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Four years and counting

Today is the fourth anniversary of this blog, and I present a work of art no Nashvillian has ever seen. Ok, not a very good joke, but the “Musica” sculpture by Alan LeQuire has been a notable absence from a blog with the motto “no art left behind.” It is in fact one of the most commented-on works of art in Nashville, ever since it went up in 2003. The nakedness of the figures has been a main point of discussion, and at various times pranksters have put clothes on them. Recently, they were briefly masked. Perhaps less known is that the traffic circle they sit in is the Buddy Killen Circle. Killen was an important Music Row producer and publisher before his death in 2006. (Pictures of “Musica” in the round can be found at the bottom of the post.)

I don’t think I knew what I was getting into when I started this blog. It’s become a little something of a second job, though I wish I could tell all the folks trying to sell me blog-related services, this is a strictly non-profit hobby. I started at just the right time. Although this is certainly not a murals-only blog, the explosion in the Nashville mural scene is what has sustained it. Four years ago, murals were mainly on auto repair shops, in back alleys, and other out-of-the-way places. Then they migrated, slowly at first and then a rush, to the street-visible walls of local businesses. In the last several months, national chains have begun to enter the mural market, though not yet at full steam. Why has all this happened? In part, it goes back to an early push by Chamber East (the East Nashville branch of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce) and the high-profile example of the works promoted by the Nashville Walls Project. But it is also about a slow-developing movement reaching critical mass. One store-owner gets a mural and gets a lot of attention, and then neighboring businesses want one. Then it starts a few blocks down. Next thing you know, we have several full-time muralists in town and a few people leading mural tours for a living. While I have you here, I’ll tell you my little hobby horse: The artists who do mural work for Latino and other immigrant businesses are some of the most prolific artists in town, they’ve been doing long before anyone else got started, and they deserve to be recognized as real artists!

The blog has grown slowly in activity over the years. The first full year, 2017, 600 views a month was common. In 2018, it rose to around 1500 a month, to a little over 2300 per month in 2019. 2020 has been weird – a 3000 view month in both March and June, with a big crash in the months in between. That may have something to do with the demographics of my readers. Google tells me that my readership skews heavily female, and the largest group of readers are women aged 18-34 – you know, the bachelorette demographic? Who weren’t in town much during the height of the shutdown? By the way, those bachelorettes are another major reason for the mural explosion, as murals pull them in and that drives street traffic, music to any business owner’s ears.

And slowly but surely, Google has taken notice. If you search for “nashville public art,” I’m usually near or at the top of the page. With “nashville murals” and “nashville street art” you can now actually find me, though you still have to work your way through a few pages of links to all the “Here are the best 20 murals for your Instagram shot” articles to find me. For years though, this blog just didn’t show up at all in those kinds of searches. Progress!

The blog needs revamping. The biggest project I have in mind is thoroughly revising the Categories tab. I set up those categories on day one having no idea what I would need, and most of them I never use. I’d like them to reflect better what’s on the blog and be more useful to readers. That’s going to be a big job because I hit 600 posts back in April, but it’s on my list. I know that picture-heavy as it is, the blog can load slowly at times, and I need to work on that as well. Speaking of milestones, the map will have 600 pins on it soon, so look for me to finally post about another major work of art missing from my blog when that happens.

I’m going to keep at it, and sometime, possibly later this year, I’m going to start including work from the surrounding counties. In the meantime, keep reading, and get out there and enjoy the art!

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“Musica” is located in the middle of Buddy Killen Circle, where Music Square East, Division Street, Demonbreun Street, and 16th Avenue South meet. There is paid parking in the building between Demonbreun and Division and elsewhere nearby. Street parking is available on some nearby blocks.

Little Jimmy Dickens

As he was a long-time stalwart of the Grand Ole Opry, it makes sense to find a life-size sculpture of Little Jimmy Dickens right in the center of the plaza in front of the entrance to the Ryman Auditorium, the Opry’s long-time former home. It’s actually fairly new. It and a statue of Bill Monroe nearby were unveiled on June 7, 2017. Both are by the Mississippi sculptor Ben Watts. (I’ll write about the Monroe statue in a later post.) Brad Paisley, who cites Dickens as an important influence, helped dedicate the statue, noting Dickens’s hard work and commitment to entertaining his audiences. Dickens, who died at 94 on January 2, 2015, had been on stage at the Opry just days before.

Besides his diminutive size and love of funny novelty songs, Dickens was also an early pioneer of the rhinestone style, which West has captured in bronze. Dickens was also a Shriner, and consistently wore a Shriner symbol on his cowboy hats, also seen in West’s work.

The Ryman has announced plans to work with Watts again to produce more statues of iconic country music figures, so expect to see even more bronzes at the Ryman in the coming years.

As you can see in the slideshow below, this is another in a series of works that has a helpful suggestion as to where the photographer should stand for your photo with Dickens. The empty plaza in my photos also tells you that I shot this during the pandemic shutdown. Even so, I did have to wait for a small group to finish their pictures first.

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Located at 116 5th Avenue North. That’s the official address of the Ryman, and long ago it was where you entered the building. However, the modern entrance faces the 100 block of 4th Avenue North, about a half-block north of Broadway. That is where you will find the statue. This is downtown – lots of parking, almost none of it free.

The Gathering

Some of the most visible and seen outdoor art in Nashville are the pieces in William Edmonson Park. With busy Charlotte Pike just steps away, thousands of Nashville commuters drive past these every day, and they have become familiar landmarks for many. Of course, the are an intrinsic part of the John Henry Hale Apartments, an MDHA-run affordable housing complex that was completely rebuilt a few years ago and which borders the park. One of them I’ve written about before, Road to the Mountaintop by Thornton Dial at the northwestern end of the park.

Near the other end of the park are these figures by Sherri Warren Hunter, called “Ther Gathering.” The four figures have not always been Charlotte Pike landmarks, however. Originally, they sat in front of The Oasis Center headquarters, when the center was still on Music Row. In 2001, Hunter gathered volunteers from Oasis and from the community, taught them how to cut and set mosaic, and turned the production of the figures into a real community event. After ten years The Oasis Center moved to a site just west of the park, and in 2013 Oasis donated the figures to Metro Nashville Arts. Metro Arts worked with Hunter to restore and move the pieces safely. A U-shaped string of rock benches allow for seating around the sculptures. Sometime since 2013, the unusual “shades” seen below were added.

The Gathering Sculpture Nashville street art

We live in a time when gathering is of great concern. The COVID-19 pandemic has kept people apart, while the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Milwaukee police have brought people together – and torn them apart as well. Hunter’s piece reflects a simple truth, that we are social beings, and are often defined by our relationships with each other. And of course our pets.

Located at 1600 Charlotte Avenue. The sculpture lies near the northwestern end of the park, facing along a driveway that comes off of 17th Avenue North, near the intersection with Charlotte. The nearest street parking is one block north on Capitol Point

All aboard the B1281 camper!

Some months ago I wrote about a mural on the back of the then not-yet-open Bar 1281, a “pop-up” backyard bar with Hawaiian and Japanese style food. It’s part of a larger development developed by Bento Box that’s largely finished. Of course, like most bars, Bar 1281 is currently closed, but they also have another mural, this one visible from the street. It appeared last June and was created by Wooden Wave, the Hawaiian-based husband and wife team of Matthew and Roxanne Ortiz. Given the Hawaiian theme of the bar and its Hawaiian roots, it makes sense that the artists are from Hawaii. Scroll through their Instagram page and you’ll soon see that camper vans and treehouses are themes they use a lot. I actually first photographed this last October but wasn’t happy with my pictures. One thing that has changed since then is the appearance of a metal Bigfoot, with a small headstone behind it that reads “Roo Nov 1977 – Mar 31, 1991.” I have found no explanation, but rest in peace, Roo.

B1281 mural Nashville Street art

Bigfoot sculpture Nashville street art

Located at 1281 Third Avenue South. There is some limited street parking on Third.

The AT&T Sculpture

This work took a little bit of sleuthing because it is not labeled. It’s certainly not secret. It lies at 4th and Commerce, at the foot of the Batman Building (aka the AT&T Building), almost directly across the street from the Ryman Auditorium. Certainly, it’s well known to people who work downtown and has been seen by a lot of tourists, and in 2005 it was featured on the cover of the Nashville Business Directory. It turns out that it’s a creation of Lin Swensson, who happens to be the daughter of the architect who designed the AT&T Building, Earl Swensson of ESa. It’s thirty-five feet tall and was unveiled on October 12, 1994. As the Tennesse Department of Community and Economic Development was one of the building’s original tenants, the sculpture was meant to be an abstract representation of Tennessee’s economic growth. The best way to describe it is with the artist’s own words:

The design consists of a granite spire tapering at the top – around the spire is an image of the state of Tennessee.  Out of the state of Tennessee image is a stainless ribbon representing energy emerging, twirling up to meet three kinetic rings representing the world.

The installation was quite a process that involved closing streets and heavy machinery. Swensson herself is apparently still sculpting, but based on her website, it appears her main focus now is healthcare art consulting.

This slideshow takes you on a clockwise walk around the sculpture.

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Located at 333 Commerce Street. The sculpture is in a small well just off the corner of 4th and Commerece. There are benches where you can sit and observe the sculpture, or more likely, have lunch. This is downtown – lots of parking, almost none of it free.

A Splash of Color

For twenty years, these colorful dancing figures have graced the side of the Watkins Park Community Center. They, along with the mosaics and other figures that adorn the entrance, are called “A Splash of Color,” and were done in 2000 by Doug Stevenson, Ronnica Stanley, and Lynn Harroff.  I got their names from the Metro-Owned Artwork Conditions Assessment Report (pdf), but otherwise, I’ve been able to learn little about them. It’s likely they were associated with the community center at the time. Since then a tree has grown up that obscures the center figures, but otherwise, as the report states, their condition, and the condition of the mosaics, is quite good. Pretty impressive for painted wood exposed to the weather. And they definitely bring color and life to an otherwise drab building. Some differ, but I believe bringing beauty to public spaces is a good use of Metro dollars, though, in these tough budget times, we probably won’t be getting anything new for a while. Good thing these relics are holding up well.

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These are the mosaics and other figures at the entrance.

Watkins Figures mural mosaic Nashville Street art

Located at 617 17th Avenue North. The figures along the wall face south towards Jo Johnston Avenue, while the entrance is on 17th Avenue. The community center has parking, and street parking is available nearby.

The Founding of Nashville

Historic statues, like any way of telling history, always come with a point of view. This statue commemorates the moment that two founders of Nashville, James Robertson and John Donelson, reunited on approximately the very spot the sculpture sits, and clearly represents it as a noble if somber moment. In the middle of the American Revolution, Roberston (shown with an ax over his shoulder) and Donelson (shown with a rifle) were part of a group of colonists who sought to settle along the Cumberland River. In late 1779, Roberston traveled by land from what is now Kingsport, TN with a group of about 200 men. They chose a site known as French Lick to build Fort Nashborough. Donelson came by river with a large group that included families, arriving on April 24, 1780. It’s entirely plausible that Roberston and Donelson shook hands that day. Of course, what the statue doesn’t really address is the Cherokee who lived on this land. Well, the large plaque beneath the two men which tells the story of the founding does mention how Donelson overcame “savage Indians” in his journey downriver. There is a faded “YOU THIEF” underneath Donelson as viewed from behind him. Commentary? (See the slideshow below.) The text of the main plaque also mentions the Cumberland Compact, the “constitution” of the settlers. The large plaque in front of the statue lists the signers of the compact.

Cumberland Compact sculpture Nashville street art

The work was commissioned by Mayor Ben West, who may be best remembered today for a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement in Nashville when he agreed with student leader Diane Nash that discrimination based on color was wrong. It was done by Thomas Puryear Mims, who was a professor and artist-in-residence at Vanderbilt University, and was installed in 1963. Mims did a number of other sculptures around town, though this is the first one I’ve discussed on this blog.

A recent report by Metro Arts on the condition of Metro-owned art rates the condition of the work as poor and places the need for repairs at a high priority (see page 25). You can see some of that in these pictures, including the staining on the bronze and the damage to the pedestal. This sculpture is also protected by the Tennesee Heritage Protection Act, a bill designed to protect Confederate monuments from being taken down, but which applies to all publicly owned historic monuments. To my knowledge, there are no monuments in Nashville to Dragging Canoe, a Cherokee leader who fought against settlers moving into Cherokee lands, including an attack on Forth Nashborough in 1781.

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Located on the 200 block of First Avenue South, a little south of Church Street. This is downtown, so lots of parking, very little of it free.

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.

Microphone Bike Rack

If you Google “microphone bike rack Nashville” you will discover that this particular bike rack is popular indeed. It’s been written up by Roadside America and the Smithsonian Magazine, you can buy a photo of it from Getty Images, and it pops up several times on Pinterest. And it’s perfectly located, just steps from Music Row. It is of course part of the Metro Arts bicycle rack series. It’s the product of a 2010 contest open to artists from within 200 miles of Nashville, though in this case the artists involved were quite local. Franne Lee, who has since moved to Wisconsin, once was a co-owner of the now-closed Plowhaus Gallery. Plowhaus was a pioneer art gallery in East Nashville that went through multiple versions before its final demise. (Lee is also probably the only artist I’ve featured who has her own IMBD page. She has a long history as a costume designer.) Speaking of East Nashville pioneers that opened and closed twice, one of the other two artists is Mac Hill, former owner of the Radio Cafe – both of them. Keith Harmon rounds out the trio. He’s also an East Nashville artist and has done signs and murals for several local businesses. (Not to be confused with the other Keith Harmon responsible for The Riders bike rack near the stadium – two different people.)

As you can see from the slideshow below, there wasn’t much traffic or many people around when I shot this recently. The stretch of Demonbreun between the interstate and the Musica sculpture (not on the blog yet!) has a number of bars and restaurants and is usually bustling with tourists and locals, a kind of mini-Lower Broad. But in these days of pandemic, it’s also eerily quiet. Someday, the tourists will be back, and we will be complaining about pedal taverns again!

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Located at 1538 Demonbreun Street. That’s actually the address of TailGate Brewery, which it sits in front of. There’s a fair amount of parking in the area, very little of it free.

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