Champion of the River District

It’s hard to forget a man like John Payne. Not just because he was the man who turned the aging Wedge Building into one of the biggest forces driving the revitalization of Asheville’s River Arts District. Not just because he was a dynamic artist capable of breaking any number of rules about what sculpture should be. If you ever met John Payne, you’ll find it hard to forget his eyes.

Inspired, inspiring: Ben Betsalel painted Payne’s portrait in 2006. Photo By Steve Mann

Behind those bright blue eyes, wheels were always turning. He was blessed with an unpretentious mind, one that had no patience for limits. He had his own view of things. If you were lucky enough to have him share it, the experience was often profound.

Last month, those eyes closed. On July 17, Payne fell into a coma and died following a massive stroke. It wasn’t his first stroke—he’d had one earlier this year—and he had been plagued by related health problems for the past three years. He was still recovering from quadruple-bypass heart surgery he’d had a few months earlier.

But it’s hard to think of him as being dead. For those who knew him, he still seems to be a part of our lives. His independent spirit still inspires.

Growing Payne

He was always independent, even from childhood, says his brother Tom Payne. Tom has been taking care of John’s affairs, trying to sort out the future of the Wedge Building.

Tom says his brother’s outlook likely was shaped by their family moving to a different town every three years or so. Their father was an accountant for the Tennessee Valley Authority and was transferred frequently, mostly to small towns in Tennessee and Kentucky.

“John was constantly making things,” Tom remembers. “He always loved cars. When we were boys, we built go-carts. The rich kids had fancy ones, but John just built ours from old stuff we found. He built beautiful model cars and entered them in contests—he would melt and char them to look like cars from a junkyard.”

Even as a kid, John had a hint of mischief that would last into his adult life. Tom recalled an incident that happened when John was 13 and their father had brought home a company car.

“He was unpleasantly surprised when a neighbor called to report that John had just driven it through his front yard,” Tom says.

As he grew, John’s interest with the artistic side of the mechanical world became more obsessive. He’d revisit this topic throughout his career, most notably with his mechanical dinosaur puppets, or kinetosaurs.

Never popular in school due to what Tom called a “short fuse,” John spent his free time modifying junked cars—a ‘51 Plymouth with a white racing stripe down the middle, or a Studebaker with a DeSoto engine mounted between the front seats.

“John drove one car with his hand over the carburetor,” Tom recalls. “On a joy ride, the steering wheel just came off in his hands, and he plowed down a whole row of mailboxes.”

In the early 1970s, John earned a business degree from the University of Tennessee. John took an office job, Tom says, which lasted “a few weeks.”
Art beckoned, and he went back to school for visual arts at Georgia State University. It proved to be a good move, as he regularly exhibited his works in the Atlanta area.

He relocated his family to Chicago in the mid-1980s, where his two children, Trevor and Lydia, became fascinated by the dinosaur exhibits at The Field Museum. He had no idea that a little more than decade later, his own dinosaur-inspired works would be on display there.

The dinoman cometh

Payne came to Asheville in the early 1990s and had his first exhibition at Blue Spiral 1 in 1992. His impact on the local arts community was immediate, as much for his playfulness as his obvious talent. Blue Spiral owner John Cram said that Payne’s lighthearted approach helped establish his niche in the arts community.

“Constantly making things”: The artist working with a mechanical crane in his studio. Photo By Michael Mauney

“For him, pleasing kids was as important as anything else,” Cram recalls. “I was attracted by the playfulness in his art. We have several early pieces in our garden, and they are great favorites.”

It was in the late 1990s that Payne began experimenting with moveable steel dinosaurs, studying works on paleontology and animal anatomy to help make his creations as lifelike as possible. He envisioned a touring show of these works, which he called kinetosaurs, which would entertain and educate children—and adults—across the country.

It was the perfect project for his mechanically gifted mind.

This first creation, a 6-foot-long velociraptor, worked like a marionette and it proved to be a hit. Museums all over the country began displaying Payne’s works, but Asheville’s museums often got a high priority when it came to hosting his exhibits.

Colburn Earth Science Museum curator Phil Potter remembers Payne’s delight in showing the kids how to work the dinosaurs.

“The kids weren’t interested in the rocks when the dinosaurs were here,” Potter reports. “I had a great time. I could make it turn quickly, like it was going to take a kid’s head off, and they loved it.”

As Payne’s work became more known, he began finding kindred spirits. With the help of Interactive Electronics Design electronic artist/engineer Brett Pierce, the kinetosaurs evolved from large-scale puppets to educational robots, becoming ever more “real.”

“Working with John was fun,” Pierce recounts. “Though he could be a little unpredictable at times.”

One of his later works, a giant mechanical crow, had a number of fans. RiverLink Executive Director Karen Cragnolin recalls visiting Payne’s studio to play with the crow, often during times of stress in her life. “I asked him what his inspiration for the crow was,” Cragnolin says. “He reached for a feather lying on a table, and said he found it on the tracks one day. He kept so many balls in the air.”

Building big: Payne examines the head of a giant kinetosaur sculpture. Photo By Michael Mauney

That was one of the remarkable things about Payne’s work—how so many different people got something from it. Cragnolin remembers bringing a group of “very proper garden-club ladies” to visit him once. After showing them his works in his industrial-feeling studio, Payne looked through their prim demeanors and spoke to the excited kids he suspected lived just below the surface. “You must just have a blast,” he told them.

Hero of the River Arts District

As Payne became more involved in his art, he grew increasingly connected to the growing community of artists and arts activists in Asheville. In an effort to create affordable studio and retail space for up-and-coming artists, he bought the Wedge Building in 2001. Although the structure had seen better days, his passion for the project soon made it one of the most vital locations in the area now known as the River Arts District. John Payne the artist had become John Payne the landlord.

“All you have to do is look at that building to tell how much he cared about it,” says ceramic artist and Wedge tenant Josh Copus, who credits Payne with helping him both artistically and professionally. “He was real specific about who he brought into the building, and making came first. John was all about giving artists a place to work,” Copus says.

John’s brother Tom recalls that the business side of the venture often took a backseat to providing a workspace for artists in whom he believed.

“Money was important to John, because the building wasn’t cheap, but the art was always No. 1,” Tom says. “When new artists would ask about leasing a space, he wasn’t worried as much about money or references. He’d say ‘Let me see your art.’”

As a result, the Wedge Building became known as a haven for working artists rather than poseurs or dilettantes. Artists fortunate to get a space there would often find themselves given a kind of instant credibility in the local arts community. That cultivation of talent, and later of businesses to support that talent, was part of Payne’s long-term vision for the building.

One of the building’s early tenants was architectural ceramics artist Heinz Kossler. Although he later moved to his own studio just down the street, Kossler has fond memories of his former landlord.

“I think John considered this building his legacy,” Kossler says. “He wanted to give artists a place to work where they didn’t have to have three jobs to pay their rent. Four years ago, when I had a heart attack, he helped me get back to work. He was a great problem-solver.”

Another artist greatly affected by Payne’s efforts is local painter Ben Betsalel, who took over Payne’s Wedge Gallery in 2007 and turned it into the Betsalel Studio + Wedge Gallery. He recalls Payne more as mentor than as landlord.

“John was always fair and reasonable,” Betsalel says. “He wasn’t interested in making a lot of money from the building—he just wanted to pay his expenses and have a place to work. John really cared. He wanted to see the artists in the building grow, to believe in themselves and not be afraid to experiment. He always celebrated any accomplishment. If someone asked ‘Do you think this is possible?’ John’s answer was always ‘Oh, yeah!’”

That cultivation of artists didn’t stop at visual art, either. For instance, in 2007, the Wedge Building became the home for the Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance. It was part of Payne’s evolving vision to create ground-level retail shops to help provide a better range of activities for the neighborhood.

One recent addition to the building is the Wedge Brewing Company, a microbrewery owned by Tim Schaller. A longtime friend of Payne’s, Schaller recalls that the idea of bringing a brewery to the Wedge came from their conversations at the neighboring Clingman Café.

“When we decided to start the brewery, money was certainly part of the discussion,” Schaller says. “But John was far more concerned that I didn’t have a TV in the bar. He wanted it to be a place for people to socialize, not watch sports.”

Aftermath

“The first thing I did when I heard that John had died was to go to the Wedge Brewing Company and order a John Payne Pale Ale,” Copus says. “I think all of us in the building did that. He was like a light in a sea of darkness.”

Payne’s death forces some serious questions. Without his forceful personality to shepherd the building’s growth, for instance, will the community continue to flourish?

And, for that matter, what will happen to the building?

“That’s the very obvious concern,” says ceramic artist and Wedge tenant Josh Copus. “The building needs to continue, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen. I can’t even pretend to know. But after John died, that was one the first things on everyone’s minds.”

Even Tom Payne, John’s brother and the man tasked with sorting these details out, can’t say for certain what the building’s future will be.

“It’s too early to tell,” Tom says. “His children come first in this process. I think they both understand what his life here was all about, and I suspect they will try to set things up so that there will be a big nod towards what he built here.”

That future may be uncertain, but for the time being, most of the Wedge’s community is still in shock.

These things have been said about Payne the man: He could be impractical, an incurable romantic, a dreamer. He could be a harsh critic of art, particularly when he didn’t respect the artist. He was, as his brother Tom puts it, “a true curmudgeon” and could be stubborn to a fault. But now, none of that matters.

John Payne, innovator and visionary, is gone.

For the past four years, Gwenn Roberts had shared John’s life. He had been in ill health for all but one of them, but that didn’t stop her from agreeing to marry him.

He passed away before that could happen.

Payne “opened a new world of perception for me, not just with his art, but with how he lived his life,” Roberts said. “He seemed to be able to turn any old thing into something beautiful.”

[Connie Bostic is an artist and freelance writer based in Asheville.]

Celebrating Payne’s life

Payne will be remembered with a New Orleans-style procession, followed by a reception at the Wedge Brewing Company. The Betsalel Studio + Wedge Gallery and other studios will be involved.

For a man so deeply involved in the community he helped create, there could hardly be a better remembrance.

It can be hard for a community so touched by a single person’s efforts to arrange a fitting tribute when that person dies. Payne was a respected artist, his work known to people from all over the world. How to even put together a guest list?

Sara Widenhouse, a local event and parade organizer with a studio space in the River District, says the task hasn’t been as hard as anyone expected.

“I’ve planned lots of events, but this one has been so easy,” Widenhouse says. “Everyone wants to help. John was a community person, and this community wants to celebrate his life.”

what: Memorial service for John Payne: A New Orleans-style funeral parade, followed by receptions at the Wedge Brewing Company and the Betsalel Studio + Wedge Gallery
where: Wedge Building (125 Roberts St.)
when:  Saturday, Aug. 30. 5 p.m. gathering, 5:30 p.m. procession, with events following. (505-2792)

 

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2 thoughts on “Champion of the River District

  1. Rose Candela

    Thanks Connie for this beautiful article about John Payne. His life has been felt by those, like me, who were part of the Asheville art community and now live in a different city.

    He was the forefather for much of what is the Asheville River District today, and I hope his spirit and wishes for that area continue long after his passing.

  2. Drew Meyer

    I first met John Payne when I was working for the Colburn Museum. I had seen his kinetosaurs before—hiding behind bushes at a renaissance festival a few years earlier, so I knew of his work before I met the man. I was, at one point in time, an eight year old boy, so naturally I had a love for dinosaurs. I was informed that John was going to install several pieces in the museum; but I was unprepared for the unassuming person who causally tossed me a pair of work gloves without waiting for an introduction. That night, after many hours of work, I came home with clothes covered in grease and with a new friend.

    I never visited John Payne’s home and he never had reason to dial my phone number, but he always greeted me warmly when I saw him on the street, in a restaurant, or at his studio. A number of years ago, the Wedge held a Halloween party which I attended dressed as Sean Connery having colored my hair and beard white. Toward the end of the evening, John complimented me on my effort, saying that it was the best John Payne costume he had ever seen.

    I was out of town when John passed; I hadn’t seen him in over a month. It was several weeks later before I even found out he was gone, overhearing the news in someone else’s conversation. I was saddened by the loss, but I’m glad that I will have the chance to take part, along with his many friends and family, in saying good bye. He will be missed.

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