Art in the wilderness: Whitwell trout farmer and artist hopes to build a sculpture trail

Gallery: Art in the Wilderness: Whitwell trout farmer and artist hopes to build a sculpture trail

The mountain is directly behind the two-story structure while acres of lush green farm fields and a glittering river sprawl before it. The wooden building is the color of moss and has stairway rails made from twisted tree limbs. Wind and fog drift over a grand balcony and into the second floor since there are no glass windows to stop the wild weather.

"My Dad and I will probably add shutters to protect the sculpture from rain," artist and trout farmer Steve Pickett says as lightning slashes across the lead-gray sky.

Pickett and his father, Winston, built this place with wood from a homicidal sweetgum tree that would fling giant branches at the nearby Pickett home during storms. Pickett feels safer in his riverside home now that the tree has been cut down and transformed into a gallery for Sequatchie Valley artists.

But the gallery is more than that. Pickett wants it to be the starting point for a wilderness hiking trail made from an old logging road. And all along that trail, hikers will be able to enjoy all sorts of art installations and mammoth sculptures, he says.

"The sculpture along the trail will be too heavy for someone to steal or tip over," he says. "I also wanted a way to combine the outdoors recreation and hiking this area offers with art."

The trail wanders up the side of the mountain and across its face to join with the existing Kodai Trail maintained by the nonprofit Sequatchie Valley Institute. Pickett's trail will end at Liquidambar, the art gallery owned by the institute.

"The entire trail will be about a mile and part of it is fairly demanding, then it evens out and is quite easy going into the institute," he says.

Although he owns and lives on a trout farm outside Whitwell, Tenn., Pickett is known to local art lovers as a gifted sculptor whose work is frequently showcased in Chattanooga area galleries.

"I only use found wood; I don't need to kill trees for my art," he says wryly.

His art spills out of his new gallery and into his workshop and house. Right now, he's carving medieval-styled rooftop ornaments for a nearby mountaintop castle built by the owner of Jalic Blades, a collectible maker that creates swords of the HBO hit "Game of Thrones."

Pickett is also shaping three cypress knees into a wizard, an enchantress and a baby sorcerer for a different client. A charming fairy house carved from a stump awaits his daughter inside the family home.

Pickett has dreamed of creating a gallery for artists living in the valley that cuts through the the breathtaking mountains of the Cumberland Plateau. He wants them to have a place they can show their work without having to drive almost an hour to Chattanooga. He realized he knew very few of the artists near his farm although he occasionally spotted their work in Chattanooga galleries. He would like the wilderness art trail to be a project that would draw artists in his area together, give them a chance to meet and network.

He plans to have his trail and the gallery ready for hiking art lovers in the fall. The Sequatchie Valley Institute's arboretum is already a draw for hikers who want to wander through the dozens of different plants, bushes and trees, including boxwood, Japanese quince, maples, willows, blueberry and raspberry bushes, forsythia, azaleas, roses, a kiwi grove and the intriguingly named Bee Bee trees, which have white, clustered flowers in the summer.

The institute also has practical amenities such as picnic tables and compost toilets. Hikers can get water at the institute art gallery and borrow walking sticks for free.

The Other Side of the Art Mountain

The Kimmons family founded the institute and has been refining its portion of the trail for decades. Back in 1971, the family added limestone steps to make climbing easier on one very steep incline. Now, Carol Kimmons, arts and education director at the institute, has placed her graceful ceramic trail markers along Kodai Trail. Like Pickett, she also is an artist and the markers are examples of her work.

"I take leaves and plants with an elegant and delicate design, like Queen Anne's lace, press them into the wet clay to leave their pattern, then make the clay into ceramics," Kimmons says.

While her ceramic art is far more delicate than wood sculpture, she and her son, glass sculptor Patrick Ironwood, have ideas for how they can create art installations along the trail.

"We could embed ceramic or glass artwork into natural rock or the ground itself along the trail.

"We're very excited about Steve's idea. Steve has been a great neighbor and he loves the environment and he loves art," she says.

The institute is "promoting education and research in sustainable green living, ecology and art," she says. "We have art classes here and, when we have gallery receptions, we often have demonstrations by artists who show how they create their work.

"We have about 300 acres of forest with trails, protected forever by the Land Trust for Tennessee and we love sharing it with visitors," she says.

Pickett is a bit more cautious; he would like to vet visitors by selling tickets or issuing invitations to events that involve receptions at both galleries and a hike or a day of art shopping and trout fishing. Years ago and close to Pickett's property, a very young and well-meaning neighbor tried to start a rehab retreat for those conquering addiction. Pickett felt sad for the lost souls who wandered onto his farm from the rehab center, but he also was uneasy that they would end up hurt or worse in the wilderness.

Still, that doesn't deter him from wanting lots of visitors to the trails, his studio and the Sequatchie Valley Institute.

"I'd really like to have art camps for children," he says, gazing up at the treehouse he built near his gallery for his daughter.

The trout stream on his farm flows into a nearby mountain ridge through a huge rock opening big enough for a man to walk through. Inside the mountain is an underground lake.

"I have a daydream about building a huge stone sea serpent as a sculpture in the lake and giving tours of the property so people could see it," Pickett adds. "I know it's not practical. But kids would love it."

Contact Lynda Edwards at ledwards@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6391.


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