The Knoxville Museum of Art has commissioned sculptor Richard Jolley to create a permanent installation in glass and metal for the walls of the museum’s Great Hall. The as-yet-untitled work is the gift of Ann and Steve Bailey, longtime supporters of the KMA, who donated $1 million for the project. Steve Bailey is a former KMA board chair.
When it is finished, officials say it will be among the largest glass installations in the country. Jolley, celebrated nationally and internationally primarily for his achievements in glass, lives and works in Knoxville. He has been the subject of numerous one-person exhibitions around the country, and his works are collected by art museums, corporations, and individuals (including Elton John) throughout the United States and in Germany and Japan. Last week, Jolley and his wife, Tommie Rush, an acclaimed glass artist in her own right, opened their west Knoxville studio to members of the Executive Women’s Association for a preview of the amazing work-in-progress — and other projects.
The museum’s Great Hall, used for community events and educational programs, measures approximately 100 x 40 feet. Jolley’s work is expected to cover most of the upper walls of this monumental space.
“This is a transformative gift for the KMA, and we are grateful to Ann and Steve Bailey for providing this unparalleled opportunity for the museum and for the artist,” KMA Executive Director David Butler said in a statement when the project was announced. “The project imposes tremendous technical and aesthetic challenges, and will result in one of the largest and most significant sculptural glass works anywhere.” He added that “this signature artwork by Richard Jolley, in one of the city’s grandest spaces, enhances the landmark status of the museum building.” The KMA was designed by renowned American architect Edward Larrabee Barnes and opened to the public in 1990.
The project is expected to take three to four years to complete.
But, as big as this job is, it’s not the only thing Jolley is working on. He has an opening in Mobile, Ala., on April 21 and an installation in Italy in May.
Rush said the gift provided by the Baileys truly is unique. “This opportunity with Steve and Ann does not happen every day,” she said. She and Jolley said the benefactors didn’t ask to see a design for the project and didn’t ask for any kind of approval. “The only thing they said to us was, ‘All we want to do is say ‘Wow!’ when we walk in,’” she said. “Other artists are green with envy!”
The subject of the piece is earth and sky, Jolley said. “It will represent a kind of primordial energy,” he laughed. “A kind of cosmic wowie zowie!”
(OK. I’m up for that!)
On a more down-to-earth subject, Jolley said all his huge glass pieces disassemble for transport. Those trees, for instance, come apart into pieces just a few feet long. And Jolley and Rush design and build all their own shipping crates, as well as the material inside the crates that will protect the pieces. Because so many installations are coming up, the studio is filled with shipping materials right now.
Because of all this type of work he must do, Jolley said he only actually produces his sculptures during about 2-1/2 days out of each week.
This was a huge treat for the women of the Executive Women’s Association. Because of the size of the studio, attendance was limited to 30. The guest list filled up immediately and a waiting list had to be formed.
One of the things that struck me was a plea by Tommie Rush: “Your creative capital — that’s what makes a city. Please support all the creative entities that we have in our community.”
She also said the museum’s director, David Butler, is a treasure. “We are so lucky to have David Butler in Knoxville,” she said. “Richard and I have dealt with so many museums in our lifetimes and we can tell you that David is an amazing asset. He is invested in this community.” She said the upcoming Jolley installation is due in a large part to Butler. “He said that blank wall in the Great Hall was driving him crazy!” Rush laughed.
After the remarks, it was back to mingling! Thanks so much to the artists for giving us a chance to experience this awesome project.