Insider art

“I’d feel more comfortable walking through this room naked than I felt standing up there talking to people about my artwork.”

Betty Clarke’s voice is soft, slow and very Southern. She has just finished sharing slides of her paintings with a room full of people at the Asheville Art Museum. Her relief at getting it over with shows in her slim, suddenly relaxed shoulders.

“It’s so personal, painting. You reveal so much of yourself,” she acknowledges.

You may not “get” what Clarke is revealing in her abstract-expressionist work, but you will feel it, its honesty and intensity. Which is almost certainly why three of her paintings were selected to appear in 2000/2001, Endings and Beginnings, the Asheville Art Museum’s juried exhibit of the work of Western North Carolina artists.

Pam Myers, the museum’s executive director, describes the show as a snapshot “dedicated to assessing the state of the arts in our area” at the end of one millennium and the beginning of the next. Myers and her staff began work on the project early in 2000. By summer, coordinator Chris Holzbach had orchestrated the mailing of more than 5,000 calls for entries. The pamphlets found their way to schools, galleries and the studios of independent artists throughout Western North Carolina’s 23 counties. A total of 245 artists responded by the Aug. 25 deadline, inundating the museum with more than 700 slides.

To sort through the mass of tiny plastic images and choose which works would appear in the exhibit, Myers brought in top dog Matthew Drutt, the associate curator for research at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

Drutt’s one-week visit to Asheville was his first time in North Carolina.

“We wanted someone who wasn’t enmeshed in this environment, someone who could bring a fresh perspective to the artwork happening here,” explains Myers.

“An artists’ rights group recommended Matthew,” she continues, “and he’s someone I’ve known who has had a lifelong interest in and experience with a multitude of media.” Drutt’s background with diverse forms of art was essential for this show. In his introduction to the full-color catalog that documents the exhibit (available for purchase at the museum), he remarks, “In spite of my past experience with panels and juries in other parts of the country, I was still unprepared for the range of work I encountered [in Western North Carolina].”

Submissions included work in glass, ceramics, fiber art, metal, photography, painting, furniture, and even a video presentation. Drutt examined each slide before choosing 50 of the artists whom he wanted to meet personally. Based on brief visits with this bunch, he narrowed his selection to the 28 men and women whose work makes up the Endings and Beginnings exhibit.

The selected artists, their influences and their backgrounds are as disparate as their media and their work. Some support themselves entirely through their art; others have full-time careers, own businesses, or supplement their art income with odd jobs. They range in age from early 20s to early 60s and claim roots from as far away as Tel Aviv. Only three are North Carolina natives; the rest were drawn to the area for reasons personal or professional. Photographer Jon Riley, for instance, spent time here as a child. When he and his wife left Manhattan 10 years ago, they decided to relocate their successful commercial-photography business to Asheville. Riley discovered — as many others have — that WNC can be a hard place to make a living. The Rileys’ studio has survived on business they brought with them, but Jon has had trouble finding local venues to exhibit his personal photography — black-and-white studies of dreamy, mystical Irish landscapes punctuated by vague human forms.

“One gallery owner told me he couldn’t show my photographs because some included nudes. He said, ‘Jon, you have to understand — this is the Bible Belt,'” recalls Riley with a laugh.

Painter John Snyder, on the other hand, has found both security and the opportunity for introspection in the region. Snyder moved to Mitchell County from Iowa.

“I felt like I needed to drop out for a while, regroup, and get away from the whole Minneapolis art scene,” he explains. “I like the geography here in that it’s sort of protective, like having arms wrapped around you, hiding you. You don’t feel like you have to keep up, or like you’re being judged. It’s taken me to a different level, and helped me find some sort of resolution in an internal sense.”

The result of Snyder’s hibernation is a series of vivid, startling paintings that he describes as self-portraits. They are as different from other paintings in the show as the glass works are from the charcoal sketches. Many of the other pieces Drutt selected transcend conventional artistic lines as well, moving well beyond the realm of multimedia into a multiconceptual domain.

Nancy Herman’s textile, wood and foam installation “Broken Bed,” for example, incorporates computer-generated photo transfers to express the trauma of mental illness. Brigid Burns seeks to “illuminate” the intent of her black-and-white photo prints by overlaying them with oil paint. And Gwen Diehn’s artist’s books convey complex emotions through writing, time and physical dimension.

Drutt did not, as he put it, “intend to manufacture a coherency of aesthetic approaches.” Rather, he hoped to “reflect a process of dialogue and interaction, however transitory, with the understanding that as much as possible, the works on view are to have been made within the past year and not shown in the local area up until this point.”

In other words, the exhibit is an up-to-the-minute, original display of some of WNC’s finest talent. Many artists felt that the use of an “outside” curator brought a new level of professionalism to the exhibit. Diehn, a professor at Warren Wilson College, comments that “It was a more formal process than other local shows I’ve been involved with. There was no suspicion that established community ties and relationships were at work in the selection process. Like, ‘Oh, that’s the head of the art department at such and such college. We have to include her.'”

The curatorial process, however, didn’t necessarily end with Drutt. Every artist who submitted slides for Drutt’s inspection also chose one slide to be included on the Asheville Art Museum’s Web page (www.ashevilleart.org). Whether the artist’s work appears in the formally juried exhibit or not, it does appear on-line. So you can, in effect, curate a show yourself. Simply sort through the submissions by county, medium or artist’s name and make a list of your favorites. Then visit the actual exhibit and compare your selections with those of a Guggenheim professional.

Come by on any Friday evening between now and Feb. 9, and you’ll also have a chance to sip some wine, meet a few of the artists themselves, and learn about their work. As part of the program surrounding the Endings and Beginnings exhibit, the Asheville Art Museum is sponsoring this series of community/artist meetings, called “Up for Discussion.” Each session runs from 6-8 p.m. and features three of the artists whose work appears in the show; the cost is included with the price of admission to the museum.

Be gentle with your questions, though. As Betty Clarke (and most other artists) will tell you, art may address wide themes — but ultimately, it’s about the personal geography of its creator.

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