12 Baskets Café’s arts programs build community

STAIRWAY TO CREATIVITY: From left, Jenn Murphy, Leslee Johnson, Ethan Schultz and Shelly Baker have been instrumental in bringing arts programming to 12 Baskets Café. Photo by Edwin Arnaudin

Walk into 12 Baskets Café or mosey over to its side garden, and it’s clear that something special is happening.

“If you were to go get food resources anywhere else, you’d probably go stand in line, get your box and get out of there as soon as possible,” says Tom Scheve, the nonprofit’s program coordinator. “Whereas this place, people will come in, not even get food and just hang out — which is awesome. And volunteers will come and not volunteer but just be a person among people.”

Established in 2016 by Shannon Spencer as the food resource arm of Asheville Poverty Initiative, 12 Baskets provides free to-go meals and grocery items on Tuesdays and Fridays (11 a.m.-1 p.m.) and serves free sit-down meals Mondays and Thursdays (11 a.m.-1 p.m.). Volunteers use 100% rescued food from local restaurants and food service industry partners.

“The food’s critical, but it’s all these shared meals and shared time together that provide this platform for community to be built,” Scheve says. “So, the stickier we can make it with different events so that people are just coming, [the better].”

Helping deepen that sense of community and belonging over the past few years is a handful of arts programs, each of which arose in organic ways. Xpress spoke with a few of the creative leaders behind these endeavors to learn about what drew them to 12 Baskets and the differences these experiences have had on participants and the artists themselves.

Garden party

Jen Murphy has been volunteering at 12 Baskets since 2018. After partaking in a meal shortly after the café opened, she felt deeply touched by how simple yet profound the concept was and by how welcome everyone made her feel.

“I wanted to contribute, so I began by making flower arrangements for the tables,” Murphy says. “As I got to know the people there, I looked for more ways to help.”

While sitting in the 12 Baskets garden one day, she was struck by the idea that paving stones — which she’d begun working with three years prior as part of her growing interest in mosaics — would be a good way to invite artistic collaboration as well as enhance the garden’s beauty. Murphy applied for a grant from Burners Without Borders and was awarded funds to support the undertaking in April.

“I named the project ‘The Garden of Mutuality,’” she says. “It was a three-week process involving café guests, neighbors and friends dropping into the garden and contributing by adding colorful glass pieces to the stones.”

PUMPKINHEAD & FRIENDS: Masks created in Ethan Schultz’s class at 12 Baskets Café were a big hit at the Oct. 31 West Asheville Tailgate Market. Photo courtesy of 12 Baskets Café

Roughly 40 people worked on 15 paving stones, which were then built into a staircase leading from the garden up to Haywood Road. In addition to adding more pockets of color to the outdoor space, Murphy notes that the project gave the collaborators a stronger sense of ownership for the place where they spend so much time.

“There is something magical about sitting and making stuff together,” she says. “I see more pride of place in the garden — people saying, ‘It’s our garden.’”

The Cheese Alliance 

The strong feeling of community also proved inspirational for Leslee Johnson. The lecturer in English and humanities and director of the Prison Education Program at UNC Asheville regularly came to 12 Baskets in 2022 to share meals. While getting to know those around her, she discovered that they had much in common.

“People would ask me what I do, and I’d say, ‘I’m a writer and I teach writing.’ And their response would be, ‘Oh, I’m a writer, too,’” Johnson says. “It just seemed natural to bring that to the table — kind of literally and metaphorically. Creating something together is as nourishing as sharing a meal.”

On Fridays after the pantry closes, all interested parties are invited to stay for Johnson’s informal writing group, which is now known as The Cheese Alliance. She or other facilitators bring a new prompt each week and, after a timed writing session, participants may read their creations aloud.

“People come for different reasons but, at bottom, to share their voice and to share their work,” Johnson says. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we do take our words seriously, and the process of creating them and giving them to each other.”

Over the past year, The Cheese Alliance has amassed enough poems and stories for Johnson to start seeking a means of getting them published. The group also did a reading at Story Parlor in August, and plans are in the works for more such public events.

‘We all come for something’

Additional personal connections to 12 Baskets have propelled other arts leaders to offer their services for the nonprofit’s programming.

“I get groceries and meals there regularly, and it’s helped my family get through lean times,” Murphy says. “The lines between servers and eaters, volunteers and guests are blurry. It really is mutual aid — everyone is a giver and a receiver.”

Food was what originally brought local artist and educator Ethan Schultz to 12 Baskets as a customer. He says he was “loosely volunteering” for a few years and then became more seriously involved by starting a chess club. Soon, Shelly Baker, 12 Baskets’ administrative and communications coordinator, suggested that he incorporate his arts background however he saw fit. 

Since the summer, Schultz has been leading a Thursday art group in the garden. Most recently, they painted giant masks made out of cardboard that Schultz cut at local makers spaces into food shapes such as eggplant, broccoli, sardines and even a birthday cake. The creations were then sold at the West Asheville Tailgate Market on Halloween. Proceeds went directly back to 12 Baskets to help with weekly services and future arts projects.

Though painter Shirley Bavonese doesn’t run an art class at 12 Baskets, the West Asheville resident was intrigued by what she’d read about 12 Baskets and started volunteering on-site. There, she was impressed by the community and the lack of division between those helping out and people who use the café’s services.

“There was no line of demarcation,” Bavonese says. “And I really like what Shannon — the originator of this — said, which is, ‘We all need something. We all come for something.’”

COMMUNITY SNAPSHOT: Volunteer Shirley Bavonese felt inspired to paint nine portraits of 12 Baskets Café regulars and her fellow volunteers. Photo courtesy of 12 Baskets Café

In turn, Bavonese felt inspired to paint a series of nine portraits, featuring both 12 Baskets regulars and volunteers. The paintings are now prominently displayed on the café’s left-side wall and have inspired those who use 12 Baskets’ services.

“They’re planning to do more art to hang up on the walls inside, which was definitely started by [Shirley],” Baker says. “They were like, ‘We can do this? OK, let’s do this.’ There just has to be somebody to start it.”

Be the change

One concept at the core of 12 Baskets and the Asheville Poverty Initiative overall is the theme of abundance. Among the nonprofit’s guiding principles is “deconstructing the prevailing cultural belief of scarcity” and recognizing “how much abundance already exists and that there is more than enough to go around.”

While Johnson, Bavonese, Murphy and Schultz have all given back to their community and continue to do so through their art, they don’t believe that it’s an obligation all artists should feel. Instead, they find the personal calling that motivates them as individuals far more important — and if others experience a similar pull, they should act on it.

For Schultz, he does not see his efforts as altruistic. In fact, he considers his contributions to 12 Basket as somewhat selfish — but in a way, that’s more sustainable on a holistic level.

“I just want to see what I want to exist for my own benefit,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like it’s for them — it’s for me. All the [12 Baskets] groups that are going on, I feel somewhat attached to, and I benefit from it as much as anyone else.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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