It’s a midweek morning at Asheville’s YMI Cultural Center. Upstairs, in a gallery featuring his wall-mounted sculptures, Dewayne Barton has just gotten off the phone, protesting his treatment earlier that morning at Buncombe County government office.
“Being black here, being black anywhere, You have to have your own therapy to help you be able to move throughout the world,” Barton said. “The thing I just dealt with this morning is crap. ‘Oh, you need to take your bracelet off?’ I need to take your bracelet off to go through a metal detector? How many people do you tell to do that?”
There are many in Western North Carolina on the front lines of racial equity and social justice. Barton lives and makes art from the front lines. He’s a poet and visual artist, creator of a peace and art garden on Asheville’s Burton Street and the founder of Hood Huggers, giving bus tours of Asheville’s historically troubled neighborhoods.
“This is a tourist destination and there wasn’t anybody doing any tours that focused on African-American history and culture,” Barton said. “We’ve been working in these communities all these years, and I say ‘Wow, there’s a lot going on that a lot of people don’t know about, it seemed the city was leaving behind the African-American community, and we want to bring them up to center stage.”
Barton is now focused on creating and publishing a workbook to guide people coming out of prison and, ideally, keep them from returning. Barton created a lobby installation on view now at the Magnetic Theatre in the River Arts District, and you can also hear him 7pm April 12 as part of a storytelling evening through Asheville Wordfest.
Barton was born in Asheville but raised in Washington, D.C., where his stepfather was active in community organizing. His stepfather would often take a reluctant Barton along for the ride.
“I think it was crucial. I don’t think I would be here without those experiences,” Barton said. “What I’m doing is continuing the experiences I had as a young person.”
As a teenager, Barton felt the inertia of drug culture pulling in other young people from his neighborhood, so to escape, after high school, he joined the U.S. Navy. He went overseas in a non-combat role during the Gulf War, and that’s when he began expressing himself through by writing poetry and creating sculpture from driftwood and a range of discarded material.
“I just did this out of therapy to keep my head right. It worked,” he said. “Making this made me feel better and is a way to educate other people about this issue that concerns me. I just did it and did it.”
Barton’s sculptures are from found objects Barton has fused into social commentaries. One, about gentrification, features a funnel made of wood with a metal crank at the base and homes springing up from the top. The exhibition at the YMI was the first with pricetags next to his work. Until then, Barton never saw his work as presentable in galleries.
“When I came here and walked around Asheville, I wondered would they put my stuff in there, and I could tell they wouldn’t,” he said. “I said why would I worry about put my stuff in their shop. Let me create my own space.”
After returning to Asheville, in 2001, to be near his mother, Barton made it his early mission to engage young people through art. He spearheaded the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens, a patchwork of public art, traditional gardens and a meeting space in West Asheville. He also started Hoodhuggers, highlighting Asheville’s historically black arts, environments and businesses. Barton found it surprising his clientele was and remains largely white.
“I just anticipated the African-American community have a stronger presence, and I was surprised all these other people want to be involved and learn,” he said. “I knew the platform we were creating was large enough for everyone to step on.”
Burton later collaborated with Daniel Leroy to launch Green Opportunities, a job training program for people coming out of incarceration and rehabilitation programs, along with other people facing the greatest challenges finding stable work. Leroy and Barton stepped down as co-directors in 2014.
“Dewayne has this authenticity as someone who understands the community on a deep level,” said Leroy, who in May becomes the executive director of the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County.
“He’s also brilliant,” Leroy said of Barton. “He has this artist mind, and he’s able to see things in a really different way.”
Leroy said, though, some of Barton’s ideas met resistance from people who either didn’t understand them or weren’t ready to say yes.
“Sometimes when you’re the kind of person that is in some ways way ahead of where other people are in their thinking, that it’s hard for other people even to understand enough of what you’re talking about to put it somewhere to make it work,” Leroy said. “But I think this community wouldn’t be what it is without Dewayne Barton in it.”