Banish our blank walls

From Chicken Alley to Eagle Street, downtown Asheville boasts murals at many turns. Photo by Yeager St. John

Murals may be the quintessence of public art work, a realm that includes much more than publicly funded community projects. Public art, let’s say, is art in public, which, for our purposes, includes formal murals as much as stencils. It’s free to see, financially, and in terms of accessibility.

A new crop of artists has emerged — or landed — in Asheville over the past decade. And with it came dozens of murals, inside cafes and restaurants, and on practically every type of outdoor surface.

The works’ content varies as much as their locations throughout town. Some document Asheville’s history with images of trolleys and street scenes, while murals like the Lexington Avenue Gateway capture the spirit of the town. Others visually describe buildings or their inhabitants; one painting shows a harsh political debate at a stoplight.

In this two-part series, we’ll look at some of these works, the artists and the people who commissioned the paintings. In part one, we’ll formally introduce a few murals in our city. Who did them? When? Where are they? In part two, we’ll talk public art with its producers and the owners of businesses that proffer their space for public art.

Most of the featured works were produced in the past four years; others have been up since the early 2000s. The artists and the entities commissioning these works don’t seem to be slowing down. Ian Wilkinson, the current program director for the Asheville Mural Project, told Xpress “I thought 2011 was a good year for murals, until 2012 started.”

David McConville (West Asheville)

“I have a vendetta against blank, beige walls,” says David McConville, talking about the mural that covers his Haywood Road residence. Entitled Street Science, the mural fills the facade and five panels on the side of the building. McConville is the co-founder of The Elumenati, an engineering and design firm that creates audio and video environments, such as planetarium-type domes, projection equipment and other presentation tools. If that sounds dry, you’ve never been in an Elumenati dome.

David and Nicole McConville commissioned the work to decrease the city’s square footage of blank walls — a personal quest. Local artists Lisa Nance, Ted Harper, Al Blisterfist, Andrew Fansler and “Roadkill” were selected to paint the mural. With the help of the nonprofit Arts2People, which paid for the paint, and the still-new Asheville Mural Project, then directed by artist Rachel Fields, the mural went up in less than four weeks during the summer of 2006. Contributors to the mural were paid by way of a fundraiser at Phil Mechanic Studios.

Included in the wall’s montage is Buckminster Fuller. The eccentric architect/engineer stares down from above the front door. He’s 32 in this image, the age of Fuller’s “cosmic download,” as McConville calls it. Thus a cosmic cloud twists out of his slightly ajar skull. This thought bubble gone awry wraps around the building toward an astronaut and two single-engine planes. It’s filled with red, white and blue atomic structures, orbs and oceanic microorganisms that hover over a celestial background.

Four more paintings line the remaining wall space, conveniently segmented for equally sized “canvases.” Microbe-like spheres bulge over clouds with rips and alien protrusions. The cosmic cloud momentarily picks back up in another panel, only this time it’s several shades of red instead of blue and white. And a tattooed figure holds out a magnifying glass to show a cityscape below.

The mural quotes graffiti styles, and is done almost entirely with spray paint. When asked about his stance on Asheville’s overall graffiti scene, McConville says, “That’s a bit like talking about Bob Ross and John Cage in the same sentence.” Graffiti is often used as a method of social critique. It’s also anonymous (or under an alias) and unencumbered by the spatial and organizational trappings of galleries and museums. Considering the mural’s character — and outdoor surface —  graffiti made a fitting style for presenting such raw and highly interpretable material.

McConville gave the participating artists complete liberty with their parts. The only requirement: They had to read an informational packet first. It had notes and readings on everything from geometry and the Golden Ratio to cellular structures and chaos theory. Viewers are not required to plumb these concepts prior to viewing Street Science, but it wouldn’t hurt. — K.S.

Street Science can be seen at 414 Haywood Road in West Asheville.

Bruisin’ Ales/Vinsite (downtown)

The building at 66 Broadway Ave., currently home to the beer store Bruisin’ Ales, hosts one of the older murals in Asheville. Against a verdant mountain-scape, a figure offers a large bouquet to passersby (the wall tops off at the figure’s neck, so the head is not shown). Situated in this prominent position, the mural serves as a gate to Asheville’s downtown. The previous tenants of the building, owners of Mud Hunters Pottery Gallery, commissioned the piece in 2004. 

“The idea of the piece was that is should be a greeting to that entrance to downtown, but not a portrait, thus no head,” said the mural’s painter, Sally Bryenton. “The focus was on the gift, the flowers.” — R.I.

MMS (River Arts District)

Murals can help distinguish a building in its environment while integrating it into its socio-geographic surroundings at the same time. This is the case with dozens of murals and paintings around Asheville, including one covering MMS, a mailing and printing company in the River Arts District. Co-owner and general manager Cindy Conner commissioned this piece to help combat graffiti, and to add to the artistic backdrop created by other buildings in the River Arts District. 

Conner approached Ian Wilkinson, program director for the Asheville Mural Project, shortly after she’d seen his work at Cotton Mill Studios (also in the River District). She chose from several designs Wilkinson drafted for the short wall in front of her Roberts Street office. With the help of AMP muralists Kurt Thaesler and Harper Leich, the mural went up over the course of several weekends.

Wilkinson combined images of white mail envelopes, the French Broad River and the late-afternoon downtown skyline, set in front of a mountainous backdrop. The envelopes float in and out of the water, occasionally bobbing, while others fall under rapids on either side.

MMS has taken the imagery and applied it elsewhere, turning the mural into part of its brand. Sections are used on letterheads and packaging, and the piece of Asheville skyline has been painted over the cab of their delivery truck. It joins the ranks of several mobile artworks, including the Roots and Mountain Foods Product delivery truck, Wedge’s “movie screen” and the Gypsy Queen Cuisine food truck. — K.S.

MMS is located at 88 Roberts Street, adjacent to Phil Mechanic Studios. Keep an eye out for their delivery truck.

True Confections (downtown)

Carole Miller opened True Confections in the Grove Arcade in 2003 and wanted to liven up the atmosphere of the bake shop. Julia Burr, her friend and cohort in color selection, suggested filling the high walls with a few murals. Miller commissioned True Blue Art Supply co-founder and painter Heather Gordon to paint two works directly on the wall. 

The pieces had to be bakery-inspired, but otherwise, Gordon had free reign. So she chose to recreate two Edward Hopper paintings. Her version of Hopper’s 1960 piece People in the Sun is spot on, almost. “She literally took the figures out, so some chairs only have one arm,” Miller told Xpress. The image is seamless enough that you wouldn’t notice the omissions unless they are pointed out. Everything in the image looks like a carbon copy. The five chairs where the people once sat are empty. In front of them, three pies rest on the patio. — K.S.

True Confections is located in the east wing of the Grove Arcade, 1 Page Ave., Ste. 147.

Burgermeister’s (West Asheville)

The vinyl seating, hanging records and oldies pouring from the speakers inside Burgermeister’s create a picturesque diner scene. On any given night, you’d half expect to see the Fonz saunter in and kick a jukebox. What better to decorate the building than a similarly retro mural? 

This West Asheville gem was put up in 2005 by painter Joshua Vaughan. At the time he was an employee, which made the artist-selection process simple when owners Chantal Saunders and Tom Gaddy decided to commission a mural. Saunders said the choice was easy: “The restaurant had a vintage feel, so why not a mural that did, too.” One post-installation problem has arisen since 2005. A small shrub that Asheville Greenworks planted a few years ago has grown up into a tree, right in the middle of the tableau.

The landscape may look familiar to those well-versed in slightly secret overlooks of town. It’s a view from Spivey Mountain, looking toward the southeast. Everything from the mountain ridges down to the lights sprinkled across the valley are correctly located and proportioned. To top it all off, and add that retro feel, Vaughan painted a couple sitting in the back of the sweet yellow El Camino. — K.S.

Burgermeister’s is located at 697 Haywood Road in West Asheville. The mural is located on the outside back of the restaurant.

Pink Dog Creative, 348 Depot Street.

The River Arts District generally has an industrial vibe. That’s until you round the corner of Depot Street. Home to The Junction restaurant and bar, the Asheville Area Arts Council and Asheville Arts Supply, two galleries and 16 artist studios, Pink Dog Creative is anything but bleak and steely. Having so many creative minds under one roof helps, and so does the building’s electric pink façade. 

Owners Randy Shull and Hedy Fisher said they “wanted an exceptional façade that would bring attention not only to the building, but to a new part of the River Arts District.” Shull painted the building, looking at the front as a “140-foot painting,” Fischer said. But he doesn’t think of the work strictly as a mural — Shull thinks of himself as a “colorist.” Wherever there is color, there is intention, he says.

The large and slightly ferocious Dog, from which the studio derives its name, was a former graffiti stencil. When Shull began painting the building, many passers-by were concerned that the Dog wouldn’t remain. Shull decided to adapt the stencil, blowing it up and painting it a bright, flamingo pink. The painting “lends a sense of vibrancy to the area and the building itself says that art happens here,” say the two collaborators. — R.I.

Pink Dog Creative is located at 348 Depot St.

Jazz on the Block (downtown)

Unit 39 D on S. Market Street is currently unoccupied. But the empty space is home to one of the oldest murals in Asheville. Although the mural can only be partially seen through the former storefront’s dusty windowpane, it still engages viewers to take a closer look. Ian Wilkinson of the Asheville Mural Project was commissioned by the YMI Cultural Center to restore the more than 40-year-old piece — time and termites had left it in need.

After some careful work, the mural has been restored to its former glory. Composed of large, vibrant splotches of color ranging from pastel orange to forest green, the work depicts a seated figure reading, to impressive totemic forms and a lively Jazz quartet. Thick black lines give the piece an elegant stained-glass quality. This is a gem that generally goes unnoticed, unless you live and work on the block or are the prowl for hidden murals. — R.I.

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