Chester Martin Remembers Fannie Mennen And Plum Nelly

Tuesday, February 9, 2016 - by Chester Martin

A great many of you more "seasoned" citizens will remember the famous "Plum Nelly Clothesline Art Shows" of some 40 - and more - years ago. They were the brain-child of Miss Fannie Mennen, an art teacher at Northside Jr. High School. Miss Mennen was a recognized printmaker and watercolor painter. As most artists, she sought to increase the sale of her work. Go read for yourself the actual history on the Plum Nelly Shop website - including how it got its name.

I will mainly tell some of what I remember about her shows. In private conversations she would tell you how she had grown up in Chattanooga, had loved to read in the old Carnegie Library (SE corner of 8th and Georgia Avenues) as a girl, and was very proud of the fact that her father had been Chattanooga's first "permanent" Rabbi.

Miss Mennen bought a most desirable property on the "back" of Lookout Mountain, between Rising Fawn and LaFayette, Ga. Here she could go about her painting and printmaking in the quiet of natural surroundings; it was to be her "summer" retreat. She added a second log cabin to an existing one, which provided both living and studio space. The tranquil setting was ideal for inspiring artistic creativity, AND it was an ideal spot for an art show, despite the sheer bluff drop-off which was never protected.

A rustic trail she laid out through the woods led from one artist's area to the next. When I visited there on several occasions I found everything nicely arranged so that each artist's exhibit could be seen or appreciated to best advantage - the wood-carver's pounding would not interfere with the puppet theater, or etc. As a younger lady she had helped form a group of Appalachian artists, some of whom she invited to participate in her shows. One of these was the noted Cherokee wood-carver, "Going-Back Chiltoskey". Artists were strictly forbidden to hammer nails into the trees or damage the property in any way. She had personally overseen the placement of each hanging-wire so as not to injure any tree. Her shows were held later than most other autumn events so as to evade tornado season.

One of my first years to visit there, Fannie Mennen had done a number of watercolors of insects, about 14" x 20" in size, the subjects of which she had enlarged visually. They were quite colorful, and the public loved them. But her specialty was printmaking: she kept a number of cats at her home - Persians, etc., - which somehow got into most of her work. They made excellent subjects and loved to pose. In the middle of the property was an area for musicians to play, and for several years it was a small string orchestra made up of some prominent people from Chattanooga, including Dean Maxwell A. Smith of the University of Chattanooga, who played mandolin, Mr. "Al" Morgan who was Chattanooga's top classical guitarist of the day, and several others. They played under a canopy of autumn leaves with the sun dappling through, and the effect was really charming. There was most likely cider for sale, but I do not remember any food, since discarded food plates and sandwich wrappers would have resulted in marring the total effect; she wanted nothing to litter her grounds.

People flocked to Plum Nelly from everywhere in the entire region - including Nashville, Atlanta, Birmingham, as well as Chattanooga. Miss Mennen developed a wide following through the years and had a regular staff of local people who were skilled in directing traffic and parking. Pandemonium outside, but tranquility inside. I think she even arranged for water-sprinkling trucks to alleviate the dusty road problem...

BUT, for all the serene and rustic quality of the place, there was for years an un-welcome  annoyance. In mid-afternoon, at the height of the festivities, suddenly a cloud of religious tracts (pamphlets) would come fluttering down from the skies through the leafy covering of trees. They marred the effect, and Miss Mennen bristled at the unwanted littering! It took some years, I think, for her to link the flight of a small 2-place Army-drab colored aircraft to the sudden  appearance of these tracts. No one would notice the plane as it flew over - it could be sightseers, or  photographers, and everyone was focused laterally forward, not upward. The tracts would not hit the ground until the plane was out of sight, yet In the course of time, she recognized that the PLANE was the culprit!

Who was doing it, and why? Who was being targeted, and why? Someone was being seen as "evil", and some unknown and unseen person was passing judgment on - someone! it must have caused Miss Mennen a lot of grief, and perhaps some sleepless nights. It was actually a number of years later, however, that I was regularly having my work framed by a very well-known local picture framer, who prided himself for doing both church work, AND flying in the Army Air National Guard. In talking to me one day he inadvertently "spilled the beans", telling me how he "used to fly over Plum Nelly just to drop religious pamphlets" every year!

To this day I have a problem bending my mind around the hypocrisy of that unintended confession: here was a picture framer who benefited directly from the sale of  Plum Nelly art on the one hand, while condemning it on the other! WOW!   Think about that! I made no comment, simply recording his comment in my memory. Plum Nelly was by now long past so I just remained silent.

Regardless of all the above, Plum Nelly contributed much to the spirit of the community - although all good things have to end. Miss Mennen seemed to vacillate for a while, but finally put the word out to the media that she would not have her art show the next year. Elements had come in that she could no longer control. She wanted more time to do her own art, so decided to end the clothes-line shows. The feeling of let-down was palpable throughout the entire art-loving community. Her legacy lives on at the shop she opened in North Chattanooga, however, which is still going strong after forty years!

OH! Who WAS that mysterious pilot who flew over and dropped those pamphlets? Ha ha! I know, but I am still not telling! Check with me in, say, 20 more years and I might.

Would it mar the effect of this writing if I told you that I was "the" last artist to ever be admitted to Miss Mennen's "Plum Nelly Clothesline Art Shows"? My work was a sell-out!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )


Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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