The Art of Gardens

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April 14th 2011
Published: January 27th 2012
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Cheekwood Color GardenCheekwood Color GardenCheekwood Color Garden

A small portion of the amazing color garden at Cheekwood


Today is another day for art.

I found it in a rather unexpected place.

In the early 1900s, one William Cheek was invited to invest in a ground coffee company his friend was starting.

(It was named after the old Maxwell Hotel in Nashville).

He made quite a lot of money, and spent a good portion on a grand estate and gardens.

When the Nashville Art Museum needed a new home, his daughter offered them the old estate, which was renamed Cheekwood.

Like several other southern art museums, it now combines a museum in the old mansion with surrounding gardens (see the Cummer, Golden Swamps and Reynola, Pigs and Tobacco).

Cheekwood was a surprise in that the artistry of the gardens outdid the artistry of the art.

The first garden most visitors see is the color garden.

Many formal gardens have a section with plants organized into groups by color.

Here, by contract, the different colors of flowers were carefully interleaved to form long swirls and changing bands.

The only way to describe it is a living Monet painting, even more than the azaleas at Middleton Gardens (see South Carolina Plantation Country).
Color Garden ArborwayColor Garden ArborwayColor Garden Arborway

The arborway surrounded by colorful flowers at Cheekwood

One section had an arbor with plants of different colors arcing overhead in different sections.

What a sight!

This was the best garden of the trip so far.

The next garden is a Japanese style garden.

The entrance to this garden has a plaque explaining the different parts and what they symbolize.

The overall idea is to create a union between man and nature that promotes meditation and peace.

The garden is filled with pine trees and bushes rather than the normal flowers.

One section features a tunnel through a patch of bamboo.

At the very center is the sand garden most westerners think of as the main feature, where carefully laid out sand ripples surround rocks.

The next feature runs from the Japanese Garden to the former mansion.

It’s called the Pond Walk.

The Cheeks created an artificial stream through their gardens.

Periodically, they dammed it to create a series of ponds.

They used one of them as their swimming pool.

The pool is surrounded with natural landscaping including lots of pine trees.

Above this is a
Japanese GardenJapanese GardenJapanese Garden

Small portion of Cheekwood's Japanese garden
riparian garden featuring plants native to Tennessee, and a fern garden.

The trail ends at an artificial spring, where a set of steps leads to the main driveway.

The mansion now serves as the art museum portion of Cheekwood.

I enjoyed it more than Reynolda.

When the Cheeks donated the property, they took much of their furniture with them.

This left bare rooms that are much better suited to show art than the fully furnished rooms at Reynolda.

All of the architectural elements are still in place, including two grand staircases.


Three separate shows were on view.

The first was Fabrege.

In Czarist Russia, the wealthy had almost unlimited resources.

Their patronage attracted skilled artisans from throughout Europe.

One of them was Carl Fabrege, who became the official Imperial jeweler.

Working with a nearly unlimited supply of every precious stone and mineral imaginable, he designed and his craftsman built the most exquisite jewelry ever made.

The highlight of it all was the Easter eggs, one of which was presented to the Czar each year.

Every one opened to reveal a priceless treat.
Pond and riprarian gardenPond and riprarian gardenPond and riprarian garden

Pond at Cheekwood with the riprarian garden behind it. The pond was once used as a swimming pool.

Given this extreme display of wealth in a country where most people were peasants, revolution was probably inevitable.

The Communists confiscated all royal property they could find.

They sold the royal jewelry to dealers around the world to raise hard currency for their new government.

A wealthy oil heiress, Matilda Geddings Gray, bought the jewels shown at Cheekwood.

The level of craftsmanship of these items is nearly unbelievable.

There are incredibly detailed miniature portraits on ivory.

Several of these were connected together and put in the Easter eggs.

There are flowers made entirely of minerals and jewels.

The leaves and petals are caved from single stones.

Many of them are so thin they are translucent.

One astonishing item is a dandelion in seed.

In Russian tradition, one blew on these and the pattern of the seedlings indicated future romance.

The feathery seeds are carved entirely from asbestos fibers.

The true highlight is a basket of petunias.

The basket and stems are made entirely from gold.

The flowers are rubies with tiny diamonds accents.

One needs a microscope to fully

Birdbath with a stone bird by William Edmondson. This one is located in the native plant gardens.
appreciate it all.

The docents (who naturally double as security guards) do a very good job explaining all this, and pointing out details many people would otherwise miss.

William Edmondson

The second show as a set of sculptures by William Edmondson.

An African American Nashville native, he started carving as a type of religious revelation.

He is entirely self-taught, and his sculpture work resembles that from central Africa.

He had a show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1973, the first folk artist to do so.

Most of his work is simplified figures, such as people and bears.

He is also known for his birdbaths, three of which are in the gardens.

One has a stone bird perched on the lip, drinking.

The third show was a disappointment.

The museum had removed most of its permanent painting collection to make room for a show of modern art from the Smithsonian.

The reason it’s disappointing is that I had already seen the show two years earlier.

The work is very good, but it’s also very familiar.

At least this gave more time for the gardens.
Dogwood GardenDogwood GardenDogwood Garden

A small part of the dogwood garden at Cheekwood

After the mansion, I hiked my way back to the parking lot.

The first garden in this stage was the native wildflower garden.

The flowers were arranged around a pond under large oak trees.

The flowers are not natural, since they are clearly designed and laid out, but they are all native.

The blossoms were smaller than those in the earlier gardens.

The center of this garden had one of the birdbaths mentioned earlier.

The last garden is a highlight, the dogwood garden.

Lots of dogwood trees are grown in Tennessee, to the point they dominate the state the way azaleas dominate North Carolina.

This garden had a dozen of them, in colors ranging from pink to white.

A few pine trees were also included, and they provided a nice contrast to the flowers.

At the far end of this garden was a large sundial sculpture made of cut tile.

The theme was the circle of life.

Fisk University

After Cheekwood, I went to see Nashville’s most significant and controversial modern art collection, the Carl Van Vechten Gallery at Fisk University.
Circle of Life FountainCircle of Life FountainCircle of Life Fountain

The circle of life fountain at Cheekwood

Fisk is the oldest historically minority university in Tennessee.

W.E.B DuBois is a graduate.

In the late 1920s, the famous painter Georgia O’Keefe had to disburse the art collection of her late husband, the equally famous dealer and photographer Alfred Steiglitz.

She distributed it among several museums and schools, and the president of Fisk persuaded her to give some to the school as the nucleus of a museum.

Fisk has added much more since, mostly by African American artists.

The museum is now the most comprehensive modern art collection in Nashville.

The controversy stems from the university’s handling of its art.

Fisk has had financial issues numerous times in recent years, and the idea of selling art to raise money has always come up.

So far, alumni, city officials, and art professionals have always managed to derail the attempts, but this may not last forever.

I wanted to see the collection while it is still intact.

The collection is relatively small but it is choice.

Every major artist from roughly 1900 to 1920 is represented by at least one work, including Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stiglitz himself.

No artist has more than five paintings.
W.E.B DuBois statueW.E.B DuBois statueW.E.B DuBois statue

Statue of W.E.B DuBois status on the campus of Fisk University, where he was an undergrad.

Since Alfred Stiglitz championed modern American artists, the collection is definitely slanted in this direction.

Most work is accompanied by through captions, which one should expect in an academic setting.

The most famous painting is one by Georgia O’Keefe, Radiator Building.

The picture shows an art deco skyscraper that she could see from her studio at the time.

The building is pictured at night.

The design of the building and its surroundings is highly simplified; the painting clearly shows the direction toward abstraction that brought her renown.

Thanks to the controversy, it was hard to see this display without imagining this particular painting and others not being there.

The African American work was downstairs.

The show on display was a group of mostly unknown artists assembled by a schoolteacher, Dorothy Wilson.

It helped that her son was an art dealer 😊

Part of the point of the show was to illustrate that almost anyone could build a meaningful collection regardless of budget.

It takes careful selection, good taste, and lots of time.

As a collector with a limited budget myself, this was something I
Lower BroadwayLower BroadwayLower Broadway

Nashville's famous Lower Broadway honky tonks
could definitely appreciate.

One of her secrets was that she bought directly from the artists, something I like to do myself.

Most of the work was figurative, although conceptual art also made an appearance.

Most, but not all, dealt with aspects of the African American experience.

Nashville Honky Tonks

For dinner, I wanted the classic Nashville experience, the honky tonk.

A honky tonk is accurately described as a dive bar with really good live country music.

Many major country stars have been discovered playing in these places, often for tips.

Until the early 1970s, all of the best ones were concentrated in one area of Nashville called Lower Broadway.

Suburban flight and urban decay then set in, until the area degenerated into a strip populated by tourists and young suburbanites looking for a thrill, and nothing else.

The real future of country music was found elsewhere.

Fans and acts started trickling back in the early 1990s, leading to a revival.

Now, the area resembles the downtown entertainment district of many cities: lots of cheesy bars featuring bad cover bands, mixed in with far better places.

Robert's Western WorldRobert's Western WorldRobert's Western World

Robert's Western World, with the stage in the distance. Note the rows of boots on the far right.

I went to one of the best of them, Robert’s Western World.

It’s routinely voted the best dive bar in Nashville in local polls.

It started as a western boot store where the owner brought in bands to attract customers.

Gradually, the shows made more money than the boot sales, and the place morphed into a true bar.

There are still rows of boots on the walls, but they are just for show these days.

The rest of the décor is county music memorabilia and beer signs.

The band was very talented, and people were dancing.

The bar serves quite sophisticated beer, but the truly appropriate item is their Recession Buster Special: cheap bar food and moon pies, washed down with even cheaper beer.

I was most impressed with the diversity of the crowd; everyone from old barflies who saw Hank Williams play (he died almost sixty years ago) to young hipsters and members of local bands.

I’m not a big fan of country music but I loved the atmosphere.

A taste of the scene:

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


Toy train layoutToy train layout
Toy train layout

Temporary exhibit at Cheekwood
Color gardenColor garden
Color garden

More of Cheekwood's amazing color garden
Color gardenColor garden
Color garden

More of Cheekwood's amazing color garden. Note the sphinx statue on the left
Color gardenColor garden
Color garden

More of Cheekwood's amazing color garden
Color gardenColor garden
Color garden

More of Cheekwood's amazing color garden
Color gabezoColor gabezo
Color gabezo

More of Cheekwood's amazing color garden
Statue and colorStatue and color
Statue and color

More of Cheekwood's amazing color garden
Japanese GardenJapanese Garden
Japanese Garden

Small portion of Cheekwood's Japanese garden

Artificial waterfalls in the Riparian Garden
Mansion sculptureMansion sculpture
Mansion sculpture

Sculpture on the mansion front lawn
Native gardenNative garden
Native garden

Recreated forest with Tennessee wildflowers
Last lookLast look
Last look

Dogwood and flowers next to the parking lot at Cheekwood
Tootsie's Wild Orchid LoungeTootsie's Wild Orchid Lounge
Tootsie's Wild Orchid Lounge

Legendary honky tonk where many country stars got their break
Robert's Western WorldRobert's Western World
Robert's Western World

The band gets the crowd to move!

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