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Art in the Holler

A Knoxville artists residency encourages writers and visual artists to create out of new experiences. 

By Katie Elyce Jones

Jack Kerouac writes in On the Road, “The best teacher is experience.” Giving artists the opportunity to create from experience is why poet Erin Elizabeth Smith wants writers, visual artists and filmmakers to visit the Sundress Academy for the Arts, based at the 29-acre Firefly Farms near Knoxville. SAFTA is inviting artists from around the country to come to Tennessee and shoot guns then create art about it, do yoga then create art about it, or cook traditional Southern meals then create art about it. You get the idea.

As managing editor of Sundress Publications, which runs one of the five oldest continuously published online literary journals, Smith and the Sundress staff have spent years building creative relationships. But while there are many online spaces for artists to share their work, there aren’t as many physical places to share common experiences and explore hands-on themes often found in art and literature — from food and drink to gardening, farm work or camping. Firearms, for example, are found in books, films and paintings for a variety of reasons, but shooting a firearm is not something everyone can say they’ve done. SAFTA hosted a spring workshop with professional instruction on firearm types and safety, allowing participants to shoot a variety of firearms and then capture the experience on paper.


“East Tennessee is actually teeming with talented individuals who are doing some amazing art, film and writing,” Smith says. “I think it’s one of the most vibrant places in the U.S. to be working right now. That being said, there isn’t a residency within 150 miles of Knoxville, and we want to not only bring together different artist communities, but also bring people to this area where so many exciting things are happening beneath the radar.”

Firefly Farms is not just a quaint name: it is a functioning farm 15 miles outside Knoxville with small livestock and groundwork for subsistence farming. Smith purchased the house and property in 2013 with her partner Joe Minarick. The house needed a lot of work to make it a suitable living space for two writers-in-residence and working space for the organization.

“I thought we were going to have to bulldoze it down,” Smith (pictured below with homemade biscuits) says.


But after being advised to keep the one-story house, which the previous family in the “holler” (as the neighborhood calls it) built by hand, Smith, Minarick and volunteers spent thousands of hours replacing drywall, wiring and painting. SAFTA has offered several workshops in 2014 while continuing updates to the house and farm. In addition to yoga, firearms and fiction workshops, OUTspoken (for LGBTQ writers and presenters) and undergraduate poetry workshops, as well as writers’ retreats have already taken place on the property.

The house, almost completely refurbished and full of furniture, art and books, serves as indoor workshop space for now. Work is still under way on a visual arts studio in the basement, where the academy keeps its 19th century printing press for making chapbooks and fliers. Smith has longterm plans to build a barn a short walk from the house for larger groups to meet and hold events and to clear a hillside that will make a natural amphitheater for outdoor theater and readings.

But while Firefly Farms is SAFTA’s home and headquarters, much of the academy’s work is also part of downtown Knoxville’s arts and culture scene. On Sundays, they host a reading series at The Birdhouse, a community arts space, and have held several readings as part of the city’s popular “First Friday” events. Last year, SAFTA Films christened the performing arts arm of the academy by making a film during the Knoxville Film Festival, and so far this summer, SAFTA members have performed OUTspoken, a multi-genre theatrical production that evolved from the LGBTQ workshop, and produced its first nine podcasts, or SAFTAcasts.


I visited Firefly Farms earlier this summer for the workshop “Writing and Cooking the South,” in which food demonstrations were paired with poetry about the South, emphasizing the language of food and drink. Workshop leaders prepared dishes like black-eyed pea hummus, mint juleps and shrimp and grits.

And while there was an organized schedule of demonstrations, group readings and independent writing time, perhaps an equal amount of time was spent on the porch drinking the stock of mint juleps, chatting and taking in the environment around the farm. During one of these breaks, T.A. Noonan (pictured above), who is a current writer-in-residence, pointed out an insect poised on the front door.

“That’s a Luna Moth,” she said. “It has been crawling up the door for two days laying eggs. They only live to lay eggs; then they die. I don’t want to disturb that.”

And just as intended, an organized workshop about the South blended into a Southern experience and something worth writing about.


Upcoming Events at SAFTA (click here for full details):  

Not About But Through: Poems in Response to Photos
August 24
Join poet Deborah Bernhardt for an exploration of the Knoxville Museum of Art’s exhibition “This World is Not My Home: Danny Lyon Photographs.” Several writing nooks will be available, including a space with SAFTA-provided snacks, and participants will share poetry drafts and receive feedback on their work at the end of the workshop.

Ugh: Writing A Love Poem Worth Reading
September 27
Explore and practice the successful traits of a contemporary love poem. What does it take to shoulder past the weight of a poetic genre that limps with history and missteps? Bring your work with you and write some new things as well with poet Darren C. Demaree. 

My Other Car is Another World: Writing Fiction in the Genres
October 11
This workshop will reveal simple, practical methods for generating genre story ideas, planning and plotting and drafting and perfecting your stories. Just some of the specific topics to be covered include Science Fiction as a Tool of the Oppressed, The Fictional Physics of Time Travel, FTL and Aliens, the Rules of Magic, and Oh No, Not Another Demon. Participants will write and revise their own stories, and the cutthroat world of genre fiction publishing will be discussed.

Photo Credits: Boots in the grass by Jessica Johnson, Firefly Farms by Katie Elyce Jones, Erin Elizabeth Smith with homebaked biscuits by T.A. Noonan and T.A. Noonan reading by Kristi Larkin Havens

Katie Elyce Jones met Erin Elizabeth Smith while completing her master’s in English literature at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She is currently a science writer living and working in Knoxville and was formerly a true crime script writer. 

Literary Friday, Mis
Shrimp and Goat Chee
  • Cynthia Roth / June 6, 2015

    I am heading to SAFTA from Illinois for a writer’s residency next week!. I graduated from UTK and lived in East TN for ten years. Looking forward to visiting Dr. Alan Solomon’s garden and a few other Knoxville spots after a week of writing poems.