Life and Art of Eric Sublett Explored at UT Downtown Gallery

Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)

How do you sum up a life that was both integral to a creative community while being largely unknown outside of those at the center of that moment in history? An attempt to present glimpses of the person who was Eric Davis Sublett (1951-2018) is currently on view in the form of an exhibition, “Eric Sublett: The Creative Life,” at UT’s Downtown Gallery. The exhibit was curated and designed by RB Morris, Gary Heatherly and Walt Fieldsa in partnership with Eric’s sister, Carole Sublett Colby.

Eric’s family has roots in Maine, but he was born in Bristol, Virginia, and moved to Knoxville when he was three, where he lived the rest of his life. His father was the famous UT professor and artist Carl Sublett (who currently has an exhibition at the Bennett Gallery) and Eric grew up surrounded by art and artists. He started creating his own art at an early age and never stopped, mainly painting and drawing, but also engaging in film, photography and writing.

Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)
Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)
Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)
Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)

Here’s how Eric summed up the magnetic pull of an artistic life:

As a boy, I spent a lot of time helping my father watch, frame, and hang his exhibits and those of his fellow artists, and if everything worked out to my advantage, I might ride with them on shows in other southeastern cities. We would sometimes pack six station wagons filled with paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures to storm a regional exhibition or art fair. We had gone in a caravan to Nashville or Chattanooga, sometimes Atlanta, in single file on the two-lane highway.

I remember once coming back to Knoxville on a moonlit night after a competition at the Parthenon in Nashville, one by one we turned off our headlights and for several miles on the newly completed highway from Rockwood to Knoxville we drove led only guided by cool moonlight.

At this moment the camaraderie was palpable but not a word was spoken. I knew then and there that art is an important thing in the world. It was as if a pearl was placed in my brain. I too would like to be an artist one day.

Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)
Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)
Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)
Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)

Eric earned a BFA from UT with a major in watercolor and oil painting. He became central to the emergence of artistic and cultural endeavors in Knoxville in the 1980s and 1990s. As RB Morris explained to me, he was a central link between artists and musicians, between the academic world of UT and the first glimmers of a contemporary downtown in what is now called the Old City.

He co-edited the Hard Knoxville Review (1981-1984), helped open a gallery at 200 East Jackson in 1982, an artists’ collective called 200 East. He and his family opened the Sublett Gallery (1984–89) in one of seven houses called the Artists’ Colony on the edge of the World’s Fair grounds, becoming the first business to operate there after the fair. Additionally, “He was a founding member of CHROMA (1988), a non-profit artists’ group originally formed with the goal of saving the seven houses of the artists’ colony.” He was also the first to propose a party to honor James Agee a few blocks from his childhood home and was one of the founders of the group that achieved this goal.

Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)
Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)
Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)
Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)

The common thread of all these efforts was the sense of collaboration. Much of what you will encounter in the exhibit reflects this. He made the flyers, which were the essential publicity of the time, for many popular events. He provided illustrations for album covers. He connected communities and was happy to photograph, write about and promote a wide range of people in the creative community.

I sent a message to Gary Heatherly who had the following memory:

Eric and I graduated from West High School together in 1969. We became very close friends after we both enrolled in UT art school in the fall of 1969. Those years were incredibly rich in the intense changes that were happening in youth culture. The arts flourished in the fields of visual arts and music. We were protesting a war and realizing how the power of a youth-led movement could really change the world.

Eric was on a mission to promote the arts in Knoxville through the various groups he formed and guided as well as the 11th Street Arts Colony in the Victorian homes next to World’s Fair Park. I spent many times visiting the Sublett Gallery to discuss art and music and it was also my introduction to the Candy Factory where my photo studio would be located for the next 25 years. . .

Eric was one of my dearest friends and I miss him everyday, but through his art and the seeds he sowed, his dream continues to blossom in our wonderful city and beyond. This exhibition that RB and I had been planning for several years brought us together as friends and that’s what Eric would have wanted.

I caught up with RB to browse the exhibit and chat about Eric and the importance of this exhibit.

When Eric died, his house was filled with enough works, according to RB, to make an exhibition of this size several times. He said they had found years of “leaflets, posters, brochures, advertisements for art and music exhibitions, artistic performances and events”. He said sorting out what was there took days. Much of it has never been seen until this exhibition.

About the exhibit, he said, “It just had to be done.” Originally scheduled for 2020, it was delayed for two years due to the pandemic. He said it represents different eras and obsessions over time. “He said, ‘I don’t really do anything’, but if you go to his house, he will have two or three things to do. . . He turned more to video and supervised his father’s work. . . He fell into the thing of helping others. I was a huge beneficiary.

Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)
Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)
Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)
Eric Sublett: The Creative Life, UT Downtown Gallery (Photo by Gary Heatherly)

RB also shared how he excelled in sports, including baseball and football, as a young man and was a big supporter of UT. “It was great to watch a game with him” because he was very knowledgeable about different sports. He was a high school recognized artist. His photographs document a range of vignettes and spaces, many of which are now lost, in and around Fort Sanders. His exhibited paintings include works from different eras. Some of his poems are also included.

In sum, RB said: “He was a man of integrity. . . He was my best friend and in many ways a mentor. His dedication to the arts and his dedication to Knoxville are all evident throughout the exhibit. This is an important opportunity to get to know someone who was essential to the artistic community at a particular time in our history when he was needed. Please make an effort to view the work and get to know this person who has made a difference in our city.

Special thanks to Gary Heatherly whose photographs are used with his permission throughout this article.

David H. Henry