Nashville’s Art Compels Recognition


In Nashville, art is as new as it is old, and as old as it is new. These words of once Tennessean and immortal luminary W. E. B. Du Bois permeate the air as local artists aspire to create the Americana he imagined—of color, form, and reality, of music in the Southern South, and of dreams of a more splendid future (Figure 1)1.

Avant-garde artists and activists are not only establishing a vibrant environment (and increasingly thriving market) in Nashville. Perhaps more importantly, they are helping to reframe the popular imagination of Music City for residents and visitors alike. Monolithic conceptions of a Southern history comprised of honky-tonks, hot chicken, and the Ryman Auditorium are giving way–sometimes enthusiastically and sometimes with tense reluctance–to stories of a city that is blacker, more aesthetically adventurous, and less enamored of traditional technologies than its conventional portrayal on the national stage often suggests. Such changes seem both inevitable and fitting at a moment when even the famously risk-averse record industry executives on 16th Avenue have had little choice but to embrace an expanding audience for the genre indelibly tied to Nashville’s very identity. Thus, Georgia rapper Lil Nas X’s viral country-hip hop hybrid Old Town Road–drawing on the seemingly irreconcilable talents of Trent Reznor, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Lil Nas X himself–topped the Billboard chart for 19 consecutive weeks.

At historically black Fisk University, an exhibition of eminent alumni and faculty such as Aaron Douglas and Du Bois hangs commandingly alongside Music City mavens such as Elisheba Israel Mrozik, who elevates tattooing to high art with her illustrative realism and watercolor designs at One Drop Ink studio. A walk through collegiate greens and past the red brick corbels and gothic spires of Jubilee Hall lands you at Woodcuts Gallery, part frame shop, part showcase for African-American art, and one of the oldest galleries in the city.


Figure 1: Brad Wells, W. E. B. DuBois, mural at 814 19th Avenue North, 2015. Photo by Kelli Wood.


Over thirty years ago, Woodcuts owner Nate Harris reclaimed his building in a time when some thought a frame store would not survive in North Nashville because the poverty that afflicted the neighborhood left residents not just with nothing to frame but with no walls on which to hang it. Now the nearby streets are a matrix where art crawls stop at places like eclectic and colorful studio-cum-exhibition space Elephant Gallery and pass by the vestiges of the Jefferson Street clubs that hosted R&B royalty like Etta James and Otis Redding (soon to be commemorated at the National Museum of African American Music). Artist advocates for the area in the Norf Art Collective treat this revitalization as simultaneously an act of community placemaking and a precarious portent of gentrification in many of the murals that illuminate shop exteriors and abandoned buildings. Still, Woodcuts remains a landmark. A haven for serious collectors and amateur shoppers alike, it features museum quality works alongside tasteful lithos of local landmarks. Standout pieces include repoussés by Smyrna, TN native Gregory Ridley, whose copper history of Nashville lines the halls of the public library, and chromatic quilted narratives of life in the South by octogenarian and retired schoolteacher Ludie Amos.


Figure 2: Installation of “Red Line” by Omari Booker, Channel to Channel gallery, 2019. Photo by Kelli Wood.


Elsewhere in Nashville, past meets present in Omari Booker’s show “Red Line” at vanguard gallery Channel to Channel. His series explores the legacy of discriminatory lending practices intended to deny mortgages and services to black communities (Figure 2). Red razor wire divides panels painted with luminous textural pink oils, harmonies of visible facture and form, abstraction and figuration, and titles such as Do You Play Basketball? (2019).

Many other galleries have popped-up in the formerly industrial Wedgewood-Houston area, where craft distilleries and maker’s spaces inhabit erstwhile warehouses. On the 6-year anniversary of her opening, Julia Martin’s gallery welcomed visitors with southern hospitality, bourbon punch, and keenly curated sculptural installations by Birmingham artist Merrilee Challiss. Challiss’ so-called “spirit animal taxidermy” transforms hunted-deer head mounts with sequins and apotropaic evil eye motifs to project a powerful feminine energy (Figure 3). Over in the soaring ceilings and minimalist interior of Zeitgeist Gallery, Brady Haston’s large scale oils on linen use silhouettes and motifs from early prints in his attempt to problematize the colonial legacy of Andrew Jackson.

Downtown next to historic Woolworth on 5th, commercial art spaces abound at the Arcade. Tensions between the analog and digital took center stage this winter in both kitschy pop vendibles and demonstrations of cerebral artistry. At the well-established white-on-white Rymer Gallery, Jeff Grady’s Game On repurposes retro iPod nanos to create a colorful pixelated Atari logo, melding defunct technology with the memory of 8-bit video games. At the Tinney Contemporary next door, Tiffany Calvert’s canvases reimagine early modern Dutch still-life painting by melding pixelated and glitchy screen printing with painterly oil in thick impasto.

At the Frist, Nashville’s premier art museum, current exhibitions include examples of contemporary artists pushing boundaries with unconventional media as well as breaking past the white walls of traditional institutions. A restored 1985 Chevrolet El Camino opens the visiting “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” exhibition; innovative artist Rose B. Simpson utilizes motifs from Tewa black on black pottery to bring her community’s tradition of customizing cars to public attention. Down the hall, the Frist’s “Murals of North Nashville Now” exhibit features commissioned murals by local artists who tackle the serious social and political issues relevant to the city today, such as LeXander Bryant’s Opportunity Co$t (2019), which employ’s poster style graphic design to reorient problematic propaganda to value black lives (Figure 4). The exhibit ends with a map of locations of current murals throughout North Nashville, inviting viewers to return to the streets. Art is ingrained in the living urban fabric of Nashville, with murals serving as signposts guiding residents and visitors through the city’s collective memory and history.


Kelli Wood


Dr. Kelli Wood is an Arkansas native, SEC alumna, and Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Tennessee. In addition to her writing and research, she is guest curating a permanent wing of the Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum, A Global History of Sport, forthcoming in anticipation of the 2022 World Cup.


1.    W. E. B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art,” The Crisis (October 1926), 290–297: “I do not doubt that the ultimate art coming from black folk is going to be just as beautiful, and beautiful largely in the same ways, as the art that comes from white folk, or yellow, or red; but the point today is that until the art of the black folk compells [sic] recognition they will not be rated as human. And when through art they compell [sic] recognition then let the world discover if it will that their art is as new as it is old and as old as new.”

Figure 3: Installation of “In the Key of the Moon” by Merrilee Challiss at Julia Martin Gallery, 2019. Photo by Kelli Wood.

Figure 4: Detail of LeXander Bryant's Opportunity Co$t, graphic and wheat paste on panel, Frist Museum, 2019. Photo by Kelli Wood.



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