Thursday, September 23, 2010


I’ve seen Cookeville, Tennessee advertised on PBS several times during my sojourn at Sewanee, and yesterday we set out at 9:30 a.m. to see what all the hoorah was about. We traveled northeast through McMinnville and Sparta, Tennessee where nurseries abound on every other hill and arrived near lunchtime in this city that is about ten times larger than Sewanee.

Cookeville touts itself as home of one of the finest universities in the country, according to brags about it in local brochures. Actually, the university was ranked #8 among outstanding universities of the South for two years by the U.S. News and World Report. However, the real draw for tourists is the historic downtown area where several galleries exhibit the work of some of Tennessee’s best artists.

On Broad Street, where art is offered on several blocks, we climbed the stairs to a second-story gallery called The Afternoon Gallery and Studio, owned by Sandra Bos. Sandra renders portraits, pet paintings, and “pieces of color,” as she calls her impressionistic work. Although we interrupted her work on a portrait in which the face hadn’t been completed, she welcomed us and we spent almost an hour chatting about art and writing. We discovered that she has a yen to write, and I’d like to be a painter. After talking at length about the writing process and the daily discipline required to produce a novel, I finally told her she’d get more satisfaction from her art and should follow that passion, rather than take up writing.

Sandra has taught art 25 years and offers classes for teenagers and children, often displaying their work in the Afternoon Gallery. She says she teaches the real principles of art, “like how to see color and shape and value.” While we visited, Celtic music played in the background, and Sandra told us that she listens to selections from her library of CD’s while she paints. We described Phillip Glass’s music to her, and she got excited about adding a new performer who might inspire her and her students to paint bigger visions.

We also discovered a mutual love of California. Sandra lived in Paradise, California near Lassen National Forest for many years before moving to Cookeville 14 years ago to be near her children. She laughed about being a “big fish in the small pond of Cookeville.” Her work gives added dimension to a forward-looking city that has been sponsoring art walks every year and encouraging artists to feature their work in a renovated downtown area on the west side of Cookeville. I bought a journal with a cover on which one of Sandra’s portraits appears, but I really coveted one of her impressionistic paintings, a scene of a vegetable garden in Italy. Sandra was worth the trek over to Cookeville on a humid, 90-degree day, and we plan to visit her again next year during cooler weather.

Later, we backtracked Highway 40W and turned south on Hwy 56, searching for the Appalachian Center for Craft. We had some trepidation about crossing the Hurricane Bridge over Center Hill Lake because road workers were only allowing one car at a time to cross the corduroy tarmac of the bridge, and trucks weighing over 18 tons were stopped. I envisioned my blue Honda plunging into the lake, but we crossed successfully twice. We turned onto a hilly path bordered by oaks, sweet gum, maples, and other hardwoods into the forest surrounding the Appalachian Center for Craft.

The Center, a satellite campus of Tennessee Technological University, is a rustic-looking complex of galleries, studios, and exhibits located on 500 wooded acres near Center Hill Lake. The school has 100 students who can obtain a BFA from TTU or a non-degree craft certificate in clay, fibers, glass, metals, and wood. In April, the school sponsors craft demonstrations and live music for visitors from throughout the country. It’s an amazing center for studio workshops offered year-round. We were tempted to buy some of the pricey handmade items created by 100 regional artists, but our pocketbooks wouldn’t support a purchase. Just as we made our exit, a bus pulled up and unloaded an army of “Red Hats,” and we sped away before the red-hatted crowd of older women enveloped us.

So what’s all the hoorah about Cookeville? It’s the same everywhere in Tennessee – arts and crafts! P.S. I also saw a small display of poetry in one of the galleries in downtown Cookeville. Perhaps Sandra’s quote on the cover of the journal I bought typifies the spirit of Cookeville: “Art is not a luxury; it is a necessity.”