Host: David Blackwell – Naturopathic Practitioner/Visual Artist
Asheville/Mars Hill, North Carolina
Long ago, lithospheric plate movement intruded igneous matter forcing surface rock upward leaving behind towers of interloping rock. In Western North Carolina, or the better known acronym for the rocky region: WNC, there is no better example of this natural brilliance than in the high peaking inclines of Asheville. The elongated linear arcs of Asheville’s most notable masses immediately arrest the eyes, holding them captive until they fully appreciate the dynamism of their physique. Regardless of how often I encounter the colossal formations, I am loyally in awe of their majesty. My protracted bus ride up the winding hills allowed me to view the expanse with renewed perspective. The result: even greater respect for WNC’s luxuriant backdrop.
Within the fence fashioned by the lofty rocks is a vibrant tourist town ripe with new-fangled hippies, aspiring creatives, organic farmers, affluent retirees, young learners, and the descendents of cotton-pickers. The heterogeneous mixture is not easily deciphered by a quick stroll through the city’s center. Instead, I found myself persistently interviewing those that I encountered in search of greater perspective. My host David Blackwell was a great tour guide in my exploration for information regarding the area and its inhabitants.
David exemplified the vitality of the peculiar city. He is a sharp naturopathic practitioner who could easily thrive as a realist painter, disc jockey/musician, Qigong instructor, or culinary chef (he prepared countless exquisite meals during the course of my stay). Instead, he finds himself muddled by the potentialities of his many talents; a great problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.
Following David’s lead I found that Asheville thrives because there are a myriad of inspired imaginings coming to life in the form of unprecedented business ventures, townie weeklies, and Asheville-only offerings. Asheville tourists are privy to a comedic sightseeing tour of local neighborhoods aboard a purple “LaZoom” bus hosted by a mob of hilarious characters (the “nun” is absolutely side-splitting). Or, visitors can join Asheville locals on Monday nights at the Grey Eagle for an eventful evening of long-line paired Contra Dancing featuring live folk instrumentation. I would love to simplify the spectacle by stating that it is line dancing, but it is much, much more. Also, travelers to the mountainous city can endeavor in the seemingly incessant stream of festivals that occur within Asheville or in the quaint neighboring towns (i.e. Weaverville, Fletcher, Brevard).
Mountain Xpress, WNC’s independent weekly circular, works diligently to provide a thorough breakdown of the unrelenting catalog of art and music related events occurring in the region. The list of activities seems unending. During my short stay I had the prospect of attending: a reggae festival at Black Mountain (featuring Bunny Wailer, Ras Michael, Damian “Jr. Gong” and Stephen Marley), the Mountain State Fair (just like every other state fair, with more arts and crafts – and a rocky backdrop), The Black Keys performing live at The Orange Peel (sold out – immediately), and the 5th Annual Mountain Song Festival (Bluegrass fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club), to name a few. Additionally, it was wonderful to see the smallish, mountain city bustling with supporters of live-local musicianship at diminutive venues, mid-week. I particularly enjoyed the Tuesday “Funk Jam” at The Emerald Lounge (or as the locals call it: ELO). The followers are an educated mass of music enthusiasts and gyrating hippies whose conversations range from alchemy to cotton diapers in an Asheville minute.
I was privileged enough to stumble upon an opportunity to participate in one of these spectacles. By chance, I was introduced to a gentleman named Graham Hackett who happened to be the program director for Asheville’s Area Arts Council and an upcoming outdoor live art event themed: City of 1,000 Easels. The event was precisely as advertised (minus 890+ easels). I immediately accepted the invitation and was delighted to take part in an event that hoisted visual artists into the streets of downtown Asheville armed scantily with their easels, painting supplies, and talent. The experience was foreign to me, but very enlightening. Passersby were quick to engage me in a tête-à-tête regarding my work in progress. I worked diligently to create and to connect them to my arduous creative process.
After many discussions with David and the scores of phenomenal beings he introduced me to (most notably a bassist/visual artist named: Gully) I realized that my journal entry for the charming city would not be complete without revealing the thing that shocked me most. The minorities in the region (blacks and browns) were discretely sectioned off in the shadows of the mountains. I sought out and spoke with a few of them and came to realize that the minorities had a much different perspective of Asheville than the marijuana induced ramblings of a horde of downtown stoners looking to convince me that Asheville was the best city in the southeast. The blacks and browns I encountered were often descendants of cotton pickers or undocumented “immigrants” (my opinion: if you live here – you live here). Further, they were underpaid and overworked members of a flourishing day-tripping city where they were sparsely represented in the city’s epicenter. What is more, the Biltmore Estate (Asheville famed mansion and symbol for being the first to fashion “secure” indentured servitude) seems to be a conflicting marker, given that it serves as a staple for employment, yet remains a landmark of indentured disgruntlement among WNC’s colored population. Their pain was so deep-set and earnest that it quickly became my own. I identified immediately with their struggle given that I have seen it time and time again across out great nation.
I absorbed their discontent, but remained hopeful for the active vacation city that most aptly resembles an emerging Boulder, Colorado – in terms of landscape, outdoor offerings, and live music. Still, I could not fully disconnect from the many hidden realities I inherited from the loose mouths of marginal Ashevillagers. I poured the weight of this burden into a painting that I dedicated wholly to the life of “Joe”.
Joe was a slave owned by J.W. Anderson, one of the founding trustees of Mars Hill College (located in Mars Hill, a small town approximately 20 miles outside of Asheville). When building the new school, Joe was used as a surety, or collateral, to leverage a debt of $1,100 when the expense of construction could not be met. Joe was sent to jail. Within days, the trustees raised the funds and Joe was released. After the civil war Joe was awarded his freedom and a tract of land near Mars Hill. His body is buried on David’s Grandfather’s property, between Dr. Hoyt Blackwell’s house and the President’s house (Edgewood House) on the college’s campus.
I came across a medium placard dedicated to “Joe” when touring the college. My host, David Blackwell, is a recent magnum cum laude graduate of Mars Hill and the proud descendent of Dr. Hoyt Blackwell, his grandfather and former president of the college. Dr. Blackwell aided Mars Hill College’s conversion from a junior college to an accredited four-year college. David informed me of what details he knew regarding “Joe” and I filled in the blanks by inquiring with the people and doing some background research.
I found that Joe was emblematic of an ongoing condition. I found that his “service” was indicative of the indoctrinated pre-emancipation times and yet, relevant to the current state of the atypical city. What I created was an ode to those black and brown bodies that now linger in the shadows of the emerging tourist town.
The painting features a black hand poignantly raising the “rock and roll” hand sign adjacent to a fearful male figure attempting to escape the fuming, obscure apparitions in the distance. The sign is indicative of the vibrant musical culture that permeates downtown, but rears very little minority representation. Each apparition represents the city planners, local gentrifiers, and general complacency that has permitted such a circumstance. Particularly the image on the top right of the painting is of a ghastly male-esque figure yelling for “Joe” to run along. To indicate “Joe’s” feverish attempt to escape I included jagged white torrents indicative of rising steam. Normally, my monotypic works are used to engage the viewer into a multitude of dimensions using minimalism and fractals. In this instance, black and white were the only colors that could accurately purport the situation at hand: descendants of slaves, feeling forcibly removed from their city’s developing future. On the bottom right I included a ‘traveling’ arrow symbolizing from where the hatred stems… the heart of men.
In Asheville, I found Joe… many Joe’s. I found people who can’t escape their pasts amidst an ever-changing world. Segregation ended some 40 years ago, and yet focused isolation has become the norm.
Nonetheless, I adore Asheville. Nearly everyone I encountered was peaceful, welcoming and open-minded. Unfortunately, many seemed unaware of the age-old gentrification that plagued the beautiful region. One can’t help but fall in love with the peaking backdrop and snaking roads. The live music covers all the genres, the art fills all the senses, the people are forward thinking and free, the food is delectable and local, the overall atmosphere is serene. There is an overwhelming peace that comes over you once you enter the region. Nature takes over.
I am extremely grateful having met David Blackwell. I feel that the bond we established discussing life, our passions, and hopes for the future, will remain intact for years to come. I thank him for the opportunity and all of Western North Carolina for the hospitality.