In Tennessee, Art Itself Is Protest

An Open Letter from One Southerner to Another: We Must Fight for Change. Now.


By Kelli Wood


I could feel a change a comin’. I got into Nashville early, sleepy, hungry, tired, and dirty.


I headed east to The Red Arrow gallery, where owner Katie Shaw and manager Ashley Layendecker curated BREATHLESS, a group show responding to the conflagration that has defined 2020.


Marcus Maddox, Face Off, 2020, giclée print, 20 × 30 in. Photo courtesy Red Arrow Gallery.


Tragic losses of life and freedom motivated 15 artists to create works addressing the environment, the pandemic, and racism. A series of three colorful giclée prints by Marcus Maddox near the entrance offer a visual transition from a life now dominated by digital photography and screens into one possessed by objects and artworks. Straightaway however, Maddox’s Face Off (2020) boldly points outward again to sites where people have been demonstrating. In June, Maddox, a self-described fine art photographer who grew up in Tennessee, traveled to Philadelphia in solidarity with protests on the heels of the murder of George Floyd. An unknown man grips the ends of his durag as he takes a stance against injustice and brutality. With the uneasy stasis of photography, and a gaze from behind the man’s diagonally outstretched arms, Maddox’s art succinctly captures the inherent tension of protest and reorients us to the onerous political work of folks whose full personhood, bodies, and lives have been forever attacked in America. The discordance of the physical, visual, and metaphorical line leave no question. In 2020, the power of sight obligates us to stand for change. Acknowledging this is the price of entry into Red Arrow. It must become the price of entry into our social contract. Change.

The scale and direct frontal placement of Marlos E'van’s Justice for Breonna Taylor (2020) by the curators invites closer looking after one crosses the line of entry into the high-ceilinged formerly industrial space. The rawness of Marlos E'van’s art, both in materiality and style, evoke a deep emotional soreness that is impossible to suppress. The substrate of cotton fabric in E'van’s work functions as a powerful metaphor for the enslaved human bodies that founded and still underwrite the American economy. E'van retools the Seal of Louisville as a halo of light around Breonna Taylor’s head, using the compassion of biblical iconography of Mary in memoriam. In their statement about the piece, E'van highlights their substitution of the African American flag for the African flag as a challenge to the fiction that we live in a society offering freedom and justice for all.


Left: Marlos E'van, Justice for Breonna Taylor, 2020, acrylic and latex on cotton fabric, 4 1/2 × 6 in. Photo by Kelli Wood.  Right: Marlos E'van, Pandemic on Top of a Pandemic!, 2020, oil, latex, oil sticks on canvas, 37 1/2 × 32 1/2 in. Photo by Kelli Wood.


Seconds after I wrote that sentence, I got a news alert that Taylor’s killers will not face justice. I’m on the clock to submit this essay so I decide to hold it together. I take a deep breath, but notice a strange sound overlaying my writing music—at this moment its Mingus’s Cryin’ Blues (1960). An ice cream truck drives down my street projecting the iconic jingle, Turkey in the Straw. The initially uncanny echoes of that tune crystalize into pure horror. I connect the song to an announcement last month that Good Humor commissioned the Wu-Tang's RZA to write a new song after being made aware of its awful racist past.  Change. The track changes to Mingus’s Freedom. ‘Freedom for your brothers and sisters, But no freedom for me.’ An apparitional demand from Breonna Taylor? Freedom. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Isn’t this the pathetic fucking minimum we own each other as human beings?

The palpable despondency at the abject failure of our nation’s pledge and our flag’s promise of freedom and justice are echoed more quietly in Jodi Hays, South of Hope (2020). The rectangles of diagrammatic cut canvas and linen painted in blues resemble an upside-down flag with the texture of denim. Hays is a native Arkansan like me, and South of Hope confronts women’s roles in traditional crafting and rural culture though the use of textile and the look of quilted jeans. In a rhyme of color with Marlos E'van’s Backwards Ideology (2020) on the same wall, the curators and artists make visible that America has yet to address wrong-sided legacies of our past. Backwards Ideology starkly repeats the letters n.u.g. again and again over 25 square feet of acrylic on canvas until the supremacy of guns is inescapable and overwhelming. Both artists also signal the doubling of troubles during the time of the pandemic. Hays’ approximately, forever (2020) takes the formal abstraction of collage to its logical end. The grid is both a useful organizing tool and a system of oppression. By the 20th century, the tyrannical hegemony of linear perspective and its symbolic form had to be undone by makers and historians in concert: the initial power of naturalism as the special rhetoric of artisans, the non-elite, became obsolete or was forgotten. When you realize that the system has been constructed so that you cannot win the game, no matter how hard you try, you must cheat-lie-steal and then smash the chessboard. If you don’t have the power, you must strive to change the collective memory. Change.

Purposefully, I suspect, the most poignant work of the show was hung out of immediate view in the gallery’s kitchen. Marlos E'van’s Pandemic on Top of a Pandemic! (2020) is best described in the artist’s own words, ‘I’m a Person of Color living in a twisted world where the game is domination & not tha kind we like with leather & spikes. This piece could be a movie poster, in fact, it is a movie poster to the days of our lives that we’re living right now.’ Times of exigency, history reminds us, are both the best wakening calls to the problems of society and also opportunities for ‘temporary’ concessions to be made permanent- almost always in the favor of those in power. Not this time? Fight. Change.


Then I started walking down the streets of Music Row. Just walking up and down the streets, trying to find out who to see.


Pedestrian flow on streets is disrupted by flashing LED traffic signs that have been re-purposed to attempt to control crowds on Lower Broadway during Covid-19: ‘MASK ON OR STAY HOME.’ I stumbled past Hatch Show Print and Haley Gallery. Heather Moulder’s Hide Your Smile (2020) retools a carved wood block from the poster for the 1939 Western Jesse James. By reimagining a Southern iconic outlaw as a 21st century ambassador for safe social distancing, Moulder’s Hide Your Smile strives to use a shared visual idiom and popular (though problematic) collective memory of someone fightin’ the power to bring people together, apart.

Gallery manager of Hatch Daniel Lonow has curated a show at Julia Martin’s Gallery, so I head south. Lonow greets me outside and tells me a bit about the show Family Values and how he met the artist Mark Mulroney at the SCOPE Art Show in Miami over a decade ago. Since then, the two have remained in touch in clever and heart-warming ways that aptly highlight the fundamental need for creative modes of human connection in our time of isolation. Lonow described receiving an expected package, and upon opening it, he discovered a cereal box stuffed with Mulroney’s works on paper.

Family Values features 119 rectangular works on paper hung in neat grids across every flat wall of the gallery. Their repetitive encampment across the shuttered space of the inner room coalesces with the monotony of the quarantine during which Mulroney created the works. In many of these multimedia pieces, Mulroney repurposes imagery from American popular culture, ranging from 1950s comic strips to contemporary ads and photos, and makes witty and satirical interventions in paint and printed text in order to assert a trenchant political critique of a past that never existed.


Installation of some of Mark Mulroney’s Family Values at Julia Martin Gallery. Photograph by Kelli Wood.


The repetitions start to tire my eyes, and the masked-up is getting hard to breath, so I decide to head to the restroom for a moment and regroup when I notice a different theme emerging in Mulroney’s pieces. So, ♫ I washed my face and read the names.


donald trump from memory

donald trump jr. from memory

Sean Hannity from memory

Rush Limbaugh from memory

mitch mcconnell from memory

DR. ANOTHY FAUCI from memory

Rupert Murdoch from memory


Mulroney portrays figures who haunt our endless 24-hour news cycle alongside the words ‘from memory’ to grimly comedic effect. His donald trump from memory (2020) combines material, form, and text into a piquant morsel: the gold foil creating Trump’s face is cut from a Toblerone candy wrapper. The paper used for each of the works in Family Values was salvaged from the trash of Yale’s library archives where his wife Lucy is the Associate Director. Salvaged from the defunct trash of the past, the edges of Mulroney’s pieces retain defunct labels of reproductions now removed from the archival paper. Oriented upside-down, Picasso and Manet yet occupy real estate in Mulroney work. Sandro Botticelli’s name has been erased in another work, covered over by liquid paper color corrector. As an art historian trained in the Italian Renaissance, I smirk.  Mulroney’s combination of re-purposed material culture of Americana past with creations of his own memory present amplifies his intervention. The presumed authority of both nostalgia and history must be upended. Change.

With my own nostalgia in mind, I head up to North Nashville to revisit murals I admired during my last visit.  ♫ But I found it going rough. Everyone was all tied up.

I am disoriented by how much has changed since I last visited pre-pandemic. Murals have been whitewashed and new ones have sprung up, so I head West to talk to painter Omari Booker. I ask him about my sense that the muralists who put North Nashville on the map, and who were featured in the Frist’s exhibition, feel more visibly absent in place of murals for commercial enterprises. “North Nashville and the gentrification that it’s undergoing has been happening for a while. "The artists in the Norf (North Nashville) collective, at least 2 out of the 4 of them have been pushed out of housing, in North Nashville. It’s very tangible, ” said Booker.

One of Booker’s series, Redlining, uses razor wire to divide his compositions in memory of the same-named discriminatory lending practices implemented to deny mortgages and services to black communities. “US history is a huge part of what I do, of what has informed my life, justice issues,” says Booker. “Police officers killing black persons is not an anomaly, it is, it is the point…when slavery ended, the police became a thing.” In his What Could Happen series, Booker interviews his great aunt, who was born in 1916, and registers some powerful questions. Himself imprisoned for drug charges in his youth, he asks, “If the black male body had not been vilified, what could have happened? If racist comments had been challenged, what could have happened? If we dealt with the discomfort of integration rather than segregating by other means, what could have happened?”

The historian in me loves this. But the professor in me jests with Booker about what I suspect will be his answer to the next question, how did he feel about the way art history was taught when he was an undergraduate, and he laughs too. “Ha, yes I failed art history once, but then I took it again and passed it. It’s just a different muscle.”  All that memorization. Since Booker was an undergraduate, advances in technology have changed everything. Search engines rapidly produce millions of data points, sometimes frustratingly. If an inexperienced cook wants to know which recipe to follow, this can create a tyranny of choice, but if a chef understands how to read a recipe and trusts a vendor to sell them quality ingredients, they can find answers quickly.

The switch to online teaching due to the pandemic has forced many teachers to rely less on memorization to gauge learning and require that students demonstrate their synthetic and holistic mastery of ideas. (Most rejoice, but slackers are disappointed.) In many places this is hardly new, but I describe how I like to have my studio and history students curate their knowledge and think of themselves as collaborating to keep the memories of the makers. Booker responds, “I like that… It (art history) informs our artwork whether we know it or not.” He clearly knows. Memory and history, abstraction and narration percolate seamlessly through Booker’s art. “Too many people are misremembered because they didn’t have anything to do with their own stories… As artists, we can plant seeds to make a shift. It’s like the Redlining work. I could potentially plant seeds to get enough people to understand that things’ve gotta change.” Change.

Down on Music Row♫ melody and motif blend seamlessly with paint and plaster.

“My biggest art influence is music… it’s Jay Z, it’s Nipsey Hussle, it’s Kanye, it’s Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Master P- what he did- business wise,” said Booker. They were boxed out of an industry that they were like, that’s cool, we are going to create this lane for ourselves, and then once we own it the industry has to circle back to us.” Speaking about other artists in Nashville, Booker “They are a big part of what makes the area. It’s a culture. It’s what Brooklyn sold. The culture of Biggie and Mos Def and all them. Then next thing you know no one’s there.” Timely. The gentrification of Biggie’s crown reached its own apotheosis just last week, shattering estimates and selling for nearly $600,000 at Sotheby’s much-maligned auction, “Hip Hop.”

During our interview in his studio, it’s clear the kindness visibly manifested in his panels and murals comes from Booker’s own unyielding warmth and generosity. His upcoming show "Need A Hug?" at The Black Box Gallery, only the second black-owned gallery in Nashville, focuses on our very humanity during times of crisis. The candid outward gazes of the figures in Booker’s Lil Bro (2020) demand reciprocal acknowledgement from the viewer. His composition inverts pyramidal constructions of weighty grounded figures, while the saturated red of the titular little brother’s shirt direct us upward inspires a sense of ascendancy. And yet, the picture is incomplete. The scene dematerializes into brown brushstrokes on bare canvas. Something is missing from the green landscape of Tennessee mountains. Freedom. Change.


But I could feel that change a comin'


As I drive back to my home in Knoxville, I think about a downtown mural here of local celebrity Dolly Parton that has been painted and repainted over the last few years. My memory of the mural intertwines with my first memory of her, a childhood recollection of sitting on the floor and seeing her big smile and blonde hair on a small cathode ray tube TV. The VHS tape plays the comedic 1980 film 9 to 5, in which overlooked working women overthrow their sexist and bigoted boss by kidnapping and forcibly detaining him until they take back their office. Hmm.

 In 2018, Parton was made aware that the name of her dinner show at Dollywood, the “Dixie” Stampede, had hurtful and racist associations with the Confederacy, and she altered the name to Dolly Parton’s Stampede. “As soon as you realize that [something] is a problem, you should fix it. Don’t be a dumbass. That’s where my heart is.”  Parton’s heart has driven her toward massive philanthropic support of education and the arts in Tennessee. Yet as Priscilla Renea stated succinctly in an interview with Michel Martin about her country-meets-R &B album Coloured (2018):

 “Dolly Parton is one of my favorites, and she makes it very clear, ‘If you want to be in show business, keep your mouth shut.’ Which, I agree, to a certain extent, but I think people like her and who look like her have that privilege. As a black person singing country music, the essence of country music is talking about your experience as a human. And this is a part of my experience, the black experience. There was a young kid who just got shot in Pittsburgh. He wasn't doing anything. He was scared.”

 A March 2020 interview for Billboard Magazine by Melinda Newman captured Parton’s unequivocal support of Black Lives Matter protestors, “I understand people having to make themselves known and felt and seen,” she says. “And of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!”  Change! Action?

A Charlotte Ave mural by Nashville street artist Terbosterbo called Train connects with the site’s history as a rail yard. In monumental scale and unstoppable rhythm Terbosterbo depicts a 1984 CSX-branded locomotive engine hauling older defunct Southern Railway boxcars into the future.


Terbosterbo, Train, mural, 2018, “Off the Wall” project, Charlotte Ave, Nashville. Photograph by Kelli Wood.


During the 1980s, railroad companies stopped branding their trains with slogans in a futile attempt to discourage tagging. Terbosterbo subtly places the words, “Southern Serves the South,” on top, rather than underneath, the graffiti. The track suddenly changes from a distant and dimming ice cream truck to a full blown cacophony of sirens and thundering wheels. We Southerners must ENACT what is in our hearts, now. I can feel a change coming, here, in my Tennessee mountain home.


Lyrics (in ♫♫) repurposed from Dolly Parton’s ‘Down On Music Row,’ on My Tennessee Mountain Home (1973) .



Kelli Wood is an interdisciplinary researcher, writer, and curator. She is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Tennessee.



Heather Moulder, Hide Your Smile, 2020, letterpress prints from carved wood block. Hatch Print. Photograph by Kelli Wood.

Jodi Hays, South of Hope, 2020, oil, ink, cut canvas and linen collage on canvas, 20 × 16 in. Photograph by Kelli Wood.

Mark Mulroney's Family Values at Julia Martin Gallery: donald trump from memory, 2020, mixed media on archival paper. Photograph by Kelli Wood.

Omari Booker, Lil Bro, 2020, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Photo by Kelli Wood.

Colton Valentine and Megan Lingerfelt, Dolly Parton, 2019 and 2020, Market Square, Knoxville. Photo by Kelli Wood.

To our readers: this is a draft of this essay and subject to corrections and revisions.



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