Our first stop in Tennessee on the outbound leg of OTR 8.0 was Knoxville. We have chronicled portions our visit to Knoxville in two previous posts (Street Art Tourist OTR 8.0 and Fika with Fiona:OTR 8.0). This post is focused on our visit to the Knoxville Museum of Art (KMOA). https://knoxart.org/contact/. (Photos of the museum below courtesy of the museum)
The KMOA is a regional art museum with a focus on the art, artists and culture of the Southern Appalachians, particularly Eastern Tennessee. The museum opened to the public in its current modern 53,000 square foot facility in 1990. Today the collection includes 1500 pieces of art in a variety of media. While the museum collection extends beyond works from Eastern Tennessee, we were most interested in seeing the paintings of several of the most noted Tennesseans, on display in the Higher Ground exhibition.
Higher Ground : A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee
Higher Ground is the first permanent exhibition devoted to East Tennessee’s artistic achievements. It includes objects from the KMA collection supplemented by important works borrowed from public and private collections. Many of the featured artists spent their entire lives and careers in the area, while some moved away to follow their creative ambitions. Others were drawn to the region by its natural beauty, as the wealth of landscape imagery in this exhibition attests. Together, these artists’ works form the basis of a visual arts legacy in East Tennessee that is both compelling and largely unheralded. Higher Ground allows viewers to follow the history of artistic activity in the region over roughly a century of development and learn about the many exceptionally gifted individuals who have helped shape the area’s visual arts tradition.
Anna Catherine Wiley was one of the most active, accomplished, and influential artists in Knoxville during the early twentieth century. She taught art at the University of Tennessee, helped organize area art exhibitions, and was a driving force in the Nicholson Art League, a prominent local art association. Wiley studied with Frank DuMond at the Art Students League in New York and spent summers in New England working with Impressionist Robert Reid. She returned to Knoxville following her studies and brought with her a mastery of Impressionism. Wiley specialized in scenes of women amid their daily lives rendered in thick, brightly colored pigment. Morning features a more expressive variety of brushwork often seen in her late paintings.
Wiley’s work is represented in museum collections around the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her promising career ended in 1926 when she was confined to a psychiatric hospital where she was without access to her studio supplies. The exact nature of the artist’s illness remains unconfirmed.
Untitled (Woman and Child in Meadow) represents Knoxville Impressionist Catherine Wiley at the height of her career. She won the top award for regional painting at the 1910 Appalachian Exposition in Knoxville, and evidence suggests the artist selected this canvas for inclusion in Knoxville’s 1913 National Conservation Exposition. In a review of the 1913 exposition, one Knoxville Journal & Tribune critic wrote that “Miss Catherine Wiley’s work has attracted general comment and praise. She has three pictures on exhibition, two of which are new examples of her art. The most pleasing of the three is a study of a woman and child out-of- doors. The figures are sitting in strong sunlight, while a dark wooded hillside forms the background. The piece is strongly handled, and shows originality and force.”
Born in Knoxville in 1901 to a Methodist Episcopalian minister, Beauford Delaney and his younger brother Joseph demonstrated early artistic talent. Their parents supported the brothers’ creative aspirations, and Beauford’s talents came to the attention of painter Lloyd Branson, who served as an early mentor. Facing the additional hurdle of racism, the brothers left Knoxville in the mid-1920s to pursue their art careers in larger arenas, but followed very different artistic paths. After studying in Boston, Beauford chose New York and later Paris as the ideal settings for his experiments with expressive abstraction. He attracted a host of distinguished friends including Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, Willem de Kooning, James Baldwin, Henry Miller, and Louis Armstrong. He became known for his radiant portraits and landscapes in which he explored color—luminous color—applied with explosive brushwork. Visible references to the outside world began to fade as the artist sought what he believed were the healing powers of light as embodied in the brilliant hues of his palette.
Joseph Delaney, like his brother Beauford, was born in Knoxville, but left for Chicago before settling in New York, where he established himself as a tireless and prolific painter of Manhattan’s urban scene. Over the span of his 60-year career, Joseph displayed a remarkable ability to convey a vibrant modern world in transition while representing an unvarnished record of his energetic painterly process. He returned to Knoxville to visit his family over the years and eventually moved back to his hometown in 1986. The Knoxville Museum of Art has worked diligently to call attention to the artistic accomplishments of both brothers by hosting or organizing such exhibitions as Beauford Delaney: From New York to Paris (2005), Beauford Delaney: Gathering Light (2017), Joseph Delaney: On the Move (2018), and Beauford Delaney & James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door (2020). The KMA owns the world’s largest and most comprehensive institutional collection of Beauford Delaney’s work, and an extensive selection of paintings and drawings by Joseph Delaney.
Enoch Lloyd Branson was one of the most talented and versatile East Tennessee artists of his era. Under his lasting influence, the local art scene reached a new level
of activity and quality. Branson received artistic training at East Tennessee University (later renamed the University of Tennessee) and the National Academy of Design in New York. Upon the artist’s return in 1878, he established a successful portrait painting business with photographer Frank McCrary at 130 Gay Street in downtown Knoxville. Branson devised a method of producing vivid portraits based on photographs, which provided his primary income as an artist. However, he earned greatest recognition for heroic genre scenes such as Hauling Marble, which portrayed East Tennessee’s thriving marble industry. The painting won the gold medal at the Appalachian Exposition of 1910. In addition to his studio work, Branson was active as an art teacher, training and inspiring a new generation of talent including Catherine Wiley, Adelia Lutz, and Beauford Delaney, whose works are included in this exhibition.
The Tennessee marble industry began during the late 1830’s with the discovery of major veins in Hawkins County. Around 1850, Tennessee marble was discovered in Knox and Blount Counties where, with greater access to rail, the stone industry took off. By the 1880s, Knoxville became known as “The Marble City,” and its extensive quarries supplied stone used throughout the region and in the construction of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., New York’s state capitol, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, New York’s Grand Central Station, and the New York Public Library’s famous stone lions. The Knoxville Museum of Art is also clad in pink Tennessee marble.
Despite its name, Tennessee marble is not a true marble due to its sedimentary structure and lesser hardness that are more akin to limestone. However, its high density, low porosity, water resistance, and range of color contribute to its distinguished history as a highly attractive building material.
We enjoyed the KMOA and recommend spending a morning or afternoon at the museum on your next visit to Knoxville. The KMOA is conveniently located at the site of the World’s Fair Park (1982) on the edge of downtown. Lastly, we would like to acknowledge that we drew heavily from the excellent Higher Ground Exhibition notes in preparing this post.
Be seeing you!