Reporter’s Notebook: High And Low Art Find Common Ground

At the Frist, Helen Burnham points out the influence of Japanese woodblock prints on Claude Monet's paintings of haystacks. At Room in the Inn, Antohony Huddleston poses for a photo with his self-portrait. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

At the Frist, Helen Burnham points out the influence of Japanese woodblock prints on Claude Monet’s paintings of haystacks. At Room in the Inn, a man named Jishon poses for a photo with his self-portrait. Credit: Nina Cardona/WPLN

My schedule one recent Thursday looked like worlds colliding: works by great Impressionist masters by morning, self-portraits of the city’s poorest residents in the afternoon. The fact that it would all be art seemed like a particularly narrow thread stitching the day together. I was wrong.

Masters And Pros

The first item on the agenda did go pretty much exactly as I expected. As usual, the crowd at the Frist Center’s media preview was well dressed and well educated. The tour was, as usual, somewhat academic; the crowd was not one to be surprised about anything they saw or heard; but again and again I noticed subtle moments of wonder: a sharp intake of breath as a woman catches her first glimpse of a particularly striking image, the man in an impeccable suit leaning forward to get that much closer to the brushwork.

The audience at the Frist Media Preview listens carefully as the exhibit's curator gives context to certain key pieces. Credit Nina Cardona/WPLN

The audience at the Frist Media Preview listens carefully as the exhibit’s curator gives context to certain key pieces. Credit Nina Cardona/WPLN

In the contemporary gallery, Nashville artist Lain York gave a brief talk about his work, explaining how the precisely cut vinyl silhouettes in each of the images are based on antique engravings, political cartoons of sorts from America’s first century.

The shapes are all human, but the intense colors and lack of details make many of them seem almost abstract. York said he purposely left wrinkles in places, but even after hearing that, I could swear I saw people’s fingers twitching towards the panels, having to hold themselves back from smoothing them out.

York’s show is inspired by the presidencies of John Adams and Abraham Lincoln, using images taken from art lampooning the politics of their day. Credit Nina Cardona/WPLN

York’s show is inspired by the presidencies of John Adams and Abraham Lincoln, using images taken from art lampooning the politics of their day. Credit Nina Cardona/WPLN

Joy Where You Might Not Expect It

After lunch, I tagged along with artists from the letterpress shop Isle of Printing while they visited Room in the Inn, a place that could be described as the nerve center of Nashville’s homeless community.

At first, the attitude in the facility’s lounge was what I expected: guarded skepticism. As the printmakers set up a mobile self-portrait cart they fielded questions of “what are you doing?” But then, as explanatory signs went up and two-color prints of other people’s self-portraits were set out on display, the reactions quickly changed.

The first reaction to the stamps was usually confusion, but it didn't usually last very long. Credit Nina Cardona/WPLN

The first reaction to the stamps was usually confusion, but it didn’t usually last very long. Credit Nina Cardona/WPLN

I saw the same signs of wonder I’d noticed at the Frist, only larger and louder. This time a man didn’t just gently lean in towards the image of a woman’s face, he touched it with his finger and commented on the expression in her eyes. When a woman saw the picture her husband was making, she giggled out loud and told him it looked as kind as he is.

The art they made was something of a reversal of Lain York’s work. Stamps in simple, abstract shapes were used to create unmistakably human images, often with broad smiles and knowing eyes. The artists’ own faces were grinning most of the time, too.

Not So Different, After All

One gentleman never did seem to crack a smile, though. He took care with his image, precisely testing each stamp on the back of his paper to see what impression it would make, putting great thought into the angle of each stamp before making his marks, pressing down with just the right pressure to get a certain amount of ink on the page.

The man chose not to give his name, but did say he’d been a professional artist once. Fine art didn’t pay the bills, bootleg rock and roll posters got him in legal hot water; now he’s on the street.

He was a little frustrated by the stamps, saying, “give me a pencil and then you’d see what I can do,” but he sat at that table longer than anyone else, taking full advantage of a moment to make whatever art he could.

That night, when I thought about my day, his words brought to mind one of the images from the Frist–not because the oil portrait looked anything like him, but because it was made by Vincent Van Gogh. At the museum, I heard people talk in hushed tones about Van Gogh, calling him a master of his craft. Yes, he was that. But Van Gogh was also destitute for much of his adult life. He never could seem to make any money from his art. He wrote in letters of “bitter disappointments” that kept him from being the artist he wanted to be.

I wonder, what would he have done with an ink pad and some stamps?

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