Art in Strong Alley, Knoxville, April 2023 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
(Ed. Note: Today’s article is by guest writer Luke Frazier who is new to Knoxville and continues to explore downtown spots in a fresh way. Today he discusses Strong Alley, which was first beautified by a set of volunteers brought together by Jayne McGowan in 2012, a second wave of art was added in 2014, and another in 2019. Along the way the city made improvements, and added a nice walkway through the middle. The Downtown Knoxville Alliance provided funds for lighting and Bernadette West added bistro lights. The 2019 and subsequent efforts have been led by Art in Public Places, though “freelancers” slip in at times.)
At its best, travel, as in getting from point A to B, feels amazing and singular. It can be a whiff of magic in an otherwise ordinary endeavor. You’ve left somewhere and are not yet anywhere else but on the way. Senses heightened, you’re here & there, both/neither. Transitioning, in a liminal state, simultaneously on the move and in the moment. Possibly more aware of your surroundings because of it.
Sure, where you are headed affects the feeling. Would you rather be on a jet to the Caribbean or in the car on the way to Kroger’s? But this peak type of experience, when you feel more fully alive, can sneak up and take you for a ride unexpectedly in the strangest of places. It recently happened to me when I was traveling in the colorful mural-filled alley running between Wall and Union Avenues in downtown Knoxville. I call it the Dolly alley (officially it’s Strong Alley), since a beautiful painting of her majesty’s face fills the first 10 yards of the northern end off Wall Ave.
On the surface, the alley is an unromantic city-space teeming with refuse from the kitchens of Market Square and Gay St. restaurants. Filled with funky smells, unidentified liquids, graffiti-tagged doorways, opaque windows, utility connections, stairs, trash bags, trash cans, and stained concrete. Occasionally work trucks get parked there.
Beneath the function, however, the images and ideas expressed in the dozens of individual murals elevate the 175 yards or so of this passage to a gritty galleria of creativity. I’ve cut through that alley many times, but for some reason this time was different. I got stuck in a time warp, captured between leaving my apartment and arriving at the library. I slowed down, then stopped for a while. I looked closely, a curious twist of attention at the intersection of beauty and grime.
First, there is the sheer volume of visual input and the variety of style and skill. Across from Dolly when you enter two nice flower-based murals, one includes bees on what looks like a tiffany lampshade. Further down there are sea creature-ish figures; a fish in hues of orange, purple and green; more or less realistic landscapes; a cartoon baby getting away with something; a VW Bug racing to a finish line; a blue-haired, big-eyed woman in a pseudo-psychedelic trance; a blue-faced woman with a Frida Kahlo vibe; what looks like a gorgeous Turkish rug; and a jungle-esque explosion complete with bright red cherries. And more.
Then there are the exhortations, the message-bearers, the murals that use words and commands. There is the simple “Feel Free to Feel Free” mural tucked behind a downspout, a gas meter, and an electrical box. The “Discover-Create-Learn-Play-Inspire and Empower” section of wishes floating along a solar system of sorts. The simple observational grace of the words above a radiant, Eastern tradition-flavored painting of hands holding roses, “a bright and beautiful soul once told me Follow Your Bliss…”
Sometimes I still eye-roll what I ungenerously label syrupy sentiment, but I have grown less cynical as I grow older. People do what they do, and artists seek authentic connection. How can that be wrong? And in my liminal mindset that day it came into focus in a unique way.
I thought, and felt, all the artists who spent time in this narrow, beat-up commercial alley, adding a bright image and maybe a few words. They put effort into a tiny spot on planet earth that pretty much is hidden in plain sight. I originally found the alley by chance, but I know it’s been noted and suggested as something to check out.
Dolly beckons from one end, while at the other it references authorized vehicles only. But there is no permission required to appreciate what’s in front of you as you travel through this time and space called Strong Alley. Just attention.