A Conversation with Knoxville's High Altitude Artist

Logan Mahan
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Kelly Brown has been instrumental in Knoxville's climbing and art scenes. His art can be seen all over the city, from the treetop tables at Scruffy City Hall, to the beautiful bike arch downtown, and the whimsical "twigloos" at Jo's Grove. His climbing prowess extends to  Ijams Crag, his book The Obed: a Climbers Guide to the Wild and Scenic, and is current work on Navitiat's new canopy adventure course at Ijams. It seems that Kelly's passion for art and the outdoors are coming together in perfect harmony. We sat down with Kelly at Scruffy City Hall to discuss art and altitude with this climbing craftsman.

Tell me about your early years as an artist?

Kelly Brown's Bike Arch near downtown Knoxville
Kelly Brown's Bike Arch near downtown Knoxville Bruce McCamish

I got my undergraduate at Auburn and got a scholarship to come to UT for my Masters in fine arts. I welded all through school, but what I really loved was working with organic matter. Totally impermanent structures of dirt and natural materials that would biodegrade. I really wasn’t too concerned about the permanency until I had to make a living—it turns out people don’t want their stuff to rot away [laughs].

How did you get into climbing?

After graduation, I was in a rough spot. I had just broken up with my girlfriend, and I was disillusioned with the art scene—too much pretense. So when a friend offered to take me climbing, I said “yes,” and quickly fell in love with the artistic aspect of creating [climbing] routes. That was my medium for a long time, and I loved it. Here was a space where no human had been before and I felt like an astronaut doing these three-dimensional puzzles in space. I liked that creative aspect and I liked that other people could come experience it too, on their own terms.

That was in the 80’s. Very few things were bolted around Knoxville, at that time. They had only just started bolting Cherokee Bluffs [Now Closed], but I enjoyed doing just all disciplines of climbing. I still love it, man. I’m 54 now, I hurt a little more, it takes me a little longer to recover, but I still get out there and I dig it.

When did you get back into art?

Kelly at work on Treetop Tables for Scruffy City Hall
Kelly at work on Treetop Tables for Scruffy City Hall Kelly Brown

I gradually started making things again in my spare time and slowly began getting some recognition. I was eventually approached by Ijams to build something for a natural play area, and have been steadily getting a projects since then. Sometimes you have a solid stream of work and then it will suddenly dry up. I still have this dream of being my own studio artist, but it’s a hard one. Especially here in East Tennessee. But, you know, I work hard. It’s a lot of persistence, you got to want to do it. There’s a lot of pressure to “go get a real job” and just have this as my hobby, but hell, I just don’t want to do that.

Tell me about your work at the Obed.

Kelly at work on the Navitat Canopy Course
Kelly at work on the Navitat Canopy Course Logan Mahan

I walked the Obed when there wasn’t even a bolt on it. I got to see the whole thing just explode, but you know, at the time, I didn’t want to bolt anything, because it was too pretty.

And there's that constant debate between conservation and preservation, right? If you develop it as a climbing area, it becomes popular and loses some of its pristine beauty, but if you keep it secret, there's no one to advocate for the space, when someone comes along and wants to destroy it.

Yeah, there is that balance all the time, you’re trying to decipher where it is. You know, Benjy [Darnell] and I are doing this whole thing at the Ijams Crag, where we’re asking, “How much rock do we have to take off to make it safe?” We want the make it safe, but I always lean toward less and he always leans towards more, and you have to find that balance.

How did you come to write the climbing guidebook for the Obed?

I had all these notes that I kept from the late eighties to the early nineties about the Obed. I wrote so much stuff down: who I climbed with, what we climbed, what I ate for dinner. So I had a pretty good history of it, already. We were just out there being a part of it. I started bolting out there in the early nineties with the help of Tony Robinson, and slowly developed what would become the guidebook. I had tons of notes, route descriptions, and photography from Mark Large, but the bulk of the book got written while I was having hip surgery. I was just writing up a storm on pain meds [laughs]. I wanted it to be a great book. I wanted it to have the feel of the Obed as well as the community that goes with the Obed. Because it’s all connected.

You played a pretty big part in the new crag at Ijams too, right?

Kelly giving beta to a climber at the Ijams Crag
Kelly giving beta to a climber at the Ijams Crag Logan Mahan

Well, you know when we lost Cherokee Bluffs, we didn't have a good local spot, so it was really nice to have a chance to create another area at Ijams.  Benjy Darnell took the helm, and talked to the powers that be at Ijams and we got started on this crag. There was great potential there, but there was also a lot of work to be done and there’s still a lot of work to go. I’ve bolted 18 lines out there, and we’ve got about 30 lines up now.

How did the Navitat gig come about?

When these guys started researching a place to build a [high ropes] course, Knoxville became a really strong market for what Navitat had to offer. They came across the "twigloos" at Jo’s Grove and asked, “Could you build that in the air?” They wanted something that would draw attention to their course and bring people in. I was all over that idea. Canopy adventures are new to me, so there's been a learning curve, but you can't beat the workplace, and it's really the perfect merging of my passions.

Logan Mahan

Did climbing mark your entry into the outdoors?

I fell in love with the outdoors through backpacking, actually. That was my base. I got a real outdoor ethic through that before I even started rock climbing. I loved being outside, and I went out backpacking every single weekend and did almost all the trails in the Smokies and at Joyce Kilmore and Citico Creek. Every weekend, somewhere different. One weekend, someone took me up to Laurel Falls on the Cumberland Plateau. I was stunned by the whole area. Something was being triggered inside of me, and I loved it.

What are your favorite outdoor destinations around Knoxville?

My favorite hiking spot is this place in Big South Fork called Honey Creek. It’s phenomenal. It’s like caving outside. You’re hiking through layers and layers of sandstone in these canyons, and the area has some great climbing with amazing cracks. Closer to home, I love to trail run and mountain bike in the Urban Wilderness. The Appalachian Mountain Bike Club has been so effective out there and built some amazing trails. The dirty south loop [aka The South Loop] is so great. Just a perfect trail running route.

To learn more about Kelly, check out his guidebook for the Obed, visit his website, or interact with his art firsthand and the Navitat Adventure Course coming later this summer to Ijams.

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