Matt Peiken

Arts Producer

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.

He spent ten years at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota writing profiles, opinion columns, and trend stories on visual, literary and performing arts. At WCPO Television in Cincinnati, Ohio, he produced videos and created podcasts for WCPO.com about area artists and cultural events.  Returning to Minnesota, he created an independent online arts television series, 3-Minute Egg, which he expanded into a weekly broadcast series on Twin Cities Public Television.  

Matt has served as a regional editor for Patch.com, part of a national network of hyperlocal news sites. He was also the Managing Editor of the Walker Magazine, the bimonthly publication of the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis.

Matt says he was drawn to Blue Ridge Public Radio and Asheville for the opportunity to produce public radio journalism in a region that is renowned for its creative community. He’s especially interested in forming partnerships across Western North Carolina that shine a light on regional artists for new audiences. He received his Bachelor of Arts in journalism at California State University – Fresno, and was the recipient of a National Arts Journalism Program Fellowship and a Poynter Institute Fellowship.

Ways to Connect

courtesy of the artist


Cynthia McDermott is tall, tattooed and muscular, and that visual is all the more more striking when you see her on stage with a tiny mandolin, singing her custom mashup of early jazz, hip-hop and contemporary R&B.

“I wanted to find a way to make older jazz and swing more relevant to a wider audience and also to myself,” she said.

McDermott’s band is the Pimps of Pompe and, before the Coronavirus wiped out every public function, they had a March 31 show planned to celebrate their self-titled debut album. The songs jump from Beyonce and Salt ‘n’ Pepa to Django Reinhardt and a couple originals.

Cheyenne Dancy

Two weekends ago, when music and theatrical performances everywhere began to topple like dominoes, Katie Jones, the artistic director of Asheville’s Magnetic Theatre, spoke with the cast and crew about to premiere the play “Traitor.”

“It was late Thursday night, and this particular group had been through their dress rehearsal,” Jones said. “They’ve done a whole production’s worth of work and I thought ‘OK, if we don’t do this production now, we’re never gonna get to do it.’”

Opening night was nearly a sellout. The next night, only half the people who purchased tickets in advance showed up. On Sunday morning, Jones canceled the two remaining weekends of “Traitor.”

Now, while artists everywhere are considering their options for presenting work and earning money online, those who produce staged theater face unique, daunting challenges.

 

Evoke Emotion Photography


Melissa Hyman is a cellist and Ryan Furstenberg a guitarist, who write and record music as The Moon and You from their home in West Asheville. For the married couple and countless musicians here and everywhere, March 13 was their Black Friday.

“I was realizing we were gonna need to cancel everything,” Hyman said.

courtesy of the artist


Blake Ellege is a musician and vocalist in Brevard who counts nine bands he performs in. He remembers getting a call last Thursday warning the Coronavirus could threaten some upcoming shows.

“I kid you not, literally, five minutes later, the same colleague notified me that two of my gigs that week had been canceled,” Ellege said.

Five hours later, another call—more canceled shows. An hour after that, one of Ellege’s side hustles—spending two months every spring as an Easter Bunny mascot at the Asheville Mall—was also gone.

“It was a matter of four days that I lost all of my income for March and April,” he said. “It’s amazing just to see so many musicians that I look up to who are losing work just like me, and I thought something needs to be done, something has to be done.”

Ellege dreamed up what he’s calling the Quarantine Concert Series. He has partnered with the video outlet I Am AVL and the Orange Peel to produce nightly concerts from local artists. These performances, hosted in the Orange Peel’s Pulp Lounge, are livestreamed through I AM AVL’s website and Facebook page, where audiences are encouraged to tip artists.

 

UPDATED: 4pm March 16

While the Coronavirus outbreak has compelled many artists, venues and arts organizations to postpone and cancel events, a handful are continuing—for now—with events as planned.

 

Here's a roundup of cancellations, followed by events moving forward. This is an ongoing and developing story, and BPR will update and revise this information as needed:

Asheville Symphony Orchestra

The COVID-19 outbreak has compelled the Asheville Symphony to cancel three public events over the coming weeks for the season.

The orchestra won’t reschedule a March 17 charity event an Asheville wine bar and concerts March 21 and April 4 at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.

Masterworks Series concerts April 18 and 19 are still on the orchestra’s calendar.

Asheville’s Connect Beyond festival has been canceled, becoming the first major event in this city to succumb to the Covid-19 virus.

The third annual festival, which had been scheduled for the first weekend of April, brings together music, film and social consciousness into three days of performances, screenings and panel discussions. In a statement, festival founder Jessica Tomasin cited ongoing developments with COVID-19.

 

Matt Peiken | BPR News


It’s a Monday afternoon, and John West is rehearsing a wind and brass ensemble at Western Carolina University. West had already been teaching here about 15 years when most of these students were born.

“Clarinet section, can you give me more on those 16th notes there?” he asks his students. “Just a little early on that last leg. Deee-dahh, da-da-deee-dahhh. Wait for that, alright?”

On the eve of his retirement, after 35 years at the university, West said his job has evolved beyond teaching and conducting. West takes the podium a final time March 28 in a concert in the university’s Coulter Building.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


If you’re not a fan of the current U.S. president and are looking for a little cathartic relief, you might want to stop by George Terry’s studio in Asheville’s Ramp building.

There, hanging or leaning against walls or stacked against one another are large, bright, cartoonish paintings of President Trump pictured in one humiliating scene after another. Here he is getting rebuffed by an elegant Meryl Streep. And there he is getting sandwich-tackled by a couple of NFL players. In one series, Uncle Sam grasps Trump by an ankle and dangles him over a waterfall.

“It’s very important that I’m in these paintings,” Terry said. “Rather than just take potshots at negative things, I need to have my personal convictions be involved.”


Andrew Fletcher earned his credibility as a musician by doubling as a piano mover.

“I’ve never claimed to be the best piano player in town, but I will claim to be the hardest working,” he said. “And when people watch you unload a piano from a truck and wheel it into a venue, they’ll believe that claim.”


Ten local musicians are performing at the Grey Eagle in a talent competition called Hidden Voices, organized by the nonprofit Asheville Poverty Initiative. Their common thread: All live below the federal poverty line, which is about $30,000 a year.

Leadership is changing with the annual Asheville Fringe Festival.

Longtime Asheville theater artists and married couple Jim Julien and Jocelyn Reese say they’re moving this summer to Philadelphia, and they’ve already groomed their replacements as festival co-directors.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


As you roll up to the five acres Leanna Sain and her husband, Randy, have in Zirconia, you pass a sign at the foot of the long gravel driveway up to the house reading Miracle Hill Farm.

“Because I think it’s a miracle we got the house back,” Sain said of the name. The couple were able to buy back the house at auction six years after first selling it.

“And if you look at the little arrow. There’s a cross in the middle, because we’re Christians,” Sain explained. “The arrow comes back to us. Anyway, I designed that sign.”

Sain regards it another miracle of sorts that, out of the blue, while in her early 40s, she became a writer of romantic suspense novels. Her seventh book, titled “Hush,” was published late last year. Sain is reading and signing her books March 5 at the Clyde Rotary Club and March 10 at the Hendersonville Rotary Club.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


Ask any of the 50 artists invited into Asheville Art Museum’s “Appalachia Now!” exhibition and, to a person, they’ll tell you they were honored and elated. Many were motivated to stretch themselves artistically to create what they regard as their most ambitious works.

For good reason. “Appalachia Now!” is the flagship exhibition that reopened the Asheville Art Museum last November and few of the artists had ever experienced exposure on this level. The exhibition closes Feb. 3.

But here’s another truth: Even the museum director acknowledges the artists were largely paid with exposure. The museum raised $24 million for its renovation and only distributed stipends of $100 each to the “Appalachia Now!” artists, regardless of whether they simply loaned pieces out of their studios or created major new works at the request of the exhibition’s curator.

Grace Engel


If you’re a proud multitasker, you might want to make plans for the night of Jan. 22 to go to LT Laundry in West Asheville.

“We’ll be doing laundry. People can bring their laundry if they like,” said A. Eithne Hamilton, an Asheville dance and film artist behind an immersive performance called “Solidago.”

 

“Solidago” is among nearly three dozen shows wrapped into the Asheville Fringe Festival, home to this region’s most inventive, experimental and hard-to-define performers. Performances run Jan. 23-26.

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Shane Parish says he’s a self-taught musician, which isn’t a typical credential for someone earning a living as a guitar instructor.

“I’m not coming at it from this woo-woo perspective,” he said of his teaching practice. “We can get very specific and technical and advanced, theoretically, but I realized most of it is being present with that person in our time together. I look at it as a conversation about something we are mutually interested in.”

This is an evolved and expanded view for someone, while growing up in Tallahassee, Fla., who came to music as a lifeline.

Colby Caldwell


Molly Sawyer used to sculpt stylized horses and human figures from clay. That changed after her battle with breast cancer.

“The work became a response to my own direct experience with life, death,” she said. “I guess the issue of mortality has always been present in my deeper thought process.”

Today, Sawyer’s work is a mashup of found objects such as driftwood, stone and metal rods with braided or balled-up wool, twine, ash and fur. She usually works large, with some installations at once clumped on the floor, leaning against a wall and hanging from the ceiling.  

The dimensions and materials make this body of work difficult to place in galleries focused on sales, but Sawyer is riding a wave of exposure in area museums and art centers. She’s among the 50 artists invited into the Asheville Art Museum’s “Appalachia Now!” exhibition, and Sawyer is soon opening solo shows at Revolve in Asheville and at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

Audrey Wash


Asheville’s Tongues of Fire are still a young band, but vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Lowell Hobbs has already absorbed some time-worn lessons.

For instance, twice now, the band has invested many months, untold amounts of money and healthy doses of hope to perform at the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Tex.

“We’ve never been accepted officially, but that has not stopped us,” Hobbs said. “It’s interesting being one of the bigger bands in Asheville, like our shows are usually packed, and then we’ll go down to SXSW and it’s like being thrown into this sea. I spent like six months working every contact I had and just begging people, and get like three showcases and maybe one of them is good. It’s definitely really frustrating and we’re very burned out, but we’re not gonna stop.”

Matt Peiken | BPR News

In his debut collection, titled “Jesus in the Trailer,” Andrew Clark’s poetry reads like connected but fragmented short stories. Clark, who lives in Candler, sees this work as a sort of roadmap of hurt, turmoil and hope in the American Southeast.

“There’s some darker moments in the book. Addiction is a topic that comes up, violence comes up. I try to talk about race relations in the South,” Clark said. “I try to talk about the beauty of what we have as southerners but also try not to mask the ugliness in our history.”

Clark reads from “Jesus in the Trailer” 4 p.m. Jan. 12 at Malaprop’s in Asheville.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

It’s just before noon on a Wednesday, and Bill Thompson is behind his desk inside an otherwise empty Satellite Gallery. He had just scrolled through the hundreds of comments and likes on his Facebook post from the day before, announcing he’s about to close his gallery after 13 years in downtown Asheville.

“The outpouring of love and support comes through when you close the doors, and you’re almost like, where was everybody when we were open?” Thompson said. “If you’re going to be supportive of the arts and the local community, itr doesn’t mean liking their stuff in social media. It means being supportive financially towards those artists who you say you love their work and to that gallery who you say you love what they’re doing.”

Matt Peiken | BPR News

This isn’t another top-10 list. But in the spirit of looking back on 2019, we’ve cobbled together this sampler platter from among more than 60 stories Blue Ridge Public Radio produced in 2019 about regional artists and arts happenings.

Stephan Pruitt Photography


When Ashley Heath sings of trying her best, in her new song “I Remember,” she might as well be crooning about her career. Certainly nobody in the local music scene works harder than Heath at living and working full time as a musician. 

“I just did some intention journaling and, making small steps to get to the bigger picture,” she said. “It sucked a lot and still does sometimes, but I just decided I don’t want to just be in the bar playing for a hundred bucks, these three-hour solo shows in the BBQ joint, for forever.” 

Erika Taylor


There are violinists who make music, and then there are artists such as Meg Mulhearn, who use the violin as sort of a paintbrush

“A lot of times when people find out I’m a violinist or a fiddler, they’ll ask if I play bluegrass or old-time or something like that and I have in the past,” Mulhearn said. “I think I wanted to do something more experimental or unexpected with the violin.”

Jeff Haffner

There are 18 short films on Kira Bursky’s YouTube channel, and after each title are short descriptions such as: “psychologically creepy short film,” “artistic teen depression short film” and “surreal and dreamy cult fantasy short film.”

“A common thread that’s in a lot of my work is diving into the mind—mental health, depression, perspective, fantasies,” Bursky said. “I have an obsession and a passion for diving deeper and deeper into the psyche and how we define and interact with reality.”

Bursky is just 23 years old, but the Asheville filmmaker is already on a trajectory to becoming one of America’s most incisive and distinctive auteurs.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


Meagan Lucas came to writing just four years ago through her postpartum depression and the ready outlet of personal blogging. But when people actually began reading her writing, Lucas experienced a different kind of trauma. 

“When you write personal essays or creative nonfiction, it’s very naked,” Lucas said. “People end up knowing things about you personally that it was starting to make me uncomfortable. I wanted to try something different that would explore some of those same ideas, but protected people that I love.”

Matt Peiken | BPR News


Mission Health is a hospital, not a contemporary art center. But you wouldn’t know that from browsing the public areas—and, if circumstances bring you there, to the patient and waiting rooms—of Mission’s new North Tower.

There, you’ll find sculpture, etchings, woodcuts, photographs and one-of-a-kind paintings—some 659 artworks in all, from more than 150 Western North Carolina artists. All of it created on commission, and purchased, by Mission Health.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


Saturday’s reopening of the Center for Craft felt far more like a festival than a ribbon-cutting. There were performances by the UNC-Asheville Afro Music and Dance Ensemble, a DJ, hands-on artmaking stations and performance-art installations.

 

Hundreds of people streamed through the doors Saturday afternoon and, wherever they strolled along the Center’s three floors, there were things to do, see, nibble on or experience.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


  “Come on in, welcome to the museum.”

And with that, at 11am Thursday morning, the Asheville Art Museum reopened to the general public. David and Olivia Franklin, in town from Atlanta on their honeymoon, stepped in from the cold to become the museum’s first general-admission patrons.

“We always make it a point to go to the art museum wherever we go, and we felt like we needed to be able to be a part of history,” David Franklin said. “It seemed like a wonderful little bit of serendipity.”

xmasjam.com

One of Asheville’s most popular holiday traditions is taking a one-year hiatus. The Warren Haynes Christmas Jam has raised $2.7 million over 20 years for the Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, but Haynes said Tuesday he and the Jam are skipping 2019.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


Michael Yannette took over six years ago as director of choir and musical theater at Cherokee Central Schools. From the beginning, he faced a challenge he never encountered in his previous 25 years of teaching.

“I remember the first day I got here and I met the old choir director,” he recalled. “I remember going into the cabinets and seeing these little plastic elbow pipes, and he said, ‘Well, we use it so the kids can hear themselves sing.’ They hold one up to their mouth and the other to their ear, and I was like ‘okay.’”

Suffice to say, these students no longer need the elbow pipes. Over the past few years, as the Cherokee Chamber Singers—they've performed at the Smithsonian, Carnegie Hall and DisneyWorld, along with North Carolina’s capital and other locales in the state.

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