North Nashville has long been a center of artistic expression — from the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1860s to vast murals, painted in recent years, that span buildings and blocks.
But organizers of the Jefferson Street Art Crawl are hoping to get more of the city paying attention to an often overlooked creative scene.
"There's so much art out here," says Joseph Bazelais, who came up with the idea for the monthly event, which started in June. He had seen the popularity of art crawls in other parts of the city, like downtown Nashville and Wedgewood-Houston. "But there's little activity coming this way," Bazelais says. "So how can I bridge that gap? What can we as a corridor do?"
And now is the time that the Jefferson Street corridor needs more attention, says art gallery owner Thaxton Waters.
"Things are changing in North Nashville, and we know we're going to look up in five to seven, ten years, and it's going to be a totally different vibe over there," he says. "This will be an opportunity for us to stamp out what was birthed in that community."
You only have to drive down Jefferson Street to see that the corridor is at a pivotal crossroads. It has swaths of empty lots and storefronts, but it's also dotted with new construction. Waters says developers are starting to see North Nashville as an attractive investment, and with that comes the very real risk that its history and culture will be erased.
Waters' gallery, called Art History Class Lifestyle Lounge, is a fitting representation of that mix of old and new. The storefront, across from Knock Out Wings on Jefferson Street, doesn't look like much from the outside: It's a small brick building with curtained windows; its awning doesn't have a name on it.
But inside, the walls are lined with paintings. The gallery is filled with mismatched vintage chairs, and a piano salvaged from Fisk University sits in the back. Bazelais says he heard James Weldon Johnson used to play it when he taught creative writing at Fisk in the 1930s. ("It could use some tuning," Bazelais says, "but we won't be selling it.")
Come Saturday night, this will be one of five stops on the Jefferson Street Art Crawl — four businesses showcasing more than a dozen local artists, plus an outdoor plaza. Joseph "Dough Joe" Love III, whose work is on display at Art History Class, says he wants people to realize how special the gallery — and Jefferson Street — is.
"Sometimes you're on the outside and you see it, and it looks maybe dilapidated, but there's no other place with energy like this. I mean, that's something that can't be monetized, necessarily," Love says. "You can't put a value to it, but you can feel it. You can feel its value."