It's getting harder to find a true native Nashvillian these days, but artist and Twist Gallery co-owner Beth Gilmore is the real deal. Actually, she represents the third generation of her immediate family to operate a business in downtown Music City, which might help to explain her strong sense of place and the historical awareness that informs her work and her life.
Other historically minded locals are likely to have met Gilmore, since she's led tours at the Belmont Mansion for 12 years now. On special occasions, she even dons period dress and assumes the role of the estate's original matriarch, Adelicia Acklen — to whom she actually bears an uncanny resemblance.
Even just chatting over coffee, she's effusive about the mansion's legacy. "They were out here in the middle of nowhere displaying classical art," Gilmore beams. In our media-saturated environment, she observes, we tend to neglect the decorative arts. "But if you're a visually oriented person living out in the middle of a deer park, you want those statues, you want those crazy wallpaper designs!"
Belmont supports present-day art, too — they've hosted a show of Gilmore's paintings and prints in one of the mansion's unrestored rooms. Her senior exhibit for Watkins, where she expects to graduate in May, will feature imaginative re-creations of artifacts lost from the mansion since its original sale in 1887. Delving into letters, diaries and old newspapers for information about Belmont's former contents, she hopes that bringing attention to the missing items might contribute to their eventual recovery.
Gilmore is also artist-in-residence at the Downtown Presbyterian Church, where she keeps a studio and curates shows. The role dovetails nicely with her gallery work, since the church is just up the block from Twist's home in The Arcade. A church residency may seem unusual for a visual artist, but Gilmore — as always — brings a historical perspective to bear. "Medieval artists worked for churches," she laughs. "Even if they didn't always get to sign their work."
Despite an eye on the rearview mirror, she's not one to pine for the good old days. Gilmore is optimistic about today's art world as well as Nashville's downtown revitalization, and not without reason. She founded the thriving Twist Gallery with cohort Caroline Carlisle in 2006, joining the cooperative-minded Art at The Arcade community and other area galleries for events like the monthly First Saturday Gallery Crawl.
Twist is making its mark with exhibits and installations by emerging artists, both from Nashville and from further afield, and with live music and a separate "boutique-style" selection of affordable artwork.
Threads have a way of crossing in Gilmore's life. A childhood home on Acklen Park Drive seems to resonate with playing the part of Adelicia Acklen as an adult, or with keeping a studio at Downtown Presbyterian, where the bell given by Mrs. Acklen still rings every Sunday. Perhaps it's like what Gilmore said about her senior show: Maybe these connections emerge when we just start paying attention. —RUSSELL JOHNSTON
Photographed by Eric England at the artist lofts in the Downtown Presbyterian Church.