Emma Bell Miles’ short, creative life was spent toggling between two worlds in late 19th- and early 20th-century Chattanooga: an impoverished personal life in the woods on Walden’s Ridge and a professional artistic life that drew her into the world of Chattanooga’s wealthy and social elite.
Miles’ intellect, creative skill and passion for nature, paired with her perspectives on mountain culture and society, were her genius. Through her artwork, poems and writings, she leaves a legacy for those who care about Appalachian cultural and natural history—particularly on Walden’s Ridge.
The Signal Mountain Library will host an exhibition of Emma Bell Miles’ artwork throughout the month of October. Eighteen original pastels, drawings, watercolors and oil paintings, on loan from individuals and the Chattanooga History Center, will be on display in the library’s reading room.
The exhibition kicks off on Monday, Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. with a talk by Kay Baker Gaston, author of Emma Bell Miles’ biography, followed by a reception. The event is free to the public.
This is the first time these paintings have been collected and shown together, according to Anne Buck Davis, who is organizing the Emma Bell Miles Exhibition.
“The Chattanooga History Center presented an exhibit of Emma Bell Miles’ paintings in the late 1980s, but many of the works in this show have never been seen outside of private collections,” Davis said.
Emma Bell Miles was born Oct. 19, 1879, in Evansville, Ind., to B.T. and Martha Ann (Mirick) Bell. The Bell family moved to Red Bank when Miles was about 9 years old. In 1891, B.T. Bell bought land and built a two-story frame house on Walden’s Ridge at the top of the W Road, which is where she spent her adolescent years.
A voracious reader, Miles' interest in art blossomed during her teen years. She is said to have spent afternoons studying art reproductions at T.H. Payne in downtown Chattanooga. In the fall of 1899, Miles entered the St. Louis School of Art, where she spent two winters and was influenced by the writings of Henry David Thoreau.
Miles fell in love with Frank Miles, a descendent of one of the oldest mountaineer families on Walden’s Ridge, as well as the mountains of Chattanooga. The couple eloped in October 1901, despite her family’s wishes, and made their home on Walden’s Ridge.
Throughout her marriage, Miles' journals often depict a difficult life in the Miles household with five children, no money, no medicine and an unskilled husband’s constant search for work. However, despite her circumstances, Miles diligently crafted her art and writing. She often sold short stories, poems and artwork for “ridiculous and humiliating prices,” she wrote in her journal, in order to support the family.
In March 1904, her poem "The Difference" was published in Harper's Monthly, and she continued to publish regularly in national magazines. In November 1905, James Pott & Company of New York published her book “The Spirit of the Mountains,” regarded as a classic look into Tennessee mountain culture.
In 1919, Miles published “Our Southern Birds”—just two weeks prior to her death at the age of 39.
One of Southern Appalachia’s early naturalists, Miles shared her love for nature through her artwork and writing, such as in this March 9, 1907 letter to a friend:
“There are flowers in the shelter of every rock now, and a rippling chorus of frogs in every porch … The thickets are alive with bird song, and the waterfalls are so beautiful after the winter rain … I am a very happy woman—more so than most I know who are in better circumstances. I am fortunate as a wife, as a mother and as a lover of the outdoors. Certainly one must not let the mere lack of money interfere with one’s whole plan of development and life; still, one could wish the burden lighter.”
The Signal Mountain Library exhibition aims to highlight the relationship Emma Bell Miles had with the land, Davis said.
“I have a sense of identity with Emma Bell Miles as an artist, hiker, nature-lover and mother, and I am in awe of her genius, perseverance and courage,” Davis said. “Emma Bell Miles is our treasure, and we should be sharing her with the world.”
Currently, no complete catalog exists of Miles' writings, drawings and paintings because she often sold them as quickly as she could to help support her family. Today, the Special Collections Department at the UTC Lupton Library retains most of Emma Bell Miles' journals and a large collection of her works of art, both written and visual.
The Emma Bell Miles Exhibition at the Signal Mountain Library offers a rare look at a collection of Emma Bell Miles’ artwork that is not available anywhere else, according to Karin Glendenning, director of the Signal Mountain Library.
“It will be interesting to see these paintings all together in one place and to appreciate the breadth of her talent, which was not fully recognized when she was alive,” Glendenning said.
For more information about the exhibition, call the Signal Mountain Library at 423-886-7323.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge. She enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on Earth. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.