Up until the early 1970s, if you found yourself surrounded by Lookout Mountain’s crisp autumn air, steaming apple cider and hot gingerbread, handmade dolls, working craftspeople and sawdust trails through the woods punctuated by the pottery of Charles Counts and the woodblock prints of Fannie Mennen, you had probably landed smack in the middle of the annual Plum Nelly Clothesline Art Show.
Trapunto Pillow (Plant) by Fannie Mennen.
Plum Nelly is not actually a town, but a sort of farm name. It is “Plum” out of Tennessee and “Nelly” out of Georgia. This two-acre crafts center in the New Salem community, located on a spur of Lookout Mountain, was owned by artist Fannie Mennen (1903-1995). And there she conducted her annual “clothes line” art show for 26 years starting in 1947.
The Chattanooga native did not consider herself an artist until after she had taught art in schools for many years. Stricken with polio in her first year of life, Fannie’s childhood years in the early 20th century were marked by many doctor visits, surgeries and long convalesces. Despite her physical handicaps, Fannie studied music and art at Peabody College in Nashville, TN.
For many years she assumed that she herself was not an artist, but nonetheless recognized how she naturally inspired others to do artwork. For thirty years she taught art in Chattanooga, and on weekends she would retreat to her studio/home in Rising Fawn, GA. In the quiet of Plum Nelly Fannie would paint watercolor pictures of the wildlife around her.
One Christmas, she and a group of artist friends decided to make linoleum block-print holiday cards. Fascinated by the possibilities in printmaking, Fannie knew she had found her medium. For the rest of her working life she was a prolific printmaker, depicting scenes and sayings of the rural mountains. Working from a wheelchair most of the time, Fannie was known for her tireless commitment to her work and the arts community.
In 1947, on the second weekend in October, she invited local artists to hold an outdoor art show at her home. Called the Plum Nelly Clothesline Art Show, it attracted 300 visitors the first year, raising money for a local bookmobile. In the following years it became enormously successful, attracting as many as 16,000 people up the winding roads to the perilous bluff for the two-day, outdoor event. The arts and crafts represented were some of the finest in the region, and the Clothesline Art Show did much to develop the art community around Chattanooga. Georgia’s New Salem Mountain Festival continues this tradition annually every fall, and is now held at the New Salem Community Center.