Around Town: Local artists reflect on pandemic in new collection

BY THE BOOK: Family duo Thomas L. Johnson, left, and L. Miranda Johnson, right, collaborated on “Worlds Unmasked,” a book examining the emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photos courtesy of  CLASS Publishing

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the world in March 2020, L. Miranda Johnson’s work as a massage therapist came to an abrupt halt.

In response, she started taking photographs during frequent long walks through Montford, downtown, Riverside Cemetery and other parts of the Asheville area.

“Very often I would end up taking a photograph that made little sense to me until weeks or even months later,” she says. “The images began to reflect my inner loneliness and depth of emotion in response to a time in human history that seemed unfathomable to most people.”

When she showed the photos to her father, award-winning poet Thomas L. Johnson, he found them powerful and suggested they collaborate on a book marrying her images with his poetry. At the time, the two were sharing a residence in Woodfin.

“Many of these photographs struck me as stunning black-and-white works of art; atypical images that defied predictable, conventional pictures,” he says. “The more images she took, and the more I looked at them, the more I realized that others might enjoy seeing them, too.”

The result is Worlds Unmasked: A Journey Through the Plague Years, recently published by CLASS Publishing Division. The book features 135 images, each accompanied by a haiku. Most of the photographs in the book were taken in the Asheville area, but a few in the latter part of the collection are from Hilton Head, S.C.

The themes of death and mortality, so central to the COVID-19 experience, are captured in a section featuring haunting images from Riverside Cemetery, the Johnsons say.

“There are the endless rows of gravestones keeping each other company in all kinds of weather; soldiers who may have lost their own battles with destiny,” Thomas Johnson says. “Then there are the imagined ghosts and spirits that inhabit any cemetery, and a couple of these have been suggested in both image and word.”

Miranda Johnson says she hopes the book will inspire people to reflect on their own pandemic experiences.

“I can only imagine that many people have yet to process their emotions regarding the chaotic and traumatic experience that we underwent,” she says.

For more information about the book, go to

Reclaiming history

Those who work at the state historic site where Zebulon B. Vance was born spend a lot of time talking to visitors about the horrors of slavery.

Members of the Vance family enslaved at least 27 people between 1795 and 1865. A slave dwelling from the 1790s is also part of the plantation tour.

“These men, women and children were considered property and could be bought, sold, bartered, willed, inherited, loaned and hired out at their enslavers’ discretion,” says Kimberly Floyd, site manager at the Vance Birthplace. “The histories are dominated by tales of sale and separation. However, you will also find stories of love, strength and connection.”

The Vance site is partnering with the Asheville-based nonprofit American Myth Center to tell some of those stories. The groups will commemorate Juneteenth by presenting Leah & the Rabbit: A Conversation Around Resiliency & Reclaiming Narratives on Saturday, June 18, 1-3 p.m.

The free outdoor event will include a tour of the slave dwelling, a performance of the play Leah & the Rabbit and a discussion with Oralene Simmons, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County.

The play — written, created and directed by local artist Mikayla Wilson — will use puppetry and live action to tell the story of Leah Erwin, an enslaved woman who lived on the Vance plantation, and her husband, Sandy Erwin. The play weaves in traditional Brer Rabbit tales.

Simmons will lead a discussion of the play, the perpetuation of Lost Cause myths and the reclaiming of African American stories.

“We cannot tell a full and inclusive history without first acknowledging the appropriation of African American stories, and opening conversation on how that began with plantation ideologies and continues to impact us today,” Floyd says.

The Vance Birthplace and the American Myth Center first worked together in 2017  to create a Christmas program telling the history of Venus, a woman enslaved by the Vances.

“I said that I wanted to do another theater program that would highlight Leah and Sandy Erwin,” Floyd says. “We shared all of our research thus far, and [the American Myth Center] has come back, once again, with a beautiful, thought-provoking play.”

The Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace is at 911 Reems Creek Road, Weaverville. The event is free, but registration is encouraged. For more information, or to register, visit

Thanks for the memories

On Tuesday, June 21, 6-7:30 p.m., the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center will host the first in a series of monthly workshops about taking care of family heirlooms and antiques.

At the inaugural event, Memory Box Mini Exhibit, attendees are encouraged to bring small objects, such as photos, letters and doilies. They will learn how to properly display them as a dynamic miniature exhibit that can be hung on the wall of their home. Participants may bring their own shadow box or purchase one from the museum. Shadow boxes must be no larger than 8 by 10 inches.

Additional workshops will be Digitizing and Preserving Your Family Photos, Letters, Cards and Videos, on Tuesday, July 19, and What Kind of Wood Is It? Caring for Our Wooden Antique Furniture and Décor, Tuesday, Aug. 23.

Tickets are $20 for museum members and $25 for general admission.

The Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center is at 223 W. State St., Black Mountain. To register, go to

Carnival of sorts

The Magnetic Theatre will hold Magnetic Magic & Mayhem, a carnival-style fundraising event on Thursday, June 23, at 6:30 p.m. The evening will feature live music, circus performances, auctions, raffles and games.

Entertainment will be provided by magician Glenn Reed, belly dancer Claire Dima,  fire-breather Jered Shults and clown Rigel Pawlak.

Tickets are $40 in advance and $50 on the day of the event.

The Magnetic Theatre is at 375 Depot St. For more information or to buy tickets, go to

A family affair

Nature & Nurture: The Voorhees Family Artistic Legacy will on display in the N.C. Arboretum’s Baker Visitor Center exhibit hall through Monday, Sept. 5.

Edwin Voorhees (1919-99) was known for his North Carolina coastal watercolor seascapes, and Mildred Voorhees (1924-2007) was noted for her watercolors, and oil still life and landscape paintings.

The show will additionally feature pottery from David Voorhees and jewelry from Molly Voorhees, among works from other family members. Numerous pieces feature North Carolina plants and landscapes.

“Crafting and creating were everyday activities in our family,” says David Voorhees.  “Someone was always painting, sewing, designing, building, repairing. That certainly charted my life as a potter. No wonder so many of us ended up as artists.”

The exhibit is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily at the arboretum’s Baker Visitor Center exhibit hall, 20 Frederick Law Olmsted Way. For more information, go to

Forged in metal

The N.C. Artist-Blacksmiths Association will hold its state meeting on Saturday, June 18, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. at Blacksmiths Depot, 100 Daniel Ridge Road, Candler.

The event will feature demonstrations by Susan Hutchinson in the morning and Brock Martin in the afternoon. Hutchinson, advertising manager for Xpress, has been blacksmithing, teaching and doing demonstrations for 30 years. Martin, also a veteran blacksmith, teaches numerous classes in Hickory and Dillsboro.

The event is free, but donations are encouraged.

For more information, go to




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About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

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