Six weeks ago I attended the opening of the Knoxville Museum of Art’s Knoxville Seven show. Still hanging, it’s a show devoted to seven brash young artists who, from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, challenged mainstream habits in a city not famous for visual art. Some of their work has been on display upstairs at the Higher Ground exhibit for the last few years. It won’t surprise anyone that the ones that drew me were the ones depicting downtown Knoxville. Robert Birdwell made mid-century downtown look legendary and slightly dangerous. He liked to suggest an element of mystery and unknowability, which may be the only honest way to present a city, especially this one.
The Knoxville Seven show presents two big oils depicting Gay Street, both modernist, one more abstract than the other. You can look at them for a long time before moving on, and then you’ll come back.
It’s altogether a fascinating show, presenting the surprising breadth of all seven artists, and there were hundreds of people at the opening. It was one of the biggest art receptions I’ve ever attended. There were lots of well known and important people there but one stood out. He was a tall, slim, distinguished-looking fellow in a black beret, visible over the tops of the heads in the crowded room with the Robert Birdwell paintings. He was, in fact, Robert Birdwell.
For 30 years or so, I’ve known people who knew him back then, but I didn’t, and I didn’t know for sure that he was still around. I introduced myself. We had a short chat about his perspectives of Gay Street and the fact that he used to have a studio on Market Square. He was 91 years old. He was genial and gracious and seemed very happy to be there. We agreed we’d talk more in the near future, and I was looking forward to that.
Last week, he died. Since our meeting didn’t work out, I talked to his widow, Ann, and his son, who’s also named Robert Birdwell, an Oak Ridge caterer and an aspiring artist himself.
The only Knoxville native in the Knoxville Seven, Robert Birdwell grew up one of 10 children in a family of modest means. They lived in the West View section, near Lonsdale. His dad was a barber, and the family struggled. His sisters worked in a local button factory. Even as a kid, Robert was always sketching things, like his favorite funny-pages characters.
When he was 10, it was the middle of the Depression, and they moved to Kingsport, which at the time was doing better than Knoxville was. He attended Sullivan County High. Tall and lean, he was a natural at basketball. One season playing for Sullivan County, Birdwell was the leading scorer in the state.
He graduated in 1943, which was a brave year to graduate from high school. He wanted to be a pilot in the Army Air Corps, but washed out, maybe just because his feet were too big. His superiors saw officer potential in him, though, and he wound up in officer-training school in Buffalo, N.Y., and later trained on radar. The war ended before he had to deal with it very intimately, and on the GI Bill he went to UT. He was in engineering school until one Buck Ewing came to town and founded UT’s first-ever school of art. In those days Birdwell especially admired Pablo Picasso and his innovative instinct.
“He was very well spoken,” remarks his son, Robert, “But he saw things he could just express through art.”
From UT he went to the University of Iowa’s well-reputed School of Art, and returned home with an MFA and a notion of making a career as an art teacher. In the 1950s, though, when the Tennessee Valley Authority was hosting world leaders who came to Knoxville just to behold the public-power phenomenon, TVA still had a strong esthetic sense, and rarely built any sort of facility without a mural or some interesting tile work attached to it. For years, TVA was our Lorenzo de Medici. TVA was hiring artists, and paying better than UT. Birdwell settled in for 29 years as TVA’s staff artist. There he befriended some other interesting artistic sorts, like Charlie Krutch, an older colleague who was also a Knoxville native. The TVA staff photographer’s industrial scenes have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art. (It was Krutch who left the money for a downtown park.)
But all the while, Birdwell was doing things on his own. To keep from bothering his colleagues at TVA, he set up his own personal studio downtown, for a time in the fascinating old Ross Flats building on Church, and then in a second-floor corner studio in the old Peter Kern building, years before it was a hotel.
“He loved Market Square and all the people in it,” his widow, Ann, recalls. “He sketched the little ladies selling flowers and vegetables. Mrs. Ford, who sold cottage cheese, and Myrtle Price, who sold corn and peaches. They’d see him coming, and they’d start straightening their hair. They just loved him.”
He also liked to sketch the old men who loafed on the benches. They didn’t necessarily love him. But sometimes he’d give them some money, enough to tolerate a young artist and to convince them to sit still.
Birdwell’s TVA work was visible throughout the valley. His mural depicting the history of TVA was for years prominent in the lobby of the East Tower. His family thinks it’s now in storage somewhere.
In later years, he was less obvious downtown. He moved to Halls in the ’70s and retired from TVA in 1983, but taught art at Maryville College for some years after that. He eventually settled in Powell, but maintained a studio at the Moses Center in Mechanicsville until about a decade ago.
His art can still be seen in some TVA sites and, as it happens, at two different shows: the KMA show, and another at the Oak Ridge Art Center, called “Family Affair.” He requested that he have no funeral. To remember him, he asked, just go see his work, and give something to the arts.