Whistler had his mom, Monet his water lilies, and Da Vinci his smiling Mona Lisa. Even Warhol had his soup cans. Sooner or later, most successful artists get saddled with a work from which they cannot escape.
For Red Grooms, ”saddled“ is the operative word. The Nashville native has enjoyed decades of critical and commercial success in his adopted city of New York with his cartoonish sculptural tableaux and softer-styled watercolors. But his lasting legacy may turn out to be a bunch of saddled merry-go-round figures known as the Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel, now spinning in Riverfront Park.
Given Grooms’ oft-professed (and artistically expressed) love of the circus, the possibility that a working carnival ride could become his signature work is not exactly surprising. Indeed, when the project was proposed five years ago, a lot of people assumed Grooms’ style and the merry-go-round motif would go together like, well, Monet and lily pads.
But others questioned how well a public artwork by Grooms would fit in downtown Nashville. Even Clara Hieronymus, the grand dame of the Nashville arts scene, voiced her strong reservations. After all, Grooms’ three-dimensional works border on the garish and even grotesque. Remember ”Ruckus Manhattan,“ which showed at the Tennessee State Museum in the late 1980s? Seen ”Mr. and Mrs. Rembrandt,“ a Grooms piece now on permanent display at the Frist Learning Center at Cheekwood? Do we, skeptics asked, want to look at something like that all day, every day in downtown Nashville?
Fuel was added to the red-hot fire when the artist proposed a carousel figure of Minnie Pearl that depicted the late, beloved comedienne and civic leader in a bent-over position that can best be described as rude. Pearl’s estate gave it a swift thumbs-down, and Grooms went back to his sketch pad, coming up this time with an image of Kitty Wells figure-heading a tour bus.
All that is now water under the disabled Shelby Street Bridge, in whose shadow the Fox Trot Carousel sits. The $1.75 million carousel is just a couple hundred thousand dollars shy of being fully funded, with money raised almost exclusively from the private sector. Corporations, including the Nashville Scene, and individuals, such as Amy Grant, ponied up money to pay for particular carousel figures or to fund the project in general.
Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the Nashville Kats arena football team donated money to create figures in their own image, but the LifeFlight helicopter and the Kats mascot are the only carousel figures that didn’t originally come from the artist’s own imaginings. Portraits of key project supporters can also be found adorning the inside of the carousel’s canopy. Some critics might decry these obvious nods to financial sponsorship, but let’s get real: Artists have been saluting their patrons on canvas and in marble for centuries. In the context of a carnival ride, such homage actually seems appropriate.
As for the carousel itself, Grooms has subdued the more freakish aspects of his art and hitched his clownish style to a gentler artistic star. That is not to say the colors aren’t eye-popping and the figures’ features aren’t exaggerated. You don’t get much more extreme than a temple-headed rabbi, a sawhorse-bodied architect, or a green-, red-, and yellow-striped-and-dotted chigger.
What’s most apparent in this work, however, is the artist’s genuine affection for his subject matter. Grooms lives in New York, but he loves Nashville and means to celebrate it in all its nutty, even schizophrenic, glory. ”Nashville has always had a åbelieve it or not’ personality,“ Grooms said in an interview a few days before the carousel officially opened Nov. 27.
In explaining his choices for the inhabitants of his carousel world, Grooms recalled another Ripley-esque image from his own youththe Christmas nativity tableaux erected each December for years in front of the Parthenon. This jaunty juxtaposition of Christian and pagan symbols never seemed to bother folks much, and neither, one certainly hopes, will the diverse congregation of political, artistic, and cultural figures trotting around Grooms’ carousel.
In Grooms’ view of Nashville (and Tennessee, since a few figures from across the state are included), Charlie Soong, an 1885 Vanderbilt graduate who made a million selling Bibles in the Orient, rides a Chinese dragon alongside the Bell Witch, bedeviler of many a Middle Tennessee child’s dreams. Davy Crockett wrestles a bear, while H.G. Hill pilots a packed grocery cart. Prominent Jewish leader Rabbi Isadore Lewinthal trots by with prayer book in hand, as Reverend Sam Jones preaches a little fire and brimstone at his pre-Ryman Union Gospel Tabernacle.
A freckled-face kid opens wide for a bite of a Goo Goo Cluster, and self-taught sculptor William Edmondsonthe first African American to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New Yorkcarves a peaceful dove. A trio of Grand Ole Opry comedians rides a hot dog horse, and Sequoyah pens the Cherokee alphabet. Kitty Wells, the Everly Brothers, Chet Atkins, and bluesman Leroy Carr contribute to the carousel’s chorus saluting Nashville’s musical heritage.
Grooms didn’t forget to remember the ladies either: You can ride with aviatrix Cornelia Fort, women’s rights activist Anne Dallas Dudley, Olympic multi-medalist Wilma Rudolph, steel magnolia and Belmont Mansion builder Adelicia Acklen, Parthenon sculptor Belle Kinney Scholz, and others.
In all, there are 36 carousel figures upon which to park your (or your kid’s) carcassand about 1,000 times as many offbeat details to delight or confound the eye. Study the ”saddles,“ for example, and you’ll find that architects Moses and Calvin McKissack’s is actually a blueprint, while the Everlys’ is a 45-rpm record, complete with one of those yellow plastic adapters in the center. H.G. Hill’s grocery-cart saddle is a bag of ”Fit for a King Coffee.“
Spend an hour going over the carousel and its figures, and you probably still won’t find all the references to both Nashville’s past and that of the artist. And don’t worry if the identities of many of the figures seem downright obscure: A display panel on site demystifies the carousel figures and the painted scenes on the rounding board. These scenes, which rim the carousel’s canopy, depict everything from the Grand Ole Opry and the Fisk Jubilee Singers to the 1912 bursting of the Eighth Avenue South reservoir. Mirrors and scenes from the Iroquois Steeplechase also chase themselves around the inner structure that houses the carousel’s mechanics. Heads of Belle Meade Plantation-raised horses pop out, game-trophy-style, from the rounding board as well.
Believe it or not, this dizzying array of Red-renowned Tennesseans is anything but the incomprehensible conglomeration it might sound. While the artist says he never tried to ”force a composition“ on the carousel, the whole structure nevertheless seems oddly composed. Indeed, the cumulative effect of all these riotously colored figuresdrawn from so many different eras and social, cultural, and racial backgroundsis much more engaging than the individual figures themselves, viewed separately and apart from the carousel.
That all these figures whirl around so compatibly is Grooms’ most striking visual accomplishment. But the artist’s greatest gift to his hometown is the carousel’s message of crazy-quilt harmony. Our city, like the carousel, may be in constant motion, but Grooms’ vibrant amalgamation of local history and culture reminds us why we should be proud of the place we call home.
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