by Erica Ciccarone
Erica Ciccarone is an independent writer. She holds an M.F.A. from the New School in Creative Writing. She blogs about art at nycnash.com.
Nashville’s many pikes stem from the city center and extend out like the spokes of a wagon wheel. New residents should take note, lest they drive around in circles for weeks, like I did.
But Nashville’s pikes don’t act only as geographical touchstones. They are social touchstones, too, revealing the rainbow of our cultural and aesthetic diversity. Joe Nolan and Nashville Public Radio recently documented four pikes. Part photo essay, part poem, part audio compilation, Pikes Project not only highlights the aesthetics of Nashville’s communities. It also shows, as Nolan says, that what’s out of the way geographically can lead into another way of seeing.
Many know Nolan’s byline from art reviews and roundups. Others know Nolan as a singer/songwriter whose acoustic rock songs are flavored with folk music, Southern blues, and Dylan-esque lyrics that celebrate miscellany. Being immersed in so many genres has made Nolan appreciate that there’s a form for every idea. And sometimes an idea is best articulated in a few forms at once.
Nolan shot hundreds of photos of Nashville’s pikes that you can see on Nashville Public Radio’s website alongside audio segments and captions that reveal his sharp way of seeing. Infused with history and humor, Pikes Project covers everything from tacos to trailblazers.
Gallatin Pike is the one that started it all. When Nolan moved from Belmont/Hillsboro to Inglewood in 2012, his wife, Antonia Oaks, pointed out erstwhile signage, street art, and the accidental beauty of abandoned buildings so often that Nolan started noticing more himself.
In the audio segment narrated by WPLN’s Emily Siner, Nolan describes the “entrepreneurial, anything goes kind of spirit” of Gallatin Pike. “It’s not so much that we need to change this street or fix this neighborhood . . . We can change our own perceptions of these places and see them more clearly for the often beautiful . . . funny, absurd, interesting places that they already are.”
In one photo, several open-house signs have been blown by the wind to point in all directions, and tied around the pole is a tangle of ribbons fastened to deflated balloons. There’s plenty of metaphorical fodder in Nolan’s images, but he leaves that part to the viewer, focusing instead on the weird beauty of the road.
He distills the pluralistic clutter of Nolensville Pike in a ride-along audio track with WPLN digital services director Mack Linebaugh. Nolensville is Nashville’s most diverse corridor, and Nolan points out traces of Latino, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European communities. Zeroing in on details like a beetle someone painted on the side of a bar or some dried flowers hung on a doorway, Nolan reminds us that a community is made up of individual people who leave marks all over it. He writes that a hand-painted sign of a pair of eyes draws viewers to Green Auto Sales with “hypnotic intensity” and jokes to Linebaugh that La Hacienda offers “the gateway taco” to those new to the neighborhood.
My favorite parts of the project are the poetic tributes that Nolan read on air. He evokes the image of the life- sized buffalo statues at the entrance of Dickerson Pike with an air of nostalgia for a time before freeways, when small mom-and-pop motels were gateways to a new, exciting world. Like Nolan’s songs, his poems are sonorous. Full of unexpected rhymes and striking images, they manage to convey emotional resonance and romance without sentimentality.
While scrolling through photos of old-school meat-and-threes and a life-sized sculpture of Elvis, you can listen to Nolan read, “Charlotte Pike, she’s the pike I like. Craning her downtown neck to see the sun set behind a bridge named Jubilee.” In one image, sheets of pale pink paper cover a window, and Nolan writes that “simple things can become complex very quickly, and you’ve only to look at the pace of change along the pike for the perfect example of that.”
This is not to say that Nolan sentimentalizes the pikes or Nashville. Aware of the changing landscape, Nolan, Linebaugh, and WPLN news director Anita Bugg (who is now VP of content) set the rule early on that the project wouldn’t wear out the subject of new Nashville but instead bring to light overlooked narratives of the pikes. “The democratic thing in the middle of all this is that it’s impossible to do any artwork inspired by Gallatin Pike and make it something precious and special,” says Nolan. “That would be ridiculous. You don’t own the Pike.”
Metro Arts Commission has given Nolan a THRIVE award to continue the project with community participation. For the past few months, Nashvillians and tourists alike have created a community of images on Instagram by using the hashtag #PikesProject. Meanwhile, Nolan is visiting homeowner groups and neighborhood organizations in East Nashville and Inglewood.
Pikes Project eschews spotlights and rhinestones for used-tire shops, random street art, colorful doors, and vintage signs. By finding beauty in miscellany, Nolan reminds Nashville to stay weird and wonderful.
Explore Pikes Project at www.nashvillepublicradio.org/topic/nashvilles-pikes-collection-photo-essays and participate on Instagram @PikesProject. Pikes Project opens at Red Arrow Gallery on May 20.