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Nashville is Dead

An open letter to Zeitgeist Gallery in Nashville

Dear Zeitgeist Gallery,

I first want to thank you for reaching out to me in late February of this year and asking if I were interested in showing my work at your gallery. I was honored to be approached, and of course accepted. Why wouldn't I? I have enjoyed and appreciated your gallery since the wily 90's - back when you were located in a now demolished building in Hillsboro Village.

That was an interesting time. I remember when I moved to Nashville in 1998 from Seattle I was a little shell shocked and uneven. In 1998, Nashville felt like 1988. Gummo was real!. The city didn't have lots of big city amenities yet, and it was a quiet place in many ways. At first I felt I needed more tempo - after living in New York City and Seattle, I wanted big city, not tinytown.


It took some time, but after I was immersed here in the outside, non-country music and art community, I began to appreciate Nashville more. It was an enclave for artists - cheap rent - cheap everything. I rented a house for $600 a month. Few even seemed to know the river was there in West Nashville.

I have been in music and photography for 25 years, and there never was a time more open with possibility than those days here. I always was amazed how there were so many barren places, abandoned places, places that beg to be explored and photographed. I did a lot of that, and it was an amazing time.

That is how I remember it at least.


If I look back more closely, and perhaps less romantically, it was a tough time. Between deathly summer heat, biblical cicada invasions, hyper-conservative, downright racist and intolerant tonality in Nashville, that I wanted to leave as fast as I got here. All the food was great but trying to kill you, no place to safely ride a bike, and as far as culture and art - there was no real museum (still the case if you consider permanent collections) - very few galleries - and of what I was able to find - it was more folk art and approaching filler for dentists offices... nothing challenging the status quo. Nothing asking questions. Nothing taking a dare.

Then - a friend took me to Zeitgeist. I immediately knew this was something different. It felt like a respite from the formula of retail-driven pseudo art. It was full of work that challenged, but held an aesthetic - it had intention, and it was clear the gallery provided a space for these outliers (in Nashville at least) that would be front and center in a "bigger" city. I felt at home.


Much of my work in the last two years has been using burgeoning drone technology - yet similarly focused on abandoned, forgotten, overlooked, and darkly beautiful places that are remnants of another time in Nashville. My explorations have been important or helpful for Historic Nashville, my district and neighborhood on the west side, and even developers. I have seen change from a few angles.


As I arrived at needing to buy a house in the last few years, I discovered that even though developers were razing entire neighborhoods, it might be more helpful to adopt a mentality of "if you can't beat 'em. join 'em". The progress was not going to stop or finesse itself on its own to be more conscientious. If I wanted a place to live in the city - I would need to adapt. I thought that the least I can do is document all the change - and became increasingly interested in the broader psychology of change, and reflect it outward, and hope in small small way it contributes to the overall picture.

The overly simple duality of old versus new seems to be as rich as any argument gets. I could not help but think, "all the houses built here in the 50's pissed those people off and they said all the houses looked the same then - and now people want to preserve those houses. So what's the difference?" It is all about our place in time, and that is our perspective on beginnings, ends, and how it makes us feel.


Basically, everyone is right. Nashville is dead. But what is death? What is place? What is permanence? Something is being lost in a general sense. Our external fixtures being threatened or demolished seems to threaten our deepest survival instincts. Things don't normally change this quickly. I get lost in the Gulch and feel disembodied in that area now. It is disorienting, and uncomfortable.

I walk around and wonder, like many of us, where did all these people come from, and who is buying their house for them?". I am certainly capable of being a curmudgeon. That said, I work hard to claim my spot in time and space now. That is all you can do. Documenting and portraying what I feel and think using drones has become a fascination.


Drones are a rare opportunity to pursue and explore a new medium. I think about how photographers struggled in the 1940's and 50's - to be considered art at all while among painters. Galleries did not see photography as valid as compared to paintings. Black and white was seen as a limitation, not a step into form and abstraction. I wondered, "What would Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Walker Evans, or Alfred Stieglitz do with a flying camera?" I set out to find out.

All of those photographers made the journey from documentarian to fine artist, and I believed I could stumble down the same path and arrive at something. While I have been releasing lots of work in photographs and video, I had not yet had a proper showing of my drone photography. I have only been at it in this medium for a short time, but have made leaps I felt worthy of sharing more broadly.


Along comes your invitation to show work at your gallery. I get an email asking if I am interested in sharing a show with a stunning landscape painter. I said yes. Full circle! This gallery that gave me belief in Nashville (before believing in Nashville became Instagram fodder) wanted to show my work, about Nashville. Granted, yes the old building the gallery used to be in on Hillsboro was demolished, and you have since moved to a new, shiny, hyper-designed space, but the spirit was still intact. I have had several colleagues and friends invite me there to see their work and others, and it is a great space in Wedgewood Houston - a place that not long ago was full of abandoned spaces that have been duly turned over and used. All good things.

The argument of history versus progress has so many subjective angles and veneers - based on values, observations, and outcomes yet to be seen - there is no way to fully wrestle with "I remember when" because it means you are dying. It means time is passing. It means what you knew does not exist. It means improvement, better lighting, smoother walls, and more space. It means a lot of things. The gallery itself is a reflection of the polarity I wrestle with in my work. Perfect.


You asked me to venture out with my work to show there, and encouraged taking over the space in any reasonable way I want - build an enclosure, use the ceiling, anything. No limits, and think big. I conceptualized many grand things, only to arrive at the thought that this is a shared exhibit, and I need to defer to the other artists work as thoughtfully as possible. Her paintings are beautiful hued, slightly abstracted landscapes of threatened territory - or portraits of protected land.

I thought this made for a perfect pairing. We are both reconciling sides of the same prism, in our own ways and mediums. I resolved to make sure my photographs were not printed larger than her paintings. I conceived that monochrome would lift up her stunning colors and not pollute the gallery with color. I ordered elegant framing, all white, clean, and humble - and the pieces are a nice contrast to the black and white starkness my work leans into.


Months later - 2 months out from the opening, you ask to see my work as we must begin PR and be prepared for magazines and various media. I send you a digital version of my exhibit. Titled, finalized pieces - all under the show title Nashville is Dead. I perceive this overly fatalistic sentiment everywhere. It is about the psychology of change in this city, and how it ties perhaps to our own sense of mortality, marked by what we see around us.

I also sent a video piece for the show - a 3 minute black and white abstracted video of footage taken from Madison Mill at Charlotte Avenue and 42nd, days before it was demolished. It is a swan song to those few places left in the city that artists could explore, and create work without fear or judgment.

36°09’03.3”N 86°50’10.8”W

I have seen Charlotte Pike evolve into a burgeoning “corridor” of welcome new life, although born in mostly lifeless, contrivedly angular architecture of a pseudo industrial aesthetic. Not to say new buildings will not have valid use and benefit, but the former Madison Mill abandoned industrial site at Charlotte Pike and 42nd Ave was a fascinating secret creative space. It yielded countless new lives in the form of creative projects on the outside of the shiny new Nashville. Artists would explore and seek out spaces inside this decaying labyrinth to create.

I set out to document the site as inevitable demolition neared.

This day of filming, a young woman was inside the crumbling hangars dancing unabashedly, alone and free in the space as I filmed. A group of hip hop artists were scaling the rooftops to shoot a music video.

They likely didn’t know this space was about to vanish.

Everything seen here in this piece was demolished just days later.

I realize now that I should have seen it coming when you informed me you are pulling my show, and claim that the pairing does not work with my work and the landscape painter's work. I am shocked first, because I went to such great lengths to be hyper-deferential to her work. Further, you say the title "Nashville is Dead" is a problem for the gallery.

All of this, and likely other motivations unspoken - like being a marketable, safe gallery to appease rich people - were not said, but I heard them as they reverberated through the rehabbed warehouse I was in when I found out.


How do you ask someone to create work to show, then take an opinion on their work to the end of nixing it?

Did you consider the countless hours of time taken in thinking of, conceiving, doing, and ultimately paying for framing all of this work?

Are you a true art gallery? Or is this all a retail art ruse?

In the case of what your gallery was to me, and what it is now - a part of the Nashville I knew is dead.

Mark Rothko gave away the Seagrams commission pieces he did after he was told they were too dark and sullen in their maroon on black colors, and he realized the common people would not be able to see them in their Four Seasons hotel home. So, he returned the money, and donated the paintings to three different museums.

I will find a home for these photographs. I just wish I hadn't framed them. I generally hate most frames. I thought your gallery would appreciate it.


death.row [Tennessee State Prison]

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