Photography by Travis Commeau
Buried roots run underground, unseen, feeding life above. People. Communities. The power of art when strongly rooted manifests in many ways, inspiring, often quietly building, with the potential to change lives. One such life is that of James Threalkill, artist and former star athlete, who benefited from deep and nourishing connections to the East Nashville community, and who continues to give back to it today.
“The foundation of East Nashville is a strong sense of community,” Threalkill says, sitting down for lunch recently at The Family Wash. “It still is. It has been that way for a long time. Oprah Winfrey. (Former Nashville mayor) Dick Fulton. (Actor of Gomer Pyle fame) Frank Sutton. People like that came from East Nashville. These were proud neighborhoods, where families looked after each other’s children, that sort of thing.
“We grew up in that environment,” he continues. “That’s what we had. Oprah’s dad was the neighborhood barber. She was a fellow student at East. It was the kind of place where that kind of talent, that kind of creativity, could thrive. A lot of the negative stuff, we knew that wasn’t what East Nashville was all about. The thing I’m pleased about here today is that East Nashville is being looked at with the appeal and attractiveness it deserves.”
Threalkill’s story is unlikely and uplifting, tracing a path that led him from J.C. Napier Court to East Nashville to the offices of a Nashville mayor, to sharing a stage with Nelson Mandela in Soweto, South Africa. He managed to flourish under a steady upbringing in a tricky setting. He considers himself a product of public housing, but also a product of neighborhood and community caring — placed on a path in life that reflected the power of his community, his athletic talent, and his gift as an artist. His parents played a role in all, especially his mother. His community played a role, a public trust in which he gained traction, fueled by teachers, coaches, and guides.
Public trust includes a willingness for the government to put its money where its mouth is, in our schools and community programs that offer a road to learning and hope. That trust also includes a willingness by individuals to help others. Threalkill gives himself, through his art, and through real time in working with young people, to a warm embrace of friends.
He is a celebrated artist, a painter of portraits that represent a sense of global community — with subjects that range from Tupac to Nelson Mandela. He is well known for his mural work and his involvement in pushing students far and near toward art as a means of growth and social awareness. Today, his medium is primarily acrylic with an accented knife-work that fills his pieces with a texture and life that is tangible.
Many in Nashville remember him from his schoolboy stardom of the 1970s, on the basketball court and football field at East High, and then beyond — he earned an athletic scholarship to play football at Vanderbilt. But through his art and through formal work raising diversity awareness, Threalkill has traveled the world, teaching kids to embrace mural painting in Cartagena, Colombia, to sharing a portrait of Mandela with the man, himself. All has shaped him, and carried him a long way from the old Napier School.
“I grew up in three different public housing areas,” Threalkill says. “I was a scrawny little kid living in J.C. Napier Court, and I had a dad who loved sports — NFL and NBA, mainly. So [I was exposed to sports early on], but my identity was more associated with being an artist.
“My first-grade teacher at Napier School contacted my mother and told her I was doing my schoolwork, but I was drawing all day. She told her I might be pretty good. That alerted my mother, and she bought art materials for me and enrolled me in art classes at the old Children’s Museum behind Howard School.
“I had excellent art teachers through the public school system who gave me assignments and would get me to draw,” he continues. “We’d study the presidents and do portraits, things like that. Then my life-changing moment came when I was 13 — my mother took me down to Hillsboro Village and bought me an oil painting set. I was the oldest of six kids, so we didn’t really have a lot of money laying around to spend on extra things like that. It gave me the chance to learn the nuances of that medium at an early age.”
Threalkill flourished and grew, both as an artist, and literally. Between his sophomore and junior years at East High, he grew from 6 feet 1 inch to 6 feet 4 inches and began attracting the attention of coaches.
“I had begun to play sports earlier,” he says. “When I finished the eighth grade, my mother moved us to East Nashville, and I went to East Junior High. Right outside our apartment in Lane Gardens was a basketball court. And, I would just go out there and hone my game. Sometimes, I would be out there until midnight shooting. I tried out for sports the first time at East Junior High — but I was a benchwarmer in football and basketball.”
Threalkill found stardom in both by his junior year, making all-district and all-city in basketball, and ultimately, All-America as a wide receiver in football. He ran some track, but football was where he attracted the most attention from colleges. 6-feet-4-inch wide receivers with speed are attractive to everyone, Threalkill found himself being recruited by many of the big programs, including Notre Dame, Indiana, and Arizona State, among others, and locally by the legendary Big John Merritt at Tennessee State and Steve Sloan at Vanderbilt. Legendary Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells was one of Sloan’s assistant coaches.
“Bill Parcells was on the staff at Vanderbilt, and he recruited me,” Threalkill says. “They offered me a scholarship — I had come close to signing with coach Lee Corso at Indiana; you know, the Big Ten. But Bill Parcells and Steve Sloan were personable coaches, and they really swayed me to stay here and play. I did have a dream of playing close to home so my family could come to the games.
“People around me were telling me I was probably going to be a pro athlete,” he adds. “But my mother always told me that no matter how many accolades I received, or how my life was going in football — she always told me to never neglect my art. I already knew I had fallen in love with it enough for it to be my major when I went to college. Regardless of whatever I did, I would always devote time to art. My mother would encourage me when she knew I hadn’t done anything in a while.”
A cruel fortune, however, intervened in Threalkill’s athletic life. After a stellar freshman year at Vanderbilt, he broke a leg and sustained ligament damage during a preseason practice. Though he continued to play, it was never at the same level. That dream ended on a final cut with the Birmingham Stallions of the old USFL following his senior year at Vandy. The end of one dream, allowed the other to come more
“I got [football] out of my system, maybe,” he says. “Art affects the way you look at the world — people, nature, anything — in a creative way. That’s one of the great things about having art as a part of your essence. You can make beauty out of anything you see. It might seem an unusual situation playing football and being an artist — like (songwriter and former Cincinnati Bengal) Mike Reid, and (acclaimed artist and former pro lineman) Ernie Barnes, people like that — great examples of people who did that.”
Threalkill had not only majored in art at Vanderbilt, but had kept himself busy painting portraits for coaches and players, and for covers of scouting reports and odd publications. “My art went hand-in-hand with everything I was doing,” he says. “It was a great education. I was fascinated with the different art forms, and I had access to a thriving environment.”
Following Vanderbilt, Threalkill went to work at the Edgehill Community Center as Community Services Director, and began setting up youth programs, summer employment programs, alcohol and drug prevention programs, and beyond.
“Edgehill had a pretty rough reputation,” he says. “But we had a lot of success. People took notice — we began to spread our award-winning mural painting programs throughout the city. We were selling some student artwork and teaching them they could make a living with art — as opposed to being out on the street corner selling drugs. Something you could do that was productive and safe.
“We took kids to Washington, D.C. For many of them, it was the first time out of their community. I’ll never forget the looks on their faces when they saw some of the places and the structures — the Washington Monument, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial — it’s just priceless to me. Mayor [Phil] Bredesen contacted me during his second term and said he wanted me on his staff to help him connect to local communities. I was his community affairs person. I’d go to community meetings and hear what their concerns were, and communicate those back to the mayor.
“I ultimately became part of the founding board members for the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. I ended up being on the Metro Arts Commission, and a part of those forums exploring how Nashville could become a cultural arts center. That’s when I connected with people like Ann Brown and Michael McBride, great artists, who were doing murals and bringing attention to public art.”
As people discovered the work Threalkill was doing in the community, they discovered his own artwork. And he was part of a movement that was bringing artists together to move a city. He connected with Jim Ed Norman at Warner Bros. Records and through that relationship was brought into a project with South African musicians, most notably bassist Victor Masando. Threalkill had painted a portrait of Mandela in 1990, based on a photograph run by USA Today when he was released from prison. Norman sent an image of the portrait to Mandela’s people, and Threalkill produced the cover for the record.
They loved both, and upon discovering his mural paintings, invited him to an event honoring Mandela in Soweto in 1995. “They brought me to South Africa to paint some murals and to teach students how to do it,” he recalls. “I traveled with the music producer and director, Gail Hamilton, and connected with Victor Masando.
“There was a sea of people (at the event in Soweto). I sat onstage four rows back from Nelson Mandela. Who in the world would believe? I’ve come a long way from East Nashville! . . . I was able show him the painting I had done five years before.”
His work would land him far-flung jobs working with various global companies, coordinating diversity outreach programs, and connecting with local artists, and bringing art workshops and English language classes. The U.S. embassy in Bogota, Colombia, arranged for him to speak in six cities across that country about his home and the power of art.
Today, from his studio in Murfreesboro, Threalkill remains true to his nature of community service. He travels to East Nashville often to honor the support he was given early, giving through a group he had been a part of many years ago.
“There’s a group of guys I played ball with,” he says. “Lifelong friends. When we were younger, we all used to hang out at the Fred [now Frederick] Douglas Center. There was a mentor and Parks and Recreation employee named Edward Mullins — his nickname was Junebug, and he was a role model for a lot of the young men in the neighborhood. He formed a group called the Unique Gents. We used to meet down at the community center and emphasize discipline and schoolwork.
“We’ve gotten back together, maybe 25 years later. Unfortunately, Junebug suffered an untimely death, but we’re committed to staying together and helping anyway we can here. We have many Saturdays when we come in and talk to young men about careers and education, finances. About possibilities.
“We want to keep them on track — we’ll do things like provide meals after the games like hot dogs and pizza, so they can have something after. We look for ways to support the young people in this community the way we were supported when we were growing up.”
And, yes, Threalkill talks to them about the power of art. The power of hope. “Because of art, I’ve been able to stand with some of the greatest men on the planet,” he says. “I’ve come from the public housing community, but that hasn’t held me back. … I’m lucky in that people cared about me. My mother. The first-grade teacher.”