Underground Gay Street. Photo by Clay Duda/Knoxville Mercury.

Underground Art: Arts and Culture Alliance Unveils New Knox Mural Under Gay Street

In Program Notes, Visual Arts by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

The silhouettes of buildings in downtown Knoxville and the city’s mountainous skyline are suggested in bright geometric shapes and faux-photographs in a new mural buried under Gay Street. Painted last week by two California artists on one wall of the underground 100 block of Gay, it’s visible only through the bank of glass windows in the basement level of the Emporium Center.

The mural now belongs to the city, which still owns this underground street, and the artwork’s $10,000 bill was split between Visit Knoxville and the Arts & Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville, which also owns the Emporium gallery.

The street where the mural is displayed disappeared underground in 1919, explains Liza Zenni, executive director of the alliance. That’s when the city built a viaduct to safely conduct train passengers across the tracks from Gay Street to the depot on the other side. Because Gay Street was on the same level as the tracks, it had to be raised to make a bridge.

The winning firm, LC Studio Tutto, is an art and design team composed of Sofia Lacin and Hennessy Christophel, who have collaborated on more than 70 murals and specialize in large-scale public art.

Zenni says the alliance received design submissions from three Knoxville artists, several in Nashville, and three more from other towns in East Tennessee. Others came from Asheville and more far-flung locales. The non-profit arts alliance has a focus on showcasing and supporting the Knoxville-area art community, and Zenni says it generally favors local entries, just as 90 percent of its Emporium shows feature local artists. While the designs submitted from Knoxville artists were lovely, however, “they kind of didn’t seem to add another layer to the city’s existing collection of public art,” Zenni says.

Zenni says the Alliance doesn’t want local artists “to be so cosseted that they aren’t exposed to that competition” from the larger art world, “so we decided to take the heat” over selecting artists from California for the local project.

“Do I know in my heart that there was disappointment?” Zenni says. “Absolutely. It was not something that we did without a great deal of thought, concern and love for our local artists.”

The mural is open to the public through the Emporium from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays; the building hosts multiple galleries as well as the administrative offices of the Arts & Culture Alliance and offices for other arts and cultural organizations. Celebrate the mural’s opening on Friday, Sept. 2, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., when music and hors d’oeuvres will be part of the First Friday opening for new Emporium exhibits by Stephen Carcello, Antuco Chicaiza, Emily Taylor, Anthony M. Donaldson, and Eurichea Showalter Subagh Ball.

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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