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A black-and-white photo of TVA artist Robert Birdwell sketching

Painting a Legacy

Oak Ridge Exhibit Celebrates TVA Artist Robert Birdwell

In the confines of her garage, Ann Birdwell sifts through dust-covered cardboard boxes, each one a time capsule of memories.

As she carefully looks through faded sketches and intricate artwork drafts, she's filled with nostalgia – and a bit of anticipation.

The exhibit is opening soon. She's determined to unearth her late husband’s cherished creations and share them with the world.

“He was always trying to get his best art out there,” Ann says.

Robert died in 2016.

This summer, she and others in the art community are reintroducing her husband’s legacy to the masses.

The Oak Ridge Art Center in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is gearing up for a retrospective exhibit featuring the work of Ann's husband, Robert Birdwell, a renowned artist whose murals and artwork left an indelible mark on TVA’s culture.

Opening in early July, just days before what would have been his 100th birthday, the exhibit will showcase Robert’s personal artwork, as well as pieces he completed as a TVA staff artist from 1953 to 1983.

“This is an incredible opportunity for the community to see the work of an artist who played an outsized role in shaping not just the Valley region’s art community, but also visual arts during a pivotal era at TVA,” Pat Ezzell, TVA historian, said. “His murals are nothing short of iconic in capturing TVA's history, story and culture.”

Artist Robert Birdwell stands near a TVA mural

Pursuing a Passion

As one of 10 children, Robert was surrounded by opportunities to develop his hobbies. As a young boy, he spent much of his time nose-deep in a sketchbook, showing early signs of artistic talent.

“He was always interested in art,” Ann said.

His journey as an artist was deeply intertwined with his experiences in Knoxville, his hometown.

While he initially pursued a degree in engineering at the University of Tennessee, he ultimately joined an art program that inspired him to change his path and follow his true passion.

He was one of the first students to graduate from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. He went on to earn a master's in fine arts from the University of Iowa.

As he created his personal art, he soon established himself as a noted artist in Tennessee.  

He became a member of the Knoxville Seven, a group of seven bold, young artists who challenged societal art norms from the late 1940s to the early 1960s.

He emerged as a leading artist at TVA, where his exceptional talent was manifested in beautiful, highly detailed murals that became integral to the enterprise’s culture and architecture.

Showcased at Norris Dam, Boone Dam, Cherokee Dam, Fort Patrick Henry Dam and other locations, the murals served as symbols of pride for the community. They were masterful tributes to what TVA brought to the region – affordable, reliable and clean energy, stewardship of the region’s land and water resources, and economic advancement. 

“These pieces of art reflect the history of the Tennessee Valley region and TVA’s role in that history,” Ezzell said. “It is another way to tell our story, visually.”

Colorful artwork by TVA artist Robert Birdwell

‘His Life’s Work’

Robert’s art has been carefully curated for display at the Oak Ridge Art Center exhibit, offering guests a rare opportunity to rediscover and appreciate his legacy firsthand.

“It would make him so happy that people are recognizing and remembering his work,” Ann said.

Robert believed in the power of art to enrich and connect communities, she said.

And his legacy has extended well beyond his own artistic achievements, as his four children came to cherish and pursue their own creative endeavors. They work in interior design, catering and art, and they’ve featured art exhibits of their own.

While their respective achievements stand on their own merits, their work is also a testament to Robert’s passion for art, which he shared with his children and other artists throughout the region.

“This was his life’s work,” Ann said. “Art was his passion.”

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Learn more about TVA history at the Our History page.

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TVA artist Robert Birdwell sketching

TVA artist Robert Birdwell exhibit

When: July 6 to Aug. 17, 2024

Where: Oak Ridge Art Center