Peggy Snow’s painting of the International Market on Belmont Boulevard remains unfinished. The familiar red-brick building is depicted in Snow’s signature impressionistic style. She had positioned her easel across the street, to the left of the market, and the thick brick wall on the side of the building ascends up Bernard Avenue. A small table and two chairs sit out front on the sidewalk. The lettering above the awning is only partially completed, and she says that she has yet to finish the details in the background.
The building was demolished before she had the chance.
Snow’s paintings often go unfinished these days. For 24 years, she has been painting Nashvile’s fading landscape, cataloguing bygone buildings — churches, store fronts, restaurants and homes — before they are demolished.
The rate of demolition accelerates faster than Snow can work, and she’s forced to move on because, she says, “there’s nothing left to paint.” She says that as she’s approaching one of her subjects on an average day, she’s looking from a distance to see if it’s still there. “Then they’re gone. There’s a terrible hole where they used to be.”
There’s something prophetic about Snow. She presides over these structures, bearing witness to their last days. The Nashville Scene’s late editor Jim Ridley once called Snow “the city’s designated mourner.” She might also be our moral compass.
Talking to Snow upon first meeting her feels like reconnecting with an old friend — how all of the years and the distance between you shrink, and you’re back to finishing each other’s sentences, repeating the old jokes.
Snow paints en plein air, always in oils. Inspired by post-impressionists like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, her style reveals the architecture of these buildings, but also what you might call their souls. Snow says in her artist statement that she’s motivated by “the passing beauty when an old building, resonant with past lives, is falling or is to be torn down.”
She often starts with a thin coat of yellow ochre, which she can then draw on with charcoal. Her paintings convey a sense of warmth that seems to emanate from within.
“It’s the old world. Our old world,” says Snow. “I know that some things get to where they have to be demolished, but many are not in that state and can be saved. I hate that they’re knocked down. The new architecture is not made with the same materials.”
Those materials include handmade bricks and woodworking, stone carved by hand and heart pine lumber, like that of the Union Station Trainshed, which Snow painted before it was demolished in 2001. Snow worries that Nashville’s new buildings aren’t built to last, and if the city allowed an iconic building like Union Station Trainshed to fall into disrepair, how will these new builds fare?
But Snow didn’t always paint the vestiges of our urban landscape. She was first drawn to “old ruins out in the country,” she says — farm houses, farmsteads, root cellars and abandoned buildings in rural areas. “It was a more secure time,” says Snow, “when so many of us were able to harvest the land and live off of the land. For me, an old farmstead resonates with that sense of security.
“I just fell in love with the act of plein air painting,” says Snow, “direct from the subject matter out in the open air, standing at an easel. Studying an old ruin just rung my chimes.”
The art of plein air painting is not without its challenges. Be it wind, rain or oppressive heat, the conditions are dictated by the environment and forces that the artist can’t control. Many sites slated for demolition have limited access, and Snow must set up her easel to catch the right light. Then there’s the time of day — heading into autumn, the light is constantly changing. It takes a bit of humility to accept this — to cede control. Snow is motivated by the challenge and by the hunt for free ground.
“I’ve been trying to actively study the architecture … I’m trying to capture the beauty of the subject matter and capture the beauty of the materials I’m working with — the paint and the brush strokes — and trying not to dominate and subjugate the paint to suit the subject matter. It’s kind of a tight rope. I’ll put a brush stroke up, and it will be a beautiful brush stroke, but it’s kind of far afield from the subject matter. … It’s not the right color, or it’s not the right shape. It’s kind of the line I straddle. Do I let that brush stroke stand or do I mess with it to make it fit?”
Snow first painted a building in town in 1995. Father Ryan High School on Elliston Place was slated for demolition. The Catholic boys school was the first of two racially integrated high schools in Tennessee.
“The response from the community was very influential to continue in that vein of the old city structures being torn down,” says Snow. Twenty-four years later, when she sets up her easel on sidewalks, she still gets encouragement from the whole spectrum of people passing by.
“The dominant vote is that we shouldn’t be tearing down the old world,” says Snow.
Painting en plein air also becomes a sort of performance art. Passersby stop out of curiosity, or to share stories about the place Snow is painting. Recently, as Snow painted the International Market, she learned that prior to Patti Myint’s enterprising business in 1975, the building was a grocery store called H.G. Hill. Even before that, it was the home of a pharmacy — the owner’s son stopped by to tell Snow about that era.
The International Market had personal meaning for Snow. She was a student at Belmont University in 1986 and ate many meals at the market. When painting the building, many people stopped by to talk about their relationship with Myint, who died last year after she sold her land to Belmont University — how she was like a second mother to Belmont students who were far from home.
Often, Snow’s paintings articulate a sense of loss and anger that’s felt among residents. Her depiction of the Colonial Baking Company on Franklin Pike shows the building’s proud brick facade and white pillars. In the foreground, Snow painted the stump of a massive magnolia tree, the 2010 winner of the Nashville Tree Foundations’ Big Ole Tree award. Plans to fell the tree resulted in public outcry and a petition, and Snow’s painting now serves as a memorial.
In other instances, Snow painted buildings that people sought to preserve by more official means. The Metro Historical Commission and the nonprofit Historic Nashville fought to add the Sullivan Tower — an 11-story art-deco office building built in the 1940s — to the national list of historic places, to protect it from demolition. But the building was imploded last year, and it will be replaced by Nashville Yards, which is set to be occupied by the new Amazon headquarters. At the time Snow told WSMV News Channel 4, “It’s high enough to be a castle. I like to see our castles saved.”
“It’s like the loss of a person,” Snow tells The Contributor a bit mournfully. “They are like old friends. These buildings have … the arc of attachment and investment, and then grief when it goes. The buildings themselves, they are like people. … The windows are like eyes. They get very personified for me, and I am always wishing that my work could play a part in saving them. It just never has.”
Even so, Snow’s paintings remind me of a poem by the late American poet Donald Justice. “There is a gold light in certain old paintings,” Justice writes. “That represents a diffusion of sunlight. It is like happiness, when we are happy.” It’s the last stanza of the poem that seems to embody Snow’s mission:
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
And all that we suffered through having existed
Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.