Memphis Downtowner - September 2009
Discovery901: First Tennessee Heritage Mural
FIRST TENNESSEE HERITAGE MURAL Step inside the giant bank lobby of First Tennessee’s headquarters at 165 Madison, look up at the long, tall wall that stretches behind the row of bank tellers, and resist the urge to start whistling “Rocky Top.” Here, thanks to the First Tennessee Heritage Mural, 1,600 square feet of Tennessee-ana looks out on employees, customers, and the curious. The vision for the 51 panels that pay tribute to the Volunteer State came from the mind of former bank CEO Ron Terry. It came not while watching the sunset in Tom Lee Park or while perched atop Lookout Mountain. It came from San Antonio. “It was in the mid to late ’70s,” Terry remembers, “and I visited the Alamo. There were so many Tennesseans involved in that massacre! Inside, you get a strong sense of what these Tennesseans were like and what it means to be one.” A later visit to Valley National Bank in Phoenix impressed Terry with its collection of Western art. He began thinking that a similar collection of Tennessee art would be perfect for First Tennessee’s headquarters. By the summer of 1979, his friend Alice Bingham Gorman was thinking, too. “I wanted the bank to sponsor a collection of contemporary art by Memphians,” the artist recalls. “I called Ron, and I didn’t even get a chance to open my mouth before he said, ‘I have the most wonderful idea I want to talk to you about!’” Gorman was sold on his idea. In addition to running her own art gallery, Alice Bingham Gallery, she became the curator at First Tennessee — for the next 11 years. To some, a Tennessee art collection might seem more fitting in a place like Nashville, Knoxville, or Chattanooga. Memphis is closer to Dallas, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City than to our state’s northeast corner. And the state capitals of Jackson, MS, and Little Rock are closer to Memphis than Nashville is. But Terry never thought otherwise. “Having built our banking system all the way across the state, I thought of looking east rather than thinking west or south.” So who best to capture the state’s vast expanse, from the Mighty Mississippi in the west to the Tennessee Mountains in the east? Who best to depict the kaleidoscope of culture born from presidents, pioneers, and peasants? This was, after all, to be a worthy masterpiece — not just a pretty picture. Enter Edward Spencer Faiers — whom everyone called Ted. The British-born, Canadian-raised artist arrived via Gorman’s recommendation. “Ted was highly respected as a contemporary artist,” she says. “He considered himself a modernist, but he was a figurative painter, too, and that was very important to us. We had to have a figurative painter.” Lydia Faiers remembers her father working on the project. “He did a lot of research before he started, and he talked with a local Tennessee art historian. It’s so much harder when you’re not writing but instead creating visuals. You have to create parameters for what you can display.” The artwork was born in a studio behind the Faiers’ home near the University of Memphis. Ted, who loved carpentry work, developed a threedimensional style by cutting wood reliefs and stretching canvas over them. When he submitted his conceptual paintings in 1980, Terry and Gorman knew they had picked the right person. Fiftyone panels was the goal. The first group would be people from the past — from Andrew Jackson to striking sanitation workers. The remaining panels would represent the state’s geography. Good things were captured — such as the TVA and Grand Ole Opry — as were the bad chapters, such as the Civil War and slavery. “It’s history,” says Terry. As Faiers completed each panel, it was taken to the bank. On June 29, 1984, while the mural was in production, First Tennessee opened a gallery in the lobby. “We collected more than 200 works of art either about Tennessee or by an artist from Tennessee,” says Terry. “Nothing is in the collection that doesn’t fit one of those two criteria.” Five months later, Faiers finished a panel titled “The Tennesseans,” showing faces of many different people from across the state — one of which is Ron Terry. At that point, Faiers had 15 panels left to go. But “The Tennesseans” would be his last. On January 8, 1985, the Heritage Mural artist died of a heart attack. In addition to personally coping with the loss of their talented, close friend, Terry and Gorman also faced another challenge: What was the mural’s future? “When Ted died, that was a very difficult time for all of us,” Gorman remembers. “And we so trusted him to create what he saw — what we saw — in the mural. We knew it was going to be great because of Ted Faiers.” Betty Gilow was a student of Faiers in the 1960s, and the two had remained friends throughout the following quarter of a century. When Faiers died, Gilow was an art professor at Rhodes College. “She was very into color theory,” says daughter Kate Gilow. “But around the Rhodes campus, she was known better for her personality than her color theory. She really loved teaching.” Honored to be chosen by Terry and Gorman to carry on after her mentor, Gilow dove into the research. “She, my dad, and I made a summer vacation out of it, looking at and photographing the landscapes around Tennessee,” Kate remembers. “It was a fun summer!” “Betty Gilow did an excellent job of taking imagery from Ted’s paintings and reproducing them in hers,” says Gorman. “Yet she kept her own style and didn’t try to be Ted Faiers. Having been his student, she understood him.” But perhaps the most powerful endorsement came from Faiers’s widow, Leona, who wrote a short passage for the mural’s dedication: “First Tennessee did not falter on this journey. It selected Betty Gilow to complete the landscapes Ted was not permitted to execute, and she did this with taste and integrity. Ted Faiers may now rest in peace.” September 15, 1987: A ceremony unveiled the striking mural in the bank lobby, revealing faces and events both familiar and not, uniting Tennesseans across the state. The Mississippi River with boats of past and present; animals clustering in the Tennessee woods and mountains of the East; striking sanitation workers; a nun helping the sick during the yellow fever outbreak; W.C. Handy and Tom Lee; and Civil War scenes. “This was one of the most meaningful times of my life,” Gorman says. But the mural had its critics who said there needed to be a better balance when it came to representing the influence and significant contributions by African Americans. In April 2000, First Tennessee contacted Memphis artist Arnold Thompson and told him they were thinking about changing the mural. That August, the Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest panel was replaced by one representing one of the most influential black businessmen of his time, Robert Church Sr. Two years later, women’s rights advocate and anti-lynching crusader Ida Wells replaced the cotton picker. “As great as the mural was, it lacked evidence of people of non-European descent,” Thompson says. Unlike the Zstylistic contrast between Faiers and Gilow, Thompson’s work seems to have directly channeled Faiers’s flair into its own. “First Tennessee wanted the transition to be seamless. Solving that problem was fun!” For 22 years now, the mural has showcased statewide Tennessee pride, though much around it has changed. Ron Terry retired from the bank in 1995 and divides his time among Colorado, Florida, and the home he and his family keep in Memphis. Alice Gorman left Memphis for New York in 1992 and splits her retirement between Maine and Florida. After her mother died, Lydia Faiers moved into the home where her father created the mural. Arnold Thompson, still living and creating in Memphis, launched a cable television show, River City Art Tour. Betty Gilow, the woman who embraced the daunting task of finishing one of her teacher’s most significant works, retired from Rhodes in 1994. Late in life, she suffered from Alzheimer’s, but her family and caregivers took her on regular trips to visit the mural. Betty’s last trip to the mural was in 2007, and daughter Kate wonders if her mother still remembered the mural’s significance. “She was always so very proud of it.” First Tennessee, 165 Madison, firsttennessee. Com. Educational group tours available: 523-4291.
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