By Tracey Teo
Known for its vibrant arts scene, Asheville, North Carolina, is the ideal road-trip destination for those who want to spark their creativity. When self-isolation restrictions ease, make plans to head to this lively mountain town!
At the Asheville Art Museum in western North Carolina, a pair of art enthusiasts peruse Wesley Clark’s “My Big Black America.” It’s a wood sculpture shaped like a map of the United States. The sculpture was created as a tribute to generations of African-Americans whose labor helped build the infrastructure of the world’s wealthiest nation. It’s a bold, evocative piece meant to spark conversations about race in America.
The well-lit Windgate Foundation Atrium was designed for large-scale artworks like this one. Those familiar with the American art museum before it underwent an extensive $24 million renovation and expansion are often struck by the contrast between the old, dark facility and the new, bright space.
Asheville, a progressive city flanked by the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains, has a long history as an artists’ enclave. It’s only fitting that its most prominent visual arts institution should be a modern, state-of-the-art facility that represents that legacy.
It took decades for Asheville to find a way to make the city’s art-centric history part of its future.
A Vision of the Future
Executive Director Pam Myers has been with the museum for 25 years. She says when she first came to Asheville from New York City, she saw a place with lots of potential. However, she knew getting Asheville on the map as an arts destination was going to require patience, dedication and perseverance.
“The story I had been told was more wishful thinking than reality about where Asheville was,” Myers says. “And yet, it was wishful thinking on the part of incredibly dedicated people who had a vision about where Asheville could be. At the center of that was the arts.”
When the renovated museum re-opened to the public last November, her dream and that of the Asheville arts community became a reality.
A big advantage of the fresh, 54,000-square-foot-facility is space to showcase more of the museum’s permanent holdings.
American art from the 20th and 21st centuries unfolds on three levels, with an emphasis on artists from Black Mountain College. The avant-garde institution in the town of Black Mountain operated on the outskirts of Asheville from 1933-57, producing titans of modern American art.
“Intersections in American Art,” a reinstallation and reinterpretation of the museum’s collection, is revealed in 10 galleries in the SECU Collection Hall.
Joseph Fiore’s 1953 “Green Landscape” is an example of how Black Mountain artists were often inspired by the natural beauty of their surroundings. The abstract oil-on-canvas painting is shown next to an earlier, more traditional landscape by another artist to encourage viewers to interpret art through time and place, one of the themes explored in the exhibit.
Also striking is Ruth Asawa’s untitled iron wire sculpture, thoughtfully lighted so its countless loops cast fanciful shadows around the gallery. Asawa attended Black Mountain in the ‘40s.
When it’s time for a break, grab a pimento cheese sandwich at the Perspective Café adjacent to the rooftop terrace for a bird’s-eye view of the busy urban landscape and the untamed mountain range beyond.
Note that art in Asheville isn’t confined to museums. The city is home to so many artists, visitors often stumble across intriguing studios and galleries even when they aren’t seeking them out.
Lexington Glass Works
Entering Lexington Glass Works is like walking into an enchanted, larger-than-life jewelry box sparkling with sapphires, rubies and emeralds. This downtown gallery was once a rundown garage. Today brilliantly-hued glass artworks in a wide variety of shapes and sizes are displayed on every surface. The pieces in the windowsill practically glow as sunlight penetrates them — like stained glass windows in a grand cathedral.
Gallery owners and glass blowing artists Billy Guilford and Geoffrey Koslow work their magic, showing off a centuries-old glass-blowing technique for curious onlookers.
Guilford removes hot glass from the furnace and rolls it on a flat metal slab (called a marver) to help shape it. The glass is moved back and forth between the marver and a hot chamber to make it malleable again when it starts to cool.
The big “wow” factor in the demonstration is when he blows a glass bubble through a blowpipe. He then snips the luminous glass off the pipe with a pair of steel tweezers called jacks.
“Glassblowing by nature is a performative medium,” Guilford explains. “We’re lucky to be able to engage our audience in our craft, helping them grow an appreciation for the skill that goes into crafting each piece out of molten hot glass.”
Another fun thing about this gallery? They serve local craft beer, so you can kick back and enjoy the show with a cold brew.
River Arts District
The River Arts District has a palpable creative energy that invites visitors who are just “stopping by” to linger a little longer. More than 200 artists work in a cluster of renovated industrial buildings along the French Broad River. Many welcome guests to their studios.
You might catch Japanese potter Akira Satake at work at his wood-fired kiln at Akira Satake Ceramics/Gallery Mugen. He’s usually open to a chat about current projects.
“My work is a collaboration of clay, me and fire,” Satake shares. “It’s always serendipity. I never know how it will come out from the kiln.”
There’s a lot of skill behind that serendipity, producing sculptures that seem to have a sense of movement from the natural world — like a river flowing or the wind blowing across the mountains.
Satake creates both functional and decorative pieces. If that sculpture you’re longing for isn’t in your budget, you can at least go home with a super cool coffee mug.
If wearable art is more your style, buy an eye-catching piece from jewelry maker Nora Julia at Ignite Jewelry Studios. Jewelry created from tarnish-resistant sterling silver filigree and fused glass enamel are souvenirs that easily fit in your suitcase. To learn to make your own jewelry, enroll in her workshop.
Also noteworthy is Jonas Gerard Fine Art. The abstract expressionist painter has an element of surprise in his works. He’s a risk taker, always experimenting with a variety of methods. He paints to music, letting the rhythm guide his paint brush in broad strokes across the raw canvas. The result is large, vibrant works that dance with joyful colors.
Mark Harmon of Mark Harmon and Tebbe Davis Art Studio describes his canvases as a “window to the world.” Whether the well-traveled artist is painting Mayan ruins of Tulum or a street scene from Rome, his work evokes an authentic sense of place. He combines traditional and contemporary techniques, capturing light in a way that makes viewers practically feel the sun on their face.
Wherever your Asheville arts odyssey takes you, you’re likely to return home with a deeper appreciation for creative spirits past and present that help define this ever-evolving city.
(Go Magazine May 2020)