The ‘Year of the Trails’

Pink dogwood flower

The 'Year of the Trails'

Dogwood Arts has had to cancel events and reconfigure its calendar, becoming a virtual festival with a stay-at-home Chalk Walk. But at least there are flowers on the trees.

by jesse fox mayshark • april 13, 2020


Dogwood flowers in bloom this weekend along the trail in sequoyah hills.

In the spring of 1955, the Knoxville Garden Club created the city’s first Dogwood Trail, showcasing seasonal blooms in the scenic Sequoyah Hills neighborhood.

For artists, the loss of outdoor spring markets is a big financial blow.

The trail invited people from across the region to take leisurely drives or strolls and appreciate the cultivated and natural flora, with the Cornus florida, or flowering dogwood, as its centerpiece.

Sixty-five years later, as many of the annual events of the Dogwood Arts Festival have been put on hold or moved online in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the Dogwood Trails persist as an unchanged feature of the spring landscape.

“It is the year of the trails,” acknowledged Sherry Jenkins, executive director of Dogwood Arts, the nonprofit organization that grew out of that first year and the subsequent creation in 1961 of the Dogwood Arts Festival.

Fortunately, the weather has been conducive to driving the 12 designated trails during the past week as dogwoods across the city hit their multi-hued peak. Cooler temperatures over the weekend helped prolong the display.

“That’s really encouraged people to appreciate the beauty in their neighborhoods and in their backyards,” Jenkins said.

But Dogwood Arts hasn’t just given up on the rest of its calendar. It has reinvented some of its most popular events for the online realm and encouraged community members to participate at home.

“We were able to just kind of reimagine the festival,” Jenkins said.

That includes a virtual display of 109 artists and craftspeople who were scheduled to show and sell their work at the annual juried festival originally scheduled for downtown Knoxville the weekend of April 24-26. 

And in place of the popular Chalk Walk display of sidewalk art that would normally have taken over Market Square on April 4, Dogwood Arts organized a “Chalk (Your) Walk” competition, encouraging people to draw on their own driveways or sidewalks and send in photos of their work. 

A gallery of the chalk submissions will be posted today on Dogwood Arts’ Facebook page, open to public viewing and voting. The five photos with the most likes by midnight this Friday will be the winners and will receive prize packs.

Pink and white dogwood blossoms along Cherokee Boulevard in Sequoyah Hills.

Pink and white dogwood blossoms along Cherokee Boulevard in Sequoyah Hills.

Jenkins said Dogwood Arts also separately commissioned chalk works by 14 local artists, which will also be displayed online.

“That’s a way we can share a little money with our artists and encourage them,” she said. “We really wanted to make sure the community didn’t miss out on the opportunity to see some of that amazing work.”

Artists included in the virtual arts festival say they don’t expect it to generate anything like the attention (not to mention sales) they would get from the normal weekend fair. But they say they appreciate the intentions.

“I think what they’re doing is awesome,” said Marisa Ray, who paints whimsical portraits of animals. (See her work here.) “I would say their efforts have been above and beyond other festivals’ efforts.”

Ray said Dogwood Arts was prompt about refunding her booth reservation fees as soon as the festival was canceled. She needs the money, because she said the timing of the pandemic has essentially killed the lucrative spring art season.

“Outdoor art shows are my main source of revenue,” Ray said. “The first five shows I had booked for this year have been canceled.” She is now receiving notices of shows being shuttered as far out as June.

Knoxville illustrator Paris Woodhull, who was going to display at Dogwood Arts for the first time this year, agreed that the impact on artists and craftspeople has been tremendous.

“Most of my business is freelance work, but I get a lot of my freelance work from people seeing my merchandise,” she said. (You can see her prints here.)

Woodhull said she also feels for the Dogwood Arts staff, who have seen much of a year’s worth of work set aside. “I’ve helped organize events, so I know how much time and effort goes into it,” she said.

The organization got lucky in one respect: Its annual House & Garden Show, its biggest revenue generator of the year, was held in mid-February before the pandemic closures hit.

But Jenkins said the cancellations have been hard. “It is a little bit like you’re in the red zone ready to score, and somebody turns out the light,” she said.

Some decisions remain to be made. The Southern Skies Music Festival planned for May 16 at World’s Fair Park, featuring the Dirty Guv’nahs and Ben Rector, is still on the books but is under review. (The festival is a replacement of sorts for the suspended Rhythm ‘N’ Blooms Festival, which is the subject of litigation between Dogwood Arts and the music promotions company Attack Monkey Productions.)

Jenkins said a decision on that event will come soon. In any case, she said, if and when it is possible to resume arts and cultural events in Knoxville, Dogwood Arts will be ready to jump in. 

“I’m excited for all of us, anybody doing arts or music or theater, when we get on the other side of this, there’ll be plenty of reasons to celebrate,” she said.

For now, though, there are at least those trails.