Sunday, February 10, 2019

History Project goes public

Knoxville's history has gone public, very public.

The Knoxville History Project was founded by longtime Knoxville historian, newspaper columnist and author Jack Neely with Development Director and author Paul James. They are keeping our history alive with public exhibits.

The Knoxville History Project’s Downtown Art Wraps keep on getting better. This is the fifteenth in the series that takes ordinary gray traffic boxes and turns them into outdoor history lessons. Added in early February, this exhibit honors a local naturalist! The original painting of an arresting Red-tailed Hawk was by artist Earl Henry, a dentist whose office was located adjacent to this spot at Main Street and Locust in the Medical Arts Building in the 1930s.

It is best to see the wrap in person, but if you cannot here is the history lesson. 

Earl O’Dell Henry (1911-1945)

Immature Red-tailed Hawk, 1944
Original: Tempera on Board, 13 5/8 x 16 inches

Earl Henry, a local naturalist and self-taught artist, is often better known as the Knoxville dental officer who perished on the ill-fated USS Indianapolis at the end of World War II.

After his boyhood discovery of vividly illustrated wildlife cards found inside Arm & Hammer Baking Soda boxes, Earl began drawing birds. His wooden bird carvings drew acclaim while studying at Knoxville High School. He developed the art of taxidermy while a junior member of the East Tennessee Ornithological Society and that expertise informed his painting of birds.

After studying dentistry in Memphis, Henry returned to Knoxville and set up practice across the street from here in the Medical Arts Building. In 1942, he joined the U.S. Navy, serving on active duty initially at the Naval Hospital at Parris Island in South Carolina. There, he honed his artistic ability using tempera paints on boards, and later incorporating detailed background landscapes, reminiscent of the style of John James Audubon, providing richer and more sophisticated natural settings. 

Cmdr. Henry lost his life at sea at age 33. He died on July 30, 1945 aboard the USS Indianapolis shortly after the vessel delivered uranium for the first atomic bomb used in World War II. The ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sunk within 12 minutes. Henry was not among the survivors. He was one of two Knoxvillians on the ship – the other being Knoxville Journal photographer Kasey Moore. Two of Henry’s final works, “Kentucky Cardinal” and “American Eagle in the Pacific” were painted aboard ship in 1944 and his artistic legacy remains part of the ongoing story of the USS Indianapolis.

Examples of Earl Henry’s artwork and mounted birds are on display locally at Ijams Nature Center. Read more about Earl Henry and other Knoxville naturalists from the past at: Naturalists.

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