Visual Art

Robert Johnson, one of this region's most exhibited and collected artists, has died.

Johnson first came to public attention 30 years ago when Asheville entrpreneur John Cram gave him his first solo show at Blue Spiral Gallery. Johnson brought an impressionist's eye to his depictions of forests and fauna, and his paintings were popular with a thread of collectors around the world.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

 


 

Tarah Singh grew up in Hendersonville, attended private school and had a supportive family of artists and entertainers with a lineage of achievement. Her mother’s stepfather was Ronald Isley, the founding lead vocalist of the Isley Brothers.  

 

“I was around all kinds of creative people that were very successful,” Singh said. “A lot of people joke around with me about the starving artist thing, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, I never saw that.’” 

Matt Peiken | BPR News

A 10-minute walk and a half-century of histories separate Asheville’s YMI Cultural Center from the First Congregational UCC Church.

“This church is very white,” said Mandy Kjellstrom, a church member and an organizer for social justice art exhibits at the church’s Oak Street Gallery. “I’d say we only have three or four people in our congregation who are black (out of) 150, 175.”

The Young Men’s Institute, on the other hand, has been a center of Black culture since the early 20th century. Now, leaders with the church and center are calling each other “sisters in reciprocity” over a commitment to share visual art exhibitions organized by and highlighting local Black artists and issues affecting the Black community.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


Sherrill Roland’s convictions in a courtroom, on four misdemeanors, were later overturned at a retrial. But they focused Roland’s personal conviction—to use art that both helps him process and heal from his experiences while engaging an unwitting public about certain fears and stereotypes about the convicted.

 

“My body needed to be a part of it, I needed to be involved in the engagement,” Roland said.

 

With what he calls the Jumpsuit Project, Roland chose to wear an orange jumpsuit, like the kind associated with inmates, wherever he appeared and traveled on the campus of UNC-Greensboro. Roland did this throughout the 2016-17 school year as he pursued his master’s degree in art.

 

“It was a very dramatic, traumatic experience for me, and it took a while for me to get comfortable giving up this type of information or experience just as easily or as up front as I tell people I’m from Asheville,” he recalled. “Soon as I was able to expose this big burden, that’s it—the weight’s off there now.”

Matt Peiken | BPR News

When she gave birth 2½ years ago, Rose Wind Jerome didn’t know she was having twins. The first child is her daughter, Evie. The second is the photography project for her master’s degree thesis.

“I got interested in these dynamics and these gender roles when I became a parent and started photographing in my home,” Jerome said.

More than a dozen photographs originally intended for an MFA exhibition derailed by the pandemic at the Savannah College of Art and Design are showing through April 3 at Revolve in Asheville

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Even before opening Momentum Gallery, on Asheville’s Lexington Avenue, Jordan Ahlers had his sights elsewhere—a larger space on a familiar street.

More than two years after beginning a complete renovation, Momentum has moved and reopened a block east, on Broadway. Before opening Momentum, Ahlers spent many years as the director at John Cram’s Blue Spiral Gallery, several blocks south on Broadway.

“It’s a far superior space for a number of reasons,” Ahlers said. “It’s much more visibility. It’s a much bigger, better space on the main north-south route through town.”

Matt Peiken | BPR News


Even in his early days making paintings, Joseph Pearson understood there was no place in and around Gulfport, Miss., for Black artists.

“There were no artists that I knew in the neighborhood who were doing anything,” Pearson recalled. “If there were, of course, they would have been white artists and we wouldn’t have had contact because of segregation.”

Matt Peiken | BPR News

When Lara Nguyen first learned of her rare cancer—uterine leiomyosarcoma—she had just come home from teaching in Prague and was just starting work on a major mural in Grand Rapids, Mich.

She had a full hysterectomy in 2018, when the cancer was still in its early stages.

“It was a wonderful distraction,” Ngyuen said of her work on the mural. “There was still some hope there, catching it early. But then in January 2020 it came back, it metastasized into my left lung. Then a day after Father’s Day, June 2020, it recurred and just last week I found out, even under chemo right now, it has metastasized into my right lung, as well. We just found this out a few days ago.”

Yet here she is, inside the Center for Craft in downtown Asheville, talking in detail about the exhibition inspired, in large part, by her cancer. Nguyen’s exhibition, which also showcases work from three art students from Warren Wilson, is on view through March 12.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


  These things usually work in reverse. Luke Whitlatch already had some success as an artist in Los Angeles when he and his wife chose to move to Asheville.

“I play bass for a band called Rocky Mountain Roller,” he said. “I met the two guitarists for Rocky Mountain Roller two weeks after I got here.”

So, two weeks into his Asheville life, Whitlatch found a band. It took him another three years, through the Tracey Morgan Gallery, to land his first local show as a visual artist. The exhibition is on view through late February.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

While coming of age in London, Farhad Kanuga felt pulled in two directions: Taking part in the political and social protests pervading the city and documenting those protests with his camera.

“I felt I was a photographer as well as being part of the demonstration, which as I grew older, I learned it goes one or the other—don’t go as both,” he said. “Just missing moments when you’re cheering or what have you, doing something other than keeping your eye on what’s going on, being ready for that click.”

Matt Peiken | BPR News


 

Robert Johnson is one of the most exhibited and collected painters in Western North Carolina. At age 76, he says he’s at peace with a grim health prognosis. He recently talked with BPR's Matt Peiken about his path as an artist—from the psychedelia of 1960s San Francisco to landscapes around the world and back to the mountains outside his door.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


Like many artists, the Asheville painter Julyan Davis didn’t feel much like painting this past spring, at the dawn of the pandemic.

“I actually got quite depressed because I felt there was this extraordinary chance for the world to think, and I certainly didn’t want to paint about it,” he said.

So Davis thought a bit, read the news a lot and, around June, began connecting the dots between what he wants to say on canvas and the times we’re in. Davis’ COVID paintings, as he calls them, are surrealist and mysterious, and they draw their dark, windswept color pallet and many of their old Appalachian settings from an earlier Davis’ series he calls his “Murder Ballad” paintings.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


 

Artists often clean their studios before visitors arrive. But inside her Swannanoa home, Jenny Pickens’ painting studio is always immaculate.

The first clue that this is so: Pickens’ studio is carpeted—a rarity among painters—and you won’t find a drop of other color on the plush butterscotch.

“Growing up, I had limited space. My grandmother, oh gosh, she would fuss at me all the time—‘you wake up with a crayon, you go to bed with a crayon,’” she recalled. “I had to be clean with whatever I used.”

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  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.

 

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


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.

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.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


Julyan Davis is a British native who moved to the American southeast 30 years ago on a hunch, that he would find the paintings he wanted to make in the people of these hills and hollers.

“Where I grew up, it’s very manicured. I was always sort of drawn to a more gritty landscape, and the South particularly interested me,” Davis said. “The south has a great tradition of photography, but in painting, there wasn’t really that, so I felt my work filled a niche. It was sort of discovering the beauty and melancholy of places that were generally falling down. It was the vanishing South, really.”

David Huff Creative / davidhuffcreative.com


The Asheville Art Museum's long-awaited reopening is awaiting longer than anyone hoped or anticipated.

Just a few months ago, museum officials gave area media a first look from inside the renovated galleries and announced an opening sometime in the summer. Now that summer has passed, leaders now are saying the museum won’t welcome visitors again at least until October -- three years after the museum closed for its $24 million renovation.

Matt Peiken | BPR News


Randy Shull is giving a personal tour of his recent artworks. They’re displayed around an expansive Biltmore Village warehouse gallery most artists would covet.

What’s remarkable, at least for an artist in an increasingly gentrified Asheville, is this gallery belongs to Shull. He’s preparing these pieces for an exhibition at a much smaller space—the Tracey Morgan Gallery in South Slope. Opening reception is July 19 and the show runs through August 24.

“There’s this need to continue to work because I do have it so good,” Shull said.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Margaret Curtis and her husband, their two sons and a joyful chihuahua-dachsund mix named Sally live on a quiet, curvy street on a hill above downtown Tryon. From the surface, it’s the quintessential American picture.

Curtis doesn’t paint such pictures.

UNC-Asheville


Jeb Hedgecock didn’t intend to devote his senior year at UNC-Asheville to someone else’s sculptural project. But that someone else was the acclaimed conceptual artist Mel Chin, so Hedgecock figured he might learn more by helping a master realize his vision.

“It’s a completely different thing investing yourself into something you want to into something you don’t necessarily want to but need to,” Hedgecock said.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Nina Kawar’s studio is the former principal’s office of Marshall High School, but her artwork gives this room the air of a science lab.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

In 1967, school board members from a Brooklyn neighborhood were headed to England. They wanted to study how administrators there handled segregation and racial representation in the classroom.

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Unless you’re wearing a hardhat in the vicinity of Pack Square, the construction sounds filling every workday are reminders how far away the Asheville Art Museum is from reopening.

“We thought we would be functioning on this site throughout the construction project,” said Pam Myers, the museum’s director for the past 22 years. “I think I said ‘Oh really, we’re really going to need to move, and move the entirety of the collection?’ It was fast and furious.”

CULLOWHEE -- Picture in your mind a traditional Cherokee Indian basket. You can see its shape, the bands of bundled pine needles or rivercane wicker, the painted patterns drawn from tribal imagery.

 

But when you these baskets, do you reflect on treaty violations, the appropriation of Native names and imagery or forced removal from ancestral homelands?

Waynesville has more galleries per capita than Asheville. BPR Arts & Culture Producer Matt Peiken captured a view from Waynesville's Main Street, meeting artists and gallery owners along the city's monthly visual arts showcase "Art After Dark."