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


Wall panel texts



Higher Ground is the first permanent exhibition devoted to East Tennessee's artistic achievements. The selection of more than 60 objects includes works 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 a century of development and learn about some of the many exceptionally gifted individuals who have helped shape the area's visual arts tradition.


Grand Ambitions

While East Tennessee's earliest inhabitants produced works of art, it was not until the late nineteenth century that the area 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. Lloyd Branson returned from studies in Europe 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 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 train 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.


Lure of the Smokies

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. Ansel Adams, best known for his epic images of Yosemite and other western landmarks, visited the Smokies in the 1940s and produced several black and white photographs that capture the area's lush terrain. Chauncey Ryder and 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.


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.


Post-War Revival

By the late 1940s, a rebellious generation of young artists devised a bold new approach to art-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. They together produced what are likely the first abstract art works in East 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.


Diverse Paths

This section features a changing selection of works by some of the most prominent artists working in East Tennessee active during the last few decades. Their varied methods, styles and materials attest to the current diversity of art in the region. While mirroring changes in East Tennessee's general population, much of this diversity is due to artists' increasing access to art programs, galleries, and exhibition venues as well as to a rising influx of artists from other parts of the world who have come to the area to study and work. The opening of the Knoxville Museum of Art in 1990 on the site of the 1982 World's Fair indicates the realization of the community's cultural ambitions, and the institution continues to play a vital role in Knoxville's artistic life. As East Tennessee's cultural climate continues to flourish, so too will its community of artists continue to grow and diversify.

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

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.