In the West Nashville neighborhood known as the Nations, an abandoned grain silo looms over an area slowly subsumed by a renovating economy—as though a sea encroaching a long-lost lighthouse, warehouses are becoming coffeeshops, mills sprouting breweries, parks blossoming up unannounced, bikes lanes painted in reckless abundance. It is a culture in distress, old couches and countertops wearing an age they haven’t earned. Barbershops and brandy breed obsolescent moustaches and send pseudo-bohemians running amok through boutiques and taprooms
Over all this flotsam of gentrification, this bracketed white-washing, towers the old Gilette grainery—two conjoined concrete monoliths anchoring the skyline of the neighborhood to its industrial past. In and of itself the rectangular structure ought to be disposed of; it obstructs and intimidates. But the silo is no longer just a stark and bare skeleton of cement, steel and glass.
There now stands a man, 160 feet tall. He must be in his eighties. Were he not 160 feet tall, he would be noticeably hunched, slight. He is painted black and white from the ground to near the top of the south wall of the silo—to his left, on the westernmost wall, are two young boys, backs facing the observer, reaching up for something invisible above their heads.
Upon first encounter, the onlooker (myself) knows nothing whatever of the background, the history, of these enormous portraits, and thus I construct one.
As I drove north on 51st Avenue, the old man appeared gradually and almost gracefully until he filled up my windshield and my attention. Naturally, I immediately followed his gaze off to the east, only to realize there was nothing there at all, so I looked back at him. I had the distinct impression that he turned and looked at me just as I looked away. This impression lingers until it is true.
I sat in the adjacent warehouse-coffee shop (because I am part of the flotsam) and could see his face and torso through a glass pane. I tried to ignore it. He is not what I came for—but is art ever what we expect, when we intend?
I walked outside and stared instead.
In full view, he emerges from the ground at knee-height, black slacks rising, rolling over the concrete to a black belt and a white collared shirt. I assumed, at least, that they are white and black, for they adopt the mysterious grayscale of the silo and sink into whatever light the sky casts. The man is a chameleon work, as versatile as graffiti yet as portentous as portraiture.
His wrinkled skin ages the already old edifice, but something in his stance makes it young.
Even hunched, he stands proud, transformed. It is not that he stands any straighter or that his wrinkles smooth as you move in (although they seem to—an illusion of the flat, bare canvas); he stands rather in a soft confidence. A tempered and mature stability, calm like a boulder in the sun. He exudes that kind of warm energy of an alpine face dried and lightened by a brilliant blue sky. His eyes, too, are lifted upwards by a few degrees—as a tall man who remains humble.
After this absurd attempt at art criticism, I walked back inside and pacified myself. There was no reason to be riled up. It was just a big painting.
But I couldn’t stop thinking. My soul, somehow, was touched, and my first response was to analyze. The analysis felt thin, empty. I’ve been taught to interpret art, to decipher intentions, but somehow, this time, it killed it. I suppose it hard for me to imagine that it is actually a masterpiece, this mural in West Nashville. And if it is not, why write about it? If it is not, what is this essay but grandiloquent gesticulating by an pretentious art student? I was told to critique. I cannot. I experienced.
I’m beginning to wonder if we can ever learn something from art that we didn’t already know somehow. What can we interpret but what we already believe? I’m beginning to wonder if we should no longer ask what art means and start asking, “What does art do?”
See, I looked it up. Often, after a profound experience with a work of art, this is our response. Often, it is a mistake. We want to know more, but what we learn feels reductive or trite or disappointing. Perhaps the art was piece of political commentary we didn’t expect and disagree with. Perhaps (this is often the case for me), what the artist has to say about his or her art is anticlimactic. Some wonderful painters and photographers are terribly inarticulate. I suppose that I wish all artists to also be philosophers—but this is unrealistic and unfair.
The mural was painted by an Australian artist named Guido Van Helten. It is a portrait of a 91-year old Nations resident named Lee Estes. He taught art for many years at the local community center, St. Luke’s. The boys are two of the children who currently frequent St. Luke’s. Helten said, “It’s definitely a positive thing to commemorate people who have lived here for a long time.”
That’s that. It’s a nice way to celebrate a community.
I read that interview, peered through the window, and then turned back to my wood-paneled, laptop-laden, espresso-ridden surroundings. I was unnerved. What community was being celebrated? By painting this silo, has Van Helten built up the Nations as Mr. Estes knew it, or has he rung its death knell? By planting a seed of art on a decrepit monument to a dead industry, a dying way of life, has he encouraged its very annihilation? Is it merely another instance of the wealthy fetishizing the blue-collar world, appropriating their pain for some sick nostalgia? This mural—by an Australian artist long-gone-on to other morphing neighbourhoods in other places he is not from—can it, will it, has it been co-opted already by the young and bearded bourgeoise? Will this “commemoration” attract its own demise?
Art is never what we expect, nor when we intend it. Sometimes it is not even what the artist intended.
Perhaps there is a grotesque irony to this new colossus. Perhaps it, like its artistic forebears well- and ill-meaning, will be taken and twisted to serve another’s ends. But as is often the case, this great danger in art is also its greatest freedom. Art will serve the purposes of its participants; the blame lies in the interpreter, not the object. What does art do? It does whatever you make of it. All art is a call to action.
I walked outside once more.
This time, I was convinced. He looks at you.
He is so much more than Lee Estes. He is age, and wisdom, and hope. He stands everyday decrepit and fading (the man and the paint) facing the new sun in the East. He only looks forward. The boys beside him are preoccupied with the distractions of youth, looking inward, looking together; but Mr. Estes has eyes up and open, forever.
The mural is a meditation: art as resuscitation, art as finite, art as temporal. A new-old thing on an old thing that is only growing older—why wasn’t the building renovated? Why was it left to decay in the heart of a renascent community? Painted on it’s crumbling exterior is a message of hope and expectation, but the medium itself is dying. Is the direction of his stance an accident? An irony?
Eventually, like the dawn, nature will have its way. Mr. Estes will die (first the man, later the mural) and be buried and continue through life’s eternal cycle. The tower will be overrun by vines and flowers and spring. But the reclamation of nature is a terribly slow one—for how many years will there be anything but broken equipage and birds’ nests inside it?
Yet even now, it is alive inside. I know, because I saw it. Behind “No Trespassing” signs and chain-link fences are doors ajar into a kingdom of concrete and graffiti. For years, surely, the young and restless (reckless?) have explored the skeleton of the silo. Up rusted iron ladders and through cavernous black holes in the ceiling, stepping over frayed wiring and the rotten detritus of industry, singing with the birds who have colonized the upper regions, chasing down the dawn. We, the youth, are rightly entranced by the dirt and dust and death—it is our parent soil, our past and our future, the vast preponderance of our existence. We marvel at age because it is so new to us. We stare down death, hundreds of rungs below us, because we are not yet dead.
There is no gradation greater than choice. We do not become slowly more alive and then slowly less so. We are only as alive as we choose to be. We must look not backwards. We must be like Mr. Estes, even when young, even at night, even in the gravel and grit of change—we must face east.