Against the current

Asheville’s westernmost artists’ quarter whirs with a distinct and peculiar life: Ugly, sun-showered warehouses — some restored and thriving, others crumbled to their foundations — sit perched between a morose parade of freight trains and the city’s changeable river. And yet, almost deviously, this would-be ghost town has amassed a formidable crowd of artists and craftspeople. Painters, potters, metalsmiths, glassblowers, fiber artists, tile artists, photographers and woodworkers — many of them nationally known in their field — have all found inspiration in looming edifices and flat-topped cubbyholes along the banks of the French Broad River.

Why?

Well, rents have been known to dip, the farther one gets from downtown’s gleaming bustle. But other explanations may lurk behind the rise of the river studios — or so says Dawn Rentz, a painter and fiber artist who shares space at Warehouse Studios.

“The camaraderie here is really wonderful,” she says. Despite its state of flux, the River District has yet to suffer any serious growing pains, she maintains.

A few studios, such as the Odyssey Center for Ceramic Arts, boast adjoining galleries, but most are “working studios” that post no regular hours. Studio strolls alert art-lovers from the tidier side of the tracks to this insular nest of creativity — and anyone who attends the district’s seasonal open-houses will get an education, promises Rentz.

“At a [traditional gallery walk], people don’t see the actual process,” she explains. “With [the River District studio strolls], they get more of an insider’s look, a peek into where the work is coming from and how it has evolved. … Most people have no idea at all how art is created.”

Odyssey Center Director Mark Burleson stresses the strong sense of community shared by studio renters: “This [area] is turning from a wasteland into a desirable neighborhood, and the artists are largely responsible for that,” he muses, noting that many of the district’s long-established businesses have shown little interest in cleaning up the neighborhood. On June 12, the district’s industrious, preoccupied vibe will be enlivened by live entertainment and a trolley bus (to shuttle less-stalwart strollers to some of the more isolated studios). Refreshments and a raffle featuring more than 20 works of art complete the festivities at the second annual River District Sunset Studio Stroll.

Most River District artists are pleased that the community’s increasing popularity has made the twice-yearly strolls a tradition (the Sunset Studio Stroll in June and a Holiday Studio Stroll in November), but a few eye the area’s growth with reservations.

Diana Gillespie is a ceramic-tile artist who specializes in original, hand-glazed designs and painstaking reproductions of medieval floor tiles. A former downtown dweller who prefers her more-obscure Roberts Street location because it invites fewer interruptions, Gillespie fears that the River District may become too trendy, raising rents and possibly driving out the artists.

Still, the artist (whose work appeals both to serious collectors and to homeowners who merely seek a decorative edge over the Joneses) has ferreted out one unique advantage of the strolls. “It’s difficult for some people to understand why certain objects are so expensive, because they don’t realize the amount of work that’s involved [in creating them],” she notes. “But [observing the artistic process] opens an immense appreciation for that work. People find it fascinating:. It’s quite different from that removed, objective experience of [viewing] something framed on a wall.”

Action is everything, agrees glass artist Andy Merrick: “People will get to see a piece from start to finish.” With fellow glassman Roddy Capers, he operates Great Southern Glassworks, a favorite stroll stop; the two feature “the whole gamut of art glass, from small paperweights to large decorative and functional vessels to lighted wall hangings,” Merrick explains.

He says he enjoys the River District atmosphere (“It’s a nice mix of individuals”) and notes that Great Southern Glassworks is regularly open to the public. With its pomp and danger, glassblowing is by its very nature a crowd-pleasing endeavor — and Merrick speaks about his art with a kind of magician’s modesty.

“It’s such a mystery to people,” he muses. “How do you turn this molten blob into a cup you can drink out of?”

Stroll by and find out.

Grey Eagle lands in West Asheville

The newest stroll attraction is the soon-to-open Grey Eagle Tavern and Music Hall, forced from its beloved Black Mountain location by leasing woes. Housed in the former Cecil’s Lounge at 185 Clingman Ave., the new Grey Eagle promises to be a significant draw for the River District. Singer/songwriter David LaMotte, who crooned his way to local fame in the original Grey Eagle, will highlight the tavern’s opening night June 11. And on June 12, the tavern will host the Sunset Studio Stroll raffle.

Co-owners Bert Ivey and Tyler Richardson have been working till the wee hours trying to get the place ready by opening night, but acknowledge wearily, “We’re still at the mercy of the building contractors.”

Ivey feels the ever-blossoming River District will fast become the place to be in Asheville — and, hopefully, the Grey Eagle will have something to do with that:

“[The club’s] going to be just as much fun as it was before,” he promises, with a note of nostalgia. Even more, in fact: “It’s a lot bigger than the old Grey Eagle,” he reveals.

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