Opening their doors, too

Photos by Max Cooper
Photos by Max Cooper

Lovers of art and indie business have two things to look forward to the weekend of June 8: the first-ever West Asheville Open Studios, and the perennial favorite River Arts District Studio Stroll. The latter is the original behemoth stroll of Asheville, established more than 15 years ago.

Across the river lies West Asheville’s Haywood Road area, a neighborhood that’s increasingly reputed for its independent businesses and quirky restaurants. Several of the nearly 20 participating artists of the Open Studios art tour have been established in West Asheville for years, such as Steebo Design and Bookworks. Then there are the newbies, such as 7 Ton Press, which became operational this year. As the inaugural West AVL Open Studios approaches, here’s a look at some of the artists and what attracted them to the west side.

Steebo Design

One of the original West Asheville artists, Stefan “Steebo” Bonitz has been fabricating his mid- and large-scale sculptures at 355 Haywood Road since he purchased the building nine years ago. Last year, Xpress readers voted Bonitz “best metal artist” in Asheville, and while many of his sculptures are humorous in content, Bonitz is serious about his work. “They’re meant to be around long after I’m gone,” he says. Sizable abstract pieces lining the driveway to his studio are purposely left outside to develop a “fine patina” before being sealed with a protective layer.

The bulk of Bonitz’s work is currently exhibited at The Grovewood Gallery, so for the stroll he expects to do more metal-work demonstrations than retail sales. Guests are invited to enjoy the picturesque garden behind his studio — an elegant setting for his sculptures.

7 Ton Letterpress

Go north down Westwood Place from Haywood Road until you get to an oddly shaped lemon-yellow building on the corner. Stop. You have arrived at the newest arts collective on the west side, comprising four letterpress artists whose collective bulk of equipment weighs (you guessed it) 7 Tons. Here the 7 Ton artists craft wedding invitations, greeting cards, books and posters. On the day Xpress visited, Beth Schaible was preparing the covers of 80 portfolios that will be used for an addition of prints by an out-of-town artist. “We all share equipment and resources,” says Schaible. “It’s something we could never afford to do on our own.”

The Runny Bunny/Mello’s Gardens

Robin VanValkenburgh’s porcelain figurines delight her collectors with their mash-up of doll heads and animal parts, unified beneath creamy glazes of white, mint green and gold. The creatures are formed when different slip-cast molds of doll parts are joined together. They are equal parts humorous, nostalgic and edgy. VanValkenburgh brilliantly solves the universal crafting dilemma: creating a product quickly that is unique, reasonably priced and aesthetically interesting.

“Mello’s Gardens” is an ongoing installation melding horticulture and sculpture created and maintained by Christopher Mello, who grew up in West Asheville. “This was where you used to get your car fixed, or go to bars,” says Mello. “Now it’s got a baby-boomer thing going, and a hippie thing going. There’s lots of food and people walking at night. That’s the nicest thing to see. There used to be nobody around after 5 o’clock.”

Inside the Meadows Building

“The first time I saw Meadows Dry Goods Building I fell in love,” reads the blog of Leigh Anne Hilbert, current owner of The Dry Goods Shop. “Not the sticky, sweet kind of love, but the old, dusty, worn-in kind.”

Built in the ‘40s, The Meadows Building was originally home to the Meadows Dry Goods Shop, which served the neighborhood for more than 30 years, retailing sundries, clothes, school supplies and shoes. These days, the building on the corner of Haywood and Brookshire Place is home to the United Craft Front, a collective of book artists, jewelers, knitters and quilters, whose wares are displayed on the original shelves and counters of the previous tenant. You can expect to find handmade items like wallets, books, jewelry, clothes and blankets that are every bit as enticing as colorful penny candy.

Next door is the studio of muralist and artist Dustin Spagnola — his graphic black-and-white paintings are immediately visible to cars entering Haywood off I-240. Around the side of the building is a stairway leading to a number of small visual art studios upstairs, including Dennis Smith of FluxGlass, a handmade mirror and stained-glass operation and mixed-media artist Andy Herod.

BookWorks

Established by Laurie Corral in 2004, Bookworks has become a mecca for book artists all over the country. Offering classes, workshops, lectures and museum-quality exhibits, Bookworks is a West Asheville staple. “I set up here because the space and price was right,” says Corral. “It’s been really interesting to see what’s really stuck here in West Asheville and the new things are exciting too.”

Currently the handmade-book enclave features an extensive collection of wood engravings, marking the first juried relief print exhibition sponsored by the Wood Engravers’ Network. The traveling exhibit features 60 prints and three artist books by 33 relief-engraving artists from the United States, Canada, Russia and the United Kingdom.

Domino Lane


Three artisans hold court in two conjoined buildings at Domino Lane, behind Harvest Records. Building owner Mimi Strang praises the location. “It’s off the beaten path but the proximity to the neighborhood allows for a good sense of energy,” she says. “It’s kind of like a village lifestyle. It’s energetic but not hectic.”

In her studio, Strang produces welded steel wall hangings and garden sculptures incorporating stock parts with found materials like cloth and Japanese paper. “I have fairly basic equipment,” says Strang, pointing to her drill press and metal shears. “Part of it for me is figuring out clever things with basic parts and basic processes.”

Across the way, jewelers Betsy Carr (Foundling Jewelry) and Amber Mahler (Mani Design) share a studio and produce their wares, which they sell mostly online. “Because this is a space that other people see, I curate it better, and I’m more inclined to stretch myself,” says Carr, who uses text as the focal point of her charm necklaces and earrings. Mahler incorporates castings of seedpods and twigs in her own work. Currently she is creating a line of wedding bands. “It can get isolating working in your studio sometimes, and this open studio walk is a way to bring us [West Asheville artists] together.”

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