By Shawn Pitts
I don’t speak German, but the familiar images were all I needed to determine the subject of the blogpost.
Before the paint was dry on Brian Tull’s now iconic Rockabilly Highway Mural in downtown Selmer, it was popular with locals and visitors alike. The first mural was completed in 2009 in the early days of the selfie and people were snapping candid shots on South 2nd Street almost immediately. Pretty soon the idea caught on with professional photographers who began using the mural as a backdrop for senior photos, antique car shoots and even engagement and wedding photos. It’s commonplace to see cars with out of state plates circling the block to get a better look and out of town musicians making promo photos in front of the mural. Now, of course, there are two chances for photo op with the addition of a second Rockabilly Highway Mural at Rockabilly Park in 2012.
Local business owners—especially restauranteurs—have shared many stories about travelers stopping by after taking in the murals and other public art in the downtown district. One couple from Amsterdam let it be known that they were on a self-guided musical heritage tour of Tennessee. They had flown into Memphis to see Graceland, the Beale Street blues clubs, Stax and Sun Studios, then rented a car and mapped out a route to Nashville where they intended to visit The Country Music Hall of Fame, Music Row, the honky-tonks on Lower Broadway and The Ryman Auditorium. Rather than speed by on Interstate 40 they planned a leisurely drive through the countryside with two scheduled stops along the way: Selmer and Lynchburg. I probably don’t need to tell you why Lynchburg was on the itinerary, but Selmer might come as a surprise to some. They were, as you will have guessed by now, in town to see the two Rockabilly Highway Murals and sample slug burgers.
State tourism professional know a good thing when they see it. Brian Tull’s Selmer murals appear regularly in the Tennessee’s promotional literature and online travel guides. In a couple of weeks Tennessee Department of Tourism Development will dedicate their newest Music Pathways installation in downtown Selmer highlighting our region's music heritage and touting the key role the Rockabilly Highway Murals played in reviving interest it. So, while the music themed public art installations were a point of local pride, the iconography was also adopted almost immediately as a popular representation of Tennessee’s unparalleled music heritage.
In my last guest column I wrote about the concept of placemaking, and how Arts in McNairy first set out to understand and spotlight locally treasured cultural traditions. By now, our region’s music heritage is well known, but before AiM contracted Brian Tull to complete the murals in conjunction with TDOT designating Highway 45 South, Rockabilly Highway, midcentury music making wasn’t on many local radar screens as an effective community development tool or cultural tourism resource. That’s all changed now, of course, thanks in no small part to Tull’s towering talent and the international renown of our community’s first class public art installations.
All the exposure the Rockabilly Highway Murals receive through the flood of social media posts and more formal tourism development channels got me wondering about the reach and the connections people make when they see them for the first time. The writeup and photos I mentioned from the German travel blog offered a partial answer. When I plugged the text into Google translator, it was a glowing review of McNairy County hospitality along with a strong recommendation for cultural tourists in search of authentic, small town America to add Selmer and the Rockabilly Highway Murals to their list of travel destinations. The last line said, “Don’t miss it. These hicks really know how to showcase their outstanding music heritage,” or something to that effect. I don’t recall the exact wording, but the word “hicks” was definitely in there somewhere.
I don’t mind if they call us hicks, hillbillies or hayseeds as long as they know where to find us when they’re booking their travel plans.
By Shawn Pitts
The late Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard is credited with saying, “The South is the last place with a sense of place.” If you think about it, you know exactly what he meant. Widespread commercialization and the homogenizing effects of corporate media have washed almost all of the local flavor out of many places. But as Grizzard saw it, much of the American South retained enough of its regional character to remain a distinctive and recognizable subculture. To put it another way, the place we call home is tethered to a particular awareness of its own history and traditions.
That may not be as rosy as it sounds. The South has had more than its fair share of vexing social struggles, but what Grizzard had in mind was undoubtedly more upbeat. Since he made those remarks the language of recognizable places has been formalized in a branch of community development called “placemaking.” I’ve never been crazy about that term since it seems to suggest places can be designed and made to order, but it serves as shorthand for a handful of useful concepts like community asset mapping and place-based cultural assessment. Many communities now use these sorts of tools to intentionally cultivate that illusive sense of local identity that everyone seems to desires these days.
Five years into a successful effort to improve cultural programming Arts in McNairy set about to honor a simple statement in the organization’s founding documents. The AiM bylaws laid out a bold vision that included a goal to “preserve and promote the cultural strengths of McNairy County.” We didn’t know it at the time, but that phrase rather prophetically summed up the aspirations of many in the emergent field of placemaking. AiM leadership had the good sense and honesty to realize that the organization had spent its first few years successfully establishing programs that created opportunities for locals to engage with diverse new art forms but neglected large swaths of our traditional culture. That insight would forever change the way the organization did business.
For two years, a volunteer committee appointed to determine what the “cultural strengths” of McNairy County actually were met with people around the county asking probing questions about our most cherished traditions. The committee was tasked not only with providing an accurate picture of the traditional cultural landscape—both historical and contemporary—but also with understanding why certain features of our heritage were so treasured, and what efforts could be made to preserve and call attention to them. The end game, of course, was programing but it’s one thing to know what you have, and quite another to know what to do with it.
If you take a good look around these days, the evidence of Arts in McNairy’s groundbreaking placemaking efforts is everywhere. Maybe just as significantly, if you made inquiry in wider placemaking circles you would find that the county has become quite well known outside its own borders for AiM’s heritage preservation efforts, but we weren’t exactly starting from zero. Before the organized arts community ever got behind him, Jack Martin was already a legend in the realm of folk craft preservation. In 2015 the committee nominated Martin for and he was awarded the Governor’s Folklife Heritage Award, the state’s highest honor in the arts. Thanks largely to Martin, McNairy County is known far and wide for our broom making heritage.
The committee’s work on music heritage also yielded impressive results. The rediscovery and preservation of Stanton Littlejohn’s home audio recordings significantly altered the broader understanding of American music history, especially the early development of rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll music. Those recordings are now in the collections of The Library of Congress and have been the subject of numerous magazine and news articles as well as an international record and CD release.
The unlikely fame of our area’s favorite lunch treat, the slug burger, the local textile traditions, the old-time and bluegrass music heritage, and a number of other cultural expressions add even more depth and dimension to the local sense of place.
Why is all of this important? Why should we care about handmade brooms, a fading music heritage and slug burgers? I could offer many reasons and I hope to dig a little deeper into the subject in future essays, but I will give you my two best answers now.
First and foremost is the unique identity these facets of our culture provide our community. The things people create, the music they make together, the food they serve each other and the traditions they seek to hang on to say a lot about who those people are. We could do worse than being known for changing the course of music history and preserving local food and folkways. Virtually every town in America has fast food franchises and chain retailers, but you can’t show up in most places and buy locally made brooms or eat at a lunch counter that serves distinctively local fare. While national media feeds us a monotonous diet of musical sameness our community has embraced a deeper awareness and pride in its own musical heritage. Maybe none of that is your cup of tea, but it would be a mistake to think everyone is similarly disinterested.
Thousands of people visit our county each year to enjoy the things we take for granted. They drop money in local cash registers while they are here, go home with an improved opinion about our community, and tell their friends about the good times and good food they enjoyed in McNairy County. Whether you appreciate handmade brooms, music traditions and slug burgers or not, you are, in one way or another, the beneficiary of the unique local flavor they lend our community.
I sometimes wish more locals appreciated the depths of our culture the way visitors do. Imagine what a place this would be if we all pulled in the same direction.
By Shawn Pitts
The phrase “fine art” is sometimes used to distinguish visual art created purely for expressive or aesthetics purposes from art objects fashioned for utility. In other words, fine art is thought-provoking or pretty to look at, but otherwise not very useful. I’ve never found that distinction particularly helpful, especially when it’s used by snobs to make themselves feel superior or erect artificial barriers that hamper accessibility to the arts. Another unproductive way of categorizing creativity is placing a partition between fine art and folk art as a means of segregating the trained artist from the self-taught artist. Again, not very helpful.
Fortunately there’s not a lot of art snobbery around here, and the county arts agency, Arts in McNairy, has worked hard to ensure it stays that way. One of the core values of the organization has always been inclusiveness. The volunteer leadership is oriented to recognize the value of all creativity without regard for artificial boundaries or elitist attitudes about the arts. It is possible—desirable, as we see it—to simultaneously appreciate the merits of a a great painting and an item of traditional handcraft or folk art without drawing meaningless comparisons.
This is not to say there are no standards when considering what constitutes quality artwork. Even those who are not artistically inclined will recognize that the requisite skills and imagination required to paint a masterwork or the years of tradition and experience that go into artisan level handcraft are not quite the same as enjoying a paint by number board or craft kit. There’s nothing wrong with painting by numbers or using prepackaged craft projects which can actually help people gain valuable skills in those mediums. We recognize the benefits in such pursuits but place a higher value on the work of those who engage more deeply with the creative side of the process in their chosen artistic discipline. I think of a talented metalsmith and jeweler who got her start dabbling in jewelry making with simple beed kits. Anyone who could read the instructions and possessed reasonable dexterity could have completed the kits, had fun while doing so, and been rewarded with an attractive necklace or bracelet. But those experiences sparked something deeper in this woman and she was able to use them as a springboard to become a successful jewelry artisan. Creative maturity follows many paths.
I am grateful for all those who have labored over the years to call attention to the diverse group of visual artists working in our community. From the earliest days of Arts in McNairy’s existence a dedicated visual arts committee has supported a vibrant regional scene of first-rate artists and artisans. Off the top of my head I can think of local exhibits and receptions that have included: painters, potters, glass artists, sculptors, folk artists, photographers, muralists, collagists, textile artists, media artists, illustrators, and others whose works defy tidy categorization. The committee has hosted workshops and learning opportunities for visual artists and made a popular annual student art show—the latest installation is now hanging in the Latta galleries—a staple of the organization’s activity. Embracing the opportunity for creative collaboration with other AiM programs, the committee partnered with the heritage arts chair to give the community stunning works of public art like the two widely acclaimed Rockabilly Highway Murals by Brian Tull, and Lanessa Miller’s “Quite the Thing” that now graces the Latta Theatre, fittingly commemorating that space’s live music heritage. In 2016 the committee curated an exhibit of incredible local artists for the Nashville Arts at the Airport project. That display was seen by thousand of international travelers and it offered, perhaps, the most accurate reflection of our county’s creative diversity and highlighted AiM’s inclusive approach to the visual arts.
I remember receiving a text from a friend who was passing through the Nashville Airport one evening. It said something like, “Wow! Who knew McNairy County was so rich in visual artists?” My reply was something like, “We did.”
By Shawn Pitts
We were standing in line to buy tickets when the gentleman approached us. It was, perhaps, fitting that it was a football game. Something important was obviously on his mind, and his remarks were directed more at my wife, Joanna, than me. He wanted to tell us how much he appreciated Arts in McNairy’s community theatre program. He said his son, among other kids he knew, had gotten involved with the youth theatre productions and the family had witnessed a rather remarkable change in him. Where before he lacked confidence and direction, he now seemed more self-assured, socially connected and was even doing better in the classroom.
The man went on to say he always wanted his son to play football, which he did for a time with some success, but the young man’s heart just wasn’t in it. He had the aptitude, but not the desire. The supportive father admitted he wasn’t much of a theatre person before, but he had attended all the plays in which his son was cast and found the live shows surprisingly entertaining. More importantly he realized his son had found his niche and was learning many of the valuable lessons about teamwork, discipline and leadership he hoped time on the gridiron would instill.
In twenty years of involvement with community theatre, we’ve heard countless stories like that: kids who didn’t quite fit in anywhere else finding their voice and their passion on stage; adults who always wanted to give acting a try but never did until there was a nearby outlet; people of all ages who found a welcoming community of theatre enthusiasts who valued their contributions and their friendship. The father’s experience as an audience member also echoes much of what we’ve heard from local theatre goers: many of them didn’t know how fun and entertaining live theatre could be until it was regularly accessible in their community. Add to that, the thousands of students who had their first exposure to live theatre at one of the daytime shows staged exclusively for local school children at the Latta and I think you will see where I am going with this article.
There is a tendency in community development circles to see local theatre programs as extraneous to the “real work” of community building; it’s better to have one than not, but it’s really not essential. I remember hearing an economic development professional attempt to praise a theatre company in his region by saying, “Hey, not everybody can play sports, so we appreciate the theatre program offering kids an alternative.” He meant well, and it’s always good when someone recognizes inherent value in the arts, but that statement betrays a pitiful lack of understanding. He made it sound like people only do theatre because they can’t do sports; they would really prefer to be a pitcher or a quarterback, but they settle for a role in a play because they didn’t make the team. I used the example of the young man and appreciative father Joanna and I encountered to illustrate a point. The son was athletically gifted and had experienced success in organized team sports, but found more meaning and fulfillment in the arts. Theatre was not his second choice, it was the place he experienced affirmation through interaction with other creative people who helped his family recognize the transformative power of community building through the arts. If it’s a healthy, well rounded community we are after, that sounds pretty essential to me.
Arts in McNairy’s community theatre program has offered this region high quality, local entertainment for two decades now. Along the way adults, teens and children have acquired valuable skills in acting, directing, costuming, set design, technical production and theatre management. They have experienced the challenges of late nights and long weekends in the theatre working in concert with dozens of volunteers to bring a finely tuned production to stage and the joys of thunderous applause at the closing curtain. Audiences have enjoyed lavish Broadway musicals and austere, minimalist theatre; intense drama and side splitting comedy; original play debuts and stage adaptations from the canon of western literature; adult dinner theatre and one act plays produced, acted and directed by local youth; and the list goes on and on.
If there is one thing we’ve learned over the years, it’s that a robust community theatre program is more than a few people getting together to occasionally memorize and recite some lines. It’s an economic engine that pulls thousands of dollars into our local economy each year. It’s a springboard for building confidence, acquiring life skills, and enhancing academic performance for our kids. It’s a framework for exploring and understanding the wider world while bringing inspiring stories to life with and for your neighbors. It is life-changing for many individuals and, don’t let anyone kid you, it is community building of the highest order.
So, as we emerge from the shadow of a pandemic, when it’s safe to gather in large groups again, do yourself a favor and come to an audition, buy a season ticket, or just attend a show or two. You’ll be glad you did and it will be encouraging for those who work so hard to provide live, local arts and entertainment options. They do it for you, you know? It’s called community theatre for a reason.
By Shawn Pitts
Money is never the primary motivation for creating art. No one picks up a paint brush or sits down at a piano the first time with dreams of fame and fortune. Most people are attracted to the various artistic disciplines because they allow individuals to satisfy their need to create or effectively express themselves. But that’s not to say there is no connection between artists and the economy.
The vast majority of artists, like athletes, will never go pro. But many of them will continue their creative pursuits for a lifetime as hobbyists. A certain percentage of these will achieve a level of skill that is appreciated by their neighbors creating economic opportunity. Think of the potters, textile artists or metalworkers who supplement their income peddling their wares or the band whose members work day jobs but pick up extra money playing music on the weekends. It is rarely expressed in economic term, but these and many others engaged in similar creative activities, are essentially small business owners. They generate income for themselves as well as the venues who hire them to play music or the retailers who purchase and resell their art. They spend their earnings locally, buy supplies from other small business owners, and pay into the county and city tax bases. Taken together they are a significant segment of our local economy.
Similarly, when local people organize to create opportunity for artists, the economic impact is amplified and the community is the winner. First, and most importantly, our talented friends and neighbors are offered creative outlets that can be enjoyed by the public. Think of the plays, musicals, concerts, art showings, exhibitions and other cultural programs that draw literally thousands of people to the Latta every year. Think of the Rockabilly Highway Murals and Trail of Music Legends in downtown Selmer and the annual plein air painting festival in Adamsville which draw cultural tourists to our county in droves. These programs enhance local livability, build positive identity and good will within our community, and engender positive associations among visitors. But they also produce an often under-appreciated financial windfall for the entire region.
In 2016 The Tennessee Arts Commission invited Arts in McNairy to participate in a national survey conducted by Americans for the Arts to determine the impact of arts activity on local economies. The individualized findings for McNairy County were astonishing. During the survey period hundreds of visitors and locals were asked a variety of questions to determine spending patterns connected to arts events. That data was combined with budget figures from organizations like Arts in McNairy who invest heavily in community arts programs.
In the final analysis, McNairy County’s creative sector is responsible for generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in economic activity, pouring money into the tax base, creating jobs and enhancing prospects for industrial recruitment and retention. Local arts programs attracted thousands in outside revenues and reduced spending across county and state lines, keeping valuable resources in the local economy. In fact, for every dollar invested in arts events, audiences put nearly $13 back in local cash registers. That’s nearly ten times the national average. As it turns out, the local arts scene is far from a trifle, it’s a crucial part of our economic diversity and vitality. Simply stated, the arts are just good business for McNairy County.
So the next time you order a ticket for a local show, or purchase a piece of art from a local artist or maker, think of it as an investment in your community. You will be getting a one of a kind original; you will be supporting local creativity; and you will be building a sustainable creative economy. There’s no downside in any of that.
This article first appeared in the McNairy County Independent Appeal March 24, 2021
One of Arts in McNairy's first programs was the summer art camp hosted by Selmer Community Center. Local kids received fun and educational instruction in a variety of arts disciplines during the weeklong camps. Artists and arts educators Shelia Treece and Ronnie Christopher are shown above preparing student artwork for showing at the close of the 2001 camp.
By Shawn Pitts
The word “art” has an off-putting ring to many people. Add the adjective “fine” and it’s even worse. For some, such a phrase evokes notions of highbrow institutions or forms of art that seem, by design, inaccessible to ordinary folks. Similarly, “culture” may sound just as distasteful with its overtones of elitist exclusion.
But the arts and culture are as common to everyday human experience as the air we breathe. Any activity that taps into the deep reservoir of individual creativity may rightly be regarded as an art form, and culture is simply the creative traditions we share and value as a community. Viewed in this light, arts and culture are stripped of their negative baggage and we begin to see our neighbors and our neighborhood from a fresh and healthier perspective. Everyone from the local local banjo picker, story teller and quilter to the classically trained violinist, poet and oil painter may be respected as a contributor to the creative life of our community.
These insights are especially important in rural communities where many residents may feel alienated or disconnected from urban cultural centers that do not mirror their artistic interests or serve their creative needs. Twenty years ago—March 6, 2001 to be exact—this was very much on the minds of a small group of citizens who met at Selmer City Hall to form Arts in McNairy (AiM). No one knew it at the time, but we were in for the adventure of a lifetime. Though the groundwork had been laid as early as August of the previous year, that March meeting marked the official launch of an organization that would rally McNairy and surrounding counties around a staggering variety of cultural programs in nearly every creative discipline.
Over the years Arts in McNairy has been recognized at the local, state and national level for excellence in rural arts programming. I am firmly convinced that the acknowledged quality and sustainability of the group’s efforts are directly connected to the leadership’s tenacious focus on the community rather than the organization itself. Yes, as the vehicle that delivers key programs, the infrastructure of the organization must be thoughtfully maintained and funded, but the uncompromising mission to persevere and enrich McNairy County’s cultural life was Arts in McNairy’s north star from the outset. It is the primary reason the organization is still going strong at twenty and looking to an even brighter future.
As we commemorate two successful decades of creative community building, it is my great honor to share some of Arts in McNairy’s history as well as the leadership’s forward looking vision with readers of the Independent Appeal through a series of short, guest columns. I was there for that first 2001 meeting along with Independent Appeal publisher, Janet Rail, who was subsequently appointed to AiM’s inaugural board of directors. Janet intuitively grasped and championed the AiM mission. She ensured the Independent covered every new twist and turn in our development and offered generous sponsorships for important programs such as the popular community theatre season and annual Music Hall of Fame. We couldn’t have built a successfully arts agency without that kind of media support and we are deeply grateful.
We also owe an eternal debt of gratitude to the many volunteers, audience members and financial partners who have supported Arts in McNairy every step of the way. A wise mentor once told me, “a nonprofit is dead in the water if the community doesn’t understand and embrace its mission.” He couldn’t have been more right, and AiM has had the great advantage of working in a community that was hungry for arts programs and eager to explore every new avenue of creativity put before them.
It’s been quite a ride, and I think I speak for AiM leadership when I say we can’t wait to see how the next twenty years unfold.
This article first appeared in the McNairy County Independent Appeal March 10, 2021
It's hard to believe Arts in McNairy turns twenty this month, but it's true. On March 6, 2001 AiM's first board of directors was appointed and their first official act was adopting a set of bylaws that would guide the organization through its formative phases. Those directors and the founding documents they gave us have served our community well. Since that momentous first meeting, dozens of people have served on the board, volunteered for committee assignments and developed some of the best community arts programs in rural Tennessee if not the Southeast. We are proud of those accomplishments and not shy about bragging on the people who have worked so hard to bring them about. Where would we be without you?
We are entering as season of looking back and looking forward. Our partners at the McNairy County Independent Appeal will be publishing a series of articles that highlight some of Arts in McNairy's major accomplishments, share the stories of pivotal moments in our history and offer a forward-looking vision that will inspire our creative community to reach even higher for the next twenty years. If you happen to miss the article s in print, don't worry, they will appear in this space the week following publication in the Independent.
And we want to hear from you! By now, literally thousands of people have served and been served by Arts in McNairy. Whether you found your voice in one of our music, literature or community theatre productions; discovered a passion for the arts in one of our camps, workshops, or folklife programs; or were simply moved by any form of local creativity as an audience member or community partner, we would love for you to share those experiences. These are the stories that make it all worth while and we invite you to contact us by email or through any of our social media platforms. You might even get a spot as a guest blogger!
So, happy twentieth anniversary to Arts in McNairy. Time really does fly when you are having fun!
Freida Hamm is one of McNairy County’s most celebrated painters. She pursued some form of visual art most of her life, but as an adult graduate of Memphis College of Art and University of Memphis, Freida achieved international renown, primarily as a landscape artist with an instantly recognizable style. Working quietly from her home and studio on 5th Street in Selmer, Freida won international awards and commissions, was featured in numerous group and solo exhibitions worldwide, and turned out a body of work that is still much desired by art collectors today.
Arts in McNairy was honored to collaborate with her on occasion and proud to have her patronize many of our programs, but you really didn’t see Freida out and about that much. You could typically find her at her studio doing what she loved most: creating art.
Freida is our reminder that whether we see one another or not, creativity is never cancelled.
While we have been disappointed by the temporary suspension of programming at the Latta, our first responsibility is the health and wellbeing of the community we serve. As you might imagine, social distancing is difficult for an organization that was committed from the outset to bringing people together to share all kinds of creativity. Our mission hasn’t changed, but the way we go about it has evolved rapidly under the unprecedented conditions we are now facing together.
Keep watching our social media outreach. We will be posting videos from the Crossroads exhibit from time to time, sharing thoughts from our leadership, and highlighting Arts in McNairy’s various community arts programs. Of course, we will keep you updated on scheduling changes, and hope to have good news about future plans and programs as Arts in McNairy heads into our exciting 20th Anniversary season in 2021.
Spring is a time when we celebrate renewal, a time when nature itself is creating anew. This year, we encourage you to renew your sense of wonder and creativity. Write those poems you have neglected or finish that short story you started. Read a good book. Dust off the instrument and play a few tunes, if only for your own enjoyment. Take an online museum tour, or shoot that digital short film you’ve been thinking about. Break out the paints, pastels or pencils and have at it. Sing and dance like you mean it.
Creativity is not cancelled.
Arts in McNairy wishes you a healthy and happy Easter.
Crossroads: Change in Rural America is a traveling exhibit coming to West Tennessee March 21 - May 3. The state of the art museum experience will be at the Latta in Selmer, Tennessee.
Crossroads will explore rural America's past as visitors reminisce about the good ol' days and will encourage visitors to think about rural America's future, specifically the futures of their hometowns in West Tennessee. The exhibit includes several free standing displays with exceptional photography, interactive audio and video, and interactive elements for children.
If you would be interested in scheduling a visit for your group or have any other questions regarding Crossroads: Change in Rural America at the Latta Theatre, contact Arts in McNairy on Facebook, [email protected], or call 731-645-2671.
Crossroads: Change in Rural America is a Museum on Main Street exhibit. Museum on Main Street is a project by Smithsonian Institute. Crossroads: Change in Rural America is brought to Tennessee by Smithsonian Institute and Humanities Tennessee.