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The Dragons of Fannie Mae Dees Park

Yes, dragons. There are two. There is quite a history to Fannie Mae Dees Park and its dragons. Like the mural it inspired, mamma dragon and her child needed to be renovated recently, having deteriorated badly since their creation in 1981. But first some back story.

Sea Dragon sculpture mosaic Nashville street art

The park has its origins in the urban renewal movement of the 1970s. It’s hard to imagine that the neighborhoods near Vanderbilt could have ever been thought of as blighted, but so they were declared, to be taken by eminent domain and demolished for development.  Fannie Mae Dees lived in the path of this “renewal,” and became a fierce activist who fought back. She ultimately lost, and many houses on the south side of Vanderbilt were demolished. One plot slated to become a hospital ultimately proved unusable, and became a park, though Dees did not live to see it. The park was named after her, in honor of her activism – though the land would not have been cleared if she had won.

Sea Dragon sculpture mosaic Nashville street art

Anne Roos, then a board member of Metro Parks, invited Pedro Silva to come to Nashville after learning about a community art project he had done near Grant’s Tomb in New York City, a set of curving, mosaic-colored benches. She thought a similar project might help heal some of the neighborhood strife that resulted from the urban renewal project. And the Sea Serpents were born. Yes, sea serpents – that’s what Silva called them. In this WPLN Curious Nashville article that I got most of this information from (written by Mike Linebaugh), you can see him working on the interior frame. Later, people from around the neighborhood came and painted tiles, which Silva turned into mosaics, much as he had done at the Grant’s Tomb project. He included many faces, including a portrait of Fannie Mae Dees herself, with the house she defended in the background.

Mosaic portrait Nashville Street art

Ultimately, the dragons, as Nashvillians know them, deteriorated. Intermittently repaired over the years, it would take a major renovation project in 2017 and 2018, spearheaded by the Hillsboro-West End Neighborhood Association, to restore the dragons. Again, people from the neighborhood participated in the reconstruction, including some who had been part of the original build. Interestingly, the same things happened to the Grant’s Tomb project. Silva led that renovation but had sadly died by the time the Nashville project was underway.

Sea Dragon sculpture mosaic Nashville street art

And so the sea serpents, err, dragons are restored. And yes, I was able to get these photos because of the pandemic. Sadly, no one can play on them right now.

The head of the larger dragon

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The Middle Hump

The Small Dragon

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The Tail Group

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Located at 2400 Blakemore Avenue. The dragons are close to the center of the park and are easily visible from both Blakemore and 24ty Avenue south. Much of the closest street parking is metered.

Nashville Strong 2020

Nashville Strong mural street art tornado

Well, that was fast. The tornado came in the very early hours of Tuesday morning. By late afternoon Sunday, Nashville’s artists had responded. Of course, every artist needs a sponsor, and they found one in Mathew Charette. Charette is the owner of Drifters, Beyond the Edge, and Boston Commons and the building that housed the Gold Club Electric tattoo parlor. All three restaurants were damaged, and the Gold Club Electric building was destroyed. But Charette felt the need to

“Shake my fist” at this storm and say “is that all you got storm, you don’t know who you are messing with, we are East Nashville Five Points and we are Nashville Strong”

And so he put out a call to artists to do just, offering an intact wall at Boston Commons. Ultimately, Mobe Oner, Jason Galaz, and Milton Chavez answered the call. It certainly got a lot of attention. Heck, some of the media even thought it was important to film Galaz changing into his painting shoes. In this WKRN story, you can listen to Charette talk about what inspired him, as well as see some of the work of producing the mural and hear from the artists as well.

Now about the photo. I’ve gotten fairly picky about photos on this blog – no shadows, no backlighting, no cars in front. A fence in front? Clipped off signatures? No way! But this morning, when I tried to photograph it, the police wouldn’t let me near, as the whole area was cleared for NES workers who were working to restore power. However, Officer Eric Burford of the MNPD was kind enough to take my phone and walk down to the site and shoot a quick photo for me. Apparently, he had to be quick because NES workers were moving some heavy equipment nearby. I think the picture is completely appropriate. Nashville is under repair right now. A lot is broken, a lot is incomplete. No one has time to complain about inconveniences, but everyone tries to help everyone else. That’s the spirit of Nashville Strong.

Located at 1008A Woodland Street. Right now, you can’t park nearby or even walk up there, at least while NES crews are at work, but in the future, the usual Five Points rules apply. Paid parking if you don’t want to walk, or street parking if you can walk two or three blocks.

Hyatt House and the Melting LP

Nestled in the alcove that forms the entrance to the Hyatt House Nashville at Vanderbilt (actually a couple blocks north of Vandy) is this large image (it’s around ten feet high). It looks for all the world like a viny LP record that is melting, dripping in thin streams of color down the panel. If you’re just walking down the street, it jumps out in stark contrast from the white wall behind it, as you can gather from the context shots below. A deconstructed vinyl record in rapidly developing Midtown seems appropriate, particularly since it is just a few steps away from the Rock Block, itself threatened by growth. It’s by Eastside Murals, with a discreet signature on the side. Instead of their more common way of working by painting directly on walls, this work is on a large wooden panel. The wall it sits on is alternately smooth and rough, and you can see from the picture of the signature below, the artists shaped the wood accordingly. Is it coincidence that the void in the middle is the perfect place to stand to get your picture taken?

Dripping vinyl mural street art Nashville

Hotels frequently use art, sometimes on a grand scale, but I think a giant wooden panel painted by local artists on the outside of a hotel is a little unusual. It certainly fits with the theme that Nashville business, even corporate chains, see outdoor art as a necessary part of their business plan.

Located at 2100 Hayes Street. The mural is on the south side of the building facing Hayes, near the corner with 21st Avenue North. There is street parking on Hayes.

The Spirit of Nashville

The “Spirit of Nashville” posters are all over town. You’ll find them in offices, restaurants, and homes all around Nashville. They are the product of Anderson Design Group  (formerly part of Anderson Thomas Design, Inc.) and first appeared in 2003 when founder and lead designer Joel Anderson got the idea for a calendar of hand-drawn retro posters capturing the essence and history of Nashville. Realizing they had far more than twelve ideas, ADG has been producing new posters ever since for the series. There’s even a book that has gone through multiple editions, Spirit of Nashville—The Art & Soul of Music City.  According to their store’s web page about the series, “This project has been a 16-year collaboration of 17 ADG staff artists, researchers, historians, illustrators, printers, calligraphists, and designers.”

The art on the outside of the building, including the large Sprint of Nashville mural, are all metal prints from the series. The mural is a variation of a 2019 design by Anderson himself called “Spirit of Nashville: Leaning Cowboy,” and you can get a print in several sizes. There are many designs honoring all kinds of Nashville icons and institutions. On the first picture of the building below, you can see two large posters (there’s another around the backside), “Music City Pinup Girl” and “State Flag Skyline.” In the middle of the is a small plaque – “Photo Opportunity.” ADG knows something about selfie culture!

Below are some other pictures of the building, and the signs on the ADG store. I put in two angled shots because a couple of the posters are hidden in a straight-on view, and the poster on the backside of the building (“Music City (Man)“) is at the end of the slide show.

Anderson posters Nashville mural street art

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Located at 116 29th Ave North. Street parking is available.

G.P. Rose & Co.

This may at first just appear to be a picture of an old brick building, found on 8th Ave South just south of the railroad bridge, a building which until recently housed the Downtown Antique Mall. Look closer though, and a faded set of signs emerges. Damage on the taller part of the building has erased part of the original sign, and banners, one for the departed antique mall, one advertising the building for lease, hide much of the long thin signs down the length of the building.  (There’s a clip from Google Street View below that doesn’t have the leasing sign.) They advertise a firm that was called G.P. Rose & Co. According to the 1919 edition of  Grain and Farm Service Centers, Vol 43 (scroll down to the bottom of page 1143, the linked page) G.P Rose & Co. was founded in 1884, the successor to Smith & Rose. The company featured direct access to the L & N and the N.C. & St. Louis Railroads (there are still tracks behind the building, and rail traffic still passes by regularly) and was powered by three 35 h.p G.E. engines (in 1919, anyway). There were two buildings at the time that could hold a total of 95 thousand bushels and handled wheat, oats rye, field seeds, and cowpeas. As the signs on the building say twice, “A Feed for Every Breed.” It’s quite conceivable the sign goes back to 1884. If so, it would have been originally painted 136 years ago. It’s also possible the sign is somewhat younger or was substantially altered at some point – being sure will take more research. But it’s very likely to be one of the oldest painted signs in Nashville, if not the very oldest. Nashville was a much smaller place back then, as can be seen from the 1889 G.M. Hopkins Atlas of Nashville, and there aren’t many candidates left. For instance, you can see a few faded letters high up on 423 Broadway, present home of the downtown version of Mellow Mushroom, which seem to read “—WELL BROS & Co” that may be from the late 19th century, but that’s about it for Lower Broad and its cross streets. The 1889 Hopkins Atlas also explicitly shows G.P Rose, though back then 8th Ave was called Spruce Street (see the excerpt below). I also found on eBay a collection notice signed by Mr. G.P. Rose himself, dated April 29th, 1885 (which I bought!) – you’ll find it at the bottom. It would be really nice if this sign was spruced up. That will likely depend on the building’s next tenant, assuming it’s not torn down.

GP Rose sign street art Nashville

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Located at 606 Eighth Ave South. It’s possible to park for a while in the space just south of the building, between it and Norris Architecture next door. Otherwise, you’ll need to park on the other side of 8th Ave.

La Hacienda Taqueria

Facing the front parking lot of La Hacienda Taqueria, one of the original Mexican restaurants on Nolensville Road, is a mural that has been seen by tens if not hundreds of thousands of people by now. But it’s unsigned, and most people would have no idea who might have made it. Even the staff just points to the signature on the main mural inside, which was clearly done by the same artist. It reads “M. Torok ’99.” Well, there is a painter and muralist named “M. Torok” with a deep connection to Nashville, Mitchell Torok. Torok, who now resides in Texas, had a long career in country music as a performer and, in partnership with his late wife, Gail “Ramona” Redd, a songwriter. He is best known for the songs “Mexican Joe,” (which was an even bigger hit for Jim Reeves) and “Caribbean,” and he and Redd wrote successful songs for a number of other artists. But before he became a recording star, he got a dual degree in Art and Journalism from Stephen F. Austin University. He must have had a reputation as a visual artist in Nashville because he  “was commissioned to paint a 110-foot, five-panel mural titled “The History of the Grand Ol’ Opry”, which was on display in the Ryman Auditorium until it was remodeled for live performances.” (Wikipedia) (That remodeling happened in 1994.) He also painted an 85-foot long mural called “Elvis-A-Rama” detailing the life of Elvis Presley, which was last seen in a museum owned by Jimmy Velvet that closed in 2006. It’s unclear what happened to that mural. The La Hacienda murals, including the ones inside, are a little worse for wear, but still going strong. The outdoor one featured here has been broken up by the construction of an outdoor seating area, but you can see that hidden part below in the slideshow. And being from 1999, it is definitely one of the oldest outdoor murals in town. That I know of only the Chromatics mural (1993) and the renovated painter mural at the Hard Rock Cafe are older (date unknown, but it was hidden for decades by an adjoining building that was torn down in or just before 1994, when Hard Rock opened). The Angels Will Rise/Seventh Letter mural came just after La Hacienda, in 2001. As of this writing, Torok at 90 years old is apparently still alive and painting and writing in Texas, making him perhaps the oldest and certainly one of the oldest artists I’ve featured on this blog. UPDATE: I have since discovered the mural on the side of Nudie’s on Lower Broad is dated 1993.

Hacienda Mural street art Nashville

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Located at 2615 Nolensville Pike. The mural actually sits on the north wall (facing downtown) of La Hacienda Supermercado next door at 2617. There is parking in front and in the rear of the restaurant (the rear parking is reached from Grandview Avenue). If you want any chance to see it without cars parked in front, arrive before 10:00 a.m., which is when the restaurant opens each day.

We Are Seeds

The giant mural that appeared this fall on the back of Center 615  began as an idea to bring together the many non-profit groups in Nashville. Southern Women for Civil Rights planted the seed, as it were, for what became the We Are Seeds Community Mural + Block Party, resulting in the mural above. Center 615 offered its back wall, which is separated by an alley and a fence from the Parkway Terrace Homes, an MDHA affordable housing complex. For the SWCR and the artists who became involved, it was important to engage that community and not simply present them with a fait-accompli. So the artists, including Catlin Mello, Omari Booker, Elisheba Israel Mrozik and Woke3 (Here’s a photo set of them as they got started planning), began by engaging the Parkway Terrace community. Some of them worked with children from Parkway Terrace in portrait-drawing classes. As the mural began to grow, with the theme “They tried to bury us but we are seeds,” many of the kids from the community got directly involved, helping to paint and signing their names. The lower reaches of the mural are covered with names and even a few handprints. Some of them needed a little help. A few of the kids are even featured in the mural (see below). Adults and children from communities and non-profits from around the city also got involved. Painting the mural took about a month When the time for the block party rolled around (September 22, 2018), 500 to 600 people representing communities and non-profits from around Davidson county participated in games, put the finishing touches on the mural and shared free food and drink (provided in part by Center 615) – and maybe also bought some lemonade to support the Malala Fund. The mural itself demonstrates the diverse styles of the main artists. Woke3 did the waves, flowers, and tree on the far left of the mural, Mello did the lettering (with an assist by Troy Duff), the women in the center were done by Mrozik, and the children and flowers on the right were done by Omari Booker. All I can say is wow, and I’m sorry I missed the party.

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Located at 615 Main Street. The mural lies on the north side of the building (the opposite side from Main) along an alley that runs between North 7th and North 6th Streets. During the workweek, there are often cars parked in front of the mural, so it is probably best to visit on the weekend. Street parking is available on both Sixth and Seventh.

Jefferson Street Gateway to Heritage

Like in so many other cities in the United States, when the interstates came to Nashville, the were driven straight through the heart of a vibrant and historic African American neighborhood, the Jefferson Street corridor. As part of The New York Times’s 1619 Project, Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse spelled out the history of this terrible legacy, focusing on Atlanta but telling a story that applies just as well here. Stitching back together what was torn apart isn’t easy, but the Jefferson Street Gateway to Heritage is an attempt to move in that direction. Jefferson Street is chopped up by interstates twice, but the worst spot is where I-40 sails over almost two blocks, between 26th Avenue and where 24th should be. Perhaps appropriately, it is there where one finds the center of this ongoing Metro-backed beautification process that seeks also to address Jefferson Street’s history. One of the key figures in kick-starting this process was Dr. Learotha Williams, a history professor at Tennesse State University (and colleague of your intrepid blogger). In the first phase, finished in 2012, the design firm Edge led a community-driven process that led to a new plaza under the bridge, featuring columns with plaques honoring various figures from the neighborhood’s history, and a giant mural by James R. Threalkill and Michael McBride. The Jefferson Street this mural shows is geographically fluid (Meharry Medical College is shown next to TSU, not its actual neighbor Fisk University), but fully captures the dynamism of the neighborhood’s past and present. The focus is on Jefferson Street’s deep musical history, which is a recurring theme in other modern Jefferson Street murals, such as the ones featured in Guitar heroes and Back in the Day. The mural also features lost businesses, like the Ritz Theater, while linking to the present with a reference to J.U.M.P., the Jefferson Street United Merchants Partnership. The historic plaques on the columns (click to see some closeups – this story describes all the people featured) were done by FORMS+SURFACES and the landscape design was done by LOSE Design.

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Jefferson History mural street art Nashville

Located on the north side of the 2400 and 2500 blocks of Jefferson Street. The mural is on the east side of the site. There are also more history-themed columns on nearby blocks of Jefferson. Street parking is available starting at about 2600 Jefferson St.

 

Bending Normal

This piece, “Bending Normal” (2017), by Brooklyn artist Marcus Manganni, has stood in front of The Packing Plant (a building with several small art galleries) since September 2017. If you visit during the First Saturday Wedgewood-Houston art crawl, you’re likely to see people walking around, taking pictures, or just studying the different ways it catches the light from different angles. What you see when you see it, what you get when you shoot, depends entirely on where you are standing, what time of year and what time of day it is, and most certainly what the light is like. You can see from the light and reflections in these photos that I took them last winter. Shoot them now, and that half-finished building would now reflect as finished. No two pictures of the piece will ever be the same. And that’s probably the point. As Manganni noted in an interview with The Tennessean and as he was quoted in The Nashville Scene, “Bending Normal” is a direct response to the statue of Nathaniel Bedford Forrest by Jack Kershaw that’s visible from I-65  south of downtown. Other than saying his piece “sends the exact opposite message” of the Forrest sculpture, Manganni doesn’t directly explain how it is in opposition to Kershaw’s piece. My suggestion is that the very ambiguity of “Bending Normal,” that what it is and what it looks like is fluid, despite its hard crisp lines, is precisely that “opposite message.” “Bending Normal” poses more questions than it answers, while Kershaw’s piece asserts its truth and dares us to say otherwise. Certainly, Manganni’s piece is up for much richer interpretations than the statue of Forrest. (And it occurs to me – the Forrest statue is in Davidson County. I guess I have to put it on the blog. “No art left behind” and all that.) You can check out Manganni’s own photos of “Bending Normal” here.

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Located at 507 Hagan Street, at the corner with Gray Street. When it’s not art crawl, parking in the gravel lot across the street is easy, and there is parking along Gray Street as well. During art crawl, I recommend getting there early (6:00ish) or plan on parking farther away.

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