Knoxville has a rich history of talented artists who were born here or made pivotal works before moving on to a national stage or international stage. Here are brief bios on some of Knoxville’s most talented artists.
Beauford Delaney (1901-1979)
Beauford is the best-known artist who ever lived in Knoxville. He was born in Knoxville in a small wooden house on East Vine Street. His father was a barber and also a Methodist preacher.
He always loved to draw, even in school, and one of his early works was a portrait of Charles Cansler, then the principal of Austin High. As a teenager, he found work as a sign painter. He impressed the elderly Lloyd Branson, Knoxville’s most successful artist of the time. Branson offered to give him lessons in painting if Beauford would help him mix paints and help out in the studio. Delaney did very well, and in 1924, when Beauford was a young man, his friends, including Lloyd Branson and another painter named Hugh Tyler (uncle of the writer James Agee) helped pay his way to study art in a school in Boston.
At the end of the Harlem Renaissance period, Delaney became known for his portraits of several major figures, including W.E.B. DuBois, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and W.C. Handy. He became close friends with writers Henry Miller and James Baldwin.
In 1930, when Delaney was still in his 20s, he staged an important show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. He returned to Knoxville for a visit in 1950 and three years later moved to Paris, France. There he became more interested in abstract expressionism. It was, as his friend James Baldwin wrote, “a metamorphosis into freedom.” Delaney’s exuberant oils with vibrant colors have since earned him a reputation as one of America’s greatest black abstract expressionists.
Catherine Wiley (1879-1958)
Recognized as one of Knoxville’s most influential artists of the early 20th century, Catherine Wiley was born near Knoxville in Coal Creek (later Lake City, now Rocky Top). Her father worked in the coal industry before moving the family to Knoxville in 1882, where Catherine, and her sister and fellow artist, Eleanor McAdoo Wiley (1876-1977) grew up on Fort Sanders’ Laurel Avenue. Her grandfather was the prominent attorney and businessman William Gibbs McAdoo, Sr., and her uncle was U.S. Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, Jr. Wiley’s sister, Eleanor McAdoo Wiley, was also an active painter in Knoxville.
Catherine Wiley first attended the University of Tennessee and later taught there. Following a move to New York in 1903, she was active with the Art Students League where she studied under American Impressionist Frank DuMond. Wiley returned to Knoxville in 1905 after a brief spell at the New York School of Art where she studied with William Merritt Chase. In 1912, she returned to New York to study with American Impressionist painter Robert Reid.
Along with several other Knoxville artists, including Lloyd Branson and Charles Krutch, Wiley joined the Nicholson Art League (1906-1923) that helped organize major art exhibits for several Knoxville cultural expositions held at Chilhowee Park: the Appalachian Expositions of 1910 and 1911, and the National Conservation Exposition of 1913, Wiley served as the Chair of the Art Committee at the 1913 exposition which attracted more than one million visitors in its two-month run.
In 1926, Catherine Wiley suffered a breakdown and was institutionalized in Pennsylvania and rarely painted again. Widely regarded as Tennessee’s greatest Impressionist, she left behind a significant body of work and a lasting artistic legacy. She is buried in Old Gray Cemetery.
Branson, Lloyd (1853-1925)
Born in northern Knox County (now part of Union County), Lloyd Branson is regarded perhaps as Knoxville’s finest professional artists. Branson’s family moved to Knoxville in 1868, and exhibited extraordinary talent as a youngster. After studying at the University of Tennessee, Branson moved to New York to study at the National Academy of Design. On his return to Knoxville, Branson shared a studio with photographer Frank McCrary on Gay Street. Branson began to establish a reputation as a regional artist, and took the gold medal at the 1910 Appalachian Exposition in Knoxville for one of his most enduring paintings of the region’s marble industry, Hauling Marble.
Branson was a founder of the Nicholson Art League, and taught some of Knoxville’s most influential artists, including Catherine Wiley. Future black abstract impressionist Beauford Delaney worked as an apprentice in Branson’s studios.
In 1901, the Knoxville jail summoned Branson to make a sketch of Kid Curry, a member of Butch Cassidy’s infamous gang caught in Knoxville. The artist was needed after Curry refused to have his photograph taken.
Throughout his life, Branson produced a diverse body of work including the design of Knoxville’s Flag. His last portrait was that of World War I hero Sergeant Alvin York. Branson is buried in Old Gray Cemetery.
Charles Christopher Krutch (1849-1934)
Born of German parents who settled in the area before the Civil War, Charles Christopher Krutch spent most of his life in Knoxville. Without formal training, Krutch worked throughout his life as a professional portrait photographer for several local studios.
Most summers, even up into his 80s, Krutch took a train to Sevierville, hopped on a wagon and headed up to the mountains, often spending weeks at a time living with mountain people, where he prepared sketches of the landscapes before returning to Knoxville to paint them. One of his favorite places to sketch was the Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Known for his atmospheric watercolors and oil paintings, Krutch painted with both brushes and fingers to achieve what has been dubbed “the changing ‘moods’ of the mountains,” inspiring his nickname, the “Corot of the South.”
Coming from a gifted musical family (one of his relatives played piano at the White House) Krutch also served as organist at St. John’s Episcopal Church, and Church of the Epiphany, the precursor to St. James Episcopal Church on Broadway. He is buried in New Gray Cemetery.
Krutch Park is not named after this artist but rather his nephew, Charles Edward Krutch, a TVA photographer who left money to the City for a downtown park. Another nephew was Joseph Wood Krutch, a well-known critic, biographer, and naturalist.
Carl Sublett (1919-2008)
Carl Sublett was born in rural eastern Kentucky. Growing up in a small mining town he became fascinated with coal trains, inspiring his first drawings at age 8 and his first oil painting at 11. He attended Western Kentucky State College in Bowling Green. During World War II, Sublett served in the military before entering the University Study Center in Florence, Italy, receiving the Citizens Award for his artwork by the people of Florence.
On his return to the U.S., Sublett worked as an engineering draftsman and newspaper artist in Bristol, TN., before moving to Knoxville in 1954. After a brief stint as a commercial artist he joined artist C. Kermit “Buck” Ewing as a professor at the University of Tennessee’s School of Visual Arts. Both were core members of the Knoxville Seven, a group of forward-looking artists active between 1959 and 1965 who were among the first in East Tennessee to experiment with Abstract Expressionism.
A versatile and talented artist, Sublett shifted effortlessly from abstraction to precise realism, finding endless inspiration in East Tennessee landscapes as well as the Maine coastline where he also resided. By the 1970s, he turned to watercolor as his primary medium. Sublett was awarded a lifetime Achievement Award from the Knoxville Arts Council in 1994.
Albert Milani (1892-1972)
Italian-born sculptor Albert Milani arrived in Knoxville around 1910 with 25 cents in his pocket. Hired by the Candoro Marble Company in South Knoxville, he served as foreman at that well-known producer, until his retirement in the late 1960s. However, it was at his home studio on Sutherland Avenue that he carved many exquisite sculptures that showcased his considerable talent.
Milani’s majestic Tennessee marble eagle sculptures crown the Art Deco-style Tennessee Supreme Court, on Main Street, constructed in the early 1930s. Other work is featured in the Knoxville Museum of Art as well at the Candoro Arts and Heritage Center in South Knoxville. One of his most unusual commissions, a memorial to Knoxville-born racing car driver, Albert Jacob “Pete” Kreis, can be found nearby at Asbury Cemetery. Kreis was killed on a practice lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1934. The sculpture was recognized as the Most Outstanding Memorial by the New York Times.
Robert Birdwell (1924-2016)
A Knoxville native, Robert Birdwell grew up in the Lonsdale area before moving to Kingsport, Tenn. The GI Bill allowed him back to move back to Knoxville to study at the University of Tennessee and from there he attended the University of Iowa’s respected School of Art.
The Tennessee Valley Authority provided Birdwell with a 30-year career as a staff artist and muralist. He also maintained a personal studio downtown, first on Church Avenue, then at a corner studio in the Peter Kern building on Market Square, years before it became a hotel. After retiring from TVA, Birdwell taught art at Maryville College.
Birdwell often drew inspiration from urban settings with downtown Knoxville his favorite painting location. With the Knoxville Seven, he experimented with degrees of abstraction but also focused on watercolor paintings of downtown Knoxville in a realist style.
Upon his passing, his daughter Ann recalled her father’s fondness for Knoxville. “He loved Market Square and all the people in it. 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.”
Ewing, C. Kermit “Buck” (1910-1976)
Born in Pittsburgh, Pa., Kermit “Buck” Ewing graduated from Carnegie Mellon University where he later taught art. Ewing started the University of Tennessee’s visual arts program after moving to Knoxville in 1948. The department began with 35 students based out of a three-bedroom house on W. Cumberland Avenue.
“Buck” Ewing was renowned for his figurative and landscape paintings that explored abstract expressionism and pop art. In addition to solo art shows, Ewing collaborated with others to form two- and or three-artist shows, but it was the addition of Philip Nichols to UT’s art faculty in the late 1950s that sparked the creation of the “Knoxville Seven” – a loose coalition of regional artists also including Carl Sublett, Robert Birdwell, Joanne Higgs Ross, Richard Clarke, and Walter “Holly” Stevens.
Heralded as a seminal event during the 1963 Dogwood Arts Festival at UT’s McClung Museum, the Seven Knoxville Artists of America exhibition saw Ewing and Stevens famously sporting bowler hats and white tuxedos with “Knoxville 7” stenciled on their backs.
In 1963, Ewing also formed the Knoxville Watercolor Society to promote the medium as a “significant art form” and continued to expand UT’s visual arts program. He remained head of department until he died of a heart attack while visiting Bali, Indonesia, in 1976. Five years after his death, UT finally realized the Art and Architecture Building, which Ewing had envisioned and advocated for many years.
The Ewing Gallery of Art and Architecture, located in that building, is named in his honor.
Harry P. Ijams (1876-1954)
Born in Knoxville, Harry Ijams was the son of Joseph H. Ijams, Superintendent of the Tennessee Deaf and Dumb Asylum (1866-1882). His mother, Alice Yoe, was a successful horticulturalist and Girl Scout Ambassador. Harry became a renowned commercial artist and a wildlife enthusiast who helped launch the East Tennessee Ornithological Society at his South Knoxville farm, now the heart of Ijams Nature Center.
After studying at Cincinnati School of Art, Ijams returned to Knoxville and was involved in the National Conservation Exposition at Chilhowee Park in 1913. He was manager of the Knoxville Engraving Company and illustrated numerous early 20th century Knoxville icons, including Brookside Mills, the Chavannes Lumber Yard, and the McClung Warehouse. Later in life, Ijams served as a resident illustrator for the Knoxville News Sentinel, and worked extensively as a freelance artist, particularly in support of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park movement, lending his artistry to maps, posters, postcards, and promotional stamps. He is also known for his whimsical Christmas family postcards which he produced every year from around 1914 until the mid-1940s.
Farr, Charles Griffin (1908-1997)
Charles Griffin Farr was a devoted realist painter, recognized for his “bright, clear views of a flawless, apparently vacuum-sealed world” during the mid-20th century.”
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Charles Griffin Farr was 8 when his family moved to Knoxville, where he spent the rest of his youth, graduating from Central High School, where he was known for his artistic talents. He was exhibiting his work in Knoxville by 1927, and traveled to Paris in 1928 where he studied at the Academie Americaine. Back in Knoxville the following year, he became manager of the new Tea Room at the Melrose Arts Center where the Knoxville Art League met and hosted exhibitions. The same year, Farr was featured in an exhibit at the Melrose the Arts Center alongside esteemed artists Lloyd Branson and Charles Christopher Krutch.
Farr left Knoxville in 1931 to study at the famed Arts Students League in New York, when Thomas Hart Benton was teaching there, and Jackson Pollock was a fellow student. Following stints conducting art schools in Jacksonville and Key West in Florida, Farr served as an art correspondent, muralist, and decorative artist in the army during World War II. He also illustrated propaganda posters, and his work was featured with other artists from the army camouflage unit, in a 1943 exhibit, “The Art of Optical Illusion” at Macy’s Department Store in New York City.
Following the war, Farr settled in San Francisco and during his later years enjoyed a long career as a figurative painter and an influential figure drawing instructor.
Learn more about these at the Knoxville Museum of Art’s ongoing exhibition, Higher Ground: A Century of the Visual Arts in East Tennessee.