Art reveals quiet sense of Carl Sublett

Harold DuckettArts 865

An exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of Knoxville and University of Tennessee artist Carl Sublett’s birth opens today at Bennett Galleries in the Bearden arts district. Sublett was born on Feb. 4, 1919.


Sublett grew up in rural Eastern Kentucky, which like much of Appalachia, often produces people with gentle, caring personalities. The region was definitely part of who Sublett was. His quiet, gentle character is evident in his work.

“Oasis I,” 1960, oil on canvas, 50” x 44”

Rarely is there anything out of place or even anything that might be characterized as extravagant or there just to show off. Even his larger, bolder abstract expressionist paintings, such as “Oasis I,” oil on canvas, 50” x 40,” painted in 1960, have a sense of calm and control, instead of violent, almost explosive characteristics of much of the expressionist paintings that were produced during this period in American art.

One of Sublett’s earlier paintings – “Woman with Cello,” oil on canvas, 40” x 50,” painted in 1958 – is an example of beginning to work in the abstract expressionist style of painting. The female figure and the body of the cello instrument can be clearly identified.

“Woman with Cello,” 1958, oil on canvas, 40” x 50”

The image is blocks of patterns set in a dark-blue field that has also been divided into sub-blocks of color. Except for the color shading within the individual shapes, this could be a fabric quilt, a sensibility that adds to the appeal of the overall painting and fits with who Sublett was.

After a stint in the military during WWII, when he served in Europe, Sublett and his wife, Helen, came to Knoxville in 1954. Their two children, Carol Sublett Colby, currently living in Maine, and the late Eric Sublett, grew up here.

He initially worked as a commercial artist. That care and attention to detail still shows in his artwork. The quality of his work and his gentle, caring personality is what attracted C. Kermit “Buck” Ewing to hire Sublett to be a teacher in the new University of Tennessee art department that Ewing had come from Pennsylvania to found.

Sublett initially taught part time. He joined the faculty as a full-time assistant professor in 1966. He retired in 1982.

“L&N Building,” pencil on paper, 11” x 14,” likely mislabeled.

The Subletts spent their summers in Maine, where they lived near Walter Hollis Stevens, a fellow member of UT’s art faculty. They often painted together during the long summer days. Images of those times show up in some of the watercolor paintings and drawings included in this show.

The 1975 watercolor “Country Building,” 18 x 24, was painted during one of those summers. It, and the pencil drawing titled (likely incorrectly) “L&N Building,” 1967, 11” x 14,” capture the quiet, casual sense of Sublett’s nature.

So do the calm, ordered marks of “Untitled,” 40” x 40,” oil on canvas painting made in 1960. A completely non-objective painting, it reads as a sort of dream landscape, anchored by the dark ground at the base and the brighter light at the top, with foggy landscape image suggestions in the background.

“Untitled,” 1960, oil on canvas, 40” x 40”

As an artist, Sublett can be summed up as “Art isn’t something that you do. It comes as a result of who you are.”

“Carl Sublett: Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Carl’s Birth,” continues at Bennett Galleries at 5308 Kingston Pike, in Bearden, through the end of March. Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, with special hours for gallery openings and other special events.

More information about Bennett Galleries and the Sublett show can be found here.

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