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

ongoing | Free


Grand Ambitions

Shaping a Regional Identity

Beauford and Joseph Delaney

The Knoxville 7

Bessie Harvey

Sponsors of Higher Ground

Mobile Guided Tours

Overview of Exhibition

Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee traces the evolution of artistic activity in Knoxville and its Appalachian environs from roughly the 1860s to the 1980s. Many of the featured artists spent their entire lives and careers in the area, while some moved away to follow their creative ambitions. Others came from outside the region, attracted by its natural beauty. Together, these artists’ works form the basis of a visual arts tradition that is both compelling and largely unheralded.   

Higher Ground, the KMA’s flagship permanent exhibition celebrating the richness and diversity of East Tennessee’s visual culture, was reimagined in the museum’s newly renovated entrance level galleries in the fall of 2023. The exhibition and accompanying 300 page catalog are organized into broad thematic sections that follow the period of Knoxville’s development into a vital commercial and cultural hub, from the emergence of the first professional arts community to the establishment of the area’s first major arts institutions. 

Grand Ambitions: Forging an Arts Community

Grand Ambitions: Forging an Arts Community addresses the early formative period of a community of professional artists and their dialogue with contemporary currents of American art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This section is built around pioneering Impressionist Catherine Wiley, who trained in the Northeast and returned to Knoxville to encourage the development of a true artistic community along with Lloyd Branson and Hugh Tyler, and helped organize some of the first large art exhibitions in the South. 

Shaping a Regional Identity: Mountain Vistas and Urban Life

Shaping a Regional Identity: Mountain Vistas and Urban Life includes visual representations of a complex and changing region by homegrown and visiting artists over the course of the twentieth century. Henri Cartier-Bresson and Danny Lyon document the hardscrabble reality of industrial Knoxville’s working class, echoing the photographs of Lewis Wickes Hine and Charles E. Krutch that were commissioned by the Tennessee Valley Authority and that record new land-management efforts in rural East Tennessee. In stark contrast are the majestic landscape paintings and photographs by an array of artists, including Ansel Adams, Rudolph Ingerle, and Charles C. Krutch, lured by the beauty of the nearby Great Smoky Mountains. 

Beauford and Joseph Delaney: Expatriate Masters

Beauford and Joseph Delaney: Expatriate Masters, the physical and conceptual centerpiece of the new Higher Ground installation, celebrates the achievements of the immensely talented brothers who left their Knoxville hometown and eventually earned national and international acclaim for their work. Thanks to the depth and richness of the KMA’s holdings by Beauford Delaney, arguably the most important artist East Tennessee ever produced, visitors can assess a broad segment of the painter’s evolution, with particular emphasis given to the ethereal abstract paintings of his fertile Paris years of the 1950s and 1960s—works once described by his protégé James Baldwin as evidence of the painter’s “metamorphosis into freedom.” Joseph Delaney’s inventive compositions vividly capture the turbulent character of modern life in a manner that also conveys in bold terms his passion for the physical act of painting. Balancing elements of descriptive realism and gestural abstraction, Joseph effectively conveys a vibrant modern world in transition while representing an unvarnished record of his energetic painterly process. 

The Knoxville 7

The Knoxville 7 celebrates the adventurous works produced by a group of progressive artists united by their common interest in cultivating modernism in East Tennessee during the 1950s and 1960s. C. Kermit “Buck” Ewing (1910–1976), arrived from Pittsburgh to head the University of Tennessee’s new art department. Ewing recruited a group of progressive younger artists—initially Carl Sublett (1919–2008), Walter Hollis “Holly” Stevens (1927–1980), and Robert Birdwell (1924–2016)—each of whom experimented with contemporary modes, and produced what are likely the first abstract art works in East Tennessee. They eventually became known as “The Knoxville 7” with the recruitment of like-minded artists Joanna Higgs [later Ross] (b. 1934), Richard Clarke (1923–1997), and sculptor Philip Nichols (1931–2019).  

Bessie Harvey

Bessie Harvey, chronologically the latest section, is dedicated to the self-taught visionary artist based in Alcoa, who achieved widespread national recognition for her spiritually charged creations at the end of her life, late in the twentieth century. Bessie Harvey (1929–1994) used little more than roots, sticks, shells, and paint to assemble a diverse cast of spirited figures—biblical characters, African ancestors, mythological creatures—infused with uplifting messages of human perseverance and divine compassion. 


We gratefully acknowledge the many contributions made to support Higher Ground in honor of KMA Executive Director David L. Butler’s tenure (2006-2023).


Mr. & Mrs. Stephen W. Bailey

Ms. Martha E. Begalla

Melissa & Randy Burleson

Mr. & Mrs. Robert Heller

Molly & Bob Joy

The Estate of Daniel McGehee

The Estate of William S. Rukeyser

The Estate of Sarah Stowers

Mr. & Mrs. Charles A. Wagner III

Ms. Melanie C. Wood

All Occasions Party Rentals

The Brewington Family

Stephanie & John Case, Case Auctions

Mary Hale Corkran

Mr. Louis Gauci & Mrs. Kathy Franzel-Gauci

The Guild of the KMA

Ms. Alexandra Rosen & Mr. Donald Cooney

KMA Art House

Ms. Sandi Burdick & Mr. Tom Boyd

Ms. C. Gayle Burnett & Mr. John Atchley

Dr. & Mrs. David A. Cox

Ms. Lane Hays

Dr. & Mrs. Russ Johnston

Mr. & Mrs. James Jones

Ms. Vicki Kinser

The Lederer Family

McCarty Holsaple McCarty

Mrs. Lindsay Y. McDonough and Mr. Robert S. Young

Dr. Kimbro Maguire and Dr. Penny Lynch

Ms. Susana Navarro

Beth and Bill Neilson

Townes L. Osborn and Robert Marquis

Mr. and Mrs. Jan Peters

Mr. and Mrs. Robert F. Samples

Mr. and Mrs. L. Caesar Stair III

Mr. John Z.C. Thomas

Ms. Jackie Wilson

Mr. and Mrs. W. Robert Alcorn, Jr.

Ms. Pandy Anderson

Mr. and Mrs. Steve Apking

Mr. and Mrs. Gary Bentley

Mrs. Barbara Bernstein

Mr. and Mrs. Al Blakley

Mr. and Mrs. Morgan Bromley

Mr. Ken Cagle and Mr. Ben Keyser

Dr. Alan Solomon and Ms. Andrea Cartwright

Dr. and Mrs. Jefferson Chapman

Mr. and Mrs. Dan Chips

Mr. and Mrs. Geoff de Rohan

Dr. and Mrs. R. Kent Farris

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas G. Ford

Ms. Susan French

Ms. Jenny Glover

Mr. and Mrs. Louis A. Hartley

Mr. and Mrs. Robert Hawthorne

Ms. Cathy Hill

Ms. Suzanne Jack and Mr. Tom Scott

Mr. Richard Jansen–Monaco

Mr. and Mrs. Garrett Jernigan

Knoxville Design Collective

Ms. Maribel W. Koella and Mr. Chuck Jones

Mr. and Mrs. Larry Leibowitz

Ms. Sheryl Linck and Mr. Garry Conklin

Dr. and Mrs. Reinhold Mann

Carole and Bob Martin

Dr. Angela Masini and Mr. Terry Grove

MoxCar Marketing + Communications

Ms. Allison Page and Mr. Connor Coffey

Mr. and Mrs. Ken Parent

Dr. and Mrs. Stanley Park

Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey D. Peters

Mr. Todd Richesin and Mr. Bobby Brown

Dr. Bernard S. Rosenblatt

Patricia and Alan Rutenberg

Ms. Susan Seymour

Tommy and Tiffany Siler

Mr. James F. Smith, Jr.

Mr. and Mrs. Frank Steer

Ms. Merikay Waldvogel and Mr. Jerry Ledbetter

Mr. and Mrs. Geoffrey Wolpert