Poster Boys

An upscale Nashville hotel benefits from a down-home collaboration between Watkins’s graphic design chair Dan Brawner and artist Bryce McCloud.

Poster Boys, Dan Brawner and McCloud, Watkins College of Art

By Ron Wagner

Situated in a prime location beside the famed Printer’s Alley—at the intersection of buzzy Fourth Avenue North and Church Street—is where those flying in for a hit of the “It” City will find Nashville’s new and sleek boutique Hotel Noelle. The Noelle is in the heart of Nashville, but wisely the owners knew long before opening that it would take more than an address to put the heart of Nashville in the Hotel Noelle. Enter art director Bryce McCloud, a former Watkins adjunct professor, and his hand-picked group of local creatives.

“There was a strong sense of wanting to make this hotel about Nashville but [also] by Nashville, to really incorporate that into what it was and to be a celebration of what’s here,” says McCloud, a native Nashvillian known for his Music City-celebrating “Our Town” portraits, a public art project. “It was important to me for it not only to be representing Nashvillians in the art but also that I used Nashvillians as my artists.”

With that in mind, one of the first calls McCloud made was to Watkins graphic design department chair Dan Brawner, who fit the bill on both counts.

“When Bryce approached me about making some art for the hotel it was just spot-on exactly where my mind was at the time, the type of work that I wanted to do. It was very specific to this city and its creative history,” says Brawner, who was born not far from Printer’s Alley. “If someone were to just write out a passion-project description, this would be it.”

'If someone were to just write out a passion-project description, this would be it,' says Brawner.

Architect Nick Dryden brought in a flock of local craftspeople to breathe life back into the Art Deco building, originally constructed in 1929; finding visual art to match the public spaces and guest rooms was critical to the project. Printer’s Alley, once the center of Nashville’s bustling newspaper industry, provided plenty of inspiration. “The theme for the project was portraits of Nashvillians of note, past and present,” Brawner explains. “We could choose anyone … I wanted to honor 20th-century illustrators, editorial cartoonists, and magazine illustrators who had at one time called Nashville home. Three of my favorites were these editorial cartoonists who worked in Printer’s Alley.”

Carey Orr, Joseph Parrish, and Ed Holland—whom Brawner selected—began their careers in Nashville before moving on to the Chicago Tribune, where their work eventually earned them the moniker of the “terrible three from Tennessee.” It was a high compliment, and now all are immortalized by Brawner in the ninth-floor corridor of the 224-room hotel.

Poster Boys, Brawner and McCloud

“I liked their nickname and what they represent, and so I chose to portray them working, drawing, but they’re not looking at their paper,” he says. “They’re looking at the world and forming opinions.”

They are but three of the eight pieces McCloud commissioned from Brawner. A relief print depicts African-American painter Aaron Douglas, a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance and founder of the art department at Fisk University, and Brawner also created portraits of Vaudeville entertainer “Uncle” Dave Macon, singer/songwriters Bill Monroe and Webb Pierce, and gospel/country musician “Mother” Maybelle Carter. The pieces also appear on the ninth floor or in the hotel lobby, and attached to each is biographic information.

“Certainly the point of art is to divert people, to make them pause. We’re not accustomed to stopping in a hotel corridor and paying attention to the art, and this is kind of insisting that you do so,” Brawner says. “The hotel is providing these stories through the art that might make one want to spend some time in other parts of Nashville or at the very least just learn about something that happened here.”

Other exhibiting artists McCloud chose, many of whom include members of the “Watkins mafia,” were Alex Lockwood and Julia Martin (gallerists who often feature Watkins artists), LeXander Bryant, Vadis Turner, Tim Hooper, Paul Collins (a guest lecturer), Lesley Patterson-Marx (adjunct faculty member), Caroline Allison (adjunct faculty member), Rob Matthews, and Samuel Dunson.

“Everyone that I hired to do a piece or pieces, I really respect what they do, [and] I was hoping to be surprised,” McCloud said. “I wasn’t sure exactly where folks would take it, and then it was kind of like Christmas. I would sit here and watch all this wonderful work roll in from 12 very talented people.”

Brawner has taken his students to Hotel Noelle to see and study the portraits, to better understand the nature of commissions and how art can coexist with, even define, commerce in meaningful ways. “They defined the look and the content of the hotel without falling into stereotypical Nashville-type imagery. The art is a real interesting reflection of creative Nashville that we experience,” he said. “It’s truly, uniquely Nashville and not at all what you’d expect to see … This is a deeper kind of reflection of the city in a hotel.”

Brawner calls McCloud Nashville’s “unofficial art mayor,” and their relationship has evolved into a 20-year friendship. Brawner takes classes to visit McCloud’s letter-press operation, Isle of Printing, where nearly a dozen interns from Watkins have worked. Current Watkins student Gilberto Acosta and recent graduates Chris Fornal and Doug Lehmann also helped McCloud with Hotel Noelle. Such relationships are critical in providing Watkins artists with pathway experiences into the art world-at-large.

“The connection with Bryce runs deep and it continues,” Brawner says. “He’s a real friend to the program.”