How the “Knoxville Seven” Brought Modern Art to Knoxville—and Help Define KMA’s Mission Today

In Cover Stories, Visual Arts by Matthew Everettleave a COMMENT

Black Cat” (circa 1957) by Joanna Higgs RossCourtesy of the Knoxville Museum of Art / Cathy and Mark Hill

Black Cat” (circa 1957) by Joanna Higgs Ross

If you visit Knoxville Seven, the new exhibit at the Knoxville Museum of Art, you’ll almost certainly notice “Pop Goes My Easel.” Among the 70 or so pieces on display in KMA’s two ground-floor galleries—most of them abstract expressionist paintings and modernist landscapes—Carl Sublett’s 1963 painting stands out for its stark graphics, unusual technique, and charged political content.

“This is one of Carl’s masterpieces, from his relatively brief flirtation with pop art,” says Stephen Wicks, the museum’s curator, as he leads a private tour through the exhibit. “He makes clear reference to the fact that he’s looking at pop art. This is something I think is so great about this group—they’re aware of what’s happening in the broader world of contemporary art, but they never let their experimentations pull them away from who they are or where they’re working. They make direct references to Knoxville, as Sublett does here.”

According to Wicks, the painting, emblazoned with the words “LOOK KNOXVILLE ALL AMERICA CITY” over three rough vertical red stripes and lines of tiny silhouetted heads, is a satirical political commentary on Knoxville in the early ’60s. In 1962, the city’s selection as one of Look magazine’s All American Cities had been met with protests from civil-rights activists, who carried placards reading “Theaters Segregated in All-America City” and “Make Knoxville a City for All Americans” in demonstrations on Gay Street and in front of the Knoxville Civic Coliseum. Sublett’s “LOOK” can be read both as a reference to the magazine—it’s styled like the cover logo—and as an imperative, exhorting viewers to open their eyes to injustice. The tiny heads, Wicks suggests, were probably taken from a portrait of Lenin on an earlier Look cover.

“What I see in this composition is Sublett, in a subtle way, making reference to racial problems and persecution, segregation, the sit-ins, a lot of protests that had happened,” Wicks says. “Carl’s painted this on the canvas in a way that looks like Warhol’s printed technique. It’s Carl, aware of whats going on, trying to bring some of that broader contemporary sensibility to his work but at the same time not losing sight that he’s a Knoxville artist and not losing sight of what’s happening right here, right now.”

Sublett and the six other artists who are featured in Knoxville Seven—Robert Birdwell, Richard Clarke, C. Kermit “Buck” Ewing, Joanne Higgs Ross, Philip Nichols, and Walter Stevens—were among the first modern artists in East Tennessee. Their collaborations in the late 1950s and early ’60s invigorated Knoxville during a mid-century cultural drought and brought credibility to the University of Tennessee’s new art department. Now, more than 50 years later, KMA has made the Knoxville Seven suddenly and startlingly relevant again. Wicks’ show not only highlights a neglected period in Knoxville’s art history—it’s also the culmination of the museum’s nearly decade-long quest to assert itself as the champion of East Tennessee art.

“It tells us, here’s what we stand to gain if we champion avant-garde ideas and progressive ideas,” Wicks says. “They’re not scary, they’re not dangerous. In fact, they open up possibilities that are beneficial to the community.”

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“Fahrenheit” (1959) by C. Kermit “Buck” EwingCourtesy of the Knoxville Museum of Art

“Fahrenheit” (1959) by C. Kermit “Buck” Ewing

The Knoxville Seven was the invention of C. Kermit “Buck” Ewing, a painter, professor, and provocateur from Pittsburgh who came to Knoxville in 1948 as the first head of UT’s new art department. That was just a year after John Gunther had described Knoxville as “the ugliest city I ever saw in America.” Knoxville was in the dumps—pollution, blue laws, and a declining population had turned a formerly cosmopolitan city on the river into a depressed backwater. But change was coming, and Ewing was both a beneficiary and a catalyst. The university’s rapid growth after World War II—it was one local institution that was thriving—prompted the administration to add art, theater, and music departments alongside more traditional and practical academic programs. Ewing joined a cohort of educated, well-traveled colleagues who were eager to shake things up. None of them were as qualified to do that as he was.

Ewing was a talented painter—his landscapes and abstractions range from charming to arresting, and he did some of the most daring work of any of the Knoxville Seven in the 1960s. But his lasting legacy is as a ringleader and shrewd administrator. He staged elaborate auctions and openings that drew attention from outside the usual circles, and he recruited talented young faculty members from around the country. Ewing spent almost 30 years fighting for a dedicated building for the art school; the 160,000-square-foot Art and Architecture Building was finally built in 1981, five years after Ewing’s death.

“Ewing wanted to create a scene, not just an art department,” says Eric Sublett, Carl Sublett’s son and an accomplished professional painter in his own right. “He wanted to always be bringing people in from everywhere else. His main thing was to create a cosmopolitan thing with people from all over. And he was basically trying to start this from nothing.”

By the late ’50s, Ewing had recruited the painter Walter Stevens, a graduate of the University of Illinois, and painter and printmaker Richard Clarke, from Indiana, to the faculty. Carl Sublett was a commercial artist, doing advertising and newspaper work, before he joined the faculty; he shared a modernist sensibility with the others. He had moved to Bristol from Eastern Kentucky after World War II and came to Knoxville in 1954. The four of them often painted together and traveled to art fairs around the Southeast. Sublett’s house on Lake Avenue was a frequent gathering spot.

Clarke, Stevens, and Sublett were all interested in landscape painting—you can see the shapes and perspectives of quarries and beaches in even their most abstract paintings—and they liked to work outdoors together.

“They all went together out to the marble quarries,” Eric Sublett says. “We went with the Clarkes to the Smoky Mountains a lot. We’d have picnics and my dad and Clarke would go down and paint around the river. We’d just kind of hang out but they were always talking shop, and I was always interested.”

Eventually, Robert Birdwell—the only East Tennessee native in the group—started showing his paintings with the group. Birdwell preferred urban landscapes to the quarries and mountains. Joanna Higgs Ross, the first female graduate of UT’s art program, began exhibiting with the group as a graduate student and continued showing her work with them even after she moved back to Middle Tennessee in 1961. That’s also the year that Philip Nichols, a sculptor, joined the UT faculty and became the final member of the Knoxville Seven.

Under Ewing’s inspired leadership, the group took up the cause of modern art with almost evangelical enthusiasm. Even when the reviews weren’t positive—a 1963 News-Sentinel review put the word “art” in quotation marks, a not terribly subtle suggestion that whatever these modernist and contemporary pieces were, it was something besides art—the group was getting attention. They won prizes at regional art fairs, sold paintings to collectors from around the country, and inspired a couple of generations of art students. They introduced Knoxville to modern art. 

“Some of the things they did together were among the first abstract works of art in East Tennessee history,” Wicks says. “They were having these big lively events that helped shift the cultural spotlight back on the visual arts. All of a sudden you have this connection between Knoxville and the contemporary world of art because of the Knoxville Seven. They were teaching students and getting them excited about the possibility of something beyond academic figure drawing and figure painting.

“In many ways they changed forever the landscape.”

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“Shift I” (1965) by Walter StevensCourtesy of the Knoxville Museum of Art/University of Tennessee Ewing Gallery of Art and Architecture

“Shift I” (1965) by Walter Stevens

Wicks was hired by KMA as its first full-time curator in 1990, the year the former Dulin Gallery collection moved into its grand new headquarters near World’s Fair Park and became the Knoxville Museum of Art. Wicks had graduated from UT and then earned a master’s degree in art history from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. There, Wicks had worked in the curatorial department of the Cleveland Museum of Art, a century-old institution with a $750 million endowment. KMA’s early years, in contrast, were turbulent, with frequent staff turnover, financial uncertainty, and an undefined mission. 

“[In Cleveland] we had a huge staff of curators, we had a lot of money, we had vast collections to work with, a huge library,” Wicks says. “We had great support from the community. So nothing I learned up there prepared me for the challenges I had to face, which were immediately making budget cuts and trying to establish some kind of identity and momentum for a fledgling museum.”

Wicks basically learned how to be a curator on the job. In 2003, after 13 years at a still-struggling museum, he left for a job at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Ga. Four years later, in 2007, Wicks came back to an entirely different institution. 

“I thought it would be weird to go back to a place I had already worked,” Wicks says. “But when I talked to this director who had been hired a year before that, David Butler, I just thought, wow, this is not the same place I left. I felt it would be a new adventure on familiar turf instead of just coming back to an old position and picking up where you’d left off.”

At that point, after almost 20 years, the museum still didn’t have a recognizable identity. Its collection was small and attendance was declining. Under Butler and Wicks, all that changed. Instead of trying to compete with other regional museums, like the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, or the Mint Museum in Charlotte, they decided KMA should tell the story of East Tennessee’s art history. They ditched the expensive blockbuster exhibits KMA had staged in the late ’90s and early ’00s—shows that brought in crowds but were so expensive that they still lost money—in favor of exhibitions that celebrated local and regional artists. It was a story they were uniquely qualified to tell. And if KMA didn’t do that, who would?

“That’s my only contribution—looking at how the museum had struggled with its identity and voice and saying, you know, we need to be about this place,” Butler says. “I’ll take credit for going in that direction, but Stephen’s the one who figured out how to do it. He had a lot of that in his back pocket when he came back, and we were lucky that we had someone with that depth of experience and those connections, who had been thinking about these things for a long time and knew which levers to pull to make this happen.”

Butler credits Wicks with long-range vision—since coming back to KMA in 2007, he’s been able to apply the skills he learned during his first stint here—and the connections he had made—toward a specific, overarching goal.

Stephen Wicks, KMA curator

Stephen Wicks, KMA curator

“The curator is the DNA of the institution,” Butler says. “I’m old-fashioned about museums. I believe who you are as a museum is a function of what you have on the walls and in the basement—what you own as an institution and what you keep in trust for the public.

“That has changed radically for us over the past 25 years, and especially over the last 10 years, where we’ve gone from a handful of acquisitions a year to close to 100 some years. The talent of a curator is not in the details so much as the big vision—this is why we’re important to this community, this is our function as the keeper of this legacy and the interpreter of this legacy.”

Wicks’ first major accomplishment after he came back was Higher Ground, a permanent exhibit that opened in 2008, featuring works by dozens of artists with East Tennessee connections: the great modernist Beauford Delaney, who left Knoxville for a career in New York; Ansel Adams, whose catalog includes photos of the Great Smoky Mountains; the prominent folk artist Bessie Harvey, from Alcoa; the glass artist Richard Jolley; and the contemporary star Wade Guyton, who grew up here and graduated from UT.

“I had forgotten just how many great examples of those artists’ works were already downstairs in our fairly modest collection, in storage,” Wicks says. Combining what KMA already owned with loans from UT, other museums, and gifts from collectors, Wicks built what has become the anchor exhibit of the area’s major art institution in just a few months. And digging through the past set the stage for the current exhibit.

“Everyone was so generous, partly because many of the great things we needed were sitting in storage somewhere else,” Wicks says. “And I got really excited putting this exhibition together, and I loved some of the stories that were coming out.”

One of the stories that emerged was the Knoxville Seven.

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COVER_v2i08_K7_Show1963_TopPhotograph by Robert Bolton. Courtesy of the Robert Bolton Collection of the Louis Round Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina.

Knoxville Seven exhibition opening at the University of Tennessee’s Frank H. McClung Museum, April 15, 1963.

The Knoxville Seven only existed for a few years. It was a loose coalition, not an organized group. Ewing and the members of his expanding circle put on two- or three-person shows together starting in the mid-1950s, but it wasn’t until 1961, with the arrival of Philip Nichols to the faculty, that there were seven participating artists. Two of the members, Higgs Ross and Nichols, never even met—by the time Nichols arrived, Higgs Ross had left Knoxville. (She still sent work from Middle Tennessee for Knoxville shows.)

Their crowning collective achievement was a 1963 show at the McClung Museum, part of the Dogwood Arts Festival, titled Seven Knoxville Artists of America. Ewing borrowed bowler hats and white tuxedos from the theater department for himself and Stevens, with “Knoxville 7” stenciled on the back of the jackets. The poster for the event was an American flag in red and beige, with the artists’ names listed on the stripes. Sublett’s “Pop Goes My Easel” was one of the works included. 

By the mid ’60s, the Knoxville Seven had made their splash together and made room for new ideas about art in Knoxville’s conservative cultural landscape. The expansion of the art department that they had inspired meant heavier teaching loads and more administrative work, and their success as a group opened up opportunities for each of them individually.

“It was mission accomplished, more or less,” Eric Sublett says. “They’d won these regional prizes and their reputations got bigger, so they’d send stuff to St. Louis or Chicago or New Orleans and they’d be winning prizes there. But they’d be doing it more individually. My dad was born in 1919, this is 1963—he was becoming a little more sedentary, and they were all getting older. This was more or less the flower of their youth, or their prime. Nobody ever said, ‘The Knoxville Seven is dead.’”

As the ideas they had once championed became commonplace, their work together was largely forgotten. People remembered the events but the work those events celebrated was fading from memory.

“Not everything the Knoxville Seven did was genius, but they did a lot of great work that holds up now,” Wicks says. “Most of what I hear people remembering about them is not about their art. It’s about the lively auctions and openings that Buck Ewing orchestrated. People talk about those like they happened yesterday. But I want people to remember the art and what they were doing and how much they were pushing the envelope in the studio.”

The art is the center of Wicks’ exhibit. He’s assembled about a dozen works from each artist, most of them from the Knoxville Seven period, and dedicated the entire main floor to them. There’s a historical narrative running through the show—you can see each artist’s development, and you’ll notice how they influenced each other and how the best work comes from the period when the group was at its most active, in the early ’60s. But the art itself is the main thing, and it still has the capacity to surprise you.

“I knew these guys were good, but I had no idea of the level of quality that compares so favorably to anywhere else,” Butler says. “It’s not provincial at all, and that was a real revelation to me. And you can see them working through the first half of the 20th century—through cubism, through surrealism. It’s the same journey that more famous artists like Jackson Pollock and de Kooning and the much better known, more famous abstract expressionists working in New York went through. They’re schooling themselves through European art, but it’s all grounded here in East Tennessee. I think that’s pretty fascinating.”

From a curators’ perspective, the show has already been a huge success—KMA has officially acquired, through purchase or donation, several pieces in the show, and more have been promised. (Many were already in the museum’s collection.) And Wicks and Butler expect more opportunities to come forward now that the show is up—for lost works to come back to light, revealing even more of the story.

“I told Stephen to think about this as Knoxville Seven 1.0,” Butler says.

Related Story:Meet the Knoxville Seven

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WHAT
Knoxville Seven

WHERE
Knoxville Museum of Art (1050 World’s Fair Park Drive)

WHEN
Through April 17

HOW MUCH
Free

INFO
knoxart.org

“Sea Forest IV” (1960) by Carl Sublett Courtesy of the Knoxville Museum of Art / Eric Sublett

“Sea Forest IV” (1960) by Carl Sublett

Matthew Everett
Senior Editor

Senior Editor Matthew Everett manages the Knoxville Mercury's arts & entertainment section, including the comprehensive calendar section—Knoxville’s go-to guide for everything worth doing in the area. You can reach Matthew at matthew@knoxmercury.com.

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