Storyteller: Photographer Brett Warren


Photo of Brett by Matthew Priestley. All other imagery by Brett Warren.

I'm going to stop short of claiming to be Brett Warren’s biggest fan, but only because I’m not one to pick fights. And making such a presumptuous claim would surely lead to some ugly skirmishes vying for the title.  

As a fashion photographer, Brett is admired for his skill and imagination. As a friend, he’s beloved for his kind and gentle nature and unwavering loyalty. That’s a pretty rare package, especially in the bitchy fashion world.

Brett’s based in Nashville, though these days he’s working more and more frequently in New York, where his work has caught the attention of some major fashion houses. Over the last few years, he’s shot seasonal campaigns for my former employer, the Florence, Alabama-based company Billy Reid. I am more than a little proud to say that I gave Brett his first job with the brand, shooting backstage at Billy’s Fall/Winter 2015 fashion show at the Bowery Hotel in New York. No big surprise: he killed it. 

That show wasn't the first time we worked together. Two or three years earlier, Brett and I had collaborated on a project for the accessories designer Otis James, who has recently departed Nashville for Oak Ridge.

At that time, I remember being impressed by Brett’s professionalism. He came to every advance meeting prepared and excited — none of that silly artist ennui stuff for him! Brett took the time to make real storyboards to illustrate his ideas, and built multiple backdrops and assembled a thoughtful array of props for the shoot. The resulting photos – like all of his work – were beautiful and affective in a way that manages to be vibrant and unpretentious at the same time.

Last year, when I started to imagine the dream cadre of local photographers I hoped would contribute to The Callaway Report, Brett was at the top of my wish list. Knowing how in-demand he’s become, I am truly grateful to call him a contributor.

As a dedicated member of the Brett Warren Fan Club, I was honored when he asked me to host a Q&A with him on the occasion of the opening of a recent show of his fashion photography. The talk took place in late March at The Arts Company in downtown Nashville, where we stood in front of two gallery walls on which Brett had fashioned an undulating display of his photos. He printed his work on inexpensive engineering paper he found at Staples, and then enhanced with marbling, colored pencils, Swarovski crystals, and pearl scrapbooking beads.

Brett goes into detail about the process of creating the show below. In this transcribed excerpt from our chat, Brett talks about his early inspirations, his relationship to the local design and modeling scenes, and how tenacity (and perhaps a Southern accent) scored him a dream internship with a legendary image maker.

And I wasn't going to let him get away without a detour into Tim Walker, the British photographer whose work we both love, and with whom Brett shares an approach that encompasses joy, beauty and more than a little quirk.


LIBBY: When I was getting ready for this talk, I started thinking about where I first saw Brett’s work. And I realized that it was a photo he took of James Worsham, our mutual friend, who is an installation artist.

I texted James last night and asked him, “Did Brett dress you up like the Tin Man for a shoot about five years ago?” For some reason I thought it was for a Wizard of Oz series, because that seemed like something you’d do! But James said no: “I was a dandy in a wood factory.”

The photo is great. It's framed beautifully and the lighting's gorgeous. James is in this industrial space with a green-ish background and he's leaning over a table with wood stacked on it. But the thing that made me pause when I saw it were the props - the woodshed implements. There’s a hot pink axe and a wrench beside him. I remember that the tools made me stop and go, what? It was totally unexpected. And right then, I knew two things about the photographer. I knew he was really good. And I knew that he loved Tim Walker. 

So for those who don't know, Tim Walker is a British photographer. He shoots a lot for Vogue and W. Because he’s so good, they'll give him, like, 30 pages for an editorial as opposed to the usual ten or 12.

One of Tim’s books is called Storyteller, which is a very accurate title, as he tells fantastical stories with his images. I think of them this way: if you took acid and read a fairy tale, his images are what you’d see.

Tim Walker loves to shoot Karen Elson — our resident supermodel. One of my favorite pictures of her, she’s dressed as a broken rag doll on crutches. There's another one of the same series where she's in a Victorian bedroom holding a giant crocodile. It's really surrealistic — weird, but also really wonderful. There's always an unexpected touch to his work.

So when Brett and I finally met, the first thing I asked him if he was a Walker fan. And of course, Brett, you said yes.

On The Callaway Report, I'm so lucky that my creative partners like Brett agree to work with me for the budget I can offer, which is very, very small — and by that I mean it’s zero. Nothing. But they still manage to do beautiful work.

Last summer, Brett shot a story for me at Poppy & Monroe, the clean beauty collective in Germantown. It was about Brooke Baxter, the vintage jewelry dealer. Brooke came with all of her rings on and the Poppy team gave her really elaborate nail art. I thought we’d shoot some photos of Brooke in the space and that would be the extent of it. But Brett brought in three slabs of marble to make a little stage for Brooke’s hands and dozens of little props for her to hold. My favorite was a spray-painted Dollar Store dinosaur. (Check out the whole shoot here.)

It’s this kind of whimsy that Brett brings to everything that makes his work so special. It’s what makes him stand out from the crowd.

Brett, I get really excited thinking about the rest of your career, because if you’re able to make amazing images with the non-budget I give you, then think about everything you can do when somebody gives you five or six figures to build a set. You're going to blow minds.

OK. Let’s start the interview.

This week, the Nashville Scene printed its annual fashion issue and Brett is among the fashion industry professionals that they featured. The Scene asked these folks what inspired them to get into fashion. And you told them a beautiful story that I think you should recount now.

BRETT: They asked me about the first photo I saw or an experience that I had that made me know that fashion photography was something I wanted to get into. And I remember for years and years, my dad would always treat us every Christmas to tickets to go to TPAC. Mom and dad would load us in the car and we would go see a play every year.

In the article I talked about how it was magical, because on the stage, these rooms would flip around and turn into houses and it would be snowing inside. And it could all change like the drop of a hat. That was super inspiring and always stuck with me. I looked forward to it every year for most of my childhood. 

Another inspiration came from the Rachel Zoe (TV) show. It was when she was at a John Galliano presentation for the Fall/Winter 2009 collection.

LIBBY: I love that you know the exact collection.

BRETT: Yeah, I've YouTubed it, like, a hundred and twenty times. There was a laser tunnel and the models were these ice creatures walking through a snowy hallway in these crazy shoes. And they weren't models to me anymore; they were a vision like I had seen at TPAC. And so that was when I put two and two together and said that's what I want to do, on that kind of a scale.

And I'm still very much working towards that. But what I want to do one day is to make worlds that intricate.

LIBBY: It's going to be really exciting.

So for college, you went to MTSU. Your major was graphic design.

BRETT: And modern photography.

LIBBY: Photography, of course. Duh. And when did The Internship — that's capital T, capital I — happen?

BRETT: After graduating, I did an internship in design at CMT. It was a really great experience, and they hired me. I was there for about three months when my contract ran up. I didn't know what I was going to do.

My friend, Kyle, was interning at Eyeball in New York. They're a motion design firm that does, like, all those iconic Target commercials. It was cool to have a friend that had moved to New York and was making it happen. I felt really encouraged, and started thinking about what I wanted to do.

This was during that really crazy period of life where you could move in with your parents and drive to Nashville every day and then go to New York and not make any money. So I Googled the phone number to Annie Leibovitz's studio — after Googling the fact that the Olsen twins interned for her. [Laughter]

LIBBY: And they had no connections.

BRETT: I remember being in the break room at CMT calling (the Leibovitz studio in New York) and, with a country accent, saying “Hey, this is Brett. I'm just curious if y'all are hiring interns for the fall.” And they were. And that’s how my career has always been.

I showed my portfolio to Matt Lehman, who was the senior designer at CMT at the time, and he said, you've got to be kidding me because his best friend was Annie's graphic designer. And there's, like, 12 people on her staff. So she put in a really good word for me and made sure I got an interview. And I'm pretty sure I pestered the heck out of them. [Laughter]

I went up in July and stayed with Kyle. It was super-hot and there was a little bodega market next door. And I remember standing in the frozen food section so I would stop sweating. [Laughter] And I walked in and showed them pictures that should have never, ever, ever qualified me to do anything with them. And they were very gracious. And after a little more persistence, I was hired on for an internship in October 2009.

LIBBY: Annie Leibovitz is tough, and really exacting. I went out on a couple of dates with one of her assistants back in the '90's and heard some nightmare stories. And the fact that you're standing here with us today is really a testament to your fortitude. [Laughter]

So what happened next?

BRETT: Funnily, I left the internship of my dreams and went to work with the sweetest people who gave me a job and were so kind. I was working at Tractor Supply Company for three months. They do great work. But for some reason, I was just assigned coupons for dog de-wormers. [Laughs]

LIBBY: Wow. You were really paying your dues.

BRETT: Then CMT kind of rescued me. I worked there for three years. And I'm really grateful for how I've gotten to go into full-time photography because it's always been just a step over. When I left CMT, I worked part-time for Jeff Perky at Perky Bros. I was there three days a week and shooting the others.

People think that a workweek is five days a week, but a workweek is seven days a week when you're a freelancer. So I was, like, great, I can work for three days and, then I'll work for myself for four days. I would book all that time with shoots. I knew I wanted to get more into fashion, and then the opportunity came up with Otis. Little by little things started picking up from there.

LIBBY: I started seeing you everywhere about four years ago. You were shooting for Elizabeth Suzann and with Mclaine Richardson for Margaret Ellis and others. It was great work.

BRETT: Thank you. I have to really thank everybody because I didn't know what I was doing. I still don't know what I'm doing. I'm always going to be learning.

LIBBY: The big secret in life is that nobody knows what they're doing. [Laughs]

BRETT: I'm nervous before every single shoot. And I think that's really healthy, actually. But people hired me without me having anything to show for what I can do. I walked into AMAX (the Nashville talent agency) with a book of (photographs of) my cousins. And they're beautiful people but, you know, it's different than seeing the girls in any of these photos. But people were very gracious and trusting.

LIBBY: Well, they had every reason to be.

LIBBY: So let's talk about this body of work. What years does this represent?

BRETT: A lot of this is pretty recent, from the last six months. I've been trying to be very busy.

LIBBY: What was the concept here?

BRETT: I'll start by saying that I've shown a few times before and people told me they were sad because the prints were so small. And Tim Walker — who’s been referenced a million times tonight — talks about photos that whisper and photos that shout and command. So his exhibits will have, like, a four-by-six photo in a huge frame because the photo whispers. And, then next to that is maybe one as big as a wall — like a photo of Karen with a snake wrapped around her because it's commanding.

I wanted to give these photos a chance to be larger, and wanted to be smart and find a cost-effective way to do that. I came across paper made for house blueprints and plans. On the Staples website it says “Not for photos." [Laughs]

But I made a good pal at Staples and he helped me print these. They come off the press really super, mechanically smooth with this cool banding. In the past, I would put that up and that would be the show. And then I started adding colored pencil and, then decided that would be the show. And then I did a show last summer where I decided to adorn them with really expensive stuff. So there are Swarovski crystals but then there are also plastic scrapbooking pearls. 

LIBBY: High, low.

BRETT: Yeah, it's just mixing, you know? Like, this model is wearing Stella McCartney on a Staples print covered in colored pencils. It just fun to mix the high and low over and over and over again. 

Then the marbling came about for this exhibit. When Ann and Cassidy (of The Arts Company) approached me about this show, I wanted to do something different, so I went out on a limb and decided to make thoughts and words and emotions and auras come out of this really unpredictable marbling process.

LIBBY: When we chatted last week, you talked about the happy accidents that happen when you were marbling. 

BRETT: In school, our art teachers were really cool. We'd go once a year to the Appalachian Center for Craft. There was a marbling bath that we got to use. So this is sort of inspired by that. I did it at Weld (the Nashville co-working space). Thank God there's space to do creative things there. It's a process of dipping ink into a huge water bath with a paint brush and following that with a solution that cancels it out.

So you’re just making tree rings over and over, and they get larger and larger as the water moves from the movement of your brush. They take on these weird ripples. You're just guessing. After they dry, it’s revealed where the ink hit. Like, I knew I wanted a ring over Larson's eye but I wasn't for sure if was going to happen. But it did. So it was a nice happy accident most of the time.

LIBBY: Would you point out some of the local designers’ work?

BRETT: There’s work here from shoots I did with Mclaine Richardson for Margaret Ellis. And, then we also have Ashley Balding, who does Ona Rex.

I work with Ashley pretty closely and have done a lot of her shoots for a long time. So she will lend me clothes before they are out for everybody else, which is cool. When I go to New York to shoot, I always try and take local designers’ work with me to test on the models.

LIBBY: I know these photos represent both Nashville and New York. And I think it's really interesting how your career is bridging those two places right now.

BRETT: So a lot of this show is development work for the models. I work pretty closely with AMAX. People ask, why do you shoot such young girls? Well, that's what development is. So people at these agencies are finding them when they're 15 and 16. They're shooting with all of us (photographers) in town and we're teaching them how to move and how to show emotion. And (the process) is very specific to every photographer.

Like, the shoot with Piper was her first photo shoot ever. And I knew she was super-special. She was kind of afraid to do some things because she thought she would look stupid. We were at Weld, which is a huge space, so I put up these little foam blocks and made the space smaller. And I was, like, hey, this is safe right here. Mom and dad are over there; they're not watching you. If you do something you think is stupid, it's fine because I want great photos of you and I know that you do too. So just move your fingers around your face and if something looks weird, we don't have to use it.

Just teaching the young models about movement and how they can experiment and realize that every shot's not going to turn out is valuable. And most of these photos are taken in a moment of discomfort, but the relationship that the models and I have makes it comfortable. Because none of these are natural movements.

LIBBY: I feel like it really is the relationship between the photographer and the model that makes the magic happen. There are certain photographers who use the same model over and over again. And it’s because they relate. It's so much more of an emotional and psychological connection than people think it is

BRETT: That relationship is vital. I have photos from both ends of the connection spectrum. There are photos that captivate, and those moments are a result of a connection between the two artists at work.

I love studying the relationships that certain photographers share with their muse, and the many shapes and forms they take through the years. I consider myself a beginner in many ways, as I see a long term career spanning many decades. That being said, even at this stage, there have been certain models that I have had the privilege of connecting with and creating something much larger than the two of us. It's unexplainable, and I still believe it's some sort of magic.

Perhaps my favorite part of this job is getting to work with so many dynamic people, and work to bring out the best in one another. And if we’re lucky, it looks like something we have never seen before.

Women's Work: Mary Mooney

 Mary Mooney, photographed in Nashville's Red Arrow Gallery by Chelsea O'Leary.

Mary Mooney, photographed in Nashville's Red Arrow Gallery by Chelsea O'Leary.

Mary Mooney is a professional fine artist and an accidental jewelry designer – and she’s very good at both. 

Mary and I first met one afternoon about a year and a half ago at Wilder, the rad home design store in Germantown (keen readers will recall it from TCR Vol. 1). Wilder carries Mary’s necklaces — pendants made from gorgeous geometric mini-slabs of acrylic. They are shiny on one side and painted on the other with the same signature explosions of bright poppy color she uses in her larger abstract works.

The necklaces are lovely on their own, but they become even more interesting when you find out that they are the by-product of Mary’s fine art, which is executed on large acrylic panels that she paints from behind. (The process is a little like performance art: if you stand on the opposite side of Mary’s acrylic panel while she’s painting, you can watch as she applies and manipulates the layers of acrylic paint she uses in her work.) Mary started making the pendants as a way to recycle the leftover painted acrylic that she trimmed from her paintings. They really caught on. For many, Mary Mooney’s jewelry is a gateway drug that gets them hooked on Mary Mooney’s fine art.

It was several months after our introduction, as we were becoming friends, that I saw some of Mary’s large-scale works for the first time. They’re beautiful – like neon clouds in a particularly glorious sunset. For her most recent show, Denied Realities, which was on view at East Nashville’s Red Arrow Gallery last month, she depended on a color palette that was decidedly feminine, and unapologetically retro. In her program notes, Mary referred to it as “’80s Rococo”: think bright pink, baby blue, pale lavender, neon orange and flashes of gold. Some of the paintings in the show reminded me of the colorful residue that the Maybelline eyeshadow kits I bought in high school would leave when they broke and crumbled in the bottom of my makeup bag. Totally ’80s, indeed.


I attended Mary’s artist’s talk during the show’s run, and discovered that her paintings brought up different ’80s memories for other women. One said they made her think of Madonna circa her “Material Girl” days, while another was reminded of the Diane Keaton fish-out-of-water movie Baby Boom. During our interview for this piece, Mary herself admitted to being inspired by Reagan-era MTV.

However, while the eyeshadow colors of Mary’s paintings may be beautiful, with names like “Subtle Battles,” “The Only Way Out is Through,” and “Convenient Ignorance,” they’re much more than skin deep.

At the gallery talk, Mary spoke very openly with the moderator, her friend, the art historian and writer Sara Lee Burd, about groping incident she endured two years ago. Ultimately, the time Mary spent processing the event — talking with her husband and reading feminist literature (The Beauty Myth, The Gender Knot, A Brief History of Misogyny, et al) — provided the psychological framework and overall motivation she needed to produce Denied Realities, an exhibit that, she says, "explores how women’s expected societal roles subvert their actual experiences."

In our TCR chat, Mary and I talk about her experience with how creativity can come from adversity. We also touch on her creation and editing process; how she handles the age-old struggle that creative types face in balancing art and commerce; and how she fits into Nashville’s fashion community, which has been quick to embrace her.

Last year, the Nashville fashion company Elizabeth Suzann asked Mary to create a print for the paper they used to wrap their mail orders. It’s a gorgeous earth-toned pattern that is still shipped out with every ES order, which means Mary’s work is getting exposure well beyond Nashville’s borders.

For the shoot that accompanies our chat, Mary wore pieces from Elizabeth Suzann’s new collection. To make things even cozier, Chelsea O’Leary, who is ES’s marketing director by day, moonlit as photographer, shooting Mary posed among the paintings and light installation in the Red Arrow show.  Enjoy.


TCR: When did you start working on the Red Arrow show?

MM: I really started six or eight months ago. It took a while for me. I hadn’t made a body of work in a long time. I was making work but I was still dancing around a strong concept. And I need a concept that I feel really good about. That has real purpose.

When I started reading all this feminist literature, it connected to so many other instances. Also having a solo show and putting myself on display. I mean, that’s what an art exhibit is. You’re being vulnerable and putting yourself out there for people to come and judge and experience, but also critique. And that nervousness I felt, I connected with being a woman and being vulnerable. And so it took me a while to tease that into this. Especially making work that is really “pretty” and creating abstract work in the climate of 2016.

TCR: I love that a show that’s so beautiful and pretty and light can represent rebellion. It’s like a girl in a frilly prom dress with the gun behind her back.  

MM: That’s me! [LAUGH]

TCR: I wanted to know more about the groping incident you mentioned. I was really impressed by the strength you showed during the discussion by talking about it and its impact on your work.

MM: It happened at a party a couple years ago, where I was unwillingly groped by an acquaintance of friends. And while the act itself was of course upsetting, it was even more hurtful to have the incident then downplayed and marginalized by those I loved and trusted. I was told that it wasn't that big a deal, that "guys have done a lot worse," and that it would be great if I could make this person feel more welcomed instead of continuing to ignore him in social situations. My experience was secondary, inconvenient to the group, and ultimately led to estrangement from those once-close friends. This was so baffling to me, until these feminist readings help me put it into context.

Experiences like this get normalized all the time. I have let quite a bit go in the past not wanting to “rock the boat." But it turns you inward on yourself. You rationalize that you are the one who is too reactionary, or sensitive... or whatever the label is. Not only is that self-harming, but it prevents discussion and real behavioral change. This crossroads between the group and the individual, between convenience and difficult conversation ultimately became the main theme of what I’m now pursuing in my artwork.

TCR: How does that work for you? Like can you exorcise those demons by creating art?

MM: I think all of the work that I’m really proud of, now and in the past, has been a method of processing for me. And really, when I look at the themes of these older bodies of work that I was proud of, they were good kinds of coming of age moments for me. And the time that passed and the meditation I gave it, I think was what was helpful. But I didn’t finish a painting and have a eureka moment. [LAUGHS]

TCR: So it just helps you process. It’s like writing, like journaling.

Speaking of processing, talk about your editing process – or, rather, the curation process.

MM: You just move all the paintings around the gallery until you find the patterns that make sense. (Red Arrow gallery owner) Katie Shaw curated. And Sara Burd, who wrote the story about me in Nashville Arts helped.

TCR: I’ve actually never seen an actual curation in action.

MM: It’s fun. Before we moved to Nashville I was the director of a small museum and curated exhibits. It’s like anything: you get into a rhythm in your head and you know when it makes sense. You want to look at the color story it tells, but the order as well. We put the ones with words on the edge, so when they walked in people would see and then look — really look. You could see people especially at night kind of ducking and leaning around to catch the gold at different angles.  

TCR: Changing the subject a little. Talk about your place in the Nashville fashion community.

MM: Oh, gosh. I just keep asking myself that. I mean the thing with Elizabeth Suzann felt so good. I hadn’t had anyone in the fashion community really celebrate my artwork.  And it was really collaborative, but also open. They just sent me home with all these like beautiful fabric swatches that I just held… and dreamt about as clothing. [LAUGHS] They really gave me whatever liberty I wanted to translate them into a piece. It was very nice.

TCR: And they’re still using your piece for wrappings?

MM: Yeah. I'm still getting tagged on Instagram and people are putting it up in their homes and turning it into crafts. I haven’t done anything with them. I mean, I have some thumb-tacked up around my house.

TCR: You could wallpaper a room.

MM: I would love to.  

TCR: So are you selling any jewelry right now?

MM: I still have pieces at Wilder. I’m still interested in growing the wholesale. But I really want my reputation to be my artwork. So maybe jewelry is my day job? It’s hard to let go; I have so much freedom with the jewelry. But then money’s freedom, too. You know?

TCR: Being a starving artist sounds kind of cool and sexy when you’re younger, but that’s unfortunately not the case at all.

MM: (Working a side job) might always be the situation (for an artist), even if you’re successful. In the beginning it’s fine, but ten or 20 years down the line, is it sustainable?

You know, and I’m not saying I'm doing it successfully right now, but this idea that you can build a website in a day or two with an ecommerce store… People just didn’t have that option ten years ago. I think there’s something to that, but I think that also you can’t give a hundred percent to everything. I can’t make and then promote everything. Where do you draw the line?

TCR: What does the landscape of the art community in Nashville look like? I know that there are galleries that represent different artists and that that creates a type of unofficial collective. But outside of that, is there a group you belong to that allows you to communicate and share ideas with other artists?

MM: I have a great group of friends who are artists. But the thing with artists is that their goals are so crazy, and widely different. I mean, I think all the fashion brands at the end of the day are running businesses. But art’s kind of the Wild West, where some people aren’t thinking about the financial end of it.

And it’s such a big spectrum that I think it’s hard to unite it under a single group. I’ve gone to the Makers Clubs that meets at Mickey’s (Tavern, a bar in East Nashville) when I can make it. And a friend has started a salon kind of discussion group, where we talk about different topics. There’s the Arts & Business Council. And that's wonderful, but it’s not the same kind of thing.

TCR: There’s a tendency for artists to keep to themselves.

MM: Yeah, that’s so true. I mean you’re working alone. I remember going crazy when I was working on my exhibit and it needed a lot of work. And I’m like, “I don’t know if this is doing what I want it to do!” So you have studio visits.

TCR: Does it help having people in to look at your work and give you feedback?      

MM: Oh, yeah. It’s insanely helpful. I wouldn’t do a show without at least a couple of studio visits. I mean, I can have all the wild intentions for artwork, but if they’re not coming through, it’s not going to be successful.

TCR: It’s like being back in school and getting critiqued.

MM: Art school is so wonderful. And they’re just such a dedicated group that wants you to succeed. But (asking someone to provide professional feedback) is a big ask in the real world. It’s a lot to get someone to drive to your studio for an hour out of their day and to think critically about your work or help you price it. You know? These things are maybe even trade secrets for some people.

TCR: So you really can’t make art in a vacuum. You do need community support for much more than just showing up to see your exhibit.

MM: And Sara did that. I mean, I had some ideas, I was pulling palettes from art history and pop culture. But she was able to really speak to the depth of that in a way that went beyond the research I could do. She has a Masters in art history. She’s crazy about that the way I’m crazy about making work. That was a great studio visit.

TCR: Your paintings make me think of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. That movie reads very pop and ’80s to me. It totally fits with the whole “’80s Rococo” thing you talked about in the show.

MM: This is so bad, but there’s a ZZ Top video called "Velcro Fly." It makes me think of that. It’s still a part of my childhood. No matter how woke I get, I can’t let it destroy everything that I associate with my childhood.

I took an abstract art course in college — and this is another reason studio visits are important, too, because there’s a way to read abstract art. The information you have is really turned down. There are no figurative elements. You have to look at the color palette, you have to look at the way brush strokes are applied, or if they even use them at all. Just the clues you have will tell. The title is a big part of abstract work.

TCR: Right, it all makes up the story.

MM: The story, yeah! And how they work in relation… Like all of these elements are important, but I’m so interested in how someone — an artist or an art historian — would look at it. And! I want to be really aware of how just Joe Somebody, Josephine Somebody, walking into a gallery would look at it, too. Because I don’t want to make work that’s just in this vacuum, this echo chamber. I want to think about how accessible it is on this bigger spectrum of viewership.

TCR: But in the case of abstract art, do you think that if they don’t read your artist’s statement and they don’t look at the titles, can someone still enjoy the art?

MM: I think there’s appreciation and there’s understanding. And I think the appreciation thing is like a visceral thing. But to have that level of understanding, you have to dig deeper and you have to have more information.  You have to really sit with the work. And I can’t expect that from everyone. That’s the goal, but it’s not the expectation. [LAUGHS]


Chelsea J. O’Leary is a photographer and Sales & Marketing Director for Nashville-based Elizabeth Suzann. Her interests lie in responsible fashion, still life and travel photography, and philosophy. Learn more about her on her blog, Fenway Journal. She lives in Nashville’s Germantown neighborhood with her husband, dog named Jones, and cat named Albert.  

Why We Marched

 Beautiful faces in the crowd at the Nashville Women's March on January 21, 2017. All photos by  Heidi Ross

Beautiful faces in the crowd at the Nashville Women's March on January 21, 2017. All photos by Heidi Ross

The Callaway Report shares the stories of Nashville’s creative class, their work and their spaces — a description that makes what you’re about to read a bit of an anomaly. Despite my strong feelings about the political climate in our country and as much as I support the opinions expressed in this email, TCR was not designed to be a political platform. So if this is your first time reading my website and the content is not what you expected or goes against your personal beliefs, please don’t abandon ship. But do read on. This is important.


I watch presidential inaugurations the same way I watch award shows: curled up on my couch, flipping channels to see which station has the best commentary and clearest views of arriving power brokers. I love a good spectacle, and inauguration day pageantry is the closest D.C. comes to hosting a red carpet.

But at noon on Friday, January 20, 2017, my couch was empty and the TV was off.

As the 45th President of the United States was being sworn into office, I was on my way to the Nashville airport to catch a flight to Washington, D.C. Less than 24 hours later, I joined over a half-million women and men who spanned the gamut in terms of age, race, nationality, faith and physical capacity, at the Women’s March on Washington, a peaceful assembly organized in protest of our new leader’s policies — and, in my mind at least, his temperament.

The fact that our country has elected a man with so much disdain for the history, diversity and potential of the American people shocks and saddens me. I feel strongly that this is not the person we need leading our country. That said, I did very little to stop it from happening.

Since election day, I’ve examined my own pre-November 8 temperament and have come to terms with the fact that I was walking around with my eyes closed. I mean, I'm a good liberal. I get the Times. I gave enough money to Hillary’s campaign to get a canvas tote bag. And sure, I poll sat for a few hours on election day. But what about the other 1,459 days of the last four years? Where was I?

It’s weird to be 46 and realize that despite years of higher education and endless exposure to opportunities for engagement (I grew up in a family of active Democrats) I’ve never allowed myself to become deeply politicized. Before January 21, I had never marched in protest. As an adult, I’ve developed some strong convictions related to some specific political issues, mostly related to the environment, the arts, and human rights, which to me means equal rights for all people, women very much included. But my support of these causes has been more or less passive — call it write-a-check activism — and the strength of my protests has been faint or non-existent. It’s a disturbingly easy mindset to slip into.

Over the years, when opportunities to step out for a cause were right in front of me, I didn't join in. Some of this can be chalked up to being busy (or lazy – I’ll own that). But mainly I just didn't think it mattered. I convinced myself that one less person on the street shaking a poster wouldn’t change anything, that my absence wouldn't make a difference.

After walking in solidarity with hundreds of thousands of people in D.C. – and millions worldwide – and seeing the impact that a turnout of that magnitude can cause, I’ve changed my tune. I get it. Showing up and being counted is a vital part of resistance, especially when you’re trying to get the attention of an administration so obsessed with appearances. 

There is strength in numbers. I felt that as my crew marched down Constitution Avenue, along the National Mall, to the foot of the Washington Monument. The feeling got stronger when we gathered on the Ellipse in front of the White House, which had us all but standing in the President’s front lawn. Knowing that the object of our protest was right inside, witnessing a supreme example of the democratic process he was elected to defend, was really powerful.

The January 21 marches had a deep impact on many people I love and respect. I went to D.C. with seven extraordinary women, each with their own reasons for protesting. They share their thoughts on why they marched below; six of them do so under a beautiful portrait taken by frequent TCR contributor Heidi Ross. (Our Philadelphia contingent, Stephanie Zirpoli, weighs in sans photo.) Heidi also has a way with words, so I asked her to write about her experience attending and documenting Nashville’s march. Some of her images from that day are featured in this post as well. You can see more of the "For Dear Life" series on her website

 Mollie Mann


I marched because:

·      I CAN!

·      my daughter asked me how a man that doesn’t respect women can be president.

·      I enjoy the freedoms that are a direct result of those that marched before me.

·      I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.

·      This country was built by immigrants.

·      apathy is not an option.


·      it’s time to stand together, not apart.

·      politicians must be held accountable.

·      my children will inherit the world that is shaped by this administration’s decisions.

·      this is REAL life, not a reality show.

·      I’m proud to be a progressive.

·      common sense gun laws save lives.

·      I’m willing to listen to those with different views than mine.

·      I believe that experience matters.

·      health care should be a universal right.

·      Grassroots opposition is how this country was created.

·      I’m letting HOPE, not fear, for our future motivate me.

 Blythe Browne

BLYTHE BROWNE             

I initially considered marching as a response to President Trump’s utter disrespect toward women.  But in the days following the election, when there was an immediate surge in hate crimes across the country, I knew it was time to march.  I knew it was bigger than women’s issues alone.  I marched in Washington D.C. to say: Black lives matter. LBGTQ rights matter. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism will not be tolerated. And most importantly, to say that I do not support a president that sits silently while a small group of suddenly emboldened people propagate hate in his very name.  You are not my president, Mr. Trump. 

 Andra Eggleston


I marched because I no longer felt I had a voice.

Of course, I marched with the larger hope of our collective voice being heard — but I marched so I could still hear my own voice. 

I hadn't asked myself what it is I truly value, outside of a political context, in a long time.

I was drowning in the politics.

The march helped me remember.

The march helped me come into alignment with myself and my spirit. There's certainly no going back. To me that's where the change begins.

 Genie Lockwood


I marched because I strongly believe that women should have the right to choose what they want to do with their own bodies. I believe in fair and equal treatment for all regardless of religion, race, sex or sexual orientation. 

The hateful tone of this entire election and so far this presidency is impossible for me to accept as representation of my country. I can't let my boys grow up in an environment where hateful male dictatorship is the norm.  I'm proud for them to know I marched.



During the rally in D.C., Sister Simone said, "We are our sister's keepers." That simple phrase struck a chord with me and could easily sum up the reason I marched on Washington. I've never considered myself politically-motivated. I hold deeply cultivated beliefs around the various issues, but tend to keep them close to the chest. This election changed all that. Even before the results were in, there was a distinct sharpening of tongue happening for me and most women I know as Trump's character came to light. These two candidates at this time in our history were a perfect storm, explosively bringing misogyny into the conversation like never before. It would be easy to say that I marched to lend my voice to the rage against the patriarchal society that this man represents (and yes, it felt good to yell about it), but the deeper truth is that I lent it to the call of love for my sisters, and to all of our neighbors who deserve for once to experience a culture led by a girl. 

 Vadis Turner


I marched because I am proud and because I am sad. I wanted to simultaneously celebrate and resist. 

I am raising two sons in a culture where the new leadership has marginalized my gender. The freedom, equality and choice women before me fought to create are at risk. This is the cause of my time. This is the time in my life when I do something about it. 

I wanted to go to DC to be in the belly of the beast. However, the most powerful element of the march was that it was completely without boundary. Massive crowds from all walks of life gathered PEACEFULLY all over the world. The energy generated that day was beautiful and driven. I had never experienced anything like it before. 

Many are willfully blind, even hostile, to each other's perspectives. By Monday morning I was disheartened to sense that the movement was invisible or worse, anathema, to others. All the more reason to march on. 


I went to the march because I felt angry, helpless and a bit lost, and I thought that marching would be a good outlet.  But it wound up being less about what I got "out" and more about what I took in. When I got home, I was still angry, but empowered, and with direction. And I think that change will make all the difference for me in the coming years.

 Photo by Andrea Behrends

Photo by Andrea Behrends


I've thought a lot about how I'll look back on the women's march. What I would have said the day before, the day of, and the day after are all different. As much as the new administration has changed everything, that day changed everything, too. I think we were ready for it in a way many of us didn't even realize--certainly, I didn't. Without knowing it, we were dying to to break out of our bubbles; they were claustrophobic; we were starved for air. Some part of us was primed to blaze out of our comfort zones, into the rogue Badlands...even people like me: shy, reserved, professional background street crossers. 

Whether movements change governments or not, I know this for sure: they are changing me. They are changing us. It's the first time in my life I've walked up to strangers and asked to take their picture. Not one person has said no; not the little blonde girl with the "Not Up for Grabs" sign so clearly written in her own hand; not the African American mom with her three children, the youngest perched on the shoulders of the oldest; not the three smiling Latina high school girls holding an "Immigrants Make America Great" sign; not the woman at the "No Ban, No Wall" protest in front of Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker's offices, with tears running down her face, holding a piece of cardboard that said "The Blacks Are Next." I took her picture and then I hugged her--another thing I never do, hugging strangers--and we just stood there holding on for dear life with the crowd navigating around us. We both kept crying, saying "thank you." Then she said "We're gonna be okay. We've been doing this a long time." And I said "I'm brand new." We didn't let go of each other. And then we did, and I climbed over the wall and kept crying and taking pictures. I've been so moved by the goodwill and the humor and the solidarity--I wasn't expecting it, not even in my most optimistic moments.

There have been numerous quotes from activists, spiritual leaders, writers, and philosophers landing in my inbox and social media feeds since the election, and they continue to arrive. But the words I keep coming back to when I think about the day of the march--about the multitudes of people who ran full tilt toward revolution with arms outstretched, to fight for love, are from the Sufi poet Rumi:

I would love to kiss you / The price of kissing is your life

Now my loving is running toward my life, shouting / What a bargain, let's buy it!

Political resistance is not known for its bargain basement prices. Neither is unselfish love. It still seems like a bargain, an honor, even a joy. My friend Laura was an internationally touring pop artist playing arenas around the world when she went to Lesvos for 10 days in 2015 to work with refugees. Over a year later, she's still there, with no plans to leave or resume her old life. Anarchists face off against Fascists; at the same time, she plays football with the children of the camp. She sent me an email after the election; I return to it again and again. "The left and the right come here to battle. The VIPS, actors, pope and politicians come for an hour to take selfies with kids. At the same time, the fisherman still goes out to fish. The old Greek ladies still walk up the stone hills to gather olives. I still get more love and hugs and laughs than I ever have before. Humans are insanely resilient. They do not give up. I know that now. It's time to get sweaty and not be afraid of 'getting into trouble' or 'creating a scene.' We are the ones who should be running towards the fire. Our parents did it, and so did our grandparents. Now it's our turn to serve, alert, respond and teach. Really and truly."

And so here I am, exiting the bubble, feeling the sudden rush of oxygen as I step into the vastness of space and run toward the fire. This is the best of me, I know.

Nashville-based photographer Heidi Ross has a background in advertising and now does creative direction and full spectrum content for brands and artists. More images from her "For Dear Life" series can be seen on her website. Originally from Montana, she is a huge fan of National Parks gone rogue.

Great Taste: Sarah Gavigan of Little Octopus & Otaku Ramen

 Sarah Gavigan knows one speed: fast. All photos in this story by the awesome  Andrea Behrends .

Sarah Gavigan knows one speed: fast. All photos in this story by the awesome Andrea Behrends.

I’m not going to lie: the past few weeks have been tough.

Hillary’s loss hit me much harder than I anticipated, perhaps because I didn’t anticipate it in the first place. I was confident that the country was ready to elect its first female president. The truth hurts.

Regardless, I’ve never been prouder of or had more faith in womankind – what we have accomplished in the past and what we will in the future.

I am particularly grateful for the group of remarkable and accomplished women in Nashville that I call friends. These ladies continually impress me with their personal and professional achievements, as well as their generous hearts and open minds. They’re smart, determined, and work very hard to make our community a more hospitable place to live and visit. And they get shit done.

A perfect example of the type of Nashville-based high achiever I’m talking about is my friend Sarah Gavigan, who, as you’ll read, has proven to be a visionary in the worlds of film, music and, most recently, food.

Born and raised in Columbia, Tennessee, she moved to Los Angeles after college in Arizona to work in the film industry. Six years ago, after more than 20 years on the West Coast, during which time she made the jump to music (more on that below), Sarah moved to Nashville with her husband, Brad, and their daughter, Augusta.

Sarah and I met in late 2012, when our mutual friend Sophie Simmons took me to Sarah’s house for a bowl of made-from-scratch ramen. My God, it was good. And as effortless as Sarah made its preparation look that day, I’ve learned that this kind of excellence doesn't come easy: making ramen is a long, involved and sweaty process, which, of course, Sarah taught herself.

Not long after our lunch, Sarah started doing ramen pop-ups around town. Working under the name Otaku Ramen, she served bowls of tasty noodles, meat and vegetables in rich homemade broth to hundreds of people at every gig. Thanks to Sarah, Nashville officially went ramen-crazy.

Otaku eventually found a home in East Nashville at Pop, an event space geared toward pop-up dinners, housed in an expansive, white-washed space that Sarah and Brad opened in 2014. Within a year, Pop begot Little Octopus, a full-blown restaurant serving the Caribbean-inspired food of Chef Daniel Herget. After a short pause, Sarah opened Otaku’s first brick and mortar earlier this year in a prime location in the Gulch, where it’s regularly mobbed at lunch and dinner.

Little O has now left East Nashville and is joining her sister downtown — sad news for us eastside fans, but it will no doubt bring a bigger audience to its very worthy cuisine.

A quick recap. Over the last three years, Sarah has opened three restaurants – actually four, if you count operating Otaku at Pop. Pretty impressive for a hobby cook with no formal background in the restaurant business — but not a huge surprise to anyone who knows Sarah. She’s fearless.

She’s also straightforward and honest to a refreshing degree, which I find extremely appealing and exceedingly rare in Southern women. Those traits makes her an excellent interview. Plus, I’m drawn to stories about folks switching careers mid-stream, which Sarah has done more than once.

Our TCR sit-down took place in my home about a week after the election. The following Monday, photographer Andrea Behrends shot Sarah racing around on roller skates under a bright blue fall sky. That she’s photographed predominately in motion makes perfect sense to me.


TCR: I ran into Brad at Barista Parlor last week and he told me that his plans for 2017 do not include opening a restaurant. And I laughed. Because it seems like you guys are always launching a new concept.

SARAH: We're definitely gonna hit the pause button for a while after December. Restaurants are a more complex ecosystem than I ever imagined. I mean, I had never worked a day in a restaurant before I opened one. I was never even a server.

TCR: Really? Well, from the outside at least, you’ve made it look easy. But then, to me it seems very Sarah Gavigan to jump into a brand new industry, learn everything about it, and crush it.

SARAH: Well, it's anthropological, like everything else I've done. When you're an agent your job is to make connections and figure people out and give them what they want before they ask for it. It's pretty much the same thing in a restaurant. I mean, there's obviously a lot more layers.

You know, making food for people is really unlike anything else. I love it because you're on stage every night — especially at the ramen shop — and you get to see everybody and interact.

TCR: Let’s back up a minute. You’re originally from Columbia, Tennessee, but you spent over 20 years in Los Angeles working in the entertainment industry. What took you out there?

SARAH: When I was in college in Arizona, getting my degree in broadcast journalism, I took a communications law class, which was super-hard for me. The teacher came from the movie industry. He was, like, Herbert Ross's right-hand man, and this was his retirement career. He started talking about films and the film commission and explained that there was one in Phoenix and that all you had to do was call the hotline to get a job as a production assistant on a movie. This was a lecture class of 250 kids, and I was the only one that made that phone call.

TCR: That does not surprise me at all.

SARAH: So I got a job as a grunt on a really bad indie film, and the teacher pretty much excused me from class for the rest of the semester.

On set, they put a walkie in my hand and told me to boss people around. It was amazing. [LAUGHS] I loved the hustle-bustle of the set. I loved the instant camaraderie, the intense creativity and, you know, the circus-like environment.

TCR: You’re right – film crews live a lot like carnies, going from town to town, project to project.

SARAH: Totally. And on sets you're surrounded by people that you would not otherwise be close to. And it’s such a panoply of people, with everyone settled into their roles. There was all of this wisdom there that I was drawn to.

So I did that for the summer between junior and senior year, and then after graduation went straight out to LA, didn't even wait to get my diploma. I could not get out of Phoenix fast enough.

My first full-time job was at MJZ — Morton, Jankel, Zander. They're a very successful commercial production company. I was the assistant to the director and the executive producer and a receptionist. I screened 500 phone calls a day.

I loved it. I craved hard work: I wanted to be a part of something so badly. I had to be there at 6 a.m. — first one in, last one out, every day. And I did it without ever complaining or bitching — well, maybe I complained a little… I would moonlight on the weekends as a production assistant on different commercials. And that’s how I got my start in that world.

I think what drew me to that work and kept me in it for so long is that it’s naturally a hop-from–rock-to-rock kind of business and I took very well to that. You have to think fast and it's very intense. I loved all those things about it.

TCR: How did you make the transition into music?

SARAH: I started my own agency in ‘97, representing cinematographers. I sold that company in 2000.

In '99, I had this weird directorial team come and ask me to represent them, which started me in a new direction. There’s a really crazy story to back this up.

At that time, my neighbor in Santa Monica was Jason Bentley, the program director of KCRW, which is arguably one of the coolest radio stations in the world. I'm a ridiculous, ridiculous fan of the band GusGus. Jason knew this and since he always got the new music before anyone else, he was always hooking me up.

So GusGus was playing in LA. I bought 10 tickets and was taking all my friends. The day of the show, while I was getting my apartment ready for the big after-party, I missed a phone call. And when I checked my messages, there was one from an Icelandic voice: “My name is Stefán Árni. I'm in a band called the GusGus. We are in town. We'd like to meet you.” And I was like, sorry, what?!

I called Jason and said, “OK, keep making fun of me. It's cool, I get it. Ha ha ha.” And he said, “Sarah, I did not manufacture that phone call.” It took him an hour to talk me off the ledge.

It turns out that it was from the band. They were calling me to represent them as directors. So that night I find myself in the green room before their show. And there are these tall Icelandic trees with blue eyes telling me, “We go to London, we hear your name. We go to Paris, we hear your name…” To this day, we still don't know who delivered my name to them, but they said it was repeated, like, four times in different scenarios.

I told them that night that I didn’t represent directors. But then I thought alright, I can do this. Sure. [LAUGHS]

So I went on a whirlwind tour with them. I ended up at a festival in Iceland where I met the guys from Thievery Corporation. Eric (Hilton), who's the real business man/genius behind that group, said, “You work in commercials? You should represent us and help us get our music in them.” This was back when bands licensing their music for commercials was seen as taboo. But Eric kept calling and calling…

And this part of the industry became a huge thing — like, [MAKES SOUND OF EXPLOSION]. It was clear that I got there before anybody else did and that this business was gonna kill it. So I sold my agency and started 10 Music. And in less than a year we represented 70 labels. We made Thievery Corporation over near a million dollars in less than two years.

TCR: Amazing.

SARAH: It was very, very rewarding work. When you get to hand an artist a three- or six-figure check, it’s like, “Here — go change your life.”

It was fun, but it reached a point where it was over for me. The industry got flooded and I was ready to move on. I closed that company in ‘08 and we moved here in 2010.

TCR: Going from production to management was a pivot, for sure, but not a huge stretch, as they both fall under the same general umbrella. But working in the food industry is a 180 from where you were. How did you make that transition?

SARAH: I've always loved to cook. It's always been what I spent my time doing if I wasn't being a mom or working. And it was a big part of my family growing up — you know, big Sicilian family.

But making ramen was always something I did for myself. It wasn't a social thing at all. When I was in a rancid mood and just needed something for myself, it always made me feel better.

When we moved to Nashville, I was lost. I had to completely recreate myself again, and it was not as easy as it had been before. It was very, very hard this time.

TCR: What were you doing back then?

SARAH: Nothing. I was trying to settle in and, you know, be the housewife and the mom. And I'm really glad that I did it, because at the same time I was detoxing from an old life. You know, to live here you can't be in the same rhythm.

TCR: Totally. I remember when I came blazing into town from New York 12 years ago. I had gotten used to working really quickly, to doing a lot in very little time. It was like running into a wall.

SARAH: Yeah, I was running into a lot of walls. It was a process getting to a place where I could breathe and people could be in the same room with me. That's when I saw there was no ramen here. And it was like, alright. I need to do something.

TCR: And you started doing the ramen pop-up dinners.

SARAH: Yeah. And I had all the skills needed, because I came from production. Pop-ups are like little productions. It's exactly the same thing. That's why I was successful at it: I understood the basic tenants of film production.

TCR: So you basically produced commercials all over town.

SARAH: That's exactly what it was. It was so much fun. And it was a lot of work. I don't know where I got the energy. Now I work one hard night on the line at Otaku and I am like, Jesus — how did I do that?

TCR: I think that’s one of the best things about being our age. Also, you’ve learned what your strengths are and how to best use them. You can do more with less in a lot of ways.

SARAH: Which is good, because the older you get the less energy you have to get more done. [LAUGHS]

TCR: So, I was thinking about it yesterday. The women in our extended social circle are very accomplished. They are creative and entrepreneurial. Many of them run their own small businesses. Everybody is doing something.

SARAH: Yeah. This community really allows for that. It's so nurturing. One thing about being in a big city is that if you're gonna cast your line out, you better be ready to hook, reel and run. Here, you can kind of ease into things a little bit more. The same pressures don't apply.

TCR: And there’s a great support system. Everyone is rooting for each other’s success.

SARAH: There's no doubt about it. I've never lived anywhere like this.

TCR: I think it throws new people off sometimes. Like, they move to town thinking that they’re going to have to fight to be heard or get attention. And then the community makes them a cake. It really disarms someone whose first instinct is to crow about who they are and what they’ve done.

SARAH: I was a little bit that way when I got here. I'll be completely honest. That was part of the letting go and growing up. I definitely needed to saw down my fangs.

TCR: And the pop-up model led you to the first brick-and-mortar location last December. By that time, Nashville’s food scene was really cooking and getting a lot of outside attention.

SARAH: The timing was insane. I mean, I've always been in front of trends, but I’ve almost been a little too early in several things I've done. And that's even more frustrating than being late. [LAUGHS

But in the last two years, I've kind of crossed over from needing to be the first at everything to going, you know what? I'll be right behind you. You just go up there and make all the mistakes first... But that was not my natural instinct in my twenties and thirties. It took me turning 40 to see it.

TCR: I want to talk a little about being a woman in a male-dominated industry. The food world is a notorious boy’s club. Do you feel that?

SARAH: I'm not saying that I am in any way for that, but I can understand where it comes from. This is a very physical job. The bottom line is that I can't pick up a pig.

And I think that the boy's club exists in every industry. And I don't think it exists more in the kitchen world. It’s a boy's club everywhere. You just have to learn to not acknowledge it or kiss the ring in order to get what you need. That's how I was taught. I never really let that bother me.

TCR: So you haven't experienced sexism in the kitchen?

SARAH: Well I mean, c'mon, could I have chosen a more male dominated industry? I don't get any respect from the main chefs who work in ramen. But I've been doing it a fraction of the time that they have, and I do it in a completely different way than they do. Most of the people that I know that make ramen for a living are making maybe 100 bowls a night, where pretty soon we'll be doing 600.

TCR: Switching lanes. I know that you’re devoted to finding ways to connect with Nashville’s local immigrant population.

SARAH: An organization called the Global Chamber recently asked me to speak on a panel about how Nashville is a global city. It’s a topic I’m very passionate about. I feel like Nashville is finally becoming aware of the fact that it is a global city, but that we can't even begin to call ourselves global until we fully recognize the people that live here. And it feels like that shift has happened, which is really amazing.

TCR: Interestingly, the food world is a place where cultural integration has always seemed to be more —

SARAH: Celebrated.

TCR: Yeah. Different cultures are embraced more readily at the dinner table than in other places in our society.

SARAH: Food is agnostic. It can be the most nonjudgmental place to bring two cultures together. Over the last ten years, people have begun to accept other cultures in ways that they didn't before.

And I feel that way about ramen, too. It's really been a great cultural opening for a lot of people in Nashville, and I'm very proud of that. We’re creating entertainment. We’re not saving the world. But if people can learn something new, about a different culture and some history by visiting Otaku, I find that to be so much fun.

TCR: Any plans to expand the Otaku empire within the city?

SARAH: I would love to. But I think we have to give the culture a little time to grow. We'll see, one step at a time.

TCR: But for now, you’re taking a year off.

SARAH: Yeah, right. [LAUGHTER

Yes, TCR friend Andrea Behrends' work has been featured in Garden & GunImbibe and GQ. And true, she has played a large and important role in documenting Nashville’s burgeoning food scene, while her portrait-driven, storytelling approach has established her as a go-to for songwriters and artisans alike. But the main thing you need to know about her is that she's a righteous chick and a total badass. See more of her work here

The Real Thing: Photographer Caroline Allison

 Photographer Caroline Allison at home in west Nashville, surrounded by work from  Underground Again , her new show at Nashville's Zeitgeist gallery. All photos by  Heidi Ross

Photographer Caroline Allison at home in west Nashville, surrounded by work from Underground Again, her new show at Nashville's Zeitgeist gallery. All photos by Heidi Ross

Years before we became good friends, Caroline Allison and I were neighbors.

This was a decade ago, just two years after I moved to Nashville, when I was living in a darling 1940s triplex on the west side of town. To be totally honest, it wasn't a very high point in my life and, as I tend to do when my mind gets heavy, I was being a bit of a recluse. So when several of our mutual friends told me that I needed to meet the very lovely and creative fellow Southerner-by-way-of-NYC-er who had moved in two doors away from me on Leonard Avenue, I did nothing. (Depression is a crappy wingman.)

To say that I regret not expending the physical nano-effort to walk the half-block between our homes and knock on Lina’s door back in 2006 is a stunning understatement. The four years between then and our eventual meeting in 2010 would have no doubt been fuller with this smart, supportive and kind friend in my life.

Add talented to that list. Lina is an amazing photographer - and one that I am very honored to say shoots frequently for TCR.

A native of Atlanta, she studied at The University of the South, Sewanee and The School at the Art Institute of Chicago before hearing the siren call of New York in 1999. Since her move to Nashville in 2006, Lina’s been busy, shooting commercial and editorial gigs for shelter and lifestyle magazines and creating personal work for solo and group shows across the U.S.

In her personal work, Lina finds beauty and significance in familiar locations that others with less sensitive cultural antennas might overlook: the perfect-looking sitting room of Mason Lodge No. 135 in Greenwood, Mississippi; a stunning wide shot of the smoking TVA Kingston Fossil Plant, post ash spill; the thoughtfully needlepointed quilt on Hank Williams Sr.’s childhood bed. Vintage cars, living rooms and disused buildings are recurring motifs.

The simplicity and inescapable real-ness of Lina’s photography resonates with me deeply, and would regardless of our friendship. In fact, my first big art purchase was Twitty City, a Caroline Allison original that captures an extraordinary vignette at country star Conway Twitty’s estate, featuring, among other things, a gold Chippendale mirror behind a Liberace-ready white piano topped with Dottie Rambo sheet music and Christmas decor. It now hangs in my dining room, where I spend about 80% of my waking working hours. I look at it dozens of times a day; it makes me happy every time.

Lina’s latest creative endeavor debuts this weekend, at Zeitgeist, the Nashville gallery where she’s shown her work for over 15 years. Underground Again is a joint venture with her good friend and fellow artist, Patrick DeGuira. The show, which opens three days before the presidential election, explores ideas around history and the way it underscores what is happening around us now.

 The conversation between Lina’s documentary style photographs and Patrick’s conceptually oriented works talks about time, failed ideas, and geology. Patrick’s contributions are multi-media, and include sculpture, sound, video, and installations. I got a sneak peek at Lina’s photos for the show a few weeks ago, when I stopped by the 12 South area home she shares with her architect husband, the extremely terrific Nick Dryden, and their two adorable kids, Emmett and Julia.

The Allison-Dryden household is a warm, comfortable and instantly familiar place. Like Lina, it’s elegant but casual. Downstairs, children’s toys line a long central hallway; to the right is an open kitchen – the undisputed heart of the home.

Upstairs, Lina’s studio is a long, light-filled space that runs the width of the house. Walls are pinned with prints of her recent work, including several pieces earmarked for the show: a photo of a gorgeously gnarled chestnut tree in Kentucky that is one of the few remaining specimens to survive the American blight of the early 20th century; the odd row of metal doors leading to a 14,000-square-foot underground warehouse built into a huge rock formation in Cumberland Furnace; the long Bauhaus-influenced main building at the former Black Mountain College in North Carolina, now a Christian boys camp.

Even though she was busy getting ready for the show, Lina hosted me with her usual warmth. After feeding me breakfast and making sure I was adequately caffeinated, we sat down in the kitchen for our chat, an edited version of which appears below. A few days later, our friend Heidi Ross – another camera-wielding TCR regular – no doubt got the same cozy treatment when she stopped by to take the photos that accompany the interview. Enjoy.


TCR: Your new show at Zeitgeist opens this weekend. How and when did you meet Patrick?

LINA:  I don’t remember exactly when Patrick and I met, probably our paths crossed at some point through Fugitive Art, but we really got to be friends when we were both teaching at Watkins. I had always loved Patrick’s work and in a way, I first knew him through his paintings — super smart and with a serious dose of humor. 

He has also shown at Zeitgeist for a long time, so we've always been in the same world. I think we probably formally met and started having conversations five years ago.

TCR: Is that when you joined Zeitgeist?

LINA: That's a good question! I don't really know. But I've shown work with Zeitgeist since about 2000.

TCR: So before you moved to Nashville?

LINA: Oh, yeah - in group shows. When I moved here in '06, that was the first time I had a solo show there.

TCR: So to back up a bit: You went to Sewanee, then grad school in Chicago.

LINA: I did, but I think in terms of when I started photography, that was high school. I had a great teacher, Miles Boyd, who was an artist. [LAUGHS] The truth of the matter is that the real hot elective to be in was chorale and I didn't make the cut! So I had to fill it with art class.

TCR: I'm so sorry. [LAUGHS]

LINA: We have some VHS tapes of me singing a duet of “Just You and I” from before I got kicked out. And it feels like a dog should start howling. It's so bad.

So essentially I started taking photography because I am tone deaf. No seriously, but when I think back to the impetus — and this is not unique to anyone who does photography — it gave me an excuse to be places that I don't think I would have felt comfortable enough or had the wherewithal at that age to go out and explore in the way that I did.

Then, on top of that, because my teacher was such a renegade, he would let me skip chapel. I didn't believe in God and I made a case to him that it was a real waste of my time to have to sit in chapel every week. [LAUGHS] So he would let me sneak into the darkroom. I’d double lock the door because we had a coach who would prowl the hallways to see that everybody was in chapel. So I would lock myself in there and have a complete hour to myself.

TCR: What were you shooting back then?

LINA: Oh my god. A lot of bad black and white. Cheesy stuff. Like, I would dress my sister up and put her in a bleak winter landscape.

TCR: I wonder how many bleak winter landscapes have been shot by young photographers over the years?

LINA: My sister in a white dress peering into a tunnel… I mean, deep, deep stuff. [LAUGHS] I look back now and it's interesting, I have binders of negatives that now span 26, 30 years of my life. This past winter I thought I was going to make a book — and maybe that's a project for a later time. But I was going back and looking at some of the negatives and was like, oh, okay, I see the beginnings of ideas and ways of seeing that have stayed with me.

But yeah, I started in high school. And I looked at Pratt and a bunch of other art schools for college, but I went to Sewanee... mostly because I thought it'd have cute boys. [BOTH LAUGH]

TCR: Let's be honest here!

LINA: I really thought I was going to be a Latin major. I was a big Latin geek in high school. And then I picked up photography again. After college, I took a few years off and then went to graduate school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. By that time, I'd figured out that's what I wanted to do.

TCR: So when did you form the style that you have today?

LINA: Probably the last year of graduate school, I figured out what my MO was. And then I started a project photographing interiors and that became something that segued into commercial and editorial work much later down the line, after I moved to Nashville. That was probably sometime in the late ’90s — this looking for spaces and sites and things like that.

TCR: Where do you think it came from?

LINA: Well, I've actually never thought of this until the other day. My mom was an interior designer and growing up, I spent a lot of time with her going to job sites, going to ADAC (Atlanta Decorative Arts Center).

TCR: Oh my god, I remember going to ADAC with my mother and aunt, too. I hated it!

LINA: You did? I loved it.

TCR: I guess I didn't appreciate it. Because today spending hours wandering around a building filled with home interior showrooms sounds like a dream.

LINA: I spent a fair amount of time in ADAC. You know, they had little cards and those tiny pencils you’d use to check things out — kind of like pre-IKEA. And my mom would tell me the numbers to write down on the ticket and I'd go give it to the lady in the window to get the sample.

So perhaps there's some of that early experience that plays into it. But the photographs that became defining for me were taken in my grandmother's house, which was decorated in probably 1968. My mom designed it. And it never really changed after that. 

TCR: How would you describe it?

LINA: Oh my gosh, it was crazy. It was not as swinger-ish as Vadie’s house [LAUGHS], but we're talking wallpaper on the ceiling in the kitchen, and electric purple high-back chairs...

TCR: You’re killing me.

LINA: There was a turquoise couch, which is maybe the first photo that I made in color. It must have been an eight-foot-long couch. I remember my sister and I could lay toe-to-toe and not touch. But it was just this opulent silk turquoise couch under a really bad painting of a seascape with, like, a bad art light on it, you know?

TCR: I love that you could see the beauty in that.

LINA: And there was a lot of art from Mexico that they picked up when they would drive down there. My grandfather and his brother married my grandmother and her sister. The four of them would take my great uncle's limo.

TCR: Are you kidding?

LINA: They would drive to Mexico in Uncle Doc's limo. Potee and Doc would ride in the front and Ma and her sister would ride in the back, so the story goes. They drove from Glasgow, Kentucky, to Mexico every year. I mean, who does that? I would love to do that.

TCR: Me, too. That's incredible.

LINA: It was a great house. It was designed by Edwin Keeble.

So, I was interested in shooting these interiors. And it was a natural translation when I started doing commercial and editorial work. It was already what I was interested in. It was slightly different scope and I was shooting for somebody else, but I was still finding some maneuverability in there for me. Having to fulfill what somebody else wanted was kind of an interesting hat for me to put on.

TCR: Do you remember what you were trying to say by photographing your grandmother's place? Or was it just visually interesting to you?

LINA: I had a real specific thesis. It seems kind of hokey and too tight now, but I was looking for representations of idealized landscapes that you can find within a home. It was a good jumping off point for me. And those were the first color photos that I made; it’s when I made the jump. Because before that, I had only ever shot with black and white, I was shooting with these crazy 8x10 cameras. The negatives were enormous and I’d coat the paper with platinum. It was a pictorialist 19th century mode of image making.

TCR: Was there something about that kind of more involved process that you liked?

LINA: I think I've always liked the process. It’s different now. It used to be days and days in the darkroom and now it's all in front of the computer, except for when I take the photo. But then I do that with the old camera. You've seen it.

TCR: Yeah, I love it. It feels historical. And the fact that you have to be so still lends the process an air of importance.

LINA: It’s slow. I'm slow.

TCR: So you left Chicago and moved to New York.

LINA: When I graduated in '99, you either went to New York or you went to LA (if you wanted to be an artist). This was before people really took their heads out of the sand (about the potential of major art communities forming in other cities). 

Anyway, I had always wanted to live in New York, so after graduation a bunch of us moved there en masse from Chicago. It was great. We were all scattered around Williamsburg and Greenpoint. We had shows together. We were all there together.

The great thing about our group was that everybody was really in it together. There wasn't a lot of elbowing. What was good for one was good for all. Like, we all worked at Bergdorf Goodman and did the windows together. One friend got a job in the visual department and then we all just wormed our way in.

TCR: I love your Bergdorf stories! Tell me another one.

LINA: One time, I remember being in the windows at 2:30 in the morning for probably the tenth night in a row during the run-up to Christmas. And that time of year, you knew that what was happening at Bergdorf was happening at Barneys was happening at... Everybody was burning the midnight oil, drinking coffee, taking smoke breaks.

One time, and I think I was with my friend Jean Loscalzo, we were in a window trying to place — oh, I don't know what it was. Snow. With glitter. We were trying to place this fake snow under all these dead birds that were suspended from the ceiling. There was a taxidermied snow rabbit and owls and doves and maybe even a fox? It truly was the Window of Death. [LAUGHS] And I remember David Hoey (senior director for visual presentation at Bergdorf Goodman) standing outside pointing to me, motioning for me to put a little more snow glitter over here, and then over there, these microscopic changes that could drive you to the edge of insanity, meanwhile he’s laughing a little because he knows you’re about to lose it… And I finally just turned around and double shot him the bird. “I am so tired. Get away. Leave me alone!”

TCR: “No more snow glitter!” [LAUGHS]

LINA: But the attention to detail was insane. There is this great guy that we worked with, Demetrious. He would make whole windows entirely from white paper. So there would be a poodle that was constructed out of white paper, with fringe for the eyelashes and everything. It was meticulous beyond meticulous. 

TCR: That’s such a singular New York job, not to mention one that not very people get to experience.

LINA: I know. We would work this big run-up to Christmas and then you'd go and do something else for a while because they didn't need you. But it was great. Even when I was working my job-job with John Wigmore I still did it.

TCR: Who is John Wigmore?

LINA: John Wigmore makes these beautiful lights that are rice paper on steel frames. I starting working with him in his studio in Red Hook and later moved to Long Island City. We would make these lights that were just beautiful and glowy and then go install them in fabulous homes and restaurants.

To get back to why I moved to Nashville: part of the reason is because even though I was printing and showing work in New York, I was always shooting down here. Even when I was in graduate school I was shooting in the South. I used to feel like there was something wrong with me, like why can't I make photographs I like in these other places?

And so after years of therapy [LAUGHS], I came to the conclusion that maybe I should stop being so schizophrenic about this. Maybe I should move to where I make the photographs. And I was ready for a change.

TCR: I hear you. New York is an incredible place to live but it’s also a great place to leave.

LINA: It is. It is. My sister lived there while I did and she left to move to Charleston with her husband. And when I was contemplating a move, Libba said to me, "Don't do what you did in Chicago." And I said, "What are you talking about?" And she said, "Don't stay too long." I had never really thought that I had stayed too long in Chicago but clearly there was something going on with me that she recognized. And I thought, "Oh, okay. It's time."  So I moved here. And I met Nick maybe a month later.

TCR: And you taught at Watkins?

LINA: Yeah, I did the adjunct shuffle for a while: I taught at Watkins, I taught at Nashville State, I taught at Sewanee. It was great. You know, the skills that I had leaving New York didn't necessarily translate — making $40,000 lights and doing window design. I mean, they could now, but in 2006 they didn’t. I had taught when I was in Chicago and loved it. So teaching was something I was really glad to return to.

TCR: Do you like teaching?

LINA: I love it. And I loved teaching at Watkins. Oh my God, I had some amazing students. I mean, really talented.

TCR: And of course, you continued to do your own work. How do you think your work has changed since you moved to Nashville?

LINA: That is a really good question. It was good for me to get out of New York. And it was good for me to not have so much conversation, you know?

TCR: About art?

LINA: Yeah. I think I needed to dig in. I found a process of making work that I really like. And that had kind of eluded me in other places. I started making photographs that involve historical research, extended conversations, relationship building, and mapping. Sometimes it takes a conversation over many months or even a year to gain access to some of these sites or to figure out how to best make the photograph.

I don't know that I could have figured that out without being here. I got to dive into myself a little bit and stop constantly looking at things from a third person perspective.

I felt the freedom to breathe here - and that happens on so many levels. Nashville feels supportive in many ways. There is an open-ness and kindness to new ideas and creativity that makes this a special place, and I’m grateful to be here and be a part of things.

Underground Again opens at Zeitgeist Gallery this Saturday, November 5 with a public reception from 6-9 pm. The show runs through December 17. Zeitgeist is located at 516 Hagan Street in Wedgewood-Houston.

Our multi-talented friend Heidi Ross is a whiz with words and visuals. An accomplished photographer, copywriter and graphic designer, she currently does creative direction and content creation for brands and artists. You’ve likely seen her photography on album covers, book jackets, or the walls at Third Man Records, which hosted her ILK: Similars 2004-2016 exhibit last summer. Follow Heidi on Instagram at @heidirossphoto to see more of her work - not to mention photos of her recent wedding!

My Space: Vadis Turner's Family Home on Old Hickory Lake

 Vadis Turner poolside at the Old Hickory Lake home built by architect Braxton Dixon for her grandparents in 1968. All photos by  Caroline Allison .

Vadis Turner poolside at the Old Hickory Lake home built by architect Braxton Dixon for her grandparents in 1968. All photos by Caroline Allison.

For someone who loves clothes as much as I do, I’m not a huge fan of costume parties. Not sure why, exactly, but I think it has something to do with not liking to be pressured into dressing up. I like to arrive there on my own, I guess.

Despite this, I was truly excited over the summer to be invited to a 1978 themed party hosted by my friends Vadis Turner and Sarah Gavigan. I mean, hello: that’s half my closet. (Does an outfit even count as a costume if you’d wear it to the grocery store?)

Alas, I had an irrevocable conflict and couldn’t be there. This bummed me out to no end, as I was dying to see my pals decked out in the late disco-era garb of our parents, set against the period backdrop of the home that Vadie’s grandparents built on Old Hickory Lake in 1968.

Floor-to-ceiling windows dominate the front of the house, which is ringed with a wide deck that overlooks a pool and, at the bottom of a deep grassy hill, the lake beyond. Inside, it’s a shag carpet and marble wonderland, with a built-in spiral staircase connecting three sprawling stories.

The bright yellow dining room features an ornate metal and crystal light fixture hanging over the table. There are bathrooms seemingly every two steps, each one a little more OTT than the last (dragon-shaped hardware, anyone?). The master bedroom is regal, with tall ceilings, a wall of mirrors and the original custom draperies. Period wallpaper and architectural flourishes abound. It’s marvelous.

God bless them, “Daddy Don” and Vadis “Mama V” Pierce (Vadie is her namesake) had some really maximalist tastes. Perhaps it was the show biz influence.

Don Pierce ran Starday Records, a popular label circa the ’50s and ’60s that specialized in country and rockabilly. He was tight with a lot of the shining stars of the era, particularly Johnny Cash, who lived down the lake in another house designed by famed local architect Braxton Dixon. (There are many brilliant Cash stories associated with the house. For instance, Vadie says the home’s intercom system was installed “because Mama V grew tired of trying to find Johnny when June would call telling him to come home.”)

And then there’s Vadie.

You know that old saw about someone’s personality lighting up a room? Well, it’s really true in her case. Radiating warmth, kindness and inclusion, Vadie Turner damn near sparkles. She’s a treasure.

Not only that, her personal style is off the charts – unconventional and fun, but totally beautiful as well. Vadie’s a big fan of color and a sucker for a good floral print, whether it’s on a vintage dress or a pair of her beloved Vans.

And she accessorizes like a boss. The first time I met her, Vadie was wearing a bright red plastic heart bracelet and carrying a giant round baby pink purse with a smiley face on either side. Once, days after I uploaded a photo of a room covered in snake printed wallpaper to Instagram, she showed up for our dinner date wearing snake earrings in honor of the post. The next time I saw her, apropos of nothing but good fun, it was tiny metal foxes. Love.


Based on this description, it will come as no big surprise when I tell you that Vadie’s an artist. Her preferred media: textiles; her pet theme: a woman’s place in the world. Some of my favorite pieces of her work involve large wall panels covered in gorgeous, twisted mounds of pastel ribbons and strips of cloth. Other pieces in her current show at Geary Contemporary in New York are made from breast milk captured in resin and studded with charred sticks from a burn pile kept on the Old Hickory Lake property.

Vadie, her husband Clay, and their young sons Gray and Vreeland have been camped out at the Old Hickory home since moving to Nashville from Brooklyn two years ago. It was a homecoming for the couple, both Nashville natives. They’re currently renovating an 1880’s home downtown. Until move-in time, they’re enjoying lake living.

Even though I missed the 1978 party – and because I couldn’t relive the scene secondhand because, in a stroke of analog genius, the hosts outlawed cell phones and therefore “photographic proof” of the fun — I figured out a way to get in on the action. To honor the era of her grandparent’s house, I asked Vadie to wear some of her favorite vintage pieces for a shoot with Caroline Allison, a frequent TCR contributor who photographs  each installment of My Space, an occasional feature celebrating Nashvillians and the rooms that inspire them. The gorgeous results are accompanied by our chat, which, like many of these conversations, took place in my living room.


TCR: Your grandparents built the house in the late ’60s. Tell me the origin story.

VADIE: I guess it really backs up to my grandfather coming to Nashville in 1957 from La Cañada, California, where my mom was born. Neither of my grandparents are from California, but my grandfather was there slowly immersing himself in the music industry in the mid 1940s. He was specifically interested in country, which no one was really that into at the time. He was coming to Nashville a lot — so much so that my mom and my grandmother were like, well, if we want to see you then we should just move there.

My grandfather came to California with, like, $300 in his pocket. He and his partner started Starday Records. He made all this happen out of nothing. He was a self-made man who did well for his family and had a really hell of a good time doing it.

TCR: Where was he born?

VADIE: Seattle. So it was Seattle to California to Nashville. When he moved here, he would fake having a country twang, to help relate to his musicians. It was a very little label but he did some interesting work.

TCR: Who recorded on Starday?

VADIE: He worked with a lot of people like George Jones, Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash and Dottie West. He was one of the first music publishers to make themed albums featuring work by various artists. He really had a knack for naming them too. “Diesel Smoke and Dangerous Curves” is my favorite. Starday was the first label to have a mail order record club.

But anyway, their first house – the one before this one – was down the lake, next to Roy Acuff. My grandfather already had the land when he decided to build this house in the late 60's.

Johnny Cash introduced my grandfather to Braxton Dixon. From what I’ve heard, when they were in the planning stages of the house, Brack showed up at the golf course where my grandfather was playing with three drawings of three different houses, laid them out and said, “Pick one.” Like, right now. And my grandfather picked this design. It’s inspired by the nun’s hat that Sally Field wore in — what was the name of that show?

TCR: The Flying Nun?

VADIE: Thank you. That's where the inspiration came from, which is wild.

TCR: Braxton Dixon is a pretty famous architect around these parts. You said he still comes over to visit, which is really cool.

VADIE: I feel so thankful to know Brack and his wife Marianna. I mean, he's 95. They live about 15 minutes from us and we see them frequently. Brack is such a brilliant soul. And to have him visit the house that he built is so special.

TCR: What is your first memory of the house?

VADIE: I went there from the hospital, so my grandmother could help my mom take care of me. It was the first place I ever knew, though this is the first time I've ever really lived there.

And this is the first time children have ever lived in the house. I mean, it's definitely not a house meant for children. It looks like it's meant for swingers. Don't you agree? 

TCR: It totally has that vibe. You can imagine some pretty wild stuff happening here – which apparently it did!

VADIE: When I was growing up, we went out there almost every weekend. And we had parties out there in high school. It’s easy to take things like that for granted. I didn't see the house with the eyes I see it with now, in terms of design and architecture. You know, I really live in a time capsule, which is so cool.

TCR: You do. It's really amazing in there. People kept telling me I had to see your place, and when I did, it honestly defied expectations. Even the elements you added and little things you changed work. They all look really period appropriate even though they’re contemporary.

VADIE: We did make a couple changes as things started to age. Some of them I regret, because I feel like they’re a little bit more of my taste than they were appropriate to the period. So now I'm committed to making fixes that would have fit in within a couple of years around when the house was built. 

TCR: I love your commitment to honoring even the smallest details. Like those cocktail glasses with birds on them – which are totally of that era.

VADIE: Oh, I love those stupid glasses. It is amazing that we live in a time where, late at night, you can find things like that on your computer – to be, like, “I need a new set of tumblers with toucans and parrots on them from the late 60's exactly like my grandmother had.” And then find them.

It’s addictive. It’s been so fun to live in the house and know that I can fix it up with a cheap, adventure-seeking mindset that leads me to old cool stuff that other people might not appreciate.

TCR: What's your favorite room in the house?

VADIE: Well, my grandmother's favorite room is the pimped out bathroom with black potty. I don't think that’s my favorite room, but I feel like because of her I've been brainwashed to have a little black-potty-bathroom worship.

TCR: That’s the one with all the built-ins, right? There are cool built-ins all over the house.

VADIE: They really are. I love how the lifestyle was so different then. You can see it not just in the decor of the house, but the way it was designed. For example, there are only showers downstairs, by the pool. Upstairs it's all bathtubs — people just took baths all the time then.

And my grandfather barely even made it to the shower. I think I told you this, but I remember him swimming naked in broad daylight, with shampoo in his hair, in the pool. [LAUGHS]

And when I'd tell him, “I have friends coming out here to swim, would you mind?” he would say, “It's my goddamn pool.”   And it was his goddamn pool, you know?

Going back to the question, I guess my favorite room is really the porch. I don't think life gets any better than being outside looking out onto that landscape and being with people you care about, talking about something major or something ridiculously nothing. I love being there.

TCR: How do kids react when they walk in? Do they sense that it looks different from most other houses?

VADIE: Well, the first thing their parents notice is that it’s not childproof! I think they walk in with little kids and think, “I don't think I’m going to have a glass of wine, because I need to be all-hands-on-deck.” Because kids could fall through (some of the ledges and woodwork around the wide built-in spiral staircase).

TCR: And then there are people like me, design nuts without kids who don’t notice anything except how extremely fabulous it is.

VADIE: I love and totally appreciate that it's borderline gaudy in a lot of places. There are some pieces of furniture where I'm like, wow: you guys really trusted your instincts on this one.  

TCR: Was your grandmother the force behind the decorating?

VADIE: It was my grandmother and Lanny Neal, who was an old friend of hers. They just went for it. I love that they blew it out with decorating at that particular time, and then never touched it again. There was no insecurity when this look went out of style.

I am so glad I didn't grow up in a house of neutrals. And I’m definitely not that person now. Like, I don't really do shades of white. And their house is not that and it never was.

TCR: When did your grandfather die?

VADIE: About 10 years ago.

TCR: And your grandmother moved to a retirement home not long after that?

VADIE: It's been about two years that she hasn't lived at the house.  When we moved to Nashville, I thought we'd be living with my grandmother, but unfortunately, she had a stroke two days before we got to town and now she lives in assisted living.

I'm sorry she's having a hard time, but she’s not in an unhappy state of mind or an unhappy place now. And she really didn't love the house in recent years.

I mean, it's such a happy, wild, jazzy kind of place. But toward the end, something would go wrong there — like there'd be a leak or something would need to be replaced — and she’d be like, “Goddamn it. I hate this fucking house.” And I’d be like, “Oh please don't say that!” Like, this house is so incredible, don't hate it. And now after I've been taking care of it for two years, and something goes wrong, there's definitely a small part of me that says, “Goddamn, fucking house...”

And when I moved in, I didn’t know how to take care of a big house. I’ve lived in tiny rentals my whole adult life. I moved here from an apartment in New York. It’s been wild having so much space.

TCR: It’s a great party house. There are so many couch and chair vignettes that seem made for conversations. It’s a house for gatherings.

VADIE: In New York you don't really spend that much time at home. There's so much activity other places, and usually you don’t have much room in your home. And that’s amazing but I wanted to move back to Nashville and spend more time with my family that is unscheduled. In New York, there are all these quick finishes and pending endings to lunch, to coffee, to a visit. You’re always chasing the minute. And I love being in a home that's just about being together.

We may have talked about this before, but I feel like time is very different in Nashville compared to New York. And that's not specific to this house at all: time is just different here. Quality time spent with people grows in very organic ways in Nashville.

It’s amazing to be in a culture where people spend time at home, together. I mean, we have a lot of people who come over who will spontaneously spend the night. It’s the kind of thing where I don't know what we're going to have for breakfast, but we'll figure it out. You can't do that in New York because there's no space.

TCR: By the way - missing the 1978 party is one of the biggest disappointments of my year.

VADIE: We’ll do it again with another year.

TCR: I so wanted to see people dressed in period clothes running around that house.

VADIE: I love costume, and I appreciate it when people go for it. I don't care what it is: I like when people sink their teeth into something. And that house is supposed to have a lot of people in it. It's supposed to be overflowing. It comes alive.

You know, there were two movies that were shot out there. One was Murder in Music City. I wish I knew more about it, but I try and watch it and I fall asleep every time. It’s fabulous and bad all at once.

I think it was 1979. Sonny Bono and Morgan Fairchild are in it. And then there are a bunch of country music people like Charlie Daniels and Claude Akins playing on the porch.

I just want to say that I didn't build this house and that I feel so lucky that I get to live here as their granddaughter. I mean, the house is insanely fabulous and I don't take it for granted. I want to share it, to fill it with people, and let everyone bring life to it. I don't know what else to do.

TCR: You do that. You entertain a lot.

VADIE: Well, I don't want to leave, so it's very convenient.  [LAUGH] Now I've said it. But another thing I love about the house is just that I see my grandparents all over the place, because I know the house through them.

We take a lot of family walks around the property — that's kind of my and my mom’s meditation ritual, that we do that together. As a matter of fact, my grandfather’s ashes are scattered around the perimeter. As mine will be, and mom's will be, and my grandmother's will be…

But when you’re walking and you find one of Daddy Don’s golf balls, there's a rule that you are not allowed to move it. You can stomp on it, so it stays there. But you can’t move it. The property is littered with these memories of him. It's like an Easter egg hunt every time you take a walk.

TCR: So this is Vadie Turner’s My Space, part 1. TCR is totally going to do a part two on your new house, which is actually an apartment within an old house. Have you used any design elements from your grandparents’ house in the new joint?

VADIE: Going downstairs to the storage in their basement is like treasure hunting. We found this one insane shell-shaped scalloped marble sink that we're going to use. It’s going to be in a small powder room with rad wall tiles made from used skateboards. Like my grandmother, I think my favorite room will be the bathroom in our place.

TCR: Are you a little bummed to be moving to town?

VADIE: There are times living out there, when I question why we would ever want to move into Nashville. But it takes an hour to get Gray to school in the morning. But the reason we're doing an apartment and not a house in Nashville is because we will always be going out there. So we don't really need any grass at our place in town.

TCR: It must be wonderful knowing your children are going to grow up running around in the same grass you did when you were their age.

VADIE: Yeah, and you can run naked there. You can't do that in Brooklyn. I mean, you can but you probably shouldn't.

Our friend Caroline Allison is as talented as she is kind – and damn if she isn’t one of the most nicest folks we know. Lina’s photography has been shown extensively in the U.S. and abroad; this fall, an exhibit of her new work will open at Zeitgeist, the Nashville gallery where she has representation. A contributing photographer for Garden & Gun, Lina also shoots for LonnySouthern Living and, ahem, The Callaway Report.  She has two adorable kids - one of whom took this photo. (Good job, Emmett!)

Minimalist in a Maximalist World: Elise Joseph of Goodwin & Pennyweight



About six years ago, I went to a psychic who told me that someone named Carrie was going to change my life.

Less than a year later, Carrie Eddmenson of Imogene + Willie hired me to be the company’s media director. The job encompassed marketing and public relations – something that as a longtime journalist I never thought I’d want to do, as there’s a bit of a church-and-state thing between the two professions. But as it turns out, I’m good at PR. Today, I have my own agency. Life changing, indeed.

Regardless, my new profession came with more than a bit of a learning curve. I needed some help. So I was only a few months into the job when I began the hunt for an intern. It was a fun gig at a cool company, so a lot of people applied. But Elise Joseph’s application stood out, for two big reasons.

First of all, she wasn't a kid. She had been out of college for a few years and had been working in the music industry, so I knew she had some kind of decent work ethic. And second, she had a great-looking blog called Pennyweight that had a huge following across several channels. It was impressive – especially to someone as social media-challenged as I was then. At the very least, I thought, this savvy new intern could do a killer job running the store’s social accounts. She ended up doing that and much more.

When I left I+W to go solo, Elise gracefully took on many of my roles, all the while continuing to grow Pennyweight (today she has over a million Pinterest and 78K Instagram followers) and make plans to fulfill her longtime goal of opening a store.

Last Monday, that dream came to fruition with the launch of Goodwin, an online capsule retail project featuring a curated collection of goods from some of the country’s best independent and emerging fashion and home designers. All items are designed exclusively for Goodwin and are available in limited quantities only on her website.

Like Pennyweight, Goodwin is executed with extremely good taste. The site’s overall look reflects Elise’s own style, which is clean, refined and sophisticated - the kind of chic that stands out without being a spectacle, that’s notable as much for what it is as for what it isn’t.

With that in mind, it was especially fun to see what Elise chose to wear for her TCR photo shoot, for which she was challenged to choose clothes from my closet, which is packed with bright colors and busy prints – two things that are abundant in my home’s interior design scheme.

Since turn around is fair play, the same day Elise let me have a dress-up party in pieces from Goodwin’s debut collection. I paired them with selections from my personal vintage clothing archives and modeled the resulting outfits in her Belmont Boulevard apartment, which is an oasis of sun-drenched peace and calm.

The wonderful Heidi Ross was the photographer for both shoots. Highlights from Elise’s session, which Heidi christened “Minimalist in a Maximalist World,” are pictured here; you can read Elise’s interview with me and check out my time in front of Heidi’s camera today on Pennyweight.

I really enjoyed doing this post, not least of all because it gave me the chance to spend two blocks of uninterrupted time with Elise, who over the years has become a close and trusted friend – albeit one I don’t see as much as I’d like. Thanks to some career overlap and our shared membership on the board of the Nashville Fashion Alliance, we run into each other in meetings and in passing at events. But by comparison our half-day shoot last week and the four-hour brunch hang we shared a few Sundays ago at my house were downright luxurious.

During our long chat, we reminisced about how we met; shared our thoughts on minimalism versus maximalism; and talked at length about Elise’s career and how it’s been shaped by the evolution of the modern digital landscape - which is really just a high-falutin’ way of saying that we gabbed about how she goes about crafting the very special voice and unique visual profile she displays on Pennyweight and now Goodwin.



This interview has been edited and condensed.

TCR: You were the first and only person I interviewed for the Imogene internship.

ELISE: I don’t think I knew that.

TCR: Yep. You sent me an email with a resume and a link to Pennyweight. And from the start I thought, this girl is good. Her work is good.

ELISE: Was it, though? I think it would be very laughable now. [LAUGHS] It probably wasn’t awesome.

TCR: Well that was, what? 2011? It was definitely good for that time.

ELISE: Blogs weren’t really a big thing then. The only blog I really knew about was The Sartorialist.

TCR: During the interview, I remember asking why you wanted to come intern for us when you were obviously well on your way to building something great on your own. You said that you wanted to learn how to run a business, because you’d always wanted to have a store.

ELISE: Longer than I’d like to admit. It’s been since I was in middle school.

TCR: At any rate, you impressed me. You were very mature.

ELISE: I wasn’t really intern age. I was 25. I had been working in the music industry, which is when I started Pennyweight. So when I saw your “media intern wanted” ad, I was like, Imogene + Willie is a great brand. They’ve gotten great buzz and have such a cool story. This would be a great opportunity for me to go in and learn about running a business from the ground up. I knew I wasn’t ready to open my store that day. And personally, I was really in a season of thinking, what do I want to do? Who am I?

I was having a really difficult time. I was comparing myself to other people and felt really unsure of what I should be doing. I didn't feel like I had locked into anything that was right yet.

TCR: I could tell you had your act together and were driven, but that you were maybe casting around a little. Which is actually the perfect time to take an internship.

ELISE: I always felt like I was good at a lot of different things. But I thought I needed to have that one thing that I excelled at. So I wanted to come in and grow and learn. I think that time was when I was able to realize — through Imogene, through Pennyweight — what my gift is and what I’m really good at. And that’s making things beautiful.

That’s why I got into styling for a little while. I was really interested in working with designers who had a collection that I could make as beautiful as possible. I feel like that was me locking into something.

And on Pennyweight, I love to share the stories of things that I find interesting and beautiful: clothes, designers, things for my house, whatever.

TCR: Do you remember your first Pennyweight posts?


TCR: I know – it’s like thinking back on a bad high school haircut or something. I feel the same way about my early newspaper clippings.

ELISE: It’s a little painful to bring up. [LAUGHS] I really looked at Pennyweight as a creative outlet while I was working at the record label. It was my connection to fashion. A lot of it was similar to what I'm doing now, but the taste was a little different.

But then I started getting comments here and there, and I’m like, who are these people? Where are they coming from? Because social media wasn’t what it was now. So I was like, someone’s reading? People are interested in this?

Still, I knew it wasn’t where it needed to be. I ended up going to a blogger conference, and I had a moment there where I was like, what am I doing? I realized I wouldn’t read my blog.

TCR: That story is what got you hired! [LAUGHS] It told me how self-aware and conscientious you were.

ELISE: That's right - I told you that in the interview! I knew I needed to make some changes. So I started pursuing a new direction, which is sharing my discoveries and brands that I love, the places I find myself going back to, the music I’m listening to. In some ways, it was bringing a personal aspect into what I was doing, without being like, “Here’s what I did this weekend.” You know?

It’s a constant balance because Pennyweight has very much turned into a business. So it’s like, how do I be me and be real with people but also keep some things personal and private?

TCR: When do you think Pennyweight became a brand? I feel like Pennyweight has really exploded over the last three years.

ELISE: I feel like it happened organically as social media started growing in popularity. I got onboard the Pinterest train pretty early, and was able to grow a big following there. They featured me (as a pinner), which was how I was able to get a lot of the numbers that I have now. Companies started reaching out and I started doing partnerships and events. That’s when I feel like Pennyweight turned into a brand. It’s been fun for me to work with and partner with other people and businesses. It’s cool because I’ll work with a small indie designer and then I’ll work with like, Benjamin Moore.

But I’m careful about what I say yes to. I say no the majority of the time. I’m not going to do something just to get paid — and I do get paid for some things. A lot of projects I’ll do just because I believe in the brand or the person. It would be easy to say, “Yeah, I can post a picture about this if you’re going to pay me.” But I want to make sure that there’s more to what I’m doing than that. And at this point, it’s saying yes only to things that make sense to me.

TCR: The funny thing about “becoming” a brand is that people kind of have to tell you when you are one, you know? It’s not a decision you get to make on your own.

ELISE: I’ve been on some fashion-blogger-conference panels. And every so often, people ask, “How do I turn blogging into a business that makes money?” It’s hard for me to tell someone how to do that because it wasn't my intention. I’m so grateful for it, but Pennyweight was an outlet that turned into a really unique and special business. It opened a lot of doors and allowed me to work with people that I may not have thought about working with before.

TCR: What’s been the biggest surprise for you, in terms of somebody reaching out and wanting to work with you?

ELISE: The Sartorialist was huge for me, because that was the blog that I looked to (in terms of how to grow Pennyweight). I met Scott Schuman through Chad Davis (a former I+W employee who is now a NYC-based fashion photographer). Chad was like, “Scott is coming to Nashville. Can I hook you guys up so you can show him around?” That was probably 2012. And it was just full circle, you know?

And then recently, I was featured in Domino. I loved Domino so much when I was younger.

TCR: I’ve got every issue from back when it was a monthly.

ELISE: Oh yeah, I still have them, too. So I was thrilled to work with them.

TCR: Let’s talk about Goodwin. How does it fit into the picture? Like, what does the Pennyweight/Goodwin Venn diagram look like? Where do the two overlap?

ELISE: Well, as I’ve said, I wasn’t intending for Pennyweight to be a brand, and definitely not for it to be my store. So, while it’s such a big extension of me, I knew that the store had to be a little different. I wanted to be really intentional in my approach.

I remember having coffee with Van (Tucker, the CEO of the Nashville Fashion Alliance) and asking her about how I should move forward. I told her that I had Pennyweight but that I wanted to do a store called Goodwin and that I was also Elise Joseph, a consultant. Van explained that they were all extensions of me. She said, “I’m Van, but I’m also Mom and I’m a wife and I’m work-Van. But it’s all under the same umbrella.” That really clicked for me: I can be all of these things, but Goodwin can live on its own. It’s a part of me but I want to open it up to everybody. I don’t want to be the face, like I am with Pennyweight.

You know, people think my name is Penny.

TCR: That’s hilarious. 

ELISE: Right? So Pennyweight is clearly me. But with Goodwin, I wanted something that was reflective of me but built from the ground up. I’m not going to be in all the photos (on Goodwin’s Instagram account). I’m trying to draw a line there. I’m hoping people can see bits of me in it through little details, like the packaging or the design or the color. I still feel like Goodwin’s look is “very Elise,” or “very Pennyweight.” It’s not a total left turn.

TCR: During the Pennyweight pop-up last summer at Wilder, what surprised you most about how people responded to what you had chosen to be in the store?

ELISE: Oh, man. I loved getting to see firsthand what people liked instead of trying to figure it out from behind a computer screen. To really connect with people about what they were seeing was super-cool. I think Nashvillians are really open and interested in learning about new designers and new brands.

TCR: What did folks dig the most?

ELISE: People loved Lauren Winter, and I’m excited to work with her again on Goodwin. They liked 7115, which is a New York brand. No one really knew (Szeki, the designer), and she’s not sold anywhere in this region. And then some local brands, too. At the time, Elizabeth Suzann didn’t have a showroom like she has now, where people can come and shop. So I think people enjoyed seeing some of her pieces in person and getting to try things on. Being able to touch and connect with the actual garment is powerful.

TCR: With that in mind, is your intention still to take Goodwin on the road at some point?

ELISE: Yeah, and even turn it into brick and mortar eventually, too. But I feel like starting this way makes a lot of sense. And obviously it’s a lot less overhead: I’m able to grow a little more intentionally without getting in over my head at first.

But I’m excited to lead with what I think is really an interesting concept of partnering with designers to create exclusive pieces that aren’t available anywhere else. It’s a Goodwin collection, but it’s with 30 different designers.

TCR: I love how many indie fashion communities are represented in the mix.

ELISE: Yeah, there are several from Portland. I spent a few months living there and I’ve always felt connected to the city. There is a great creative community there.

TCR: There’s a reason Imogene + Willie opened their second store there, you know? Portland and Nashville have a nice creative simpatico.

ELISE: Yeah, I agree. The local angle is really important to me, because there’s so much amazing stuff happening in Nashville. I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s an exciting time to be here. I’m a Nashville native and it’s been so cool to watch how it’s grown over time. I really wanted to represent that. So over a third of the first collection is from Nashville designers.

TCR: What inspired Goodwin? Like, what are some of your favorite shops?

ELISE: Stores like Totokaelo and Bird - I think (owner Jen Mankins) does an amazing job. Need Supply: they’ve been changing a lot lately, which is cool to see. There’s a store called Mille in Minneapolis, and Idun in St. Paul. Dalia is the owner there; she’s got amazing taste. And from my time living in L.A., I love Mohawk General.

I really connect to the style in L.A. — the ease. It’s very laid back. I spent a lot of time in Venice Beach. Almost daily, I’d walk down Abbott Kinney to get breakfast at the Gjelina Take Away — the GTA. Just standing in line, I would find so much inspiration from the people and what they wore. They’d be in like, pajamas, but they were still super-chic.

TCR: Something I realized recently is that the look that I identify as minimalist is really a sort of West Coast casual. You have it, and I love it. It’s beautiful. Do you describe yourself as a minimalist?

ELISE: Yes and no. I think I’m definitely more minimalist than maximalist. But I think sometimes I associate a minimal look with a cold or sterile feeling. I think that that’s beautiful, too, and I can be very inspired by it in the same way that I’m inspired by a maximalist thing. But for me, it’s somewhere in the middle. I skew more minimalist, but I try to bring in things that have stories or meaning. I’m always thinking about warmth, and texture is a really big thing for me, both in fashion and my home. I need a mix.

TCR: Do people think that they know you because they read your blog?

ELISE: Yeah. But it’s funny to talk about because I’m not a celebrity.

TCR: Arguable. Some people’s eyes get really big when they meet you. I’ve seen it.

ELISE: Well, that’s flattering. And like I said, people do call me Penny a lot, and clearly I know then that they follow me.

TCR: It’s like an actor getting confused with the role he plays… Actually, that’s not a good metaphor. What you do is different because you’re representing your honest, true life.

ELISE: I’m just trying to be intentional and authentic. At this point, when I post something online, it looks a certain way. But that can be hard because my life isn’t beautiful every day, you know? While this picture may be pretty, to the right of it might be my dirty dishes in the sink! And I’m not trying to act like I don’t have dirty dishes in the sink, but that’s not the brand that I’ve created.

I try to find beauty in the present. Finding ways to capture the things that are really natural and not having everything be so styled or so perfect. I think there’s so much beauty in the imperfect — that that’s what is beautiful, you know? So I try to remind myself of that and to not over-think things or try too hard to make images look a certain way. But I also realize that people are looking at my brand for a certain theme.

TCR: There’s a really interesting balance you have to strike there.

ELISE: Well, even Jordan, the model that I worked with (for the Goodwin website imagery) — she couldn't believe I didn't want to pin everything to make it fit. She shoots a lot of e-commerce, and in so much of that the clothes get pinned to make them look a certain way. But I really want to represent the boxy and oversized things for what they are.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve put myself in a box with Pennyweight, which is this very clean, beautiful, very certain thing. And sometimes I’m like, ugh, I just want to shake it up!

So Goodwin is a little bit of an outlet for me in that sense. It’s still very pretty, but I just want to show pretty in different ways, and not necessarily the pretty I’ve created for Pennyweight. It’s fun for me.

TCR: There’s something I’m curious about that I’ve been meaning to ask you: How do you like to refer to what you do online? Do you consider yourself a blogger?

ELISE: Well, kind of. There are all these terms and I don’t really like any of them. Blogger, influencer — you know? I’m most active on Instagram and Pinterest. And I do have a blog, so I am a blogger in that sense. But that’s probably the thing that I update the least. But then I wouldn’t call myself, like, an Instagrammer or a Pinterest-er, you know? [LAUGHS] So I think “blogger” fits within what I’m doing, but it’s not the end-all be-all.

TCR: Sometimes I’ll read someone’s bio where they’ll describe themself as an influencer. And I’m like, give me a break.

ELISE: Oh, I know. That word makes me want to throw up.  Blogger is way better.

TCR: Influencer just feels so self-important. “I influence people.” I get it as a concept and I actually use it quite a bit in my professional life – everyone I work with wants to have “influencers” on their side. And for good reason. But in general, the word doesn't sit well with me.

ELISE: Totally. But I don’t know what the right word is. There are all these different facets to what I do. Sometimes I’m a blogger, sometimes I’m a consultant, sometimes I’m a storeowner. I’m always all of those things, but really, whatever hat I’m wearing at that moment, that’s what I am.

Our multi-talented friend Heidi Ross is a whiz with words and visuals. An accomplished photographer, copywriter and graphic designer, she currently does creative direction and content creation for brands and artists. You’ve likely seen her photography on album covers, book jackets, or the walls at Third Man Records, which hosted her ILK: Similars 2004-2016 exhibit earlier this summer. Follow Heidi on Instagram at @heidirossphoto.

Behind the Wheel: John Donovan of Tenure Ceramics

 John Donovan in his home studio in Cleveland Park.                                   All photos by  Yve Assad .

John Donovan in his home studio in Cleveland Park.                                   All photos by Yve Assad.

A lot of people believe that Southern hospitality is what sets Nashvillians apart from people in other cities. While we are a rather welcoming folk, I don't think politesse is the most unique trait of those in my adopted hometown.

The special sauce that makes Nashville such an interesting place to live and work is the willingness of our creative class to cooperate to make great things happen. Indeed, few of those who find big success in our city’s creative sphere get there alone. It’s all about collaboration.

Nashville chefs actively seek out ways to work with area musicians who enjoy collaborating with our visual and performing artists who look for opportunities to partner with local fashion designers. This kind of interdisciplinary cooperation allows creative types to develop concepts and problem-solve in innovative ways that they might not have been able to achieve going it alone.

One of my favorite examples of this interdependence involves my friend John Donovan, a respected local artist who works in ceramic sculpture. John was teaching college in 2007 when chef Tandy Wilson challenged him to use his talent in a new and more commercial way, asking John to design commercial-grade serving pieces to be used in his new restaurant, City House. At the time, John’s wife Lisa was the resident pastry chef, making the collab a real family affair.

Nine years later, the pieces John made for Tandy are still in circulation at City House, and John has expanded his custom pottery roster to include commissions from chef Josh Habiger at the Wedgewood-Houston food mecca Bastion and Miranda Whitcomb Pontes’ hotly-anticipated Germantown restaurant Geist House. John works closely with his restauranteur clients to develop signature shapes and styles of pottery, as well as distinctive colors and glazes to match the sensibility of the space and personality of the owner. (Sniffing around his studio a few months ago, I remarked on the cool and sexy black finish on a collection of bowls and was told it was “Miranda’s glaze” — a beautiful case of art imitating life.)