It’s art vs. trees in downtown Knoxville

Marty McWhirterDowntown, Our Town Arts

(Editor’s note: Public concern has been rising on social media about a big change at the so-called Cradle of Country Music Park at the intersection of Gay Street and Summit Hill Drive. A large metal sculpture commissioned by the city’s Public Arts Committee is due to be installed at the tiny park, forcing the destruction of five mature trees at a heavily concreted, noisy area. Freelance writer Marty McWhirter looked into the situation as the project faces a vote to delay at tonight’s city council meeting.)

Above is the Marc Fornes rendering that won the city of Knoxville’s largest (monetarily) single commission of public art to date. It is planned to go into a small, downtown pocket park, commonly called the Cradle of Country Music. The park is in the Gay Street/Summit Hill Drive area of downtown Knoxville.

Fornes is the young French architect/artist who ultimately won the commission. His firm is now based in New York City, where he and his team have created several large, metal art pieces that are built in New York and shipped to the location for installation.

There are similar pieces in Texas – one in San Antonio and one that is very similar to the one Knoxville commissioned that is located in Lubbock. He calls the piece we bought “Pier 865.”  The sculpture is created from stamped aluminum sheets by his firm, THEVERYMANY, based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The grass expanse of the Cradle of Country Music Park is an oasis of green on the busy north end of downtown Knoxville. (Park photos by Betsy Pickle)

The call for artists went out to all, and there were mass quantities of people who submitted their requests for an opportunity to be selected for the art. According to Liza Zenni, chair of the Knoxville Public Arts Committee and executive director of the Arts & Culture Alliance, Tennessee law mandates that the committee not be allowed to show preferential treatment to local artists. So all artists were given the opportunity to quote for the commission to bring a major artwork to Knoxville. Artists were asked to submit their statements of interest and qualifications for the project by Jan. 16, 2018.

The East Tennessee Community Design Center helped in the planning for the project; it sought community input for planning. The idea was to create a place to allow people to gather, where “live music, slam poetry presentations and other activities” could take place. And the original plan was to re-incorporate the different Cradle of Country Music plaques (that were there previously) to be displayed/returned to the park, once the art had been installed.

Sounds good and I really love the colorful art pavilion depicted in the artist’s drawings. And as a former metal fabricator myself, I really dig the concept of the sculpture.

“Zephyr” in Lubbock, Texas

But later, I noticed the “fine print” in the artist’s drawing. It won’t look like that at all. It will be very muted in green and white mostly. There is a very similar one in Lubbock, Texas, called the Zephyr. It’s a little smaller than the one we’ll be getting here. The Zephyr is pretty cool, but why show/depict the one we’ll be getting with the multiple colors it will not have?

There are several problems people have with the current plan. I spoke to city resident and local musician Maggie Longmire about a couple of the problems she sees with this art being installed in that small downtown park. One issue, which she has discussed with other musicians, is that in their opinions, it would not work as a music venue, for several reasons. It’s a major intersection, with heavy traffic – way too noisy. As she notes, we have lots of great venues for music (or poetry slams/“other activities” that are much better suited for those types of gatherings) already here in Knoxville.

Westward-leading steps take visitors to the seating area in the park.

Then, there’s the lack of space/seating. Right now, it’s a small garden oasis in the downtown area – helpful environmentally and aesthetically for the urban area. If this large artwork is installed there, it would provide very little shelter or seating for any group activities. It might be OK to have a large sculpture there, but …

What seems to be the real “hot” button issue (pun intended) is that in order to install this piece in the small downtown park, five healthy, mature, native, non-invasive trees will have to be removed first. And that will be a terrible thing for the health of downtown Knoxville. This is Longmire’s biggest concern. She’s an active member of the Sierra Club and brings that knowledge/perspective to the discussion.

There is a plan to plant trees at and around the park to help offset removing the mature trees that are there now, if the art is installed there. But the loss of the mature trees would harm the health of downtown Knoxville in the short term. And young trees take time to grow/to become hard-working carbon sinks. Downtown Knoxville already has a deficiency in the recommended amount of trees in this area.

Flowing traffic on Summit Hill is loud enough to drown out conversations at the park.

We do need to plant more trees in our cities. The Sierra Club says that this could “save 12,000 lives annually,” as “urban heat island effect traps heat in areas of cities where glass and pavement outnumber trees and green space. Without sufficient tree coverage, these neighborhoods can be up to 10 degrees warmer during the day than nearby neighborhoods with plentiful tree coverage.”

A stainless-steel sculpture called “Reach!” by Ben Pierce currently stands at the center of a seating area.

Removing large, mature trees does not sound like a good plan for downtown Knoxville.

I was concerned about the health of the trees that are proposed to be removed from the park. I understand that there are four willow oaks and one elm tree. All are native species. I’ve been assured that they have been closely examined by two different arborists, Jim Cortese and Dr. Elizabeth Hamilton. They submitted reports to the city attesting to their health. They could benefit from a little TLC (appropriate trimming, for example) but should live for decades.

Several folks have suggested that the sculpture be installed at the World’s Fair Park – no destruction of mature trees would be needed. It would be a great area to showcase a major work of art. (Even though my enthusiasm has waned after learning it will not have all those vibrant colors that I found so attractive, I still think it’s pretty cool. And even if there already is one in Texas that could be its twin … Not as original as I’d hoped for.)

Tonight, there is a proposal (by council member Seema Singh) to ask the city council to pause the project to allow for further discussion/see if a compromise can be made. I hope the resolution to do this will pass. These meetings are open to the public. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. and will be in the Main Assembly Room of the City County Building, 400 Main St. You can email or call all city council members, especially if you live in Knoxville, if you want to share how you feel about this project. (But really, this impacts tourism and our visitors, too.)

Marty McWhirter is a recently retired longtime South Knoxville business co-owner and an East Knoxville resident.

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