Firefly Mural by Robert Felker, Clinch Avenue, Knoxville, December 2023 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
(Today’s article is by recurring guest writer Luke Frazier)
Painted murals are a public pleasure, and downtown Knoxville has some great ones. Of course Strong Alley leads the way, and the variety found there entices repeat cut-through visits. Dolly always welcomes you with her big smile radiating onto Wall St. I also get a pretty much daily dose of positivity from the huge spread on the wall of the Visit Knoxville building at Gay & Summit Hill with its celebratory postcard vibe.
One mural I walk by less, but definitely think about more, is the low-slung Firefly mural by artist Robert Felker that stretches along a wall on the south side of Clinch Avenue between Locust & Henley streets. It includes a Cormac McCarthy quote from his book Blood Meridian, selected by former Knoxville Poet Laureate R.B. Morris:
For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be.
I don’t know the story of how the two got together for the project, but Felker serves the quote perfectly with a restrained color palette of greens with dusty rose highlights and blue & lilac accents. The scene hosting the yellow-lettered quote is dominated by ground-level grassy growth seemingly sprouting from the sidewalk. At the western end of the mural a firefly alights, with a yellow glow that doesn’t quite reach back to the words themselves. The impression for me is summer sweat, the buzzing of cicadas a likely soundtrack, and the emphasis on fire fits.
The simple scene is elemental, and lets McCarthy’s words speak for themselves. But what, pray tell, do they mean to say? The sentence is lifted from a paragraph on page 244 of the book that includes mention of flames, bloodbeat of living things, evisceration, and men being “divided from their origins and are exiles.” In other words, McCarthy doing his thing. The big finish is the mural’s quote that insists that when it comes to fire there has really only been one shared spark in the cosmos, and every fire just continues from there in an unbroken connection of sorts. Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong.
When it comes to Cormac McCarthy, I’m no expert. Truth be told, I’ve never gotten as far as page 244 the three times I’ve picked up Blood Meridian to read and subsequently abandoned. But that doesn’t mean I can’t encounter these words on the street in Knoxville, appreciate their significance, and interpret their meaning. His genius is obvious, and I’ve read (and cried) through The Road multiple times and put No Country For Old Men way up in my personal best novels ever list. McCarthy certainly knows how to play with fire without getting burned.
What I know is that where there is fire there is meaning. It’s what keeps us gazing into the fireplace for hours, or sitting around the campfire long past bedtime. The idea of fire is so fundamental that it is without question part of what makes up our human spirit. Life without fire is no more livable than being without air or water or earth.
Last night I came home smelling of woodsmoke from a fire I sat around with some friends. We talked about what’s been going on in our lives as we stared into the flames. The core embers cooked up encouragement for honest sharing, connections flickered then blazed to understanding. After a while I stood up and turned around to warm my backside and looked out into the dark woods. I was glad for the fire behind me, knowing I could count on it to warm me before heading out into the chill.
The Firefly mural, besides its pleasing aesthetic, is also a public service. It reminds us that each of us burns with a similar fire inside, call it lifeforce or energy. We are simply and magnificently just a line of sparks since time began, and have more in common than not. The problem is we don’t hold onto this truth consistently, we don’t tend to our shared fire with sufficient care. That’s when a short quote and an appealing visual comes in handy, illuminating truth for all to see.