If you want to see the inside of Jackson’s newest art gallery, call a real estate agent. There are no ropes looped from gold partitions. No security guards standing with their feet spread apart and hands clasped behind their backs. No tourists snapping pictures and scrolling through Yelp reviews to find the best place for lunch.
There was no grand opening with trays of silver trays of hors d’oeuvres or patrons of the arts in cocktail dresses.
Someone off peeled the blue “for lease, three floors” that sagged in the window. It was a gallery opening that was unadvertised, unassuming, and unnoticed.
And that was exactly what Aaron Hardin wanted.
Back in October, Hardin started the Coalescence, a nontraditional art gallery set up in an abandoned building downtown. With help from Matt Altobell with Jackson Downtown Development and local contractor Paul Taylor, Hardin built wooden “walls” to display the photos but could also be taken down and moved if anyone started leasing the building.
Hardin grew up in Brighton, Tennessee, a town of less than 3,000 people that, according to its website, “takes great pride in everything a small town has to offer.” The only options for local entertainment are Dixie Girl Softball or the Brighton basketball team.
“I had no exposure to the arts, really, until college, and it wasn’t until after college that I discovered that I was, in fact, an artist and just hadn’t realized it,” Hardin said.
He’s in his office between classes at Union University where he teaches photojournalism. The sleeves of his plaid shirt are rolled up, revealing the colorful tattoos that spread across his forearms. His bright red sneakers are casually propped up on his desk as he leans back in his chair, the metallic lights hanging from the ceiling reflecting off his John Lennon glasses. Honestly, it’s a little hard to believe he didn’t know he was an artist until he was thirty.
Ten years after graduating from Union University with a digital communication studies major, Hardin was working as a photographer for the Jackson Sun. He felt a vague frustration with his work. He knew that he was missing something, but he could never put his finger on it; it was a nagging feeling of discontentment that he couldn’t put into words. It wasn’t until graduate school that he realized that he saw, processed, and wanted to display the world as an artist.
“For the first time in my life, I knew what I wanted, what I was about, how to get what I wanted to do with my life and with my work,” he said.
While in graduate school, Hardin learned about a photographer in an old coal mining town who used to install blow-ups of her portraits on the stone pillars underneath a bypass. It was her way to display art for the homeless community. That gave him the idea to create an art gallery that anyone in Jackson could easily access.
He named the gallery “Coalescence” to invoke the idea of two completely dissimilar things bonding together to create something different.
“In my mind, that’s my philosophy of making or considering art; we’re strongest when we’re coming together,” Hardin said. “I want this space to be something that draws connections between people. . . . I believe that [art] can actually humanize humans, and I think that’s really important right now, that we’re ingesting things that humanize each other.”
Matt Eich, a two-time Getty Editorial Prize winner and photographer for the New York Times, Time magazine, and National Geographic, photographed the artwork first displayed in the Coalescence. Currently, the gallery features Cody Holcombe, a photographer from San Diego. His latest work deal with suburban sprawl, artwork that Hardin calls “really weird in all the right ways.”
“The work that I’m choosing is something that’s approachable for a normal person,” Hardin said. “It will be the greatest success for me if I’m showing something that’s both wonderful and approachable for a thirteen-year-old kid walking down the street.”
The next artist he hopes to show is a photographer who showed up at JFK Airport only to discover that her sister wouldn’t arrive; the plane had crashed. The photographer started taking pictures of the neighborhoods surrounding the airport, an unglamorous look at New York that isn’t often captured artistically.
“I want [the artists] to be visually different, the way that people make work or the way they see the world, I want it to have some variety,” Hardin said. “But the underlying thread that I’m hoping for is all the work is mindful of the human experience. . . . And art can be an interesting way to engage in important conversations.”
One day, as Hardin made some adjustments to the gallery, he saw a man who works at one of the tattoo parlors walking by with his daughter, a little girl steering her bicycle with pink tassels streaming in the wind. As they passed by the gallery, they stopped, and the man pointed to the photos. Hardin stepped out to talk to them.
“He was really happy people were putting the arts out there,” Hardin said. “There’s a lot of kids who have never even left Jackson, Tennessee, in this town, who have never even been to Memphis. How in the world are they going to see good art? They can’t. . . . Just because you’re from a certain background—or your parents raised you a certain way, or you have a certain economic status—doesn’t mean it’s not important for you to be exposed to good art. . . . I’m not interested in living in New York. I’m interested in living in a place where I can share with my community members and my neighbor.”
The Coalescence is located in downtown Jackson at 300 East Main Street.
Forever a Florida girl, Ali Renckens is a journalism and English student at Union University, where she serves as editor-in-chief of the school magazine. In her free time, she enjoys blogging, drinking copious amounts of mint tea, listening to Irish music, and punching things at boxing class.
Photography by Aaron Hardin.