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Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee


In June 2008 the Knoxville Museum of Art unveiled "Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee" as the museum's first-ever permanent installation, incorporating works from the museum's own holdings as well as loans from institutions and collectors. It is the only ongoing exhibition celebrating the art of the Southern Appalachians. "Higher Ground" incorporates approximately 60 works, from the museum's own holdings as well as loans from public and private collections. (right: Catherine Wiley (1879-1958), Untitled (Woman and Child in a Meadow), 1913. Oil on canvas, 29 x 33 1/8 inches. Knoxville Museum of Art; purchased with funds provided by Ann and Steve Bailey, the Knoxville Museum of Art's Collectors Circle, Martha and Jim Begalla, Betsey Bush, Joan and Victor Ashe, Lane Hays, Lindsay and Jim McDonough, Dorothy and Caesar Stair, Nancy and Charlie Wagner, Sylvia and Jan Peters, Patricia and Alan Rutenberg, Barbara and Steve Apking, Mary Ellen and Steve Brewington, Jayne and Myron Ely, Cathy and Mark Hill, Donna Kerr, Melissa and Tom McAdams, Townes Osborn, Alexandra Rosen and Donald Cooney, John Thomas, Stuart Worden, Marie and Bob Alcorn, Jennifer Banner and James Schaad, Barbara and Bernie Bernstein, Arlene Goldstine, Stevens and Greg Hall, Kitsy and Lou Hartley, Ebbie and Ronald Sandberg, and Joseph Trahern, Jr.)

The 2,500 square-foot gallery housing the exhibition is divided into smaller spaces by freestanding walls. Each space corresponds to a thematic grouping, proceeding chronologically from the entrance. Viewers follow a roughly circular path as they learn about the history of artistic activity in the region and acquaint themselves with the many exceptionally gifted individuals who have helped shape the area's visual arts tradition.

The thematic groupings include "Grand Ambitions," which represents an especially vibrant period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Lloyd Branson, Catherine Wiley, and other pioneering area artists introduced local audiences to Art Nouveau, Impressionism, and other international movements of their day.

"Lure of the Smokies" includes a variety of works by Ansel Adams, Will Henry Stevens, Rudolph Ingerle, and other artists drawn to the region's mountain scenery between 1920 and 1950.
"Changing Fortunes" focuses on early- and mid-20th-century artists born in East Tennessee who left in order to pursue successful careers in major art centers. Included in this section are the brothers Beauford and Joseph Delaney, two of the nation's most important African-American artists.
"Post-War Revival" includes works by members of the Knoxville Seven, most of whom were connected with the University of Tennessee and helped establish a foothold for avant-garde art in the region.
The final section, "Diverse Paths," samples the growing diversity of art forms, styles, and media produced by a changing selection of noteworthy artists working within the region during the last few decades, including visionary outsider artist Bessie Harvey and internationally-known glass sculptor Richard Jolley.

The story is brought up to the present by a complementary annual exhibition series-"Contemporary Focus"-designed to introduce significant emerging artists working in the region. The first such exhibition, in fall 2009, featured a video installation by Hunt Clark, paintings by David Wolff, and an outdoor environmental sculpture by Patricia Tinajero.

"Higher Ground" was created to provide a strong connection with local audiences and to familiarize them with the area's rich visual culture past and present. The exhibition also refutes the widely held and erroneous notion that East Tennessee, a region celebrated for its indigenous musical traditions, lacks a significant heritage in the visual arts. A community that recognizes and celebrates its own creative history is more likely to support its current creative endeavors and institutions.

The question of community identity is not an academic one in the Knoxville area; collective self image and shared sense of possibilities (or lack thereof) have been determining factors in the community's ability to succeed. In the words of historian William Bruce Wheeler, author of the definitive history of the city (Knoxville, Tennessee: A Mountain City in the New South, 2nd ed., University of Tennessee Press, 2005), "Knoxville, Tennessee is the Great Gatsby of American cities. In order to explain to themselves as well as to newcomers why Knoxville is the way it is, Knoxvillians, like Gatsby, have invented a past that . . . is essentially like Jay Gatsby's autobiography: an exercise in self-invention and self delusion. Yet, instead of inventing a past that would give them energy, optimism, and strength, Knoxvillians fabricated a history that portrayed the city as the almost impotent product of historical forces that it could neither alter nor control." Wheeler offers a model for understanding the economic, social, and cultural development of the city as a complex interaction and shifting balance between the forces of change and those of resistance.

Change and progress have come from successive generations of commercial elites, most of whom came from other parts of the country. Resistance was embodied in the indigenous population and its mountain-bred attitudes of self-sufficiency, isolation, and distrust of outsiders. After decades of growth, change, and prosperity, and an influx of newcomers, these forces continue to clash as Knoxville and environs make decisions about the region's future direction.

"Higher Ground" represents the first systematic and ongoing effort to tell the story of the visual arts in East Tennessee, and is designed to ensure that the people of Knoxville and surrounding areas will be left with a richer and more complete picture of their own cultural legacy.


(above: Lloyd Branson (1853-1925), Going Home at Dusk, 1892. Oil on board, 36 3/8 x 43 1/2, 43 ? x 51 inches. Knoxville Museum of Art; purchased with funds provided by Kay and Jim Clayton, Martha and Jim Begalla, Ann and Steve Bailey, Patricia and Alan Rutenberg, Townes Osborn, and Sylvia and Jan Peters.)


(above: Catherine Wiley (1879-1958), Morning, 1921. Oil on canvas, 47 x 41 inches. Knoxville Museum of Art; purchased by the Women's Committee of the Dulin Gallery)


(above: Charles Krutch (1849-1934), Untitled, circa 1920. Watercolor on paper, 4 ? x 7 7/16 inches. Knoxville Museum of Art; Bequest of Dr. Frank Galyon)

To view:

Wall panel text for the exhibition please click here
Expanded artwork labels with artist biographies please click here


Resource Library editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Stephen C. Wicks, Barbara W. and Bernard E. Bernstein Curator, Knoxville Museum of Art, for generously providing texts for this article.

Resource Library readers may also enjoy:

Videos for Higher Ground are available on the Knoxville Museum of Art website.page for podcasts and videos on bliptv.

See biographical information on selected artists cited in this article in America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Knoxville Museum of Art in Resource Library.

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