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.
Birdwell drew his primary inspiration from downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, where he grew up. Here, he captures the intricate interplay of geometric forms, varying textures and contrasting colors along downtown Knoxville’s main thoroughfare.
Clarke was one of the early members of the University of Tennessee’s art faculty. He found inspiration for his watercolor abstractions in the natural world around him. Some resemble studies of light and atmosphere, while others appear as if cross-sections of the surrounding landscape.
Ewing’s later work, Sports Final, on the opposite wall, depicts a newspaper seller on Kingston Pike in Knoxville in 1949. The thick, bold brushwork, flattened forms and distorted features of the newspaper seller reflect Ewing’s growing interest in Abstract Expressionism.
Nichols is a veteran Knoxville artist known for his welded steel sculptures resembling architectural structures or mechanical forms designed for an unknown purpose. He came to Knoxville in 1961 from Michigan as the first sculptor appointed to the University of Tennessee art faculty and the seventh and final member of the Knoxville Seven. Using skills honed through years of work as an industrial welder, he fused dozens of small steel panels into a cubist-inspired structure resembling a pair of conjoined, faceted figures.
For Higgs Ross, the Smoky Mountains serve as an endless source of artistic inspiration. Trees and Sky was inspired by her first car ride through the Smokies in the fall of 1959, three years after she moved to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee. The fragmented imagery suggests fleeting glimpses of the landscape from the vantage point of a moving vehicle. Shortly after her arrival in Knoxville in 1956, Higgs Ross became the youngest member of the Knoxville Seven, and remained active in the group until she returned to Middle Tennessee in 1961.
Walter Hollis Stevens was a pioneering abstract expressionist in East Tennessee and an early member of the University of Tennessee’s art department. He and fellow artist Carl Sublett spent summers painting in East Tennessee and along the Maine coast, using the landscape as the basis for their bold, improvisational experiments with color and form.
Sublett was one of East Tennessee’s most prolific and versatile artists. The Kentucky native came to Knoxville in 1954 and soon became an influential painting instructor at the University of Tennessee. He found endless inspiration in the Maine coastline, East Tennessee countryside and many other outdoor painting locations. Sublett shifted effortlessly from abstraction to precise realism throughout his long career and by the 1970s turned to watercolor as his primary medium.