At the end of a residential street across the train tracks from downtown Smyrna is an architectural anomaly for a neighborhood: an old Firehouse. After a storied history as the home of Engine #3 and an American Legion chapter, the building fell into disrepair under a blanket of kudzu – until Robert Harrison discovered it and was enchanted. A resident of Smyrna since 1997, Robert knew he wanted “a space that was large enough to host events – a clubhouse for the arts community.” And since 2015, as the official owner, restorer, and resident of the Old Smyrna Firehouse, he’s done just that.
The space has hosted “everything from circus shows in the backyard, supper clubs, music concerts, theatrical performances, and everything in between,” says Robert. It has been a meeting space, a gallery, and an incubator for other artists to launch careers and businesses. “I knew I wanted a space that I could share with others. And art events were some of the first things that we held here.” From the first thing he worked on in the house (the stove) to the most recent (a “front porch in the backyard”), the space is never static. “When I die, it will be finished. Until then, I have no idea.”
Like his extraordinary home, Robert himself is a storied man. He’s a musician, a podcaster, and a metal sculptor primarily known for incorporating fire. But he’s also a tireless champion for the arts and local, living artists. He and artist Kristen Ramsey started Indie Arts Alliance, which is a thriving collective of local artists producing events and advocating for increased visibility, more opportunities, and more public art. “We’ve started it, but there’s a long way to go.”
“Seek out art events. We publicize them, but obviously it’s hard to get the message to every single person in Smyrna. Take a minute and look for the events because they are happening - there are weekly events within a 10-minute drive of Smyrna – and go support those local artists. Buy their work. Artists need to eat, and they deserve to be able to earn a living from their art.”
He gives back to the arts because of all the things the arts have given to him. “I remember the first time I saw large scale art and sculptures – the feeling of awe and wonderment that something so large was created solely as art – and I think I’ve always tried to turn around and give that experience back to other people. To recreate that first feeling of wonderment at seeing art created by people you don’t normally see in galleries.”
It took Robert some time to accept that he himself is an artist. A fateful invitation to an art event over a decade ago served as the “creative permission slip” he needed “to go big,” and “the creative energy that was stirred up with that experience has lasted to this day.”
“I think of the Firehouse as my largest work of art. It is made up of individual pieces of art, but I view it as one giant sculpture and it’s always evolving - borderline performance art on occasions - with the added fun of the occasional pyrotechnic sculpture.”
In a house that is a living work of art filled with notable features, one element stands out as Robert’s favorite: the kitchen sink. It came from his grandparents’ backyard in Florida, where it sat next to the garden for over 50 years. “I made mudpies in it when I was three years old. I was able to retrieve that from their house when I moved into the Firehouse and incorporate that into the kitchen.”
It beautifully encapsulates Robert: a love of legacy, the convergence of the mechanical and the sentimental, and the ability to see art in just about anything.