Keith Harmon doesn’t display his art in any Nashville galleries. He doesn’t have a website, Etsy profile or Facebook page where he showcases his creations. But odds are you’ve already enjoyed his work. One of East Nashville’s best-kept secrets, Harmon hides his creations in plain sight.
If you’ve ever been through 5 Points, you’re somewhat familiar with Harmon: He painted the sign for the new Tenn Sixteen Food & Drink Co. and the sign on the door to Five Points Pizza. But you have to step inside the Woodland Street eateries to witness his real talent.
Two things set the tone when you walk into Five Points Pizza: the smell of authentic New York pie and the painting that covers most of one wall. Curving, winding lines form bodies in motion on a bright red background. A largerthan- life band belts out the music as dancers are captured mid-twirl at the peak of the party. The artwork exudes the energy of a live performance, with good reason: The piece came together after Harmon brought a sketchbook to a show.
“It’s called ‘Letting It All Go,’ and that’s what they were doing,” Harmon says of a particularly inspiring performance at The 5 Spot one night in 2008. “It was right after the election, and it was sort of a release for people.”
Even from the sidewalk, his newest mural inside Tenn Sixteen catches your eye. Standing out among the restaurant’s Mardi Gras-beaded chandeliers and smaller artwork is Harmon’s expansive, surreal street view, looking west from an East Nashville vantage point. The vivid, saturated colors and stark lines of the Van Gogh-esque sunset behind the Nashville skyline tie the restaurant’s brightly painted walls and Cajun décor together.
“It’s fun, which is really indicative of what we’re trying to do with the restaurant, and it’s a great connection to the community,” says Steve McColl, manager of Tenn Sixteen. “Customers love it and they think it’s really neat — they can see Cumberland Hardware and the ‘Batman Building’ in the skyline.”
With a soft-spoken drawl, the tall and lanky Harmon says knew he wanted to be an artist since he was “yay high” — even though art wasn’t that easy to come by growing up in Charleston, in southeast Tennessee, pop. 651. Until a trip to Chattanooga’s Hunter Museum of Art in high school, Harmon’s only experience with paintings and authentic art was what he saw in textbooks.
He studied painting at Middle Tennessee State University, and after a six-year pottery apprenticeship led to carpal tunnel syndrome, Harmon moved to Nashville. He became involved with the volunteer-run Untitled Artists Group, and began working with stained glass. He credits the experience of creating mostly religious images for churches with forcing him to “work with more realism.” His work adorns the chapel at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.
The lure of then-popular artist hangouts like Slow Bar and the Plowhaus Artists’ Cooperative drew Harmon to East Nashville, and he eventually settled on this side of the river in 2003. In 2009, Harmon entered a Metro Nashville public art contest calling for creative bike rack ideas. He teamed up with Plowhaus co-founder Franne Lee and former Radio Cafe owner Mac Hill, and their design of a stainless-steel microphone bike rack won. (Their creation is now located near the Musica statue on Demonbreun.)