Art in the Heart imagines the future of Pack Square Plaza

MOONAGE DAYDREAM: Local poet Tiffany Narron poses with the mask made by her Art in the Heart collaborator, Hot Springs-based artist Lydia Nichole. Photo by Micah Mackenzie

With the Vance monument gone, Pack Square Plaza’s future design remains an open question. But some of the first steps in this process are taking form via the city of Asheville’s Art in the Heart program, described on its website as “a way to unite, heal and strengthen the community.” The current series of temporary installations, artwork and performances will run through March with the hope of sparking communitywide conversations about the role of public spaces and what goes in them.

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According to Karli Stephenson, urban designer and public art coordinator, 29 Art in the Heart submissions were received between the May 25 call for artists and the Aug. 1 application deadline. The proposed projects then went before an 11-person selection committee, which included members from the Public Art and Cultural Commission, Stephenson and three fellow city staffers, as well as four external stakeholders, including representatives from the Asheville Art Museum, UNC Asheville, the Biltmore Estate and the Friends of Buncombe County Special Collections.

“The selection panel met three times and provided a lot of feedback along the way,” Stephenson says. “The panel was especially interested in projects that were interactive, created in response to this program and that made an effort to address the themes/questions proposed.”

The committee also looked for applicants with a proven record of developing, sharing and removing public art, as well as projects that emphasized viewer experience and interactivity. But since Stephenson notes that “public spaces and monuments are dynamic and should be a reflection of the people and history they represent,” the panel was especially interested in how artist proposals embraced the theme of social equity and inclusion, and the ways in which they answered two guiding questions: What should Pack Square Plaza look and feel like in the future? And what stories haven’t been told or represented in downtown Asheville?

“I really loved that we received such a mixture of art types,” Stephenson says. “A lot of times when you say ‘public art,’ folks think of a sculpture or mural. I think the range of projects submitted says a lot about the potential for Pack Square Plaza’s future.”

The projects range from intimate puppet shows to 15-foot sculptures with projected visuals and audio. Most artists chose the most visible location — the center median — for their project, which Stephenson says makes sense from an accessibility standpoint.

“But it also helps us, as urban designers and planners, think about the plaza differently from that perspective,” she says. “Where can we open up views and better facilitate connections into and from the plaza? Where are there opportunities for gateways? What are those spaces that are hidden now but could be made more visible, accessible and comfortable for art and people?”

Regarding the second guiding question, Stephenson notes that many of the stories and topics chosen by the artists address the challenges and histories within and around the plaza, including housing insecurity, the enslaved people of the Vance family, free speech, climate change and inclusivity.

“Several of the projects are based on amplifying community voices that aren’t often heard: those experiencing homelessness or searching for an affordable home, [and] Native American and Black communities,” she says. “I think overall, there was a desire for Pack Square Plaza to evolve into a place that supports hard conversations and realities and allows anyone to celebrate their culture and identity.”

Solid-colored flags

Among the selected creators and current exhibits is Asheville-based installation artist Jackson Martin, whose “Room in the Sky” — consisting of 12 nylon flags of various colors hanging around a steel structure — debuted Sept. 18 and will be on display through Sunday, Oct. 30. Part of Martin’s art practice is searching for exhibitions and other opportunities to apply to, and he says he’s always excited when he sees calls for site-specific and site-responsive work.

“These types of opportunities allow me to shift outside of my normal way of thinking, encouraging me to imagine something entirely different,” he says. “The overarching theme of Art in the Heart is about ‘inclusivity and equity’ — ideas that have gained a lot of attention in the last couple years. My prior work has not been directly about those ideas, and I am proud to be part of this important conversation now.”

MONUMENTAL: Local installation artist Jackson Martin’s “Room in the Sky” will remain in front of the former Vance Monument through Oct. 30. Photo by Martin

The premise of “Room in the Sky” began as a reimagining of the Vance Monument. It was originally designed to sit atop the remaining base, though the design intended to represent something starkly different than the former structure. But ongoing litigation concerning the monument’s removal ultimately prevented “Room in the Sky” from being on the base. Instead, Martin’s work stands at eye level and has become more interactive than he planned.

“I chose an overall form that directly relates to the old monument base but also one that represents both healing and inclusivity — a plus sign or medical cross,” Martin says. “The solid-colored flags that hang from the structure are intended to represent groups that experience discrimination and prejudice in this country, including the LGBTIQA and BIPOC communities. Many of my students, closest friends and family members have been affected by discrimination and prejudice, and I am honored to stand as an ally in the fight for equality.”

Grief and hope

On Saturday, Oct. 15, from 5-8 p.m. the installation’s space will be shared with “Our Careful Tending,” an interactive grief ceremony spearheaded by local writer Tiffany Narron. Her titular poem will be read aloud and handed out on small slips of paper as three people in black robes hold large paper masks, while five additional people walk alongside them, carrying lanterns.

Narron feels that the poem “speaks to the intention needed to address harm as well as the shared joy we must cultivate and lean on together at the same time — a difficult dichotomy to hold, especially for a culture that hasn’t been taught well how to hold multiple truths at once.”

The masks, which Narron says “remind us of our ancestors who walk with us on all sides as we go,” were made by Hot Springs-based artist Lydia Nichole and Jennifer Murphy, co-founder of Asheville’s Street Creature Puppet Collective. According to Murphy, Narron shared an image with her by artist Stasys Eidrigevicius and asked for help creating something with a similar vibe.

“She wanted something with a peaceful, wise countenance, that had a moonlike feeling,” Murphy says. “I have made many papier-mache masks over the years, and lately I’ve been making ceramic and concrete ones for the garden, so it’s a subject I enjoy. This time, I wanted to combine foraged basketry materials with papier-mache.”

Narron notes that Murphy also layered in words from the poem on holding grief into the face alongside a sacred geometry seed of life pattern to imbue the full meaning of the presence the mask will hold. The poet then worked separately with Nichole, listening to a podcast on grief and moon consciousness together while the latter wove in natural layers of beeswax and coffee ink for the mask to hold a natural form.

Together, the artists hope that “Our Careful Tending” encourages attendees to connect into an intentional space where they can hold grief and hope alongside one another. But they see even greater potential for Art in the Heart as a whole.

“This project really seeks to hold a space for our community to both question and show up to how we tend and re-mother the wounds of racism and colonialism in the history, structure and growth of our city, both personally and collectively,” Narron says. “I hope that this helps spark real conversation alongside all of the incredible projects being shared so that we can begin to collectively reenvision Pack Square Park as our full community envisions it.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for 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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