Athens of the South, Process

The final on-screen piece - see it larger in the gallery

Sarah Saturday - the engine behind Gardening, Not Architecture and veteran of organizing more large festivals than I’m ever likely to attend - tapped myself and a clutch of other artists to fill out the Mockingbird Gallery at the first Athens of the South Festival here in East Nashville. The theme, “The Mythos of Nashville.” to be interpreted at large and to us individually as artists.

Like many (seemingly most) folks in town these days, I’m new here. Natasha and I moved not too terribly long ago, and the city is still showing us something new almost every day, so personally I chose to lean toward the collective idea of the theme as opposed to the personal one. Nashville has been known as music city for ages, but even so it is still surprisingly (to me) the second largest music seat in America, after Los Angeles - even surpassing our beloved Gotham. What’s lesser known is that it’s one of the largest seats of the healthcare industry as well, and more specifically earned it’s nickname of the Athens of the South from its copious institutions of higher learning. It’s also known, however, as the Buckle of the Bible belt, housing more mega-churches per-capita than just about anywhere else in the U.S., and more reasonably sized houses of worship per-capita than most.

Those details are well and good, but how to incorporate them all without pandering…


Step 1: Inspiration

I’ve been a fan of the narrative interpretation of the psyche championed by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell since I was a kid. Images that induce or reflect the numinous properties of collective ideas, myths, and symbols. In that vein, I’ve also always been a fan of Alphonse Mucha - specifically his idealization of the female form (in pursuit of something universal) and his deeply moving religious compositions. I’m a sucker for a well rendered archetype.


Step 2: Sketches

After thumbing through a few of my (paper!) books dedicated to Mucha and scraping up a bunch of imagery that felt applicable to me (above), I got closer. I wanted to show Nashville’s anima - something feminine and collective, strong and maybe even a little frightening. First through quick pen sketches - an old wagon wheel as halo, something reaching toward the way the history of this city is ever-present, and a not-so-subtle nod toward its more conventional religiosity. The moon, in all her phases, to counterbalance and inform the wheel; pagan and feminine, a light in the dark. The Rod of Asclepius for the healthcare nod, as well as a nod to the more reptilian aspects of the anima - and since, in America we bastardize it into the symbol of Caduceus, the symbol of the messenger of the gods, guide to the dead and waker of the sleeping. A violin/fiddle, something indicating music but not wholly country in variety. (Sure, Nashville is still country at heart, the T.V. tells you so… but secretly, there is a shit ton of great work going on here in all genres, in particular our Symphony kicks ass.) The Cumberland River, purple irises, fireflies and skyline for the purists and pedants, as well as the mockingbirds - though I obviously had a hard time figuring out how to work them in, as shown in the sketches. And finally a blinding inner and projected light for the intellectual and academic nod. 

“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”

Simple Hand Sketches:


Quick iPad sketches/color studies:

Bringing some rough comp work into Photoshop and putting the iOS app ArtPose FE to good work, I got a better idea of how I wanted the actual figure to appear. Head up slightly, floating, powerful and imposing. Some value and color studies later, lets shoot.

Photoshop sketches/comps:


Step 3: The Shoot

I’ve gotten pretty decent at making my (now) quaint little Mark 3 preform like a much bigger camera when it comes to backgrounds. I knew I wanted to make this piece live very large (36” x 48” natively), so the landscape and river had to be shot as panoramas, and for more latitude I’ve been shooting 3-to-5 frame brackets for each of the frames, combining them and stitching the results into enormous files that my server bitches at me for maintaining - but hey, I maintain a gross amount of dynamic range, which helps when you’re shooting in a park infested with the largest mosquitoes I’ve ever encountered. I’ll stick around a little longer to get the brackets if it means I don’t have to come back and get eaten again.

As for the figure: thanks to Hound Dog Commons for the reasonable rates and high ceilings or I wouldn’t have had the space to shoot this. Relatively simple though. Key light from above, coming from the staff in her left hand, and rim light from the side for effect/moonlight. Thanks to Tara Ptacek for modeling, Leigh Anna Thompson for the recommendation and Natasha for filling in when I realized I had neglected to get the legs right with Tara (and for being the right hand holding the violin, shot after-the-fact - and thanks to Gabe for letting me borrow it for little while and playing for us while waiting.)

And special thanks to Ronald Manley for contributing the mockingbird photography. Not only had the neighborhood birds gone into molt (and hiding) right as I began to work on the piece, but I’m reasonably sure I don’t have the right gear to clearly capture a mockingbird in flight at a great resolution and convenient lighting.


Step 4: The Build

The final image with my ridiculous composition guides

The build! This one took some horse power. I think the final large format photoshop file is something like 8-9Gb, but like anything tough, you just hack away at it slowly and methodically. I found that while I liked the trees from the shot of Shelby Park, the necessitated longer exposures made the water not-quite-right. So I fiddled around, painted and manipulated and came up with a fully editable and (as far as I’m concerned) excellent facsimile of the shot I had wanted in the first place. That means that in this case, the water, reflections, tree line, city and sky are all separate elements pushed and prodded to get in line and play nice.

One of my favorite elements is the fireflies. After moving to Nashville I became totally enamored of them again, having not seen them for years living in New York and New England. Oh, they’re there, just not nearly in the magical, yard-encompassing numbers that Nashville has. These guys though, are generated. Some witchery with photoshop, some depth layering and some secret sauce.

(The secret sauce is basically a clouds layer heavily manipulated - pro-tip, so are the stars.)

And while you can’t see it on-screen, the fireflies and stars - at least on the very limited edition prints - are hand-leafed in gold and silver leaf respectively.

The moons are actually all a single shot from NASA’s archives. I have some beautiful shots of my own, but I’m not going to kid myself and imagine that they’re crisp enough to compare to such a gorgeous shot at the size this file lives in - I actually had to slightly soften this one to keep them from becoming over active in the composition. Here again, just hacking away. I love that they interact with the clouds in such a way as to confuse the depth and positioning altogether, as if they’re miniatures hanging in some impossible space around the figure’s wagon halo.

Really though, the animation says it all. One step at a time, smart objects galore:


What’s not to be satisfied with? The printed piece is just gorgeous, the gilding looks fantastic and Picture Frame Warehouse did a stellar job, as always, getting it nice and rightly protected. Help me make back the cost of production by picking up some prints in the shop! You'll find gilded and non-gilded options - here's me hand leafing the smaller 9x12s:


Give me some comments, let me know what you think!