R.I.P. Bill Kidwell

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  • 08 Jul 2015 at 9:27 am #7311


    William Van (Bill) Kidwell, age 80, artist and contractor and friend of Cormac McCarthy, passed away 7 July 2015 in hospice near his home in Franklin, TN, after a long struggle with cancer.

    Bill and Cormac first met in Knoxville in 1963. When Cormac and Anne moved from Europe to Knoxville in 1967 they moved near Bill and his wife Harriet on Self Hollow Road in Rockford.

    In 1971 Bill obtained a grant to design and construct two sidewalk mosaics for the nearby City of Maryville. Cormac assisted in their construction and one of them was signed in the mortar “Kidwell 1971 McCarthy.” That mosaic was eventually preserved and moved to the grounds of the Blount County Library in Maryville.

    Kidwell moved to Williamson County near Nashville in 1973 and began working as a building contractor. In 1978 McCarthy moved to the area and began working for Kidwell along with a family of Black masons. That family would later inspire characters in McCarthy’s play “The Stonemason.”

    A brief biography of Bill by Dr. Jim Tumblin can be found at:


    08 Jul 2015 at 12:09 pm #7313


    Thanks, Wes, for the news we might have otherwise overlooked. I searched on the internet for the newspaper article with a photo of the mosaic, which I remember from some years back, but I couldn’t find anything. Fortunately, I have it in my personal archives, aka, my hard drive. It was an article in The Daily Times, a Blount County daily newspaper, which no longer has the article in its archives. Here it is (edited by me for some quotation and other marks that didn’t copy-and-paste right), and the photo of Kidwell standing over the mosaic is included as an Attachment (you must log in to access):

    Famous author’s downtown mosaic endangered
    Sunday, July 16, 2000
    By Robert Norris
    of The Daily Times Staff

    Cormac McCarthy has left his mark on literature. He is acclaimed as one of America’s leading writers.
    But in Blount County, McCarthy has left his mark in more than words.
    The enigmatic novelist also has left his mark on a sidewalk in downtown Maryville in the form of a mosaic of marble, slate and river stone set in mortar.
    But not for long.
    “We did a pretty good job right here, didn’t we, with these river rocks.”
    The voice of admiration comes not from McCarthy, but from the man who designed the artwork and corralled his writer friend to help him create it — Bill Kidwell, a contractor by necessity, an artist by desire.
    Kidwell, who still lives in Blount County almost three decades after he and McCarthy laid those stones, had not paid much attention to his handiwork for quite a while. But he still remembers.
    “The main thing that I tried to do when I designed it, I wanted to keep the same flow. But we could do what we wanted to in here, ya know, get a little playful with it,” Kidwell said on a hot July afternoon as he stood over the mosaic, eyeing the stones set in patterns hinting of sunbursts and flowing waters.
    Kidwell’s inspiration for the mosaic was Aztec. His partner found his inspiration in the people of East Tennessee. McCarthy is compared to William Faulkner, and his acclaim ensures a lasting legacy for this former resident of Rockford and Louisville.

    Destiny: Dust to dust?

    The destiny of that hard-cast circle in the sidewalk is not so assured. It lies in the path of the reconstruction of Broadway. The new curb, as designed by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, will cut across the artwork set in front of the Gift Garden and Cafe.
    The intent that led to the creation of the 15-foot-diameter mosaic appears to have doomed it. During the Nowtown project of the 1970s, Broadway was rebuilt with serpentine curves designed to make downtown pedestrian friendly and attractive to business. As the century turns, the idea is to make downtown vehicular friendly and attractive to business.
    Federal money was available for urban projects in the early ’70s. Money for the mosaic came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The price for Kidwell’s and McCarthy’s efforts: $7.25 per square foot.
    “It was fun. There were all kinds of funny stories occurred,” Kidwell said.
    “We went down to Little River and got our river rock, which I’m sure now would be illegal, and went up Chilhowee Mountain and got the slate and went over to Candora Marble (in Knoxville) and got all the marble.”
    The marble was from Tennessee, Wisconsin, Italy and unknown quarries.
    “It took us about six weeks to do the whole thing. It was in the summer, just hot as blazes out on that sidewalk. People walking by — some people liked the idea; some people were totally opposed to the whole project. We’d get our ear to the ground, really to the ground, and we heard everything.”
    An insight, perhaps, into how McCarthy acquired his knack for capturing the dialect and dialog of East Tennesseans. He liked to listen.

    Stories on the job

    “I was down on my knees one day,” Kidwell said. “And he was, too, and this woman walked up to me and I could just see her feet and he said (whispering), ‘Don’t look up. Don’t ever look up. Just keep working.’
    “And she said, ‘I’ve never seen such a thing. Grown men on their knees.’
    “Like we were playing. Like it was just a game. I didn’t laugh till she got gone. I never looked up.
    “He said, ‘If you look up, it’s going to ruin the whole thing. You’ll always remember this.'”
    Another memory is of their second mosaic, one cemented in front of what is now the First Tennessee Bank building downtown. That piece was demolished in the first phase of the Broadway reconstruction.
    “We had sawhorses sitting to block the people from stepping on the wet mortar. We had just finished and backed up and we were standing, kind of looking at it, so proud of what we’d done. Like an artist backs off of his easel.
    “Here came two little ol’ ladies comin’ toward us. They were going to the bank. And they started right toward the sawhorses, and I said, ‘Cormac, they’re gonna crawl over those … ‘ Cormac said,’Just be quiet. Let’s just watch and see what happens.’
    “One of the ladies, the younger one, helped the other one over the sawhorses and walk through the wet mortar into the bank. And he was just dying laughing the whole time.
    “I said, ‘Do you realize, we’ve got to go back and redo it?’ He said,’It doesn’t matter. It’s worth it.’
    “And we did. We had to go back and redo it.”

    A piece of history

    A “redo” may be the only hope for maintaining a McCarthy and Kidwell legacy on Broadway. City officials have checked the remaining mosaic. Not only is it in the path of the new straightened curb, it is in the way of a planned handicap ramp.
    A crane company was called in to inspect the 10,000-pound slab to see if there was a chance of lifting and moving it. The verdict: slim to none.
    There is a possibility of preserving a portion of the piece. According to city officials, any decision to modify construction plans would have to be approved by the Maryville City Council.
    Whatever happens, Kidwell doubts McCarthy will mourn it. The writer is serious about his writing — but sidewalk art? Kidwell recalled another classic McCarthy vignette. The two men were working, when McCarthy had a brainstorm.
    Kidwell and McCarthy weren’t the only stone masons with art on the 200 block of East Broadway. Visitors to downtown will notice a sculpture of sorts next to the round mosaic — a fountain, long-dry and weed-filled now, topped with a good-sized rock.
    “Cormac said, ‘Why don’t we take this cement mixer and put it up on that big rock they’ve got down there next to the round sidewalk and cover it up and then the next day when people wake up, start coming around, we’ll plug it in, pull the cloth off like a monument.'”
    That sounded like trouble to Kidwell. One man’s humor is another man’s insult.
    “I talked him out of it, but I probably should have done it.
    “I said, ‘No, we can’t do that. We’d get run outta town.'”
    Well, McCarthy left town on his own accord. And his sidewalk art is likely to leave town in the back of a dump truck.

    You must be logged in to view attached files.
    08 Jul 2015 at 12:32 pm #7315


    A few days later, the same newspaper published what appears to be an editorial. Here it is:

    City should explore ways to preserve downtown mosaic
    Wednesday, July 19, 2000

    Two young Blount County men squatted down on the sidewalk in downtown Maryville in 1971 and etched a mosaic of marble, slate and river stone. The were paid $7.25 per square foot through a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
    The city saw the artwork as an attractive ornament to help make downtown more pedestrian friendly. It fit with the mission of the Nowtown project to rebuild Broadway with serpentine curves and wide sidewalks. For the men, it was just something fun to do on a lark.
    Fast forward three decades to the current vision of city leaders. They are still trying to get people to come downtown, but now the thinking is to straighten out West Broadway and create limited on-street parking. The 30-year-old mosaic is in the path of the new straightened curb as well as a proposed ramp for the disabled.
    Just when construction crews were about to reduce the circular mosaic to rubble, one of the original designers, Bill Kidwell, pointed out that the other artist on the project was Cormac McCarthy, who became not a painter, nor sculptor, nor stone mason, but a best-selling novelist. His style is often compared to the great William Faulkner. McCarthy, who lived for a time in Rockford and Louisville and now lives in El Paso, Texas, is at the peak of his popularity with a 1992 novel, “All the Pretty Horses” being made into a movie for release in 2001.
    This presents a dilemma for city officials who have already approved one curve in the project to preserve some trees in front of Broadway Towers. They obviously don’t want to face the political implications of putting a second curve in the next block of the “straightened” roadway for the sake of art. On the other hand, the artwork of a world-class writer might actually lure tourists and generate more business downtown if people knew it was there.
    The city asked a crane company to look at moving the 10,000-pound slab, but the experts say there is little chance it could be moved intact. It’s possible that a piece of the mosaic could be removed and relocated somewhere else in the city.
    It looks like City Council will get to make the final decision on this issue. We think the council should investigate every means of preserving this unique artifact of a writer who will probably become more famous as the years go by and whose works will be read by generations to come.
    One thing about it: McCarthy is a reclusive, enigmatic figure who has granted only one major newspaper interview his whole career. He lets his work do all his talking. If the artwork is preserved, don’t look for him to come back for the rededication ceremony.

    Our voice
    On McCarthy artwork

    08 Jul 2015 at 7:18 pm #7316


    Ken: Thanks for saving and posting the articles. It should not be forgotten that at least part of the credit for saving the large circular mosaic and moving it to its new location should be given to Chip Arnold and The Cormac McCarthy Society for lobbying Maryville city officials to preserve the work.

    14 Jul 2017 at 3:30 am #9701


    Here’s two pictures of the mosaic at the library:

    14 Jul 2017 at 3:41 am #9702

    Richard L.

    Thanks for that. I like the story better than the art, and what a narrative it is.

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