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.
Higher Ground Gallery Guide
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 soon emerged as 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 pursuing art training in New York, and introduced the style to artists and patrons following her return to 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 an undisclosed 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 everchanging 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 Tennessee marble industry began during the late 1830’s with the discovery of major veins in Hawkins County. Around 1850, Tennessee marble was discovered in Knox and Blount Counties where, with greater access to rail, the stone industry took off. By the 1880s, Knoxville became known as “The Marble City,” and its extensive quarries supplied stone used throughout the region and in the construction of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., New York’s state capitol, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, New York’s Grand Central Station, and the New York Public Library’s famous stone lions. The Knoxville Museum of Art is also clad in pink Tennessee marble.
Despite its name, Tennessee marble is not a true marble due to its sedimentary structure and lesser hardness that are more akin to limestone. However, its high density, low porosity, water resistance, and range of color contribute to its distinguished history as a highly attractive building material.
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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 in 1934.
Ansel Adams, best known for his epic images of Yosemite and other western landmarks, visited the Smokies in 1948 and produced black and white photographs that capture the area’s lush terrain. Twenty years later, color landscape photography pioneer Eliot Porter’s dye transfer prints of the park generated widespread attention after being featured in the acclaimed monograph Appalachian Wilderness.
Rudolph Ingerle, Louis Jones, and other landscape painters from around the country often spent summers in East Tennessee, journeying deep into the Smokies to make sketches. Jones, a native of Pennsylvania, 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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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. Young artists often concluded that their best chance for artistic success was to relocate permanently to major art centers. Born in Knoxville in 1901 to a Methodist Episcopalian minister, Beauford Delaney and his younger brother Joseph demonstrated early artistic talent. Their parents supported the brothers’ creative aspirations, and Beauford’s talents came to the attention of painter Lloyd Branson, who served as an early mentor. Facing the additional hurdle of racism, the brothers 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. He attracted a host of distinguished friends including Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, Willem de Kooning, James Baldwin, Henry Miller, and Louis Armstrong. He became known for his radiant portraits and landscapes in which he explored color—luminous color—applied with explosive brushwork. Visible references to the outside world began to fade as the artist sought what he believed were the healing powers of light as embodied in the brilliant hues of his palette.
Joseph Delaney, on the other hand, headed for Chicago before settling in New York, where he established himself as a tireless and prolific painter of Manhattan’s urban scene. Over the span of his 60-year career, Joseph displayed a remarkable ability to convey a vibrant modern world in transition while representing an unvarnished record of his energetic painterly process. He returned to Knoxville to visit his family over the years and eventually moved back to his hometown in 1986. The Knoxville Museum of Art has worked diligently to call attention to the artistic accomplishments of both brothers by hosting or organizing such exhibitions as Beauford Delaney: From New York to Paris (2005), Beauford Delaney: Gathering Light (2017), Joseph Delaney: On the Move (2018), and Beauford Delaney & James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door (2020). The KMA owns the world’s largest and most comprehensive institutional collection of Beauford Delaney’s work, and an extensive selection of paintings and drawings by Joseph Delaney.
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. Knoxville native 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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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, and 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 7” with fellow painters Joanne Higgs Ross, Richard Clarke, and sculptor Philip Nichols. Each artist maintained an individual style and utilized varying degrees of abstraction. Together, they produced what are likely the first abstract works 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 Knoxville Museum of Art’s predecessor, the Dulin Gallery of Art, opened on Kingston Pike as the area’s dedicated venue for the display and collection of fine art. The Dulin became known for its national works on paper competitions, and its set of nine early miniature rooms created by renowned miniaturist Mrs. James Ward Thorne (on display on ground floor).
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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.
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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Danny Lyon: Knoxville, 1967
Danny Lyon is considered one of America’s most original and influential documentary photographers, and is known for the extraordinary lengths to which he goes to immerse himself in his subject. He was jailed while marching against segregation during the civil rights movement, rode with the notorious Chicago Outlaws as a full-fledged member for a year, and spent fourteen months photographing life on death row inside the Texas prison system. His goal, he said, was “to destroy Life magazine”— to present powerful, authentic alternatives to the hollow pictures and stories permeating mass media in America.
These photographs stem from Lyon’s brief stopover in Knoxville in late August of 1967 in order to visit the childhood home of writer James Agee. He admired Agee’s brutally candid and descriptive work, especially his collaboration with photographer Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. As Lyon explained, “Agee’s writing had a more profound effect on me at the time than Evans’s photographs…Agee had an unshakeable belief in documentary photography and film as a powerful instrument of truth.”
When Lyon arrived at the location of Agee’s home near the intersection of Highland Avenue and 15th Street in the Fort Sanders neighborhood, he was dismayed to find that the writer’s residence had been demolished and replaced by the James Agee Apartments, which he described as “like some kind of perverse tombstone for this great man.” Instead of getting back in his car and driving on to Galveston, Lyon was compelled to stay and explore Agee’s hometown. He photographed the streets of Fort Sanders, downtown Knoxville, carnival workers (“carnies”) at the Tennessee Valley Fair, and a local drag strip. Lyon was so inspired he made a journal entry explaining that “I have photographed every day and every day done more…by Labor Day weekend I had exposed 14 rolls of 35 mm Tri-X…the most I’ve done in such a short period (five days).”
Lyon’s images offer a compelling and candid view of a Southern city during a time of social and economic unrest, and attest to his ability to become an insider in any setting he encountered. The gelatin silver prints on view were produced by Lyon and printer Chuck Kelton as part of a one-of-a-kind portfolio made especially for the Knoxville Museum of Art’s collection. As Lyon observed, “It’s been a long time. I am glad these pictures have come home.”
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Sponsors of Higher Ground
Presenting Sponsor of Higher Ground
Ann and Steve Bailey
Sponsors of Higher Ground
David Butler and Ted Smith
City of Knoxville
Clayton Family Foundation
Jim and Michell Clayton
Collectors Circle of the KMA
Annie and David Colquitt
Barbara and Jeffrey Crist
Jan and David Dugger
East Tennessee Foundation
Karen and James Everett
Guild of the KMA
Teresa and Hunter Harrison
Crissy and Bill Haslam
Natalie and Jim Haslam
Florence and Russ Johnston
Knox County Government
Carol and Stephen Krauss
The Lederer Family
Brenda and Robert Madigan
Lindsay and Jim McDonough
Alexandra Rosen and Donald Cooney
Karen and Richard Smith
Joseph Sullivan, III *
Tennessee Arts Commission
Friends of Higher Ground
Sam Beall, Jr.
Barbara and Bernie Bernstein
Norma and Joseph Cook
Monica Crane and Luke Madigan
Kitsy and Lou Hartley
Knoxville Garden Club
Beth and Bill Neilson
Sylvia and Jan Peters
Pam and Jeff Peters
Elisabeth and Bill Rukeyser
Leslie and John* Testerman
John Z.C. Thomas
Nancy and Charlie Wagner
Merikay Waldvogel and Jerry Ledbetter
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Ann and Steve Bailey