In Franne Lee's long career as a costume designer and set decorator, she's made jackets for Jimi Hendrix and dresses for Janis Joplin. She crafted the official banners that flew at Woodstock (which were stolen immediately after being hung). She's won Tonys for her theatrical work. She dressed the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players during Saturday Night Live's first few seasons. And if you want to get a look at Lee's talents in feature films, just pick any one of the three selections from the DVD box set Pacino: An Actor's Vision.
Lee chalks up her success to being in the right place at the right time. "I was always a happy-go-lucky person," she says, laughing. Locally, Lee is recognized as the smiling, energetic face of the Plowhaus Gallery and Artists' Cooperative. While she humbly gives props to fate, the Plowhaus saga also speaks to Lee's unflagging belief in her creative vision. Having already accomplished so much, surely Lee could rest on her laurels. But she's not finished yet, and neither is Plowhaus.
Plowhaus was founded by a small group of artists back in 2001. "I was in New York with [artist/musician/filmmaker] J.D. Wilkes just before 9/11 happened. We'd left at 2 in the morning, just hours before the planes hit," recalls Lee. "We decided we had to do something important for the community. We couldn't just sit there wondering what was going to happen next." The talented printmaker Lesley Patterson-Marx, who had just moved to Nashville, got in on the planning, and the original Plowhaus blossomed in the cozy confines of a 700-square-foot space in the Lockeland Springs neighborhood.
Five years before the first Art Crawl, Plowhaus was a big deal on both sides of the river. But its impact on its East Nashville turf mattered most to Lee. "Before we opened, there wasn't an art gallery on the East Side at all," she recalls. "Half the people who came just walked to our shows."
While providing a much-needed cultural outlet during the early days of the Nashville's eastward migration, Plowhaus was also a place where artists honed their craft. "Plowhaus gave people the courage to be artists," says Lee. "They had to learn how to curate a show. They had to learn how to handle business. You can see from our list of artists — they're people who have gone on to make names for themselves and open their own venues and businesses." Perusing Plowhaus' old artist roster is a bit like leafing through a who's who of Nashville's current scene: Bryce McCloud (Isle of Printing), Beth Gilmore (Twist Gallery), Ben Vitualla (Blend Studio), Andee Rudloff (former community relations manager at the Frist Center), Julie Sola (currently on the road doing costumes with a singer named Madonna) and of course, Patterson-Marx (Platetone Printshop).
In the years after their first opening, Plowhaus moved to an adjacent 2,000-square-foot storefront and were granted nonprofit status, allowing them to accept donations and raise funds. But rising rents and the sale of their space created major challenges, and by the time Plowhaus moved to the other side of the river — to Tennessee Art League in 2008, then The Arcade in 2009 — the spirit of the place seemed lost.
"It was never the same," recalls Lee. "We had access to the old building 24/7. People would come by and paint, and we had our own kiln — it was a hangout. It was never the same once we moved downtown." However, given the latest chapter in the Plowhaus saga, Lee would surely agree that one should never say never.
Jennifer Anderson is a former museum professional and an art entrepreneur who relocated to Nashville from Madison, Wis., in 2000. After being downsized from her corporate accounting gig, Anderson decided to get back into the arts. "I told myself, 'Just open a freaking gallery. Stop worrying about the rest of it,' " she laughs. When Lee heard about Anderson's plans, she saw a new possibility for Plowhaus.
"I tried a couple of times to bring Plowhaus back to the East Side," explains Lee. "So when I met Jennifer, I worked it out with her." Anderson's new gallery bears the Plowhaus name, and their opening celebration in their digs at 729 Porter Road Friday will feature contributions from 25 of the gallery's original artists.
"She has been a godsend to me," Anderson says of Lee. "She knows everybody. She's been a teacher to me, and it's been a great gift." Listening, Lee just smiles and shakes her head, no doubt thinking — again — right place, right time.