Heinz Kossler — the good-natured, forthright and oft-irreverent ceramics artist who has inhabited 115 Roberts St. in The Wedge Building for more than 15 years — is leaving town. This fall, he’ll leave Asheville and return to his native Germany.
An architectural ceramicist by trade, Kossler has fashioned one-of-a-kind signs, mantels and shelves for clients across WNC. He is also known in the local scene for his Constructivist-inspired artwork, which is currently on display this month throughout The Phil Mechanic Building.
Curated by local designer Robert Zimmerman, One Billion Seconds refers to the 30-plus years Kossler has lived in Asheville, and encompasses work ranging from his earliest paintings to more recent word-art pieces. Conceptual work, like his installation “Rage Against Ceramics,” incorporates the shards and byproducts of the last two decades. “I make craft to please people, first of all; I make art to challenge people, first of all,” says Kossler in affable timbre.
Xpress met Kossler in his studio as he was making preparations for One Billion Seconds.
Xpress: What was going on in Asheville when you first moved here?
Kossler: Asheville was a dead town. In the early ‘80s there was a big influx of professionals, like doctors, lawyers, builders, cabinet-makers and professional craftspeople. There was a group called Asheville One Thousand that was kind of like a party group. We were all together, we were all around the same age, it was very interesting.
This was the mid-’80s. There was some really contemporary work being created and shown. I mean, I think you could buy a building downtown for like 50-60 grand. Everything was boarded up, at night you had to walk as a group through town.
It was just the beginning of the revitalization of downtown, basically. You could rent space downtown for like, 100 bucks a month. Most buildings were sitting empty.
When did you get a space in The River Arts District?
The first space I got in the RAD was in the Chesterfield Mill in ‘90-’91 [the mill burned down in ‘95] Then I moved into what is now the Clingman Café, then I moved in next door (Asheville Tileworks). Then John Payne bought this building in 2002 and I moved into this space.
What was the River Arts District like back then?
There were only a very few people down here, but the work they produced was very experimental and exploratory — which could be done because the rents were at a level where you didn’t have to sell a piece of work every second week just to pay rent. It was, and it still is, I find, very collegial. People help each other out, there is no pressure to ask.
But now there’s so many more people down here.
Yeah, it’s just insane. I don’t even know the people that are in this building anymore. Over the years the rents increased gradually. The less you get to pay on rent, the more adventurous people you have and the more people will explore. As soon as the rents go up, well then the commercialism has to go up with it.
I think all these spaces down here have become so expensive. These are all gonna be tchotchke galleries, because people have to make a living.
What do you mean by tchotchke gallery?
I mean something that is accessible to our visitors here in Asheville. I mean, Asheville is turning into a little Gatlinburg (laughs.) Unless the town is known for cutting-edge work, and people come here to see innovative and new work — but that is not supported by the tourism.
What is a place in the U.S. that’s known for cutting-edge work, when you think about it?
Where I would go now, I probably would go to towns like Cleveland or Detroit where you could afford to have a studio and experiment and find your voice. Towns that have been factory-based where there are no factories, so there is plenty of warehouse space
What is your wish for the Asheville art scene?
A hope for me would be that the city would declare the River Arts District a rent-controlled area where they would give the landlords a tax-break on their buildings, so we could keep on getting young creative people in here that can bring us some new work, give us some new challenges. If this doesn’t happen, this will all be galleries or rich hobby painters.
What I really don’t get is that the city calls itself an arts and crafts town, and they just let it go. They don’t appreciate what the artists have created here — a vibrant environment where people wanted to move. [The artists] created the boom of the ‘90s and 2000s. They made it interesting for people to live here — and I’m not just talking about the visual artists. The music scene, for example (like Vincent’s Ear, one of the best indie bars in America), these places all die off and what replaces it? (Long pause.) It’s mediocrity.
So what could the city have done about that, in your opinion?
They could have said, OK, you rent out to artists, we give you 50 percent off on your property tax, for example. … Another thing I found here — when you guys write about shows, in the end, there’s no real critical discussion about the work. It’s just about the person. That somebody gets slandered — like in New York or in Chicago — you never read that [laughs]. In one sense it’s kind of nice, because I don’t know many artists that can take really hard-core criticism, especially since we’ve lived in the South so long, we’re really not used to it.
So you think there needs to be more critical discourse?
I think so. I think there has to be. What is gonna separate the artists? When the studio stroll started in the early ‘90s, there were 15, maybe 20 people, and there were people pushing edges. We felt like we created a collector base, and that people were coming that were interested in this kind of work. People don’t buy that work anymore. They buy all the pretty stuff.
Who were these collectors?
People coming from Charlotte that would look for something new from young people. And then the RAD became bigger and bigger, and then everyone who had a studio down here was suddenly an artist. But there is still interesting work in this town. Semi Public, for example, is a good gallery. The museum is gonna get better, and Black Mountain College Museum is doing a good job.
So why are you going back to Germany?
I’m getting too old to move around in America. I’ve been self-employed ever since I’ve been here, so I wouldn’t be a good employee [laughs]. My whole family is back in Germany. I’ve got a good friend-base, too.
What will you miss most about Asheville when you leave?
I’ll miss the friendliness. I’m gonna miss the sunshine. The sun doesn’t shine in Germany as much as it does here. I’m gonna miss my friends. I have a good bunch of friends here. I am really grateful. This town has treated me really well. I’m really thankful for my time here. I’ve made lots and lots of friends. I hope I was a good German. I hope I put my best German foot forward.
who: Heinz Kossler
what: One Billion Seconds (30 years in America)
where: Flood Gallery and Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St. Through March 30. Closing reception March 30, 5 to 7 p.m.