On a chilly Halloween day in front of a near-capacity crowd at The Frist Center, the Nashville Scene and Metro Arts hosted what we hope was the first of many Nash-Up conferences. Although the specific idea for Nash-Up started months earlier in a conversation at a Scene edit meeting, the real seed for the discussion had been bubbling underneath our creative community for much longer. How could we get key members of the philanthropic community in the same room with visual artists? Bridge the gap between independent filmmakers and gallery coordinators? Fashion and academia? We all agreed there was a conversation that needed to take place, and the effectiveness of that conversation would influence how we identify ourselves as Nashville's creators for years to come.
Thankfully, Metro Arts was open to partnering with us to help realize and balance our vision. We believe it's our job to decipher and report on the current tone of Nashville's culture. So we invited everyone from all corners of Nashville's creative class to participate in a daylong think-tank about what is going on and where we're headed. We asked pointed, difficult questions. We got Wayne White to act as keynote speaker. We probably ruffled a few feathers. But we came away from it full of excitement and inspiration, ready to see what might next be possible.
Nashville's Visual Identity
Panelists: Libby Callaway, Sam Dunson, Bryce McCloud,Brent Stewart
Moderator: Mark Scala
The first panel of the day, hosted by Frist Center chief curator Mark Scala, focused on Nashville's visual identity, and featured Bryce McCloud (of letterpress print shop Isle of Printing), fashion writer Libby Callaway, artist Sam Dunson and artist/filmmaker Brent Stewart. The image-shaping power of television loomed large, with ABC's new prime-time drama Nashville and the cornpone variety show Hee Haw serving as cultural touchstones. Of course, the lowbrow Hee Haw instilled a national impression that we were a city of country bumpkins. Nashville paints a notably more sophisticated picture of our city, but are the backstabbing, power-hungry, philandering machinations of its characters more flattering?
If there was one overarching theme, it was the notion of authenticity. In his opening remarks, Scala noted Hatch Show Print and the graphics coming out of Third Man Records as examples of what is prominently perceived as the Nashville aesthetic: "work that is humorous, retro, often campy and emulates folk-art simplicity." Right there at the start, Scala laid out a conundrum that though never directly addressed, hung over the proceedings like a giant thought cloud: Is trying to replicate authenticity an oxymoron? Or a noble quest?
McCloud addressed the Hee Haw factor head on (and got hearty laughs) when he showed a 2004 DHL ad that ran in Sports Illustrated, showing a truck slogging through a flooded country road in the middle of nowhere, with the copy "For 35 years we've delivered despite language barriers, unpaved roads and lack of street addresses. Try us to Nashville." That picture became the jumping-off point for a discourse on what McCloud called "the imagined reality of Nashville." He even created an illustration for his talk: At the top, a radio tower broadcasts country music — as played by a band of mice musicians — across the airwaves, as the rest of the mouse nation watches on, receiving images of pie and beer, pickup trucks and a slew of concepts grouped under the heading "authentic."
Authenticity, whether contrived or natural, is also at the heart of Americana (or "heritage") fashion, according to Callaway. The look? Think classic workers circa 1950: "dark selvedge blue jeans, cotton shirts, heavy wool sweaters and hard-wearing leather accessories," she said. Businesses such as Imogene + Willie, Otis James, Emil Erwin and Peter Nappi served as examples. While Callaway suggests all this attention has been good for Nashville's fashion scene (which was pretty much nonexistent a decade ago), there is a downside: Talented designers who don't fit the Americana mold — Valentine Valentine, Jessica Jones' Tuft line, Black by Maria Silver (aka Poni from Nashville rock band The Ettes) — don't receive the same attention from the national press.
Dunson, a black artist who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, says his identity was built on the whole idea of being a Midwesterner, and that he had never seen Hee Haw nor known Nashville as "Music City." "I never thought of myself as a Northerner until I got to Nashville," he said, getting laughs of recognition from other transplants in the auditorium. Dunson's comments provided a much-needed reality check for the overwhelmingly white crowd and panel, who were discussing an image based on (and for the most part perceived from) a white perspective. In fact, as Dunson rightly pointed out, historically speaking, Nashville's artistic identity is based largely on the African-American experience. Not only was he pleasantly surprised to find that Nashville was steeped in the arts, but also "that the [artistic] identity was based on people that actually looked like me." As examples, he cited Aaron Douglas, whose murals Dunson could see at Fisk, and also Greg Ridley.
Stewart talked about another Nashville visual identity — not one lazily inhaled by boob-tube junkies, but one absorbed by art aficionados across the globe. He cited Nashville filmmaker and artist Harmony Korine's collaborative exhibit with Rita Ackermann at the Swiss Institute in New York City, which received international attention and rave reviews. And he highlighted just how important frame of reference is: "If I bring up Ryman here, people think of Ryman Auditorium. If I'm in Berlin and talk about Ryman and Nashville, they'll think of the [Nashville-born] painter Robert Ryman."
If there was a single consensus, it was that the most prevalent image of Nashville — retro, kitschy, authentic and folksy — was a double-edged sword. Scala is clearly aware of the downside: "So if a certain populism is the most apparent attribute of our visual culture," he asked, "does it serve us well to play that up? Or are we better off broadening the reality that this is a creative community that welcomes innovation in art, as well as in technology, in cuisine, in film and in fashion?" His phrasing left no doubt as to his own sentiment.
As for the upside, Callaway put it best: "Say Nashville to someone, and an image pops into their head. Sure, that image may be dead-wrong, but at least we have a cultural stereotype! Indianapolis can't say that." —JS
Nashville’s Narrative Imagination
Panelists: Kevin Gordon, Janet Lee, Amelia Winger-Bearskin and Christopher Mohnani
Moderator: Stephanie Pruitt
Poet Stephanie Pruitt deftly guided the second panel, "Nashville's Narrative Imagination," featuring singer-songwriter Kevin Gordon, illustrator Janet Lee, Vanderbilt professor and performance artist Amelia Winger-Bearskin, and Dance Theater of Tennessee artistic director Christopher Mohnani. Fitting the day's zig-zagging, cross-pollinating ways, the assembled creative minds didn't include a single storyteller. Not in the traditional sense, anyway.
"As dancers," Mohnani said, "we are storytellers on toes." His response to Pruitt's first question — "How does narrative inform what you do?" — let us know we'd have to be on ours to follow along. Gordon said moving to Nashville changed his idea of what a songwriter could be: "You could go to the grocery store and see Emmylou Harris buying vegetables," he said, meaning both that the vanguard did their own shopping and that this city could sustain songwriting careers. Lee, perhaps the most traditionally narrative of the bunch, called herself an analog artist in a digital world — echoing earlier talk of handmade goods returning to eminence — painstakingly working in tangible materials even when almost all her peers work on computers. And Winger-Bearskin told a fascinating story that illustrated the importance of pursuing narratives that have been pushed to the margins: In a visit to The Hermitage, she learned that Andrew Jackson had an adopted Native American son — but he was mentioned quickly, barely as a footnote, with the discussion quickly moving on. So Winger-Bearskin approached The Hermitage, and eventually curated an art show about him.
What her efforts to put together the show exposed, Winger-Bearskin said, was reluctance, at least in Nashville's fine arts community, to ruffle feathers, to offend, to create controversy. (The assumption being that this aspect of Old Hickory's life would be a touchy subject for some who view history as more smooth and free of contradiction than it really is.) This notion, that a play-it-safe attitude is detrimental to the progress of the arts in Nashville, would come up again later in the day. More practically, Mohnani raised an issue that would also re-emerge in the afternoon: "Nashville is venue-poor," he said, as he recounted his struggles to "bring ballet to the people" in a one-performing-arts-center town. One area where Nashville has an embarrassment of riches: creative talent. "You might be surprised by the artists and writers teaching here," Winger-Bearskin said. And pleasantly so, if her Nash-Up appearance was any indication. —SH
The Future of Creativity in Nashville
Panelists: Renata Soto, Steven Tepper, Lain York and Stephanie Silverman
Moderator: Jim Ridley
After the obligatory self-deprecating Halloween joke ("This is not a George Wendt costume"), Scene editor Jim Ridley began the third panel with an anecdote from his high-school newspaper days, when he was invited to join the then-unknown Wayne White at a car-painting party thrown by a Murfreesboro art-scene fixture named Mike Quinn. "All the ingredients were there: Weed, boredom, an excess of creativity, a few distractions," Ridley joked. Although White became the most recognizable figure in the group, Ridley said it was Quinn, a guy most of the audience had probably never heard of, who was the most important person in the story. It was he, Ridley said, who was at the center of a small group of really creative people, and he who provided the impetus, the space and the opportunity for inspiration to strike.
It was the perfect way to introduce the beginning of the end of the first Nash-Up conference. Ridley posed questions — "Does Nashville need an MFA program? How do you plan for creativity? Is art a democracy or a dictatorship?" — with sincere curiosity to a group of some of Nashville's key catalysts and connectors. Renata Soto is the co-founder and executive director of Conexión Américas, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering Latino families in Middle Tennessee. Steven Tepper is the associate director of Vanderbilt's Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy. Lain York is the director of Zeitgeist Gallery, a born-and-bred Nashvillian, and a defining figure in the influential Fugitive Art collective. And Stephanie Silverman is the executive director of The Belcourt Theatre, a beacon of arthouse ingenuity that arose in a time when Nashville needed it most.
Tepper began the discussion by focusing on the Great Recession and how it might affect our creative future. He said that although this is an economically trying time to be young in America, more young people are aspiring to work in the creative fields than ever before. Today, about 16 percent of teens say they want to go into the arts, compared to only 8 percent of teens who say they want to go into business. "In many ways," he said, "we are experiencing a renaissance of creativity, even when arts institutions are suffering," York also sees the dreary economic climate as a glass-half-full opportunity for artists: "This is the time to experiment, this is the time to reinvent yourself."
The discussion grew to include a multitude of speculations about Nashville's future. If, as is projected, Caucasians will no longer be the predominant race in Davidson County as soon as 2040, we can begin to map out a plan for what the creative community will look like in the future. Soto offered insight, most interestingly speaking on Conexión Américas' mural and how it is influencing neighboring buildings. Silverman echoed the sentiment of previous panels addressing the need for more creative venues. "In this city, in this moment, more venues are needed."
Appropriately, Tepper ended the discussion with a Jane Jacobs quote that nicely wrapped Nash-Up's goal to get conversations started: "Whatever you do, don't be boring." —LH