The ‘Bird’ that Treated Tennessee’s Art ‘Well’

Sepia-toned black and white portrait of a man with a mustache, lively eyes, and a broad smile.
Robert Birdwell – Photograph copyright @ 1992 Mignon Naegeli

When the Wolfman was offered employment upon finishing his PhD, my humans eagerly grabbed the chance to remain in the country of their choice, despite already having booked a cabin, pet kennels, (they even had a London lamp post on the dog run) and cargo space for their old Volvo on the QE2 to return to Europe. The Cancellation was graciously accepted by Cunard, reimbursing even the deposit.

The Wolfman immediately started working for the National Laboratory in the Tennessee town that now calls itself proudly ‘The Secret City.’ My Female, uncomfortable with the city’s past, threw herself full heartedly into the local art scene, meeting painters, sculptors, potters, artisans, eccentrics, and everything in between. She fit right in! Her first works inspired by this strange community were sculptures of wire and plastic maché envisioning art to survive Armageddon. The local art center’s director, Carolyn Weaver, an accomplished painter herself, invited my Female to have her first solo exhibition at the center’s Gomez gallery; a show Caroline sadly did not live to see.

Cut-outs from black and white heads and hands photo portraits on a deep blue acrylic-with-glitter background that suggests a wavy water surface. Some of the cutouts' edges are outlined with smooth, rounded, glossy, semi-transparent gel-like borders encompassing a varying mix of red, purple, gold, and blue glitter. A sigmoid line connects the horizontal title 'Island of Hope' to the vertical signature 'Naegeli 93,' all applied in relief with translucent green glue.
Island of Hope—Caroline Weaver (detail; photography/mixed media on canvas) – Copyright @ 1992 Mignon Naegeli

The art center was the vibrant gathering point of an illustrious group of artists and art aficionados from around the region. For some, it even was the center of their universe! Classes, exhibits, and an art support guild provided ample variety and opportunity for interaction. Caroline made everyone feel welcome, and she successfully managed an ambitious exhibition schedule featuring local artists and art groups, children’s art, photography, as well as the impressive Mary and Alden Gomez Painting and Sculpture Collection. Other treats were an annual open show and the œuvres of itinerant national exhibitions, such as the Hirshhorn Museum’s.

Well known area artists taught anything from drawing, painting, and pottery to printmaking and photography. There was even a tiny darkroom in the back of the center that offered members of the Martin Marietta Camera Club an opportunity to develop and print their own work.

One of the most popular teachers was Robert Birdwell, a handsome, elegant man with a catching wicked smile; an artist of many talents.

In fact, a teacher is anybody’s muse. Although Bob was admired by most, some did not comprehend the master’s conceptions. My female encountered many similar moments throughout her life and career. There are always the stubborn ones, the few who go their own way, and the ones who discover their calling. It is finding the true path, be it in education, philosophy, science, or art. Creativity has many names.

Robert was a man my Female was immediately inclined to include in her Male Human series (although she hasn’t publicly displayed any of her Birdwell pictures—until now).

At one of the always well attended toast of the town artist receptions, the female met Ann, Robert’s young, beautiful, devoted wife, who is a gifted artist, too.

Sepia-toned black and white photograph of a dark-haired woman looking up to a tall, white-haired man who could probably rest his chin on the top of her head if they were standing much closer together. Visible in the soft-focused background between them is an art gallery wall with a person looking at one of the pictures.
Ann and Robert Birdwell – Photograph copyright @ 1992 Mignon Naegeli

My humans met the couple often when attending art events. The Female was allowed to photograph Roberts life drawing workshops, an honor she treasures to this day.

Sepia-toned black and white photograph of an art studio. At left we see the back side of an easel, in front of which are standing a woman and a tall man. He leans forward, pointing at something on the easel. At right we see the top of a flip-chart-style easel with tall used sheets hanging down toward us almost like a waterfall. These sheets obscure our view of the lower back of a model with a very long dark pony tail. She is standing on a low, white platform in the center of the room. Only slivers of her lower torso, right leg, and left toes are visible beyond the edges of the sheets.
Robert Birdwell’s life drawing class at Oak Ridge Art Center – Photograph copyright @ 1993 Mignon Naegeli

It has been a while since she saw them last, the Female tells me. Robert and his great love still made a most handsome couple, but the time had taken its toll, as is true for all of us.

Last week we received an email from Ann. She lost her love. His pupils, friends, and colleagues will miss the man who helped so many find and understand what often comes not naturally in our lives, understanding the creativity of others—or if we try hard enough, our own.

Sepia-toned black and white profile portrait shot from the back over the right shoulder of a mustached man, who has a thinning hair line but very full, wavy hair on the back of his head. The soft-focused background reveals an art studio and a woman working on a drawing board.
Robert Birdwell – Photograph copyright @ 1993 Mignon Naegeli


Thank you, B.D. for your input

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