that time was one of the most progressive art schools in America. One of her mentors at the league was John Sloan, whose paintings of city scenes reflected his belief that daily life should inspire works of art.

Greenwood traveled to the Southwest to study and to paint pictures of the local Native Americans. From there, in 1932, she went to Mexico, where she began to paint murals depicting the life of everyday people. Diego Rivera, head of the Mexican government’s mural program, noticed her work and hired her to work on a massive mural project in the center of Mexico City. Greenwood’s section of that mural, a militant depiction of the exploitation of rural agricultural workers, was widely admired throughout Mexico, and she became something of a local icon. Back in the United States, Greenwood received several New Deal commissions, among them a mural for a post office in Crossville, Tennessee, that endorsed the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Blueprint for Living (1940), frescos (since painted over) for a housing project in Brooklyn, New York.

Although Greenwood had largely abandoned murals for easel painting by 1945, her themes remained the same. As she explained in a New York World Telegram article in November 1944, her interest was not in “fussing with cute and fancy nudes and pretty-pretty things,” but rather in depicting “the life of America, whether it be industry, farming or just plain people.” Greenwood did paint two murals after the war: the first, The History of Tennessee (1954-55); the second, Tribute to Women (1965), created at Syracuse University, was dedicated to women throughout the world.

Greenwood’s work earned her many honors and awards, including second prize at the Carnegie Institute exhibition of 1944 for the painting Mississippi Girl (1943); the National Association of Women Artists’ Grumbacker Prize (1959); and election to the National Academy of Design (1959). She spent the last decades of her life primarily in New York City and at an art colony in Woodstock, New York. Greenwood died in 1970 from injuries suffered in an automobile accident.

The KMA wishes to acknowledge Fred Moffatt, Jack Neely, and Greenwood biographer Carol Kort for providing the source material for this text.

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Exhibition Gallery
Artist Biography
Ansel Adams
(1902-1984)
Robert Birdwell
(1924)
Lloyd Branson
(1853-1925)
James Cameron
(1817 - 1882)
Thomas Campbell
(1834 - 1914)
Richard Clarke
(1923 - 1997)
Beauford Delaney
(1901 - 1979)
Joseph Delaney
(1903 - 1991)
C. Kermit "Buck" Ewing
(1910 - 1976)
Charles Griffin Farr
(1908 - 1997)
Flavius James Fisher
(1832 - 1905)
E.T.H. Foster
(Active mid-to-late 19th century)
Gilbert Gaul
(1855-1919)
Edward Hurst
(1912 - 1972)
Rudolph Ingerle
(1979 - 1950)
Louis E. Jones
(1878 - 1958)
Charles Krutch
(1849-1934)
Whitney Leland
(1945)
Adelia Lutz
(1859-1931)
Robert Lindsay Mason
(1874 - 1952)
Albert Milani
(1892-1977)
Philip Nichols
(1931)
Charles Rain
(1911 - 1985)
Joanna Higgs Ross
(1934)
Chauncey Ryder
(1868 - 1949)
William Posy Silva
(1859 - 1948)
Walter Stevens
(1927 - 1980)
Will Henry Stevens
(1881 - 1949)
Carl Sublett
(1919 - 2008)
Hugh Tyler
(1885 - 1976)
James Wallace
(1852 - 1921)
Catherine Wiley
(1879-1958)