by Lindsey Victoria Thompson | Photography by Jerry Atnip
Over 60 years ago, in 1947, a ten-year-old
Walter walked into a classroom in Burton School, where he had been transferred mid semester. There he would meet a fellow fifth grader who
introduced himself as Charles. These two young boys could not know at the time that they would seriously influence each other’s adult lives and
remain friends decades later. Of course, at the time,
neither could even begin to know that they would
become Walter G. Knestrick, well-known patron of the arts, and Charles “Red” Grooms, celebrated
Before Knestrick became an art collector and philanthropist, he had a lifetime to realize his love for the arts.
Around Nashville, Walter Knestrick is very often recognized as the name behind his reputable construction company, but, in a different circle in town, he is known as an important part of Nashville’s art community. Most notably, Knestrick has acquired the greatest Red Grooms print collection on the globe and has worked to make Grooms’ works accessible to a large audience.
Knestrick has contributed monetarily and volunteered countless hours of his time to organizations including Cheekwood, The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, the Nashville Symphony, and the Tennessee State Museum, to name a few. Most recently, he has been working with Watkins College of Art and Design.
But before Knestrick became an art collector and philanthropist, he had a lifetime to realize his love for the arts, which he developed alongside his lifelong friend. Even at a young age, Knestrick and Grooms both had a natural affinity and aptitude for the visual arts. In fact, Grooms’ earliest known work is a colored-pencil piece that he created for an assignment in history class in the fifth grade. His teacher kept the drawing and passed it along to Knestrick over 20 years later.
Knestrick recalls that among his best childhood memories were when Grooms’ mother would roll up the carpet in her living room so that the two could work for hours, and occasionally an entire day, sketching and painting watercolors. Unfortunately, at that time, Knestrick and Grooms’ options in terms of art education didn’t extend from their living room to their school, so their parents enrolled them in classes. They learned new techniques and mediums and gained confidence in their abilities.
After learning that the Tennessee State Fair had art contests in their age bracket, both were excited to enter their work. Knestrick smiles when he remembers that he, in fact, won first place, while Grooms took second. However, Knestrick says, “Red is quick to add that we were never in the same category, so he does not accept defeat.”
As the two budding artists transitioned into high school, they were ecstatic to learn that Hillsboro High School, where they would be attending, was among the few schools in Nashville that offered art classes. Ms. Helene Connell, their teacher, took a supreme interest in both Knestrick and Grooms and was extremely enthusiastic about their artwork. She encouraged them throughout high school, a kindness that Knestrick has never forgotten. Looking back, Knestrick considers Ms. Connell one of his greatest influences and thinks that her support gave him a great deal of self-confidence that has stayed with him through his life.
“I really never thought about being a serious artist,” says Knestrick. He remembers when he and Grooms were in their teens and Red declared, “I’m going to be a famous artist, and if I have to cut my ear off to be like Van Gogh, I will!” Knestrick, though, never thought himself willing to lose body parts to be a professional artist. “I labored over my drawings, and I watched Charles Grooms’ brush just flow through,” Knestrick says. He decided that being a full-time artist was “too hard a work,” so he focused his interests in a career in construction.
As adults, Knestrick and Grooms had both gone on to pursue their individual fields; Knestrick lived in Nashville, and Grooms relocated to New York. In 1969, the former opened up his construction business, Walter Knestrick Construction, Inc., while the latter was working on his first prints. In 1971, Grooms completed his first print series of six pieces titled No Gas. Knestrick flew to New York to support his friend and ended up falling in love with his new style and medium. He bought all six pieces. “It really never had anything to do with thinking I was making a good investment,” says Knestrick, whose interest in collecting stemmed solely from his belief that Grooms is a truly talented artist.
Since 1971, Knestrick collected every graphic work that Grooms produced and many originals. In 2001, Knestrick published Red Grooms: The Graphic Works, a compilation of his entire collection, with Abrams & Co. Publishing, Inc. The first edition sold out in three months.
Knestrick’s goal with his collection has always been to expose Grooms’ art to a greater and wider audience, and, with the help of the Tennessee State Museum, he arranged that 125 prints in his collection would go on a traveling exhibition.
Although Knestrick had not dreamt of being a professional artist like his friend, he still enjoys making art as a hobby to this day. His medium of choice is watercolor, primarily because he doesn’t have the patience to wait for an oil painting to dry. “It’s a very demanding medium,” says Knestrick, “but if you do it for 50 or 60 years, you feel very comfortable with it.” Though he has worked in watercolor for over half a century, he still considers himself an amateur, because he has never sold a painting—he prefers to give them away. In his own home, there are not many of his original works, but several Knestrick originals can be found in the homes of his close friends and family.
At 72, Knestrick has never even considered slowing down. Currently, he is traveling around the globe with his wife, Sarah, trying to take a few strokes off his golf game and attempting to understand how to use his new iPhone. In between, he is still finding time to paint. With all this on his plate, Knestrick insists that he will never grow old; he is simply too busy.