By Vivian DiSalvo
The Knoxville Seven – made up of Kermit Ewing, Carl Sublett, Walter Stevens, Robert Birdwell, Joanne Higgs, Richard Clarke, and Phillip Nichols – changed their local art scene in legendary ways. What started as a group of faculty members soon turned into a collection of artists who made art history. Seven unassuming artists singlehandedly pioneered the abstract art scene in East Tennessee and changed the Knoxville art scene forever.
It all started with Kermit Ewing, who founded the University of Tennessee’s art department in 1948. Ewing had an eye for abstract expressionism that was new to East Tennessee – so naturally, he started to recruit artists who had an affinity towards a similar style of abstract art; including Walter Stevens, Carl Sublett, and Robert Birdwell. These four and their ideas traveled through Knoxville and East Tennessee painting, teaching, and exhibiting. They were later joined by Joanne Higgs, Richard Clark, and Phillip Nichols, who were also interested in influencing the Knoxville art scene. Together, they made the Knoxville Seven.
Richard Clarke (Noblesville, Indiana 1923-1997 Knoxville) Untitled (East Tennessee Marble Quarry), 1963 Watercolor on paper 18 ¾ x 23 7/8 inches
Knoxville Museum of Art, 2010 gift of the Sublett Family
Although they were often grouped together as the Knoxville Seven, each of them had a distinct sense of artistic individuality. Ewing, the founder, often painted abstract landscapes with the color and geometry of pop art. Stevens also had an affinity towards landscapes, much like Ewing. He used various colors and tended to have blurry, blended lines rather than harsh geometric shapes. While his career started with a focus on creating new textures, Carl Sublett later began to focus on watercolors, painting shorelines and coasts. Robert Birdwell oscillated between abstract and realist paintings, while Phillip Nichols wasn’t even a painter. Nichols was a sculptor, and many of his works were made of pieces of metal. Although Joanne Higgs made history as a member of the Knoxville Seven, she also forged a new path for Tennessee as the first woman to graduate from the University of Tennessee with a Bachelor’s in Fine Art. Her paintings were full of blurry landscapes and coasts, often with many hints and layers of greens and blues. Richard Clarke was a painter and a printmaker who loved coastlines, landscapes, and geometric shapes. Although these seven artists all have many things in common (such as how several prefer to paint landscapes), each artist adds an abstract touch to each painting.
People were enthralled by the new, never-before-seen art style as the Knoxville Seven traveled around painting and exhibiting. They rapidly became popular, as people loved their unique art styles. Many others started to try abstract art and expressionism following the arrival of their influence. Before the Knoxville Seven, art was simple and realistic, now art was unique to each individual, undistinguished and random, colorful and geometric, or dull and blurry. Most of all, art was whatever you wanted it to be!
These seven artists broke out of the box and showed all of East Tennessee that art doesn’t have to be perfect – it could be abstract and expressionist. Today, the Knoxville Seven are remembered as the people who brought East Tennessee the amazing abstract art scene that continues to flourish today.
For more info about the Knoxville Seven, click here!
*Cover Photo by Walter H. Stevens, ‘Tour Trap’, courtesy of the Knoxville Museum of Art, 2007 gift of the Ewing family in memory of Mary and C. Kermit “Buck” Ewing
Photo courtesy of the Knoxville Museum of Art, Richard Clarke (Noblesville, Indiana 1923-1997 Knoxville) Untitled (East Tennessee Marble Quarry), 1963 watercolor on paper 18 ¾ x 23 7/8 inches, Knoxville Museum of Art, 2010 gift of the Sublett Family