The best stories, like the one that Mary Linda Schwarzbart shared with KnoxTNToday a few months ago about her late husband’s family’s Holocaust experience and how they came to Knoxville, teach us things we didn’t know. Their story affected me deeply, and since I figure that I’m not much different from anybody else, I in turn, share it here.
It is a story about new directions and leaps of faith; what we carry with us, what we leave behind. It is a story about the search for a place to call home, and about the career of a world-renowned artist.
In the process, however, I didn’t pay enough attention to his personal journey.
Before Arnold Schwarzbart was an artist (or artisan, the term he preferred) he was an architect. A distinguished member of the first class to graduate from the University of Tennessee’s College of Architecture, he specialized in striking modernist structures. His portfolio includes three Knoxville homes, one of which he built for himself and Mary Linda in 1970. It was the first thing he designed after graduation.
I was curious about the house and intrigued by the story of a guy who established himself in a demanding (and rewarding) profession and then gave it up to strike out in a whole new direction. Mary Linda was gracious enough to invite me to visit one recent fall morning, and I discovered a house that blended with its leafy surroundings and is filled with light and love and remembering.
The first thing I saw when I got there, after taking a couple of wrong turns off the narrow, winding street – the place really does blend with its surroundings – was a smiling Mary Linda waving me into her driveway. She was wearing a beautiful silver amulet with blue enamel work inscribed with what I learned is a reference to the 121st Psalm, in Hebrew: “May God protect you from harm.” Arnold made it for her.
She showed me to her kitchen, a colorful, functional room with blue cabinets (her favorite color) that face a wall of windows. There’s a huge pantry on one end and a red apron hanging next to the stove with a familiar-but-different Coca-Cola logo written in Hebrew – a gift from the late Pat Roddy, owner of the local Coca-Cola distributorship.
“Kitchens are gathering places,” Mary Linda said. “This is where my guests seem to always end up.”
She talked about how she and Arnold used to come out to the lot on weekends while the house was under construction. She said he had positioned the structure to take advantage of the splendid lake views. When she showed me the rest of the house, I took in the many deceptively simple one-of-a-kind features, like a plant stand made of glass plates suspended from steel cables attached to the soaring ceiling. Arnold made that, too, and Mary Linda’s orchids love it. How could they not?
Clearly, he was a gifted architect. But just as clearly, he was born to create art. Mary Linda shared a grant application that Arnold wrote that explains his professional objectives and the spiritual nature of his inspiration:
“I grew up in a Jewish but totally non-observant home. Thirty years ago, I rediscovered Judaism and became enthusiastic about its practice and the very long history of ritual objects. Trained as an architect and designer, these objects had great fascination for me and after some time decided to pursue the making of ritual objects of my own design. Not to sound overly idealistic, but I felt that making such objects with a contemporary design hand would, for some people, create an emotional connection to their faith that would inspire connecting with the divine, and it is very rewarding when that happens…
“In my most recent work I am attempting to get to the heart of spiritual awareness. These pieces aim to inspire God consciousness even more than religious practice. The reason for applying for this grant is to buy the most precious of all commodities – time. Time to develop the ideas I have found in the Jewish mystical texts and turn them into works of art and craft that are inspirational.”
This year, Thanksgiving week will usher in Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, and I will celebrate the life of an artist I never met and be grateful that he passed this way.
For more information about Arnold Schwarzbart’s life work go here.
Addendum: Arnold’s first architectural practice was a partnership with another member of the first graduating class of the UT School of Architecture – his friend the late Shan Wilcox – another well-known Knoxville architect.