It would seem that shipping containers are becoming a staple in the River Arts District. The Lego-like, steel behemoths, often temporary, are finding permanency in the neighborhood — for extra square-footage, storage and even forthcoming restaurants. Fortunately, they’ve also become a canvas to reflect RAD’s creative pulse.
Randy Shull, who co-owns Pink Dog Creative with his wife Hedy Fischer, recently stacked a pair across from his Depot Street locale. Shull commissioned Asheville arts veteran and RAD staple Melissa Terrezza to paint them after seeing, of all things, a T-shirt that she was wearing.
The shirt’s screen-printed image was one of her own creations. Like the mural, it shows a helmeted figure perched atop a motorcycle aiming a small, toyish handgun. It’s that gun, though, that has made a big difference in the mural’s creation and reception.
“It was a powerful image,” says Shull. “I thought it would be great on a large scale.”
Terrezza painted the mural on the side of the containers with the help of a small crew of area artists. The mural is a first for Terrezza, but the imagery may seem familiar for those who know her work. The figure is part of a larger thematic body that explores U.S. environmental policies and ethics in the aftermath of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The gun-wielding cyclist first began appearing on her 2-foot clay tiles, alongside images of sludge, oil rigs and oil-drenched pelicans, egrets and other wildlife. Her work compels viewers to question the impact and consequences of their own resource use.
In each appearance, the figure, modeled after Terrezza’s silhouette, is in some form of battle. “It’s kind of a superhero alter ego,” says Terrezza, “one that’s fighting off the oil companies.”
Since painting the mural, that focus has turned from political and environmental concerns to those of neighborhood politics. The work has spurred critical reactions from RAD artists and denizens who believe it’s unsavory and culturally insensitive.
According to Terrezza, some of those comments, privately communicated to her, see the mural as dismissive or making light of recent mass shootings. Others warned of the work’s potential harm to the neighborhood’s reputation.
Terrezza attributes at least part of the critical response, distaste even, to the RAD’s continuously evolving identity. Simply put, 10 years ago — before the street lights and freshly paved sidewalks, and prior to recent high-profile shootings — the mural may not have seemed as controversial. Or at least, not with regard to damaging the neighborhood’s image, which has improved over the years. Anyone living or working in the RAD a decade or more ago will probably admit that it wasn’t the safest part of town.
For Terrezza, that sense of caution also comes from overexposure to the 24-hour news cycle and underexposure to the arts as a communicative device.
“That [exposure] makes people hesitant,” she says. “It instills fear.”
That fear, she says, has the power to diminish artistic integrity. It’s a literal fear of weaponry that’s translated to a literal fear of artistic intent. Terrezza explains that while people have become conditioned to violent news images, bold headlines and looped video broadcasts, they are not used to artwork conveying similar themes.
“People see these things on TV all the time,” Terrezza says, “but when they see it on a mural, feathers get ruffled.”
The RAD community has long encouraged such unhampered and socially engaging artworks. And it’s thought-provoking works like Terrezza’s that have been paramount to the district’s development as a contemporary arts center.
Shull hopes to continue to use these containers-turned-canvases for evocative public discourse. According to him, artists should be tasked with interpreting the current social landscape and fostering public dialogue. “I believe that’s part of our role in the community,” he says.
That could mean works about health care or U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. But in this case, Shull says, it’s guns. “Guns have become so much a part of the fabric of the culture,” he says. “It’s a conversation we’re in the middle of, and it’s important for the artist to have a venue for that dialogue.”