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Signs of a developing visual-arts community

Signs of a developing visual-arts community

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A Pretty Grand Tour

A casual and drunken acquaintance made a brusque remark at a party I recently crashed. “Where have all these damn artists come from all of a sudden?” he proclaimed. His insinuation was that a kind of plague had arrived in Nashville, similar to the rising highway congestion, property taxes, and summer humidity. I won’t be buying him lunch anytime soon, but I have to admit that his observation was quite keen. There are indeed many more artists here than ever before; they’re making themselves known in dozens of creative ways, and they’re creating the nucleus of an “art scene” deserving of a city of this size. Two recent events, both fundraisers, impressed on me how much the city’s visual-artists community is asserting itself these days.

For a moment, let’s briefly consider the subject of art auctions and their role in nonprofit fundraisers—something I’ve written about before. Art auctions are basically an extra treat for party patrons, an entertaining way to make them feel good and to raise a few more funds at the ball. As I’ve stated before in these pages, artists frequently and generously support such auctions despite the fact that they can’t deduct the market value of their donations from their taxes. The (usually) wealthier patrons of the nonprofit auctions can of course deduct the full value of their purchase.

More significant is how often a nice piece of art sells for a fraction of its value. Great bargain for a patron, bad bargain for an artist. It only undermines artists’ regular prices and fosters the notion that local art can be bought cheaply at auctions. What’s more, it reinforces the idea that local art is minor because it sells for little or nothing. Auction organizers love to tell artists about how much “exposure” their works will get. Exposure!? Like how much of a hole in the head is exposure?

It’s no accident that artists have begun to catch on to the inequity, and they’ve responded by providing pretty crummy art for such events. I’m thinking here in particular of the last Artrageous party, one of the shabbiest collections of artworks I’ve ever seen. It would have been more genuine and honest for everyone involved just to cut a check and be done with it. Besides, seeing second- or third-rate works only confirms unfair suspicions about the quality of local art.

By contrast, the Oasis Studio Art Tour, held June 29 at the Chestnut street studios in the old May Hosiery mill, was absolutely exhilarating. Here was an ideal model for future cooperation between nonprofit organizations and visual artists. Instead of the usual auction, artists’ work was available for purchase directly from their studios. This group of 14 loosely affiliated visual artists advanced their own cause by inviting the public into their workplaces, and they raised money for the Oasis Center by donating the admission fee and 20 percent of their sales to the center’s programs for at-risk teenagers.

All too often, artists are accused of arrogance or aloofness, sometimes both. But at the Oasis tour, the artists were open, engaged, and more than willing to talk about and explain their ideas, their materials, their processes—anything someone wanted to learn about. Such an all-too-rare situation was perfect for members of the public who were (and are) curious about art but too shy or too put off to ask about it. Indeed, many probably left with a deeper respect for artists, if not for the variety of art produced here. It was surely entertaining for many to see firsthand the creative chaos and clutter that most artists surround themselves with. In fact, this tour was probably the most refreshing thing anyone has done in the past 10 years to make visual art more public—all the more so because of how the proceeds benefited Oasis.

As for the diverse array of work on view: I especially want to congratulate Adam Randolph for his ongoing series of self-portraits. Some readers may recall that I toasted him two years ago for an ugly and very public sign he painted for Helios Glassworks. Here, however, several self-portraits—two in particular—hardly resembled products by the same painter. They were genuine works of art: honest, edgy and disturbed, penetrating and focused, more than a little gritty and moving. Lit by a somber palette of khakis and umbers, with flicks of lighter chromas, they expressed a deeply felt humanism. Keep it up, Adam. Incidentally, his older brother Somers also deserves much praise for helping to plan and organize the fundraiser in the first place.

In talking with these and several of the other artists there, I was struck by their intelligence and their passionate commitment to making art, regardless of its marketability. Along with the Randolph boys, certain works by Adrienne Outlaw, John Reed, Tim Murphy, Margie Manyik, Lain York, Chelle Kurzrock, Paul McLean, Ron Ames, and Joe Sorci would make a fascinating exhibition at Cheekwood or at the Tennessee State Museum. The only disappointment was not seeing Charlotte Avant’s stuff—but then she’d altruistically given up her studio space for children’s art activities.

Patrons of this event got to see just how much local art never makes it to a public exhibition space; now they might understood why artists sometimes whine about how hard it is to make a living or to sell pieces of art. Presumably, most viewers would acknowledge respect for the commitments and sacrifices these artists have made. Perhaps they’d even see why arts education is so desperately needed in Metro schools. Or why the local art scene needs to continue growing: Its spunk enlarges our little island here immeasurably.

Another noteworthy fundraiser was held June 26 at painter Dayton Wright’s studio in Marathon Village. This one was in support of a disturbing but evocative documentary film about the family of Margie Thorpe, an old friend of Wright’s from Georgia. Production of the work in progress, which explores themes of incest and abuse, is stalled while the filmmakers wait for money to complete the scoring and editing process. Wright kindly offered his space for a short video preview and a passing of the hat. In Wright’s case, the “hat” was a ceramic sculpture of his own head, with an opening in the cranium for the money (nice metaphor there).

Of the 50 or so present, few failed to give something, and several gave a tremendous amount, but what made the event so significant was that a small group of artists had organized for their own interests. It’s the sort of thing that local musicians have been doing for years. Indeed, Nashville’s music scene could be a model for how supportive a creative community can be, how it can organize for its own advancement. A vital art scene certainly is becoming established here, my drunken friend, because there really are more good, active artists than ever before living in the Metro area. Check ’em out, why don’tcha—and let’s keep ’em coming.

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