Asheville, North Carolina, is a muse to many, attracting artists, makers, musicians, and writers who take up residence and tourists who come to connect with them.
The Asheville of yesteryear was a popular health resort destination drawing tourists in search of fresh mountain air and sanitariums to recuperate from lung ailments. At the turn of the 20th century, Asheville gained notoriety as home to George Vanderbilt’s ambitious and ostentatious Biltmore Estate giving the population an additional boost from the many workers, artisans, and craftspeople who arrived to build the mansion.
The Asheville of today draws a different type of tourist in search of inspiration and connections with the city’s creative soul. As a Design Tourist, I wanted to explore Asheville’s legacy of art, craft, and literature thriving alongside its craft beer, foodie, and live music scene.
“This is a craft community versus art community. High craft has always been a thing in Western North Carolina. The Highland Guild of Glass Artists has been around for more than 100 years, explains Kim Hundentmark, Gallery Director, North Carolina Glass Center.
The non-profit working glass studio and gallery/retail space supports the regional glass community and educates the public. “This area was important to the early studio glass movement thanks to glass artist Harvey Littleton, known as the Father of the American Glass Studio Movement,” Kim says. Littleton invented a glass furnace that could be used outside of a factory, democratizing the glass art form. He developed the first graduate course in glass blowing while teaching at the University of Wisconsin. Among his first students was Dale Chihuly, perhaps the world’s most famous contemporary glass artist. Littleton retired to nearby Sprue Pine and mentored many area glass artists. He also started a batch company in Sprue Pine, an hour away, selling raw materials for glass making. The North Carolina Glass Center has a Hot Shop, Coldworking Shop, and a Flameworking Shop and rents equipment in these shops by the hour.
Artist instructors of the North Carolina Glass Center teach glassblowing and flameworking daily to people with different experience levels and backgrounds.
Today Asheville’s artist and maker community thrives in an area concentrated with studios known as The River Arts District, which runs along The French Broad River, the 3rd oldest in America and 5th in the world.
The River Arts District is home to approximately 200 artist studios in renovated warehouses and industrial buildings.
I start my tour at the Silver River Center for Chair Caning, where I meet up with Dave Klinger and Brandy Clements. The married couple promotes and preserves the art of chair caning as proprietors of the nation’s only chair caning school and museum.
“Chair caning is the umbrella term for the craft that weaves strips of the outer bark of the rattan palm in a 6-way pattern with two vertical strips, two horizontal strips, and a diagonal strip in each direction. It’s structurally sound base and gives you some spring and airflow, unlike a wooden seat,” Dave says.
The couple calls themselves chair nerds. Dave and Brandy both teach chair caning classes at the center.
The museum is a fascinating history and comprehensive collection of caned chairs. “It started with the chair wall of eight basic styles— natural rush, paper rush, danish cord, bark, reed, shaker tape, raised cane, and pressed cane. It started as a way for people to identify their chairs, and then it expanded from that,” Dave says. The collection includes family pieces, regional pieces, and chairs from famous chair-making families, including the Mace family and the Woody family.
“We deal with pre-existing or antique frames that we reseat and work with custom furniture makers. There are many chairs out there in need of repair and refurbishing meant to last 100s of years as long as someone replaces the seat every 30 or 40 years,” Dave says.
The couple wants the Silver River Center for Chair Caning to serve as a legacy honoring the craft of chair caning and instill a public appreciation of the art form.
A few blocks down, I met another weaver who works with a different medium—wool felt. Susan Codega is a fiber artist who creates baskets, and functional objects from wool and alpaca felt.
Susan uses felt as her medium to sculpt everything from baskets and vases to ottomans.
“I have always loved textiles. I grew up knitting and became a handweaver as a hobby. I stumbled upon hand felting, and it seemed so much more conducive to creativity. My studio space is an old mechanics shop with five artists working in an open studio space, and we enjoy the camaraderie and the great natural light,” Susan says.
Paper artist Pamela O’ Connor turned her craft into a lamp company, Hanji Home. Pamela crafts flower lampshades from Hanji, a strong, fibrous paper made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree and the root of hibiscus.
This paper is capable of stretching, feathering, and twisting. Pamela mastered the ancient art of Hanji (handmade paper) as an apprentice with a paper artist in South Korea. She works with Hanji paper made in essentially the same way it was made 1200 years ago.
“ The paper comes from Korea, and according to paper history, all ancient Buddhist texts are written on Hanji,” Pamela explains.
She is a former puppetry performer, actor, producer, and director. “I was tired of touring all the time. I was looking for new inspiration. I decided to take a teaching job in South Korea. While there, I discovered the Hanji lamps in a store and decided to stay and learn how to make them,” says O’ Connor.
Down the street, I spot colorful pet portraits in a gallery window that spark my curiosity. I introduce myself to artist Angela Alexander who is at work painting one of her latest pet commissions.
I want to learn more about her signature style that uses vibrant colors to portray each animal’s personality. “I started painting in the pop art style until I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and couldn’t paint the tight lines. I was forced to reinvent myself. I’m a firm believer that an artist needs a distinctive style that says look at my work, so I started painting with bigger brushes and looser strokes,” Angela says.
She senses the energy of each pet she paints and interprets that essence through bright, bold colors. Today, she is a sought-after artist for pet portraits worldwide.
She is also very generous with her time and talents, painting pet portraits to raise money for animal shelters. “I started with a black painted canvas and use strong colors. People ask me if I see auras, and I do not. I sense the energy of each animal that I paint,” Angela says.
I end my stroll around the River Arts District at artist Andy Herod’s studio. Andy personifies animals adorning them in patterned garb that he screenprints on wood or paper.
He starts by digitally drawing an image using positive and negative space to create the visual effect of a block print. “It’s a theme I started six years ago with a portrait of my dog with a blanket around her doing a stream of conscious design with it,” Andy explains.
He moved to Asheville ten years ago from Brooklyn, drawn to the city’s creative vibe and cost of living. “Asheville is like Austin or Portland with that cool vibe and the freedom to carve out your niche. I couldn’t afford an artist studio in New York or Los Angeles,” Andy says.
Next, I head over to the childhood home of Asheville’s literary legend, Thomas Clayton Wolfe, considered one of the great twentieth-century American writers. Thomas wrote plays, four major novels and two volumes of short stories. He gained literary fame with the publication of Look Homeward, Angel in 1929, which draws on Wolfe’s childhood. The novel takes place in a fictional small mountain town in the early 1900s.
Thomas Wolfe was born in 1900 in Asheville, at the time a bustling resort town with a population of approximately 15 thousand.
The author lived at 92 Woodfin Street, the family home until 1906 when Thomas’ mom Julia bought the Old Kentucky Home boardinghouse at 48 Spruce Street. She moved into the house with Thomas, leaving her other five children and husband at the family home on Woodfin Street.
I toured the Old Kentucky Home, part of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site, to experience Wolfe’s literary inspiration for Look Homeward, Angel.
Wolfe lived in the boardinghouse with his mother for ten years and referred to it as “Dixieland” in his 1929 novel. He returned in 1937 to spend part of his summer at the boardinghouse with his mother and wrote the short story, “Return.”
While Wolfe’s writings were putting Asheville on the literary map, a new college opened its doors, attracting artists and intellectuals fleeing war-torn Europe. The Black Mountain College helped cultivate Asheville’s maker community, turning out local masters of contemporary craft and studio glass. Scholar John A. Rice founded Black Mountain College in 1933, after leaving with Rollins College because he disagreed with its educational approach.
Black Mountain College, with its hands-on liberal arts program, became a forerunner in progressive interdisciplinary education. Famous graduates included well-known Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Buckminster Fuller, among many other influential artists, architects, designers, and creatives in the 20th century. The college closed in 1957, but its lasting impact is evident in modern and contemporary art, dance, theater, music, and performance.
Also, on my art and design exploration agenda, I stop by The Asheville Art Museum for a tour of artwork by top 20th-century regional artists.
In front of the museum, an angel statue stands as a tribute to Thomas Wolfe with a quote from Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again.
If you have more than two days in Asheville, I also recommend a visit to The Folk Art Center just outside the city for a collection of contemporary craft and studio glass.
I traveled to Asheville in March 2021 just as vaccinations were beginning to be available to the population. Many of the artists had weathered a year-long hibernation due to the pandemic, unable to practice nor profit from their craft in public venues. I hope you too will soon travel to ignite your imagination and return to that feeling of wonder when you see something that moves you.