A centennial celebration of artist Robert Birdwell

Beth KinnaneAnderson, Our Town Stories, Powell

Entering Ann Birdwell’s Powell home is an instant immersion into artistic everything, bordering on visual sensory overload. There are pieces collected from artists she admires, former students, her own work, and that of her late husband, Robert “Bob” Birdwell.

At present, much of the available counter space, including the island and table, in her kitchen is covered. There’s a stack here of pieces needing a quick frame job, a stack there for sorting and decisions, and yet another of curiosities, working sketches, practice paintings and such, that, though treasured, will not make the final cut.

Robert and Ann Birdwell (Personal Collection of Ann Birdwell, credit to The OakRidger)

Ms. B, as she is fondly remembered by her past pupils at Central High School, is an accomplished artist in her own right. But at present she is making selections for an upcoming exhibit celebrating the art of her husband, Bob. It’s difficult to find a medium he never worked with, his range expressed in oils, acrylics, water colors, sketches, pen and ink, found objects. He even tried his hand at carving, having a particular penchant for finding the character in a piece of driftwood or a fallen branch.

Bob passed away in March 2016. Next month marks his 100th birthday, and to celebrate the Oak Ridge Art Center is presenting Robert Birdwell: 100 Years in Retrospect. The exhibit begins July 6, with an opening reception from 1-5 p.m. and runs through August 17.

Shortly before he died, Bob was recognized as one of The Knoxville Seven in a show at the Knoxville Museum of Art in 2016. The other six are Philip Nichols, Carl Sublett, Walter Stevens, Richard Clarke, Joanna Higgs Ross and Kermit “Buck” Ewing. Ewing came to the University of Tennessee in 1948 to head its new art department.

Young Robert Birdwell

The coming exhibit is a fitting tribute to a kid from Lonsdale. One of 10 children, he was a scribbler from an early age. In the middle of the Great Depression his family moved to Kingsport, where he eventually graduated from Sullivan County High School. The year was 1943, smack in the middle of World War II. He joined the Army Air Corps and eventually went to officer training school. He never saw combat, and when released from the service, returned to Knoxville to attend UT and study engineering.

Which brings us back to Buck Ewing. Once he arrived in Knoxville and a fine arts major was added at UT, Bob changed course: to the art department he went. But his gear-head mind and interest in architecture combined with his artistic talent would pave the way for the career he pursued.

Among the ephemera that Ann is sifting through is a collection of letters from Ewing to Bob from the 1950s. From early June of 1953, Ewing was encouraging him to apply for a job with the TVA. While institutional art may not sound sexy, it was a steady job with good pay. Bob was in Nashville at the time, and Ewing was after him to get his application completed. By late July, Bob had an offer in hand for “an emergency appointment as Exhibits Artist III.” On August 20, a very simple letter on TVA letterhead went out:

Robert Birdwell Army Air Corps portrait

This will introduce Robert Birdwell, a new TVA employee, who will design and execute new exhibits for powerhouses.

The letter was signed by Charles Krutch, photographer and information officer at TVA, who gave us Krutch Park. And thus began Bob’s 30-year career as staff artist and display coordinator. He also spent a decade as an adjunct professor of art at Maryville College as well as teaching classes at the Oak Ridge Art Center for 40 years.

Some of his panel murals from TVA will be on display at the new exhibit. Ann said that some of his favorite subjects to sketch and paint were the people he saw on Market Square (where he used to have a studio), during and after the existence of the old Market House. Looking through some of those renderings, if any artist could have illustrated Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, it would have been Bob Birdwell.

Enjoy this small collection of some of his work:

For more information on the show go here.

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for KnoxTNToday.com. It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

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