Arts & Performance

Matt Peiken | BPR News


It’s a Saturday afternoon at Asheville’s Arthur Edington Center, inside what was once an elementary school classroom converted into the well-lived-in home for the black and brown teens of Word on the Street.

Keitra Black-Warfield, a 15-year-old who attends Erwin High School, is among eight others at tables or on the floor, are painting, drawing and adding textiles destined for murals to hang from the walls here.

“It changed me for real,” Black-Warfield said of the program. “It taught me about your community, about your family, about your connections you build with people.”

  Deborah Lewis-Smith grew up in Asheville, and the first thought she had upon meeting John Cram, in 1971, was he wasn’t going to stay in town very long.

“John was bigger than Asheville,” Lewis-Stein recalled. “It was like, ‘Oh, he’s going to get bored and leave.’ Instead, he brought the party to Asheville.”

That party is continuing strong in the wake of Cram’s death Monday after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 72.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

  Public art often invites public debate, but a new sculpture in downtown Asheville has drawn a surprising group of critics—the people the sculpture was created to honor. 

This past week, Hotel Arras unveiled a 14-foot-tall steel sculpture at the northeast corner of Patton and Lexington avenues. It was conceived and designed as an homage to street performers.


A comedian performs in a back yard under string lights before a small crowd.
Photo Courtesy Melissa Hahn

Melissa Hahn had found a way to make it in comedy—not with her own punchlines, but by presenting funny people five to seven nights a week, at assorted Asheville venues, through her company Modelface Comedy

“In February, I did the biggest show of my career. I got to produce a live comedy special for Bobcat Goldthwait at the Mothlight,” she recalled. “And then a month later, the world stops.” 

There were four full-time staff and one part-timer, when Katie Cornell took over just a year ago as executive director of the Asheville Area Arts Council

Today, Cornell is the entire staff. The council gave up its South Slope offices, gallery and rental studios, inside the Refinery Building, and now has no physical space beyond Cornell’s home office.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Eighty-one years ago, when Asheville had two daily newspapers, the new art deco building that housed them across from the Grove Arcade featured tall ceilings, glass block windows, frosted light sconces and vast, marble floors with custom inlays. On the third story, long ago hidden beneath asbestos tiling, there was another unique floor. 

“And you see all these pock marks?” Gar Ragland said, pointing down. “These are cello stands, these are mic stands, I mean, who knows?”

When Ragland learned this was also the one-time home of WWNC-AM Radio, he knew he’d found the home for his own dream—of resurrecting an artifact from a bygone musical era while giving Asheville something altogether new: A vinyl records pressing plant.


Asheville’s most well-known painter has died. Jonas Gerard was an icon of the River Arts District, where he had a thriving gallery and studio since moving to Asheville from Florida in 2006. Gerard died Friday morning at age 79.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Lexi DeYeso remembers the pride and passion she felt early this summer as Black Lives Matter protests unfolded in downtown Asheville. 

“I do stand with the movement and peaceful protesting,” DeYeso said.

But when people disrupted the protests by smashing store windows, DeYeso’s boutique, Hazel Twenty, was among the first hit.

“I was screaming, I was shaking,” she recalled. “I was powerless and angry, really.”

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Asheville’s two leading visual arts institutions are reopening this week to fit within the guidelines of North Carolina’s Phase 2.5 restrictions.

The Asheville Art Museum has reopened for members and on Saturday reopens to the general public. Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center opens its doors Sept. 16. Both are requiring face coverings for all visitors.

Kristen Marie Greene of KMG*Photography

Eleanor Underhill’s new record is called “Land of the Living,” and listening straight through can be a little dizzying.

Her songs skip from ‘90s alt-rock (“Strange Chemistry”) and synth pop (“Run with the Wolves”) to banjo-inflected techno (“Middle of Life”), straight-up R&B (“Easier Than This”) and the rootsy Americana at the foundation of Underhill’s musical history. And then there’s the intimate storytelling, some of it from a third-person distance, some from first-person vulnerability.

Jern Watson

Earlier this year, just as Covid-19 shut down the nation, Jared MacEachern moved with his girlfriend into the home he just bought in the mountains of Santa Cruz, Calif. As the wildfires there forced them to evacuate just a few days ago, MacEachern sounded surprisingly calm as he spoke from a friend’s house in San Francisco.

“The air at the house, there are times when it’s clear and we can’t even tell, and there are other times it’s really smoky, it stinks, my throat gets really scratchy,” MacEachern said. “But luckily, the flames have stayed a good distance away, so we’re thankful for that.”

His outlook in the face of potential disaster perhaps stems from a greater life perspective.

courtesy of the author

In the late 1990s, so few students from Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva moved on to Ivy League colleges that even the school’s secretary seemed baffled to learn Annette Clapsaddle earned acceptance to one. That’s how Clapsaddle remembers it, after taking a phone call in the front office from her mom, telling her about the news.

“I got off the phone and the secretary looked at me and said ‘What was that about?’ and I told her and she said ‘Are you playing basketball there?’ and I said ‘No,’ and she was like ‘Oh,’ Clapsaddle recalled. “And that’s all she said, like, if you’re not playing sports, oh well.”

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Around 9:30 this past Friday night, Asheville’s Pack Square sounded eerily familiar. There were no protestors or counter-protesters surrounding the Vance Monument, no police on bikes or in riot gear. A busker serenaded people—almost all of them white—waiting in a tightly packed line outside French Broad Chocolate.

If it weren’t for the relatively few wearing masks, you’d swear this was so 2019.

But if you rounded the corner onto Broadway and looked up at the facade of the Asheville Art Museum, you saw beautifully rendered drawings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Nina Pop and, yes, George Floyd, dissolving into text quotes from the novelist James Baldwin and the activist Cece McDonald, along with the call to “Defend Black Lives.”

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Everything we think about high-risk activities has shifted in the time of the Coronavirus. If you heed the warnings of leading epidemiologists, just about the last artform to emerge from the pandemic is live choral music.

Think about it. Dozens of vocalists stand shoulder-to-shoulder on risers, singing with gusto and, in the process, launching microdroplets all over an enclosed airspace. It’s enough to drive infectious disease experts crazy, and it has choral directors all over the country scrambling for ideas to keep their choirs and the very artform alive.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

You could consider 12:32pm Thursday as an official time of death for The Mothlight, an anchor of Asheville’s live music scene since it opened seven years ago. Within minutes of the announced closure on the club’s Facebook page, fans and musicians flooded owners Jon and Amanda Hency with notes of shock, grief and gratitude.

Mike Martinez, vocalist-guitarist of the Asheville band Natural Born Leaders, speaks in this video chat with BPR arts producer Matt Peiken about participating in the protests in and around Pack Square and channeling his anger into his songwriting.

Musical artists looking for some magic catapult out of obscurity can hardly find a more alluring vehicle than NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest. Judges in 2018 spotlighted the Asheville band Natural Born Leaders, who found themselves with new listeners from around the world. 

Nearly 50 bands and solo artists from this region entered videos into the 2020 competition.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

On Tuesday night, officers in full riot gear were video recorded destroying a makeshift medic station for protestors along Asheville’s Patton Avenue. About a hundred yards away, the following afternoon, Ian Wilkinson, an established muralist in Asheville, immortalized the scene on a boarded up storefront along Lexington Avenue.

“This is our job,” Wilkinson said in between applying bursts of spray paint on a board beneath the awning of Asheville Hemp Farms.

“We’re used to kinda creating this magic and it’s our duty to be part of this movement and give a voice to people that are not being heard,” he said.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Asheville Music Hall has seen four times the number of people turn out for its weekly virtual trivia nights than those who actually came to the club to play trivia before the pandemic. Still, it’s a thin silver lining. Matteo LaMuraglia, the club’s talent buyer, says Asheville Music Hall will go out of business within a year without the return of live, general admission concerts.

“We’d be in danger with a year of no shows,” LaMuraglia said. “We can work around it for the time being, as seated comedy, as seated live music shows, but the space is built to be a GA standing-room only (space).”

While many local musicians have taken to virtual performances to bring in some money and maintain their profiles, venues built on live music face far greater challenges while dark.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Malaprop’s Books reopened Tuesday under North Carolina’s social-distancing guidelines, but any enthusiasm to return to business life as normal was muted. Only two customers had registered in advance for reopening-day appointments to shop inside the downtown Asheville store.

“There is naturally going to be an amount of nervousness because we haven’t done things like this before,” said Justin Souther, the manager at Malaprop’s.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Like every other gallery and arts center, Revolve in Asheville has been closed to the public throughout the quarantine. And like many artists in these times, Molly Sawyer has holed up in her River Arts District studio, thinking, creating, creating without thinking.

A couple weeks ago, Sawyer asked Revolve director Colby Caldwell if she could use his space for a little while.

“My studio is very small and dark and, really, I was just moving things in here to photograph and work things out and finish things,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer ended up with an unplanned pop-up exhibition, the region’s first since everything shut down for the pandemic. It runs for a week and is open to the public—just three mask-wearing people at a time, by appointment, over limited gallery hours.

Asheville Symphony Orchestra

NOTE: This is the second in our two-part look at the outlook of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra during and after the Coronavirus pandemic.


Since the order to shelter in place, Darko Butorac has stayed at his Asheville home, trying to remain creative during the pandemic while pondering the future of classical music after it—not just for the Asheville Symphony but for large orchestras everywhere.

“The experience will change. This is too big to simply ignore and say we’re going back to live (concert) situations,” Butorac said. “So I think the changes might be in terms of how we approach concerts and how we communicate with audiences.”

Butorac is in his second season as music director in Asheville. He said his third season and almost certainly his fourth will be programmatically and, perhaps, even functionally shaped by the pandemic. The orchestra is planning and printing a brochure for its 2021 season at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, which it hopes to launch next February.

Asheville Symphony Orchestra

NOTE: This is the first in our two-part look at the outlook of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra during and after the Coronavirus pandemic.


Darko Butorac is known as a musician and conductor. People didn’t know him as a poet or video editor until a few weeks ago, when he produced what the orchestra called a “Musical Love Letter to Asheville.”

The video features a number of Asheville Symphony Orchestra musicians, from their separate homes, performing “Ashokan Farewell” by Jay Ungar. Board member Bill Gettys gives voice to Butorac’s poem.

“The idea behind the video was to go beyond just having a musical performance, but really being a love letter to all of Asheville,” Butorac said. “Not just the classical music lovers, but to all of our community.”

Brevard Music Center

While the Coronavirus has infected every artist and arts organization, none appeared more potentially devastated—at least on the calendar—than the Brevard Music Center.

Its entire existence is geared toward a summer concert season and a summer music camp considered the best of its kind in the southeast. The center had also planned to cut the ribbon on a new 400-seat, indoor performance space designed to house concerts year-round.

But when the center's board unanimously voted to cancel all public programs for 2020, president and CEO Mark Weinstein said it was a moral decision.

The Asheville Symphony Orchestra is holding onto its executive director, after all.

David Whitehill, who held his role with the orchestra since 2012, had announced in March that he would leave this summer for a similar position with the Louisiana Philharmonic in New Orleans. But on

Tuesday, Whitehill said his sense of responsibility led him to remain in Asheville—with the blessing of the orchestra’s board—to see the orchestra through and beyond the Coronavirus pandemic.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

It was March 14 at Asheville’s Wortham Center for the Performing Arts. The Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre of Miami was in the middle of a weeklong residency and three-show run when the Coronavirus pandemic ground everything to a halt.

“They did two performances at reduced capacity and by the third performance, we had to close,” recalled Rae Geoffrey, the center’s executive director.

“I don’t think anyone expected it would be this long of a shutdown,” she said. “So we were kind of scrambling to see what we could to reschedule everything for a week, a month, which turned into two months, which turned into three months, which turns into indefinite right now.”

Four live music venues in Asheville have joined a new national effort to lobby Congress for more financial help while they remain closed because of the Coronavirus.

The National Independent Venue Association is a coalition of more than 800 clubs around the country, including the Orange Peel, the Odditorium, the Grey Eagle and Asheville Music Hall. 

Kira Bursky

Kira Bursky certainly didn’t ask for a disruption like the Coronavirus. But as she talks about her latest video project, she sounds almost giddy about the effect of self-isolation.

Bursky said she’s mapping digital projections onto her drawings and turning these hybrids into short YouTube videos. And these represent just some of the new art people in this region say they wouldn’t otherwise be making if not for the time afforded by pandemic.

“One of the coolest things is finally having this freedom to experiment,” the Asheville filmmaker said. “I’ve had time to try new techniques out. And so because of what’s going on right now, it was a very natural thing to finally try it.”

Roberto Ricciuti / WireImage

Before the Coronavirus sent everyone home, Angel Olsen estimates spending about nine months every year on the road, away from Asheville, performing her music all over the world.

It makes the Coronavirus-caused cancellation all the more disappointing of her April 17 concert at Harrah's Cherokee Center in Asheville—part of an entire U.S. headlining tour wiped out by the pandemic. It would have been Olsen's largest home show to date.


“I’ve been up until now pretty protective of overplaying Asheville,” she said. “I live here and I want this to still be a place I come home to.”

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.