Stuff To Do

Where I try to suggest cool shit for you to do when you’re visiting Nashville or planting your roots.

North Nashville “Parlour” Recalls When the Harlem Renaissance Came South

At October nips at our heels, Nashville art lovers may be hard pressed to choose between a plethora of events featuring artists, performers, and creative leaders this month. Saturday evening will be all about North Nashville as galleries, restaurants, and shops open their doors for the Jefferson Street Art Crawl, followed by Art History Class Lifestyle Lounge and Gallery’s first in a series of interactive talks dubbed “The Parlour.”  

Modeled after those of the Harlem Renaissance, the salon will include readings, discussion, entertainment, and cuisine. It’s no secret that the Harlem Renaissance brought the voices, stories, and artistic expressions of Black Americans to the forefront of cultural exchange in the 1920s, but few know the history of its migration to the South. According to the gallery’s invite:

Unfortunately, the Great Depression (1929-1939) dried up the financial wellspring of support it so need to thrive. Many of those MONUMENTAL figures of that period moved back to the South for the accommodating cost of living. North Nashville became the home of such notables such as James Weldon Johnson, Aaron Douglas, and Arna Bontemps.

The discussion will center around photographer Carl Van Vechten, the namesake of Fisk University’s art gallery, and the invitation suggests visiting the gallery to see an exhibition of Van Vechten’s work prior to the event as a “pre-study.” (Let’s pause to appreciate thoughtful study and dialogue right now.) Van Vechten was a patron of the Harlem Renaissance, and it’s likely that the iconic images you conjure of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston or Jacob Lawrence were shot by his camera. While you’re there, check out another event, Creatives’ Day.

Founding director and curator of Art History Class, Thaxton Waters, has become somewhat of an institution in North Nashville, especially since his gallery lost its brick and mortar location at the start of summer. Waters opened the salon in 2014 to provide what he calls a “Re-presentation of North Nashville” that’s dedicated to preserving the cultural and artistic history of Jefferson Street and the surrounding HBCUs while helping it thrive. After two years, the building couldn’t contain the gallery’s growth, and the landlord was unwilling to make necessary repairs. But fans soon realized that Art History Class is not one gallery or building but a spirit that has long existed in North Nashville; Waters just gave it a place to thrive.

It has been recognized with a Community Award by Spread Luv 615 and Jefferson Street Urban Merchant Partnerships with a New Business Award in 2014. Thaxton and the gallery have been written about in Native, BURNAWAY and Nashville Scene. In fact, I named it Best Culture Club in this year’s Best of Nashville, just released October 5.

Local activist groups have also taken notice. The group Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) got out the word for an Art History Class pop-up event last month and sold tickets, raising a total of $750 to go toward the fund for a new gallery. The group says it works “to mobilize white communities to support black-led liberation work.” To that end, it encourages its members to support Waters’ project “as a way to fight gentrification and contribute to the funding of black futures.”

SURJ steering committee member Marie Campbell says, “We recognize that current policies and practices in Nashville’s development projects and tourism industry are promoting gentrification in predominately black neighborhoods, displacing long time residents, while also minimizing black contributions to Nashville’s art, music, and culture both historically and currently.”

When I met Thaxton last year for a Nashville Public Radio story about North Nashville artists, he made his optimism clear: “It’s interesting at the time we’re living in now that the social awareness has risen so our voices are becoming more important. I think it’s a beautiful time right now…It’s a very fertile time for artists…we have a lot to say, a lot to speak about, and to do it through the arts is much more impactful in my opinion.”

As Nashville tunes in to the intersection of art and activism, Metro Arts Commission has been encouraging dialogue about the role of the arts in community building. They just opened up applications for the second Racial Equity in Arts Leadership cadre. The mission of REAL is to “cultivate a shared learning space for Nashville arts leaders to learn and practice new language about race, and to think through larger issues of systematic and institutional racism.”

Since Waters moved out of the Jefferson Street space, it’s been easy to make Art History Class an example of the real-world erasure of communities by gentrification — too easy, in fact. Instead, the salon could be viewed as an example of self-preservation and resistance to gentrification.

Saturday’s Parlour will be a pop-up in McJimsey Center at 2506 Jefferson Street. Get your ticket the “The Parlour” here, and check out how you can support plans for Art History Class’ expansion.

 

Impulse and the Anonymous Artist + Open Studios

I am not sure when or how I came to this understanding, but for a long time I have considered artists to populate the upper echelon of society, to be its most influential members, and to leave behind a testament of it that can inform generations to come. Much of what we know about the past and about other cultures is found through the work of artists. How much have we learned from artifacts discovered from ancient Mesopotamia? How many people know the extent of suppression of free speech in China because of Ai Wei Wei? What would the Great Depression look like without The Grapes of Wrath? You get the point.

We are fascinated by artists, and we delight in discovering their kinks and eccentricities. To learn about the life and habits of an artist I admire is to gain a bit more understanding of her greatness; my own is both dwarfed and magnetized by the knowledge. Marina Abramović will fast for days, weeks, or months as part of a performance. Hemingway stood up at a podium and wrote in pencil on yellow legal pads, every day at 6:00 am. Nabokov planned his novels out on index cards before writing a word of manuscript.

"Impulse: Playing House as a Blank Artist" will be performed at Ground Floor Gallery and Studios Saturday, Dec. 6.

“Impulse: Playing House as a Blank Artist” will be performed at Ground Floor Gallery and Studios Saturday, Dec. 6.

And this is why I’ve been thinking all month about Impulse: Playing House as a Blank Artist, showing at Ground Floor Gallery. Created by Austin Hoke, Ziona Riley and Evelyn Walker, the installation opened in November and gallery owner Janet Decker Yanez has kept it up for another run this Saturday from 3 to 6. The piece decontextualizes the objects of the artist, blasting them apart so they can be re-examined. I read it as a study of the artist that mocks my own inclinations to put him or her on a pedestal above the rest of humanity. The objects could not be more mundane, the life that emerges more ordinary. The only thing that threw me was an overly vague installation statement, which seemed to obscure for the sake of obscuring. Where it should reveal more about the piece, it pulls it into art-speak pretense, which seems to be exactly the thing that installation is attempting to trump. Impulse collage

This one criticism aside, Impulse is innovative and provocative. The trio has set up six stations in the space to mark the anonymous artist’s belongings, or more accurately, the physical pieces that make up the artist, with an audio tour that sounds like 70s-style documentary footage. (“When you hear these tones…prepare to transition to the next station.”) Each station takes the viewer to a set of objects owned by “the artist”, things like thrown-away trash, objects that are precious only to their owner, photos of “strangers found amongst the artist’s family.” Playful but instructive, I felt a sort of tug of war with the audio recording; when I thought I was headed toward a meaty conclusion about the work, it pulled me in another direction charged with the possibility to make meaning. In station one, I found dozens of framed family photos, yet I was told they are not the photos of the artist’s family, and the narrator comments wryly, “If you have ever wound up with someone’s stray sock amongst your clean laundry, you will know what it is like to end up in someone else’s shoebox.” Section six is wall of trash items mounted on rectangles of carpet. “The objects were used up, diminished, and cast away, mingled with dirt, orphaned, run over by indifference and better places to be. Have they really outlived their usefulness?”  Both clean and soiled clothes form a pile in the corner; the garments “filabuster our shifting skins, sediments posing as sentiment.” Spend some time with these elements, and you begin to imagine their owner, the Blank Artist. impulse collage 2

The work is enjoyable for these moments of poetry and for the overall harmony of its elements. The many items to examine, the cello performed by Austin Hoke, it’s an experience that gave me a deep feeling of contentment and pleasure. There are also, of course, any number of meta-analyses about the work (artists using their own objects to perform an artwork about the artist’s objects.) It’s a fresh exhibition by some cool, young artists in Nashville that we’d all do well to keep on the radar.

On Saturday, Ground Floor will also have open studios, so you can check out the work of Yanez, Heidi Martin Kuster, Mandy Brown, Desire Hough, and Shana Kohnstamm. It’s a big day with Porter Flea and the two art crawls, but GFG is smart to host the reception early in the day. The gallery is located at 924 4th Ave. South.

Art in the Park Continues

Last week we told you about Yoga for Truckers (+Everyone). At 2:30-3:30 pm, Tuesday, Nov. 4th, you can join Nicole Cormaci and Amanda Wentworth to practice yoga in the treasury room of the Parthenon.  All yoga will be conducted in chairs as part of Cormaci’s FLEX IT! goal to design a series of yoga moves for truckers and other sedentary workers. Cormaci’s Yoga for Truckers and other Sedentary Workers participatory work will result in a podcast.

We also told you about a game of Capture the Flag that went down at the Parthenon in October. Don’t miss the next events: 2-3 pm, Saturday, Nov. 8th and 22nd, MeetUp with Adrienne Outlaw for introductory zumba and capoeira classes in Centennial Park. The classes will be taught by instructors with the  Global Education Center. Weather permitting, they will be held in the park on the south lawn. Should they be held in the Parthenon museum admission applies.

Here I am guarding the jail during MeetUp's Capture the Flag. Photo  courtesy of Adrienne Outlaw.

Here I am guarding the jail during MeetUp’s Capture the Flag. Photo courtesy of Adrienne Outlaw.

The classes are part of Outlaw’s MeetUp project for FLEX IT! MeetUp events, designed to encourage acts of health and harmony, have included a potluck picnic, mud making and Capture the Flag. Future events include bread making and massage, portions of which are being shown as part of Outlaw’s evolving video installation in the museum.

Yoga for Truckers (+Everyone) at the Parthenon

FLEX_Cormaci1We don’t think about it much, but the goods we use have been transported great distances by machines operated by people — the screen that meets your focus, the coffee in your cup, the gasoline in your car. When performance artist Nicole Cormaci found herself traveling from British Columbia to Indiana regularly, she became empathetic to the physical effects of the long haul, spurring her social practice work Yoga for Truckers (+Everyone).

The work debuted in September at the Parthenon Museum as part of FLEX IT! My Body My Temple, an evolving social practice work curated by Adrienne Outlaw that addresses all matters of personal upkeep: physical, emotional, and spiritual, and invites participants to consider the social ramifications when we take personal responsibility. Cormaci’s piece offers a new element to the mix, applying the ancient, specific knowledge of yoga practitioners to the sedentary practice of operating trains, planes, and automobiles. It’s not just for transportation folks though. In our screen-based world, many of us find ourselves sitting for long stretches, only to find our bodies cramped and knees aching long after we unwind. For truckers, the damage is lasting: hip, back, and knee issues can permanently damage posture, making mobility difficult and painful. Yoga for Truckers investigates whether yoga can correct some of the damage that’s been done.

When the work debuted in September, local yoga instructor Amanda Wentworth led trucker Lonnie Keller in a sequence of yoga poses that can be practiced while driving. They’ll continue that work this week — in the cab of a tractor trailer in Centennial Park. Wentworth will lead a free community yoga class that builds on these sequences on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 1:30-2:30.

Much of Cormaci’s work is site specific, and Centennial Park is an interesting place for a work that revolves around transportation, considering that it was largely financed by railroad companies in celebration the 100 year anniversary of Tennessee’s ratification into the Union. The train is the predecessor of the trucking industry, and Cormaci’s work as whole asks us to consider the people who move things across the country, while we reflect on our own postures as we move through the world.

The Expatriate Archive: Latin Americans in Nashville

Although you may not hear five languages being spoken within a single block radius in Nashville, you can find multiculturalism if you pay attention. Nashville Arts’ executive-editor Sara Lee Burd curates The Expatriate Archive at Mohsenin Gallery. The show features artists living in Nashville who hail from Central and South America, and judging by the lineup, it looks to be quite an eclectic mix. Mark your calendars for Saturday, October 18 for the opening at 6 p.m.

Jairo Prado. Ancestral Fish; mixed media, 36 by 76 by 14 inches. From the artist's website.

Jairo Prado. Ancestral Fish; mixed media, 36 by 76 by 14 inches. From the artist’s website.

Liliana Velez Jarmillo, Skin Containers Ceries; finger prints on wax.  "In this project I present the idea that the body is a space that constructs and at the same time liberates, showing the uniqueness, the fragility, and the ephemeral of it." From the artist's website.

Liliana Velez Jarmillo, Skin Containers Ceries; finger prints on wax. “In this project I present the idea that the body is a space that constructs and at the same time liberates, showing the uniqueness, the fragility, and the ephemeral of it.” From the artist’s website.

Jorge Mendoza, Lords of the Reign; mixed media: drawing, transfer, collage on homemade paper, 10 by 12 inches.

Jorge Mendoza, Lords of the Reign; mixed media: drawing, transfer, collage on homemade paper, 10 by 12 inches.

Burd has roots in Latin America; she was born in Columbia and moved to Georgia with her family soon after. From the press release, Burd says, “I hope this show leads to a broader conversation about cultural identity and what it is like to have homes in more than one country.”

The show will include works by Juan Pont Lezica (Argentina), Jorge Yances (Colombia), Jorge Mendoza (Bolivia), Liliana Velez (Colombia), Jairo Prado(Colombia), Yuri Figueroa (Mexico), and Clorinda Bell (Peru).

Mohsenin Gallery is located at 1917 Church St. in midtown. (Whoa! There’s a gallery in midtown?) The show runs through November 21.

Art in the Park: Your Workout Just Got Better

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A park visitor captures coins using Bryan Leister and Becky Heavner’s app-based fitness game at FLEX IT! in Centennial Park.

Exercise just got easier thanks to artists Bryan Leister and Becky Heavner, whose interactive, app-based game Pygmalion’s Challenge has Centennial Park visitors pointing their smart phones at batches of flowers and racing up the the Parthenon steps. As part of FLEX IT! My Body My Temple, new media artist Leister and landscape architect Heavner joined forces to riff on the theme of obesity prevention, healthy living, and community. The results couldn’t be more fun and require only a smart phone to get started.

Visitors must download the free app for iPhone or Android. The goal of the game is to collect coins that allow you to unlock sculptures and watch them come to life. The artists have set sculptural markers on the Parthenon law that are now lush with flowers. Pointing a smartphone at a marker causes several gold coins to pop up on the screen. Then comes the exercise: contestants can race to the “Treasury” behind the Parthenon to cash in coins for keys. They then race back to the markers to unlock colorful, animated characters from the sculptures. The app includes an option to take a picture with the dancing sculptures and post it to social media, which the artists hope will encourage participation from kids and adults. Gold coins are apparently heavy though, so they’ll have to make several trips to unlock all of the treats.

Leister’s interactive artwork is a perfect match with Heavner’s landscape architecture. Both disciplines require an audience. “It all revolves around anticipating what people want and providing them with that experience,” Leister says. “With landscape architecture and interactive design, there is no photo opp. It’s more about the experience of people walking through the space and thinking, ‘How can I make people happy and enjoy themselves more?’”

Leister’s interactive gaming and design work includes the creation of 2000 messages to survivors of the Mayan apocalypse, an app-based mood analyticator, and videos that track viewers’ motion. He will return to Nashville on September 19-21, where he and Heavner will present a talk on their design process for Pygmalion’s Challenge (Saturday 10 a.m., location TBD). At Watkins College of Art and Design, he will facilitate two workshops: Creating 2D and 3D Content for Video Games (Thursday and Friday, 1-5 p.m., room #403) and Augmented Reality (Saturday and Sunday 1-5 p.m., room #403).

FLEX IT! My Body My Temple is a set of evolving, socially engaged art exhibits in the Parthenon Museum and on Centennial Park grounds. Curated by Adrienne Outlaw of Seed Space, FLEX IT! invites participation and reflection on personal health and fitness, while building community.

Baking Bread at the Parthenon

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Demeter’s Torch. Moira Williams and visitors of Centennial Park created this working, adobe oven. It is on wheels and can be used by visitors to bake bread on the Parthenon lawn during FLEX IT! My Body My Temple.

If you happened to be at Centennial Park during the first week of September, you may have seen artist Moira Williams walking along the loop with a wagon in tow or operating an adobe oven on the Parthenon lawn. As part of Adrienne Outlaw’s FLEX IT! My Body My Temple, the Brooklyn-based artist created an ongoing, participatory art event that invites visitors to consider what feeds us.

“When I do socially engaged work,” says Williams, “it’s always about the community and supporting the community.” The physical structure of Socrates’ Wagon Sings with Demeter’s Torch was in fact community-made. Williams worked with park visitors to construct an oven and the mini-Parthenon shaped adobe structure surrounding it. She set up a table on the Parthenon lawn and park visitors helped sketch out their ideas for the shape, the designs on the pediments, and the individual metopes. Together, they configured it to be about Athena, exercise, and eating healthy– topics that arose naturally in the course of conversation. Working with clay, they built a miniature version of Greece’s (and Nashville’s) doric masterpiece.

With the oven complete, Williams walked the mile loop with Socrates’ Wagon, collecting wild yeast and conversing with park visitors in a kind of Socratic Dialogue. “My work is always about starting a dialogue — talking and listening to people,” she said. After she harvested the yeast, she returned to the lawn and the oven and baked bread, pizza, yams, garlic, apple crumble, and dosas with park visitors. Together, they cut ties with the commercial food chain and ate food harvested from the park itself.  “When we eat together, we slow down, we think about things,” Williams says. She hopes that the experience will show participants how easy it is to step away from commercial foods.

Socrates’ Wagon Sings with Demeter’s Torch is now on display in the Parthenon Museum, and visitors can contact the artist for permission to use the oven on park grounds. She is drying Centennial Park yeast to send to FLEX IT!, and it will be available with sourdough starters for Parthenon Museum visitors. In November, she’ll return to Nashville and walk 70 miles south to The Farm, which has a legacy of teaching about community health.

Williams has made walking part of her artistic practice for many years. A founding member of The Walk Exchange, she also enjoys night walks through New York wearing various safety suits, walks pigeons over the Brooklyn Bridge, and makes trips to the post office to mail letters to the Milky Way Galaxy. When she’s not walking, she’s engaged in other participatory works, like commissioning teens to paint graffiti murals in Brooklyn, producing handmade paper from trash on the streets of Haiti, and distributing tomato seeds from 19th century Italy to community gardeners. Her work is all about reciprocity and is shared with Nashville in the spirit of relatedness.

FLEX IT! My Body My Temple is a set of evolving, socially engaged art exhibits in the Parthenon Museum and on Centennial Park grounds. Curated by Adrienne Outlaw of Seed Space, Flex It! invites participation and reflection on personal health and fitness, while building community.

Gallery Visit: Heidi Martin Kuster at Ground Floor Gallery

2012-01-01 03.32.22Thursday, Ground Floor Gallery opened its doors for its very own Heidi Martin Kuster. In her exhibit Rock, Paper, Plastic, she looks back and forward, anchored in her geological interest. This is a great exhibit on a conceptual and aesthetic level that you should definitely check out. It will be up all month. Ground Floor is also an open studio, and the artists renting space from owner Janet Decker Yanez are multiplying. (I think they’re up to seven, and the huge space buzzes with great vibes.) They’ll be open Saturday night and keep regular hours, so drop by. 

2012-01-01 03.52.16The show’s title, Rock, Paper, Plastic, reveals the artist’s conceptual framework. Kuster borrows the phrasing from the popular childhood game in order to “step back, be present and look forward.” But unlike the game, paper doesn’t beat rock et cetera, but all three coexist on the walls and floor of the new gallery. The Past is seen in the rocks themselves; rocks are evidence of the past. They also exist without human intervention. For the artist, rocks seem to evoke the sacred: “A pebble in my hand holds the memory of a hike, a conversation with my son, a breathtaking, time stopping vista.”

Paper is the Present. It is human made. We use it to record and remember, but it will not last. Kuster writes in her show’s statement, “In the scheme of earth’s historic changes it will be an instant, quickly disappearing into the fertile compost of time.”

2012-01-01 03.32.46It really gets interesting with the Future, represented by plastic. Kuster told me that after years of trying to avoid and reuse plastic bags, she just started collecting them, taking as many as the world would throw at her. “They become, for me,” she writes, “the perfect admission of how my choices will inevitably impact the rock I live on for my children and their future.” She began layering them into her work and bunching them into bumpy balls that are collected on the floor of the gallery. 

2012-01-01 03.52.05It was interesting to watch people interact with the work during the opening. Some moved easily among the “rocks” as they viewed the paintings, barely acknowledging their presence. Others tiptoed carefully around them. I noticed Kuster nonchalantly kick one aside as she spoke to a guest. My favorite moment was definitely when a friend’s daughter began almost frantically moving them into mounds and shapes, darting from one end of the room to the other, carefully setting them in her own little installation. Kuster encouraged her behavior and snapped pictures of the new creations. I thought, how fitting. In a piece about what we will leave to the next generation, an artsy member of our lineage reconstructs the installation herself.
2012-01-01 03.29.05Side note: How delighted was I that the gals at GFG+S went ahead and planned this opening for Thursday, rather than during Saturday’s art crawls. In the great debate regarding the monthly crawls, I air on the side of splitting up downtown’s and WeHo’s simply because I want to see everything. Joe Nolan has an article in this week’s issue of the the Scene that explores both points of view. It seems like some galleries are wizening up to the fact that Nashvillians will come out to support the arts on nights other than the first Saturday of the month, which allowed me a full hour to chat with friends and artists at Ground Floor this evening. 2012-01-01 03.28.13

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Weekend Excursion in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, TN

It’s not the Hamptons, but living in Nashville offers residents a number of opportunities to get out of the city for the weekend, including Gatlinburg, TN and its neighboring Pigeon Forge, which sit at the base of the Smoky Mountains, just about three hours from home. I found the area to be high on kitsch and holly rollers, light on “culture” — but still a lot of fun.

Downtown Gatlinburg and the Smokey Mountains.

Downtown Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains.

Gatlinburg offers visitors a long row of shops peddling knick-knacks and tee shirts, but also an adorable and impressive salt and pepper shaker museum (more on that below), truly gorgeous scenery, and if you’re the outdoorsy type, hikes on the Smoky Mountains. Pigeon Forge is home to legend Dolly Parton, a country singer even New Yorkers have heard of, and boasts a really fantastic amusement park with awesome thrill rides; way too many mini golf courses; a weird, super religious parrot sanctuary; and an alarming number of dinner theater options. It’s a lot of good, clean family fun, so you have to go there with your tolerance for corny, touristy stuff turned way up. This might prove challenging for New Yorkers. (Even coming out of Queen of the Night last week, I resented having to walk through Times Square to get to the subway.) That said, if you’re ready for the silly, you might have a blast. Be prepared to spend on everything. It’s a tourist trap, so they’re going to squeeze you for your last dime.

Here are my highlights:

Dollywood – Pigeon Forge

The high-thrill rides are BOSS at this amusement park. I rode the Soaring Eagle twice and dangled my legs from the front row each time. It feels like flying! The park also has an extensive Dolly Parton museum, and on the way out, Dolly’s Uncle Bill Owens enthusiastically introduced himself! Just going to check out her shoes is worth it. An interesting feature of the park is a bald eagle sanctuary and some bird whisperers that have all kinds of knowledge about the patriotic vertebrates.

Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum – Gatlinburg

My precious favorite attraction was this little, family-run museum, the likes of which I’ve never encountered. The S&P Museum holds over 30,000 salt and pepper shakers, collected by a European lady who simply adores them. The proprietor is her very friendly son, who could easily win the award for nicest person ever. You’re allowed to take all the pictures you want and put your pin in the map on your way out. The little shakers are arranged thematically, and there is so much to take in. Entry fee is only $3, and for that, you can get $3 off on your own set from a neat collection in the gift shop. I bought a Kirk and Spock set, and my boyfriend picked out a neat little bird with a head that twists from salt to pepper. We even were inspired to start our own collection! Definitely don’t miss this gem, even if you’re passing through for a day!

Multiply this by 12 and that's how any salt and pepper shakers are there.

Multiply this by 12 and that’s how any salt and pepper shakers are there.

Weird set that I don't understand but that I'm sure was made in the South.

Weird set that I don’t understand but that I’m sure was made in the South.

Tiny shakers.

Tiny shakers.

Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster – Pigeon Forge 

As we approached the mountain slide, I said I wouldn’t do it. It’s the longest sled ride in the U.S. with over a mile of track. You get strapped in to a little car (smaller than a go-cart!), hooked onto a moving cable system, and slowly pulled up the mountain. I was expecting the ride up to be long and boring, but it was actually very relaxing. When you get to the top, the speed control is up to you! Even though I was scared waiting in line, I floored it and didn’t slow down the entire ride. It goes up to 27 mph but feels much, much faster. Tip: as your sled starts boarding, ask the attendant to give you an extra minute as the person before you ascends. Since riders control the speed, the person in front of you could be a slow poke, forcing a traffic jam on the way down.

Pigeon Forge from the Wonders of Flight ballon ride--not really worth doing unless you're really into taking pictures like this. If you are, do it!

Pigeon Forge from the Wonders of Flight ballon ride–not really worth doing unless you’re really into taking pictures like this. If you are, do it!

Ripley’s Believe it or Not? – Gatlinburg 

Gatlinburg offers package deals for five or so attractions owned by Ripley’s.  We went for Ripley’s Believe It or Not?, the Aquarium, and the Haunted House. Believe It or Not? is a kitschy blast through Robert Ripley’s collection of bizarro artifacts from around the world. A calf with two heads. John Dillinger’s death mask. Charles Manson’s prison shirt. A medieval iron maiden. There’s plenty of opportunity to play in the optical illusion rooms. A tip: Halfway through the tour, there are restrooms. Check all the doors. You’ll see why.

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies – Gatlinburg

For me, a good aquarium brings an unparalleled sense of tranquility and wonder. Save this for the afternoon when you’re feeling a little tired of the hyper-stimulating main strip and crave the cool, dark mystery of the sea.  It’s voted #1 U.S. aquarium by Trip Advisor and has some rare species, like the mesmerizing sea dragons that cost over $10,000 each. I was too entranced to even take a picture. A tip: Check out their schedule beforehand so you can catch the mermaids and see the penguins get fed. We missed both.

Me and the clownfish.

I liked seeing the clownfish.

This stunning jellyfish.

Even my camera could capture the stunning jellyfish.

Please Don’t Bother 

Please don’t bother with Dolly’s Dixie Stampede Dinner Theater. With the exception of Biscuit, the pretty awesome banjo player in the pre-show, the dinner theater is a far cry from entertainment. You sit in a huge arena on benches that circle a pit of sand. Here, you’re served your meal with factory-style precision by a team of cheerful waiters (who were by far the best part) as you watch people ride around on horses in scenes that are just slightly strung together to resemble some kind of narrative the of settlement in the New World. The opening act of Indians complete with a day-glow headdress and bird costume, dancing around with horses nearly made me click together my ruby slippers. It was followed by a herd of terrified bison making a quick cameo, further reminding us of the rape of the this land. I didn’t have time to dwell on history though because a hoard of white people driving covered wagons came onto the scene, and some hillbilly shenanigans ensued. The event is made further bizarre by a North vs. South theme. One side of the auditorium (mine, for what it’s worth) was dubbed the North, and the other side, the South. The states battled relentlessly all night long, as pigs ran amok and people hid in barrels. While I’ve never found Civil War themes to be quite fetching, I simply couldn’t embrace the spirit of competition. The final irony came when — just as dinner was served — some children were invited to chase chickens around the circle in a contest, during which time, a little girl picked up a large hen and carried it about 100 feet. My neighbors laughed uproariously, spewing bits of their chicken dinner everywhere. I played with my vegetarian dish: cold noodles with corn and ketchup.

Please don’t go to Three Bears General Store, otherwise known as the sad, sad bear pit. It’s a horrendous spectacle in Pigeon Forge that I did not patronize and you shouldn’t either.

From what I hear, Parrot Mountain is not worth the money, and from reading Trip Advisor, I got the feeling that only the most religious zealots enjoyed their experience in this Christian bird land. But the owner’s replies to negative ratings are a hoot.

Lodging

We researched our options pretty thoroughly before booking. I was rooting for a romantic cabin, but my boyfriend, forever logical, pointed out that there probably wouldn’t be anyone around to, say, fix the a/c if it broke. We stayed at the Econo Lodge in Pigeon Forge. It’s on the main strip, had an excellent Trip Advisor rating, and was super cheap at about $80 a night. It included a really good breakfast (with eggs!), a clean pool and hot tub, a comfy bed with fluffy pillows, and a friendly, helpful staff. The Wifi worked great and we had cable! I usually think that talking to people is overrated, but I kind of liked chatting with folks pool-side. It’s just 15 minutes to Gatlinburg, so you’re close enough to everything.

The Only Thing…

Here’s where my northeastern predisposition for the secular made me bristle. Be prepared for some serious Christian kitsch. Jesus Saves signage is posted everywhere. Even the magician Terry Evanswood at Wonderworks lectured the audience about God, claiming that he “couldn’t stand here in arrogance and ignorance and not give credit where it’s due to the Lord our God” RIGHT AFTER explaining that as a magician, he must constantly be rooted in reality while the audience gets to enjoy illusion. I don’t know. To me his words were out of place, but everyone else seemed gung-ho, as applause and supportive cheers followed his sermon. He was a decent magician and did excellent slight of hand, but it totally killed the mood for me. I even wondered if he believed it himself or just knew how to placate the southern crowd.

Okay, the only TWO things that irked me. For being in the South, the area is super homogenous. As a New Yorker, I am used to seeing people from all over the world when I walk down the street, hearing a chorus of languages I don’t understand, and being exposed to cultures I otherwise would have no knowledge of. It was a predominantly white crowd. What’s with that, South? Maybe it’s because Pigeon Forge includes very little diversity in its attractions and programming, or because any depictions of people of color are tokenized, stereotypical, or — let’s just say it –downright racist. This is something about Tennessee life with which I may never find peace. I’ll write more on that in the future.

Photographically, I’d like to represent these opinions with *just a few examples* of Duck Dynasty merchandise I saw while in East Tennessee.

At Dollywood.

At Dollywood.

In an arcade in Pigeon Forge.

In an arcade in Pigeon Forge.

In a candy store.

In a candy store.

But overall, a good time was had by all. If I ever find my way back to East Tennessee AKA “God’s Country,” I’ll probably do some hiking and stay away from the strip malls. To see it once was enough.

s&p farrah creature

Arts: Hidden Worlds

Lesley Patterson-Marx and Emily Holt’s joint exhibition Hidden Worlds may technically be in the Vanderbilt student center, but for me, it was like ascending into a dimly lit attic complete with floorboards that creaked of the past. Patterson-Marx’s mixed media pieces take on a personal quality to the viewer. Peer inside a jar at a girl and boy on bicycles, the image bent by the glass. Who are they, and why are they smiling? It could be a photo taped into your grandmother’s jewelry box.  Her paper quilts are adorned with silhouettes of family figures who might be my own.  The piece of tulle housing a dead moth could have been killed by my brother in his phase of ripping off the legs of spiders. Along with the softness of her work is an eeriness so familiar that it could only come from the shared wick of memory–the stories known only among siblings or passed down through generations.  There are missing pieces or bent facts, and every perception is skewed–but still frighteningly true.

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Lesley Patterson-Marx

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Piecing Together the Past (1), Lesley Patterson-Marx.

Emily Holt’s pieces brought me a complementary but different feeling. While the former evokes the delicate nature of the past, Holt’s wood cut sculptures speak to its vivid obstinacy. Free-standing or wall-mounted, these dream-like tableaus are made up of carved wood that is layered, creating structure and dimension. When I looked down into this free standing piece Belly of the Beast (below), I felt like a child peering into a box of malevolent toys.  Found objects are mounted here and there, and the carved edges have the delightful dual qualities of being jagged and smooth. I could easily imagine one of her month-themed pieces in my living room, next to my boyfriend’s print of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I felt drawn to her work, as if I were edging back into my childhood, but a childhood that is warped and layered with yours as well.

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Belly of the Beast, Emily Holt.

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Submarine, Emily Holt.

Together, Patterson-Marx and Holt present a fantastic show. Think nostalgia tea with a hint of Flowers in the Attic.  It’s only up until Friday, March 28, so get on over there, new Nashvillians! Parking is a mess so grab something to eat at a nearby sandwich shop with a lot and walk over. Vanderbilt Sarratt Gallery. Sarratt Student Center. 2301 Vanderbilt Place. Open 9am-9pm weekdays and 10-10 weekends.