Bessie Smith Cultural Center of Chattanooga

  Currently Showing:  Exhibits

A Cast of Blues

December 19th, 2014 by bsccadmin

Blues music was born in Mississippi, came of age in Chicago, and went on to inspire generations of rock and rollers, ranging from the British invasion of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to contemporary groups, such as The Black Keys. As one of America’s contributions to the world of music, the blues took root in the fertile soil of the Mississippi Delta, a flood plain covering 7,000 square miles between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. Early blues greats in the Delta pioneered the strong rhythmic style of music, accenting the raw emotions of the lyrics by squeezing chords out of a guitar with a bottleneck or metal slide.

A celebration of Mississippi’s rich musical heritage, The exhibition A Cast of Blues features 15 resin-cast masks of blues legends created by artist Sharon McConnell-Dickerson, as well as 15 color photographs of performers and of juke joints by acclaimed photographer Ken Murphy. Visitors to The Bessie Smith Cultural Center can experience the exhibition, A Cast of Blues, opening January 28, 2015.

A Cast of Blues artist Sharon McConnell-Dickerson has said, “a life cast is like a 3-D photograph to someone who is blind.” McConnell-Dickerson, who is visually impaired, continues, “It captures the flesh, muscle, bone, hair, and subtle expressions of emotion. I wanted to discover the faces behind the music I love, so I went to Mississippi to map out the visages of the real Delta blues men and women.”

Ken Murphy’s photographs are selected from the groundbreaking book Mississippi: State of Blues (published 2010 by Proteus/Ken Murphy Publishing). A longtime Mississippi resident, Murphy captures the essence of the blues through highly detailed, panoramic color pictures. The exhibition’s compilation of casts and photos create a compelling portrait of the men and women who defined—and continue to shape—the tradition of Mississippi blues.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Charlie Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, and scores of other bluesmen and women barnstormed across the Delta, playing plantations, juke joints, and levee camps scattered throughout the area. It was the next generation of Mississippi music artists led by Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, who brought the Delta blues north to Chicago. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and other rock and rollers picked up on the Delta sound and introduced it to the world. The musicians who stayed behind in Mississippi kept the tradition alive, passing it from one generation to another. Since the 1990s, Delta blues music has undergone a revival, with the rediscovery of overlooked artists—R.L. Burnside, T Model Ford, and Bobby Rush—and the rise of contemporary blues acts like the North Mississippi Allstars and the Homemade Jamz Blues Band.

The exhibition is fully accessible to all visitors, featuring braille labels and educational materials, as well as a music playlist for gallery use and a closed-captioned film about the Cast of Blues project. In addition, visitors are encouraged to touch the resin-cast masks. Says McConnell-Dickerson, “As a sculptural and visual art experience, feeling the life-made casts of these individuals and their facial expressions transfers their experiences directly to our fingertips.” The exhibition is also accompanied by the 2008 documentary film, M for Mississippi: A Roadtrip through the Birthplace of the Blues

(94 minutes).

Organized and toured by ExhibitsUSA, a national part of Mid-America Arts Alliance, the exhibition was curated by Chuck Haddix, music historian, author, radio personality, and director of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. ExhibitsUSA sends more than 25 exhibitions on tour to more than 100 small- and mid-sized communities every year. Based in Kansas City, Missouri, Mid-America is the oldest nonprofit regional arts organization in the United States. More information is available at and

Image -

Sharon McConnell-Dickerson

Bo Diddley cast

Resin, 9 x 7 1/4 x 7 inches

© Sharon McConnell-Dickerson

A Cast of Blues is presented with financial assistance from the City of Chattanooga.

Blood Rhythms, Strange Fruit

December 2nd, 2014 by bsccadmin
Blood Rhythms, Strange Fruit is the latest exhibition from artist Charlotte Riley-Webb that will be on display at the Bessie December 12, 2014 – February 28, 2015 in the museum galleries.
The exhibition will feature visual interpretations of Ntozake Shange’s Blood Currents, Blood Rhythms and Blues Stylin’, and various pieces from Nina Simone’s body of work. Poet Ntozake Shange and songstress Nina Simone have been among the most influential contributors to my artistic library for most of my creative life, and from whom I continue to draw inspiration.” said Charlotte. “When immersed in Shange’s Blood Currents, Blood Rhythms and Blues Stylin,’ I am captivated by the depth of artistry through which Ntozake interlaced life and history through contemporized metaphors.” Shange’s poem was the muse for twelve of the twenty-two paintings scheduled for the premiere of this traveling exhibition. The lyrics of Nina Simone’s work bears a unique and little known history worthy of much discussion. Her rendition of Strange Fruit is mirrored in Shange’s poem. Adding to the depth of the exhibition will be the contemporary voice of poet Tzynya Pinchback, who was selected because of her unique artistic style. The visual representations embodied in her poems compliment the totality of this project.

In part, Webb’s paintings are an interpretation of not only the words, but the relationships, accomplishments and resilience mirrored in her own life experiences. The resulting dialogue should prove to be thought provoking for all who choose to engage.

Textile: The Work of the Zuri Quilting Guild

August 13th, 2014 by bsccadmin

Quilting has been part of the American landscape for centuries, but each culture has taken the art form and made it its own.Color and textile and resourcefulness are very key to quilters in general, but was particularly important to those women who were enslaved Africans. These quilters would bleach flour sacks, use scraps of their mistress’ clothes, their children’s clothes, or the actual textiles that they worked.

The Zuri Quilting Guild is a Middle Tennessee-based group of African-American quilters co-founded by Judi Wortham-Sauls and Dr. Renita J. Weems. The Zuri quilters (“Zuri” means “beautiful” in Swahili) incorporate traditional African textiles and African-American quilting styles to create work that is amazing.

The members of the guild use various techniques, some traditional while others use bold colors and unique designs. The guild describes themselves as a group of black Women “Piecing Together Our Past While Keeping Ourselves in Stitches”. We are excited to feature this exhibition in conjunction with the AQS Quilt Week in Chattanooga, TN.

This exhibition will be on display through December 5, 2014

Bright Ideas: African American Inventors

February 27th, 2014 by bsccadmin
The Bessie Smith Cultural Center is pleased to present “Bright Ideas: African American Inventors” in the museum galleries March 10 – June 14, 2014. Curated by John Edwards of the Mary Walker Foundation, “Bright Ideas: African American Inventors” is an exhibition that aims to highlight the contributions of African American inventors and enlighten and empower others, through knowledge and understanding of these inventors and their extraordinary accomplishments. The exhibit, made up of both panels and artifacts, features inventions that are part of everyday American life from Garret A. Morgan’s traffic light to Alfred C. Black’s ice cream scooper to the infamous super-soaker patented by Lonnie Johnson. The exhibition will showcase the offerings that African Americans have made to inventions that have contributed to the fields of aerospace, health care, communication, science, engineering, agriculture and transportation.
Here are some on-line resources about Black Inventors:
***Extended through August 30, 2014***

“Pictures Tell the Story’’ – The Work of Dr. Ernest C. Withers

October 3rd, 2013 by bsccadmin

From the 1940s to 1970s, Dr. Ernest C. Withers was the primary visual chronicler of the parallel society blacks occupied below the Mason-Dixon line Working for largely black newspapers like the Tri-State Defender and Amsterdam News, Withers shot an estimated 5 million exposures of a changing South and the people who shaped those changes. Withers’ works are highly respected internationally and have been featured in many books and publications.

He documented the dusty ball fields of the Negro Diamond Baseball League and the popular athletes prevented from playing in the all-white majors. He photographed the roadhouses and ballrooms where  Howling Wolf, Tina Tuner and Elvis were making music that would revolutionize society by bringing black and white kids together.

The remarkable arc of Withers’  career will be on view at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center through 60 images that will remind viewers of stories that should be remembered but have too often been forgotten. The exhibit will be housed in the museum gallery November 1, 2013 – March 1, 2014. photo credit: Ernest Withers, I Am a Man, 1968


This exhibit  was made possible with support from Commissioner Warren Mackey – Hamilton County

Museum Hours

Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Saturday, Noon to 4 p.m.
Sunday, Closed

Admission Information