The work in progress at Phil Mechanic Studios goes beyond the myriad projects in process at any given moment. Clay is thrown, paints mixed, glass blown, metal pounded, fabric stitched.
The building itself has progressed from a warehouse to a construction company to its current incarnation: an oddball mix of studios, galleries and other creative spaces, with an alternative-energy business holding steady on the first floor.
One of the anchors of Asheville’s River Arts District (along with the equally palatial Wedge building), it’s six stories tall, all concrete and rebar, with walls 18-inches thick. When Jolene and Mitch Mechanic inherited the building from Mitch’s father, Phil, in 1999, there were hundreds of meat hooks hanging from the ceilings of the bottom floor, leftover from its days as the Pearce Young Angel Co. Wholesale Foods. A couple of the studios still have heavy refrigerator doors.
"It shows something about the history of the area as it's evolved, from industry to alternative energy to artist spaces," says Melita Kyriakou, office manager for Blue Ridge Biofuels. Phil Mechanic is still a manufacturing facility, "but for the 21st century," she says.
Blue Ridge Biofuels, a fuel co-op turned worker-owned business, opened in 2005 after turning the bottom floor of the building into a processing plant. Kyriakou calls the company a "ground-up grassroots" model, where workers learned as they went, built as they could afford to and grew the company.
Which is, on the whole, what happened when Jolene and Mitch took over the building. Jolene had been working at a law firm; Mitch off-and-on with his father’s construction company. Along with the massive structure, they inherited thousands of tons of siding.
“Mitch was not a siding salesman,” Jolene says with a laugh. “We thought, this is ridiculous, let’s do something fun.”
It’s been piece-by-piece, floor-by-floor and dollar-by-dollar to renovate the building into workable space. And in turn, the Phil Mechanic dwellers continue to create their own spaces. Some of the projects were large-scale: Sculptor/painter/creative personality Sean “Jinx” Pace helped build walls on the top floor to carve out separate studio spaces, along with his work on the space for Flood Gallery.
“I can’t tell you how many hours Jinx put into Flood,” Jolene says with a sigh.
And some of the projects are on a smaller scale. Ceramist Julie Covington made the gritty-textured, earth-based paint for her studio. She also built trim for her studio and shelving for her pottery using recycled wood from barns and other antiques.
Painter David McDermott, faced with "the biggest space I ever had to myself," turned his entire studio into a colorful, abstract floor-to-ceiling mural. But upon a second visit to McDermott’s space, he had covered over the walls in clean coats of gray and white. "I wanted a new start," he says. "It was spontaneous. I wanted to see how the new series of paintings I'm working on would look without a lot of distraction behind them."
McDermott's studio is tucked into a corner of the building's top floor. Six other artist spaces, a gallery and a library now occupy what used to be one giant woodworking studio. The old and new cohabitate easily: comfy chairs, shelves of books (brought in by Jolene, an avid philosophy and literature reader) and a Chinese New Year dragon crafted by artist Liz White share residence with an industrial elevator.
Alex Greenwood and Logan MacSporran of Asheville Glass Center recently located to the top floor, making way for Dang Salon at street level. The two work around a massive, decades-old ladder that leads to the roof. The ladder looks like something from which nervous moms would warn eager children away, but its ominous bulk settles comfortably in the midst of fragile glasswork. (Grandfathered in under the city’s building-safety code, the ladder is the only way for the elevator inspector to reach the control room.)
Down the hall, ceramist Christopher McGee and Celia Barbieri, who makes sweet flowers from buttons and ceramics, have added their own hefty woodwork —a bunk-bed-like loft structure — to create workspaces for several artists.
On the Roberts Street level, clothing designers Elise Olson of lingerie line On the Inside and ARTeries designer Stina Anderson also renovated their studio, parsing cutting and dressing rooms from two previously-existing nooks.
"Artists tend to gravitate toward having studio spaces in warehouse districts, as they have been abandoned and offer a large space to divide up into individual spaces, but still give the artist the community of the other artists around them," says Olson. "I clearly remember the first time I walked into the Phil Mechanic, and could feel the amazing community that is the building, and knew that I wanted to be a part of it. There is an energy that is inspiring to be around."
Maybe shared inspiration comes naturally from shared spaces. Even the artists who don't double up on studio space still connect with fellow occupants in the common areas — the galleries, kitchen, stairwells, library and freight elevator. And as natural as the spirit of collaboration is the spirit of ingenuity.
Take metalsmith Matt Waldrop, whose Northern Crescent Iron studio occupies a corner below Roberts Street and above the railroad tracks. After closing down a much larger workshop and selling off his equipment to pay down debt, Waldrop relocated to the River Arts District with the edict, "Let the job justify the tools." Instead of purchasing pricey machinery, Waldrop learned to build his own, from a simple railroad anvil (fashioned from a discarded section of train track) to a mechanical hammer (for which 80 percent of the materials were sourced from a scrap yard).
"The basis for this machine is 120 or 130 years old," Waldrop explains of the daunting, metal-pounding machine. "I used to own one from 1925. That one was scary; it was made of primitive materials. This one is a lot nicer." As if to offset the machine's intimidation factor, Waldrop attached a delicately wrought metal butterfly to the face of the hammer.
In fact, much of what the metalsmith creates is graceful, organic and downright pretty. Crimped leaf shapes start out as sheared metal, sunflowers with curved petals are pummeled into shape. The sculptural bus stop on the corner of Clingman Avenue and Hilliard Streets? That's Waldrop's work.
The metalsmith, who lived in the Wedge building at one time, describes Asheville's former industrial section as "magical."
"It's changed," he says. "It's a thing, now that it's the ‘River Arts District,’ but it's more inspirational because there are so many talented people."
Because, even though the right setting can spark creativity, it's human hands that ultimately turn raw materials into masterpieces.