Chattanooga, a city eternally linked to its historic “Choo Choo” train station, values public art to such an extent that you’re bound to encounter a medley of show-stopping pieces as you stroll about.
by Jeanine Barone
Huddled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and threaded by the winding Tennessee River, Chattanooga is a vibrant city nestled in a verdant landscape. The scenery certainly contributes to its dynamic vibe, attracting outdoor adventurers who come for the hiking, biking, rock climbing, river rafting and hand gliding. And so does the walkable downtown that thrives on its sense of community and an abundance of atmospheric eateries, bars and accommodations, many subscribing to a locavore ethic. But, I believe it’s Chattanooga’s ubiquitous artwork that injects the city with a palpable buzzing energy — appealing to everyone, from sophisticated aficionados to parents with young children who delight in the visual appeal.
These are some of the many art-centered venues that are guaranteed to delight:
High above the Tennessee River, a slim, paved path curves through the Bluff View Art District’s River Gallery Sculpture Garden, a petite space that radiates a meditative quality. An alcove with Leonard Baskin’s “Prodigal Son” beckons you to sit mindfully. Farther along is “Icarus,” a carved steel sculpture perfectly situated atop sheer cliffs, depicting the winged young man of Greek myth,
whose wings melt when he flies too close to the sun. Another highlight that warrants closer inspection: the cluster of bronze fish that appear to be tumbling in the waters of a wee cascade at the path’s end.
Sculpture Fields at Montague Park, a vast former landfill, is traced by a network of gravel paths, providing access to more than 40, often avant-garde, international pieces. “River City Queen” features massive, scarlet-hued spikes that seem to pierce the clouds, while across the park is a 30-foot-long Viking-style boat (“Some Waves Spark Stone”) that looks almost seaworthy. The works are meant to be touched and, some, such as “Temple Mayan” with its stainless steel slatted buildings, can be viewed from inside and out.
Renowned for its triad of interconnected, architecturally diverse buildings housing an extensive art collection, the Hunter Museum of American Art is also home to an outdoor sculpture garden peppered with diverse pieces that range from the abstract to the figurative. A bronze horse (“Boreal”), created from bronze but cast to look like branches of driftwood, bears a stately visage. The boldly colored “Lindy Hop” celebrates the Swing era’s iconic dance, and baseball fans flock to “Full Count,” which portrays a pitcher, hitter, catcher and umpire frozen in play.
Chattanooga has enlivened the urban landscape in a novel way with several otherwise unremarkable alleys serving as the backdrop for inventive art that will entice you to linger awhile. In one such passageway, the aptly named “City Thread,” lime green steel pipes zigzag overhead. Nearby is “Urban Chandelier,” with thousands of plastic reflective triangles suspended from strong, lightweight rods, creating a dynamic pattern of light. And “Umbrella Alley” is a new immersive alley installation, with an array of multi-hued umbrellas that seem to float above the pedestrians.
An Active Art Park
Set foot in the Main Terrain Art Park, and you will immediately behold dangling steel truss segments that reference the pedestrian-only Walnut Street Bridge, which spans the Tennessee River. Underneath these impressive steel pieces are massive trapezoidal pylons, where you’re bound to see a child (or an adult) cranking a wheel that rotates the bridge segment. Joggers also gravitate to this almost two-acre former abandoned railway terminus (and current storm water drainage site), running on the oval track that encircles the nicely landscaped park. Remember to look down or you’ll miss the four Haiku poems — each for a different season — inset in terrazzo.
Outdoor murals big and small not only beautify the city, but also serve to strengthen social bonds, with many offering insights into Chattanooga’s history and culture. Some are quite playful, like the mural depicting glazed, chocolate and coconut-dusted donuts floating in the sky in the Southside district. But among the most evocative are those painted on the facades along Martin Luther King Boulevard, including the grand scale mural, “We Will Not Be Satisfied Until,” that covers all four sides of the AT&T building, highlighting elements of this historically thriving African American neighborhood. Another, “Big Nine Legends,” reflects the city’s renowned Black musicians, including Bessie Smith.
An Art-Focused Accommodation
The artistic spirit of the recently-opened Kinley Chattanooga Southside is evident before you even enter the doors: The brick facade is covered with a large-scale mural (“Communal Kaleidoscope”) that bears almost two dozen colors, including the Walnut Street Bridge’s iconic turquoise hue. Inside this sophisticated, yet comfortable hotel, prints, paintings and weavings — all works of local women artists — are the creative thread carrying through the space, from the lobby to the coffee bar to the 64 contemporary guest rooms. Each white-on-white room, whether the expansive King or the playful Queen Bunk, is hung with several framed mixed media pieces that evince Chattanooga’s energetic spirit.
An Art-Inflected Eatery
It should come as no surprise that the 90-room Edwin Hotel is chock full of local art from the owner’s private collection — the largest such collection in Chattanooga — given that the hotel is just a short hop from the Hunter Museum of American Art. But what may surprise some people is how the first-floor restaurant, Whitebird, succeeds in putting a twist on tried-and-true, Appalachian-influenced dishes. The restaurant, named for Chattanooga’s founder, Chief John Ross (whose Cherokee name was Mysterious Little Whitebird), delights patrons with its shareable dishes, including charred peaches served with crispy ham and whipped goat cheese, and black-eyed pea hummus that’s accompanied by pickled green beans and burnt tomatoes. This imaginative cuisine is served in a sunny, chic space splashed with artwork. (A surreal driftwood-derived sculpture depicts a man juggling doves while another sculpture is a black and white marble that has an airy feel despite being such a substantial piece.
(Go Magazine Online Exclusive November 2021)
(Photos: Chattanooga Tourism Co. and Public Art Chattanooga, Kinley Chattanooga Southside, The Edwin Hotel)