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In 1916, before E.W. Grove began the current trend of leveling local mountains, Asheville’s only flatland bordered the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers.

Railroad tracks ran along the French Broad, and her banks were crammed with commercial enterprises — including a half-dozen lumber mills, a tannery, cotton mills, the Asheville Ice and Coal Company and The National Casket Company.

When the river raged over her banks that year, many workers lost their jobs — and some businesses that lost goods and property failed to survive the chaos.

Last month, when the waters again rose to flood stage, those nervously watching the rivers were not conventional businessmen: They were artists.

Contrary to some views, though, artists on the river are not a new phenomenon. In the early 1970s, John Cram — of eventual Blue Spiral 1 and Fine Arts Theatre fame — encouraged sculptor Bob Gursky to move here; Gursky established the Highwater Center in 1975 on the banks of the Swannanoa in Biltmore.

Artists discouraged by high rent in downtown studios — some as pricey as $60 dollars a month! — soon filled the Highwater space. Becky Grey, Jean Wall Penland, David Jernigan, Tony Bradley, Leah Lietson, Virginia Scotchie and many others worked there over the years, until city inspectors closed the building.

In 1988, Porge and Lewis Buck bought the Williams Feed Store on the French Broad River, a warehouse space dating back to 1915, and remodeled it as a studio/print shop. The rest of the building was divided into rental studios: Painter Marie Hudson, who works there still, was among the first tenants.

Three years later, current river-district quilt exhibitor Pattiy Torno purchased the complex next door; it was soon filled with renters.

A warehouse fire in 1995 did surprisingly little to discourage artists from continuing to make the area their own. The river district’s latest addition is The Wedge, a 25,309-square-foot building that was actually under construction during the 1916 flood.

John Payne, steel sculptor and owner of The Wedge, believes that some of the building’s iron beams come from destroyed bridges that floated down the river during the flood.

History aside, Payne’s got big ideas when it comes to his new venue: “I hope it will become a place where the public will come to buy art — and see it being made,” he notes.

The Wedge’s gallery space is, without question, Asheville’s superior showcase for sculpture.

“Not only is the space huge, [but] it has concrete floors to sustain great weight, and bridge cranes for the easy installation of large, heavy pieces,” explains Payne, who’s best known for his true-to-scale dinosaur pieces, and who will show work at the river district’s upcoming studio stroll (along with fellow Wedge artists Marston Blow, Eva Scruggs Allawos, Kathryn Temple and Heinz Kossler).

Measuring 1,500-square feet and with 18-foot, aluminum-paint-tarnished walls, the gallery recently — and too briefly — installed the work of internationally known British sculptor David Nash, whose soaring works gave that space the feel of walking into a cathedral.

Payne says the best thing about hosting Nash’s work was how the regional arts community came together to celebrate the Brit sculptor’s achievement.

“He was very professional,” notes Payne.

Nash’s attitude mirrors the dino artist’s plans for the new space: While The Wedge furthers the local trend toward multi-use studio spaces that welcome musicians and dancers as well as visual artists, it may be the area’s only communal venue with a portfolio-review requirement.

Payne is adamant about including only those artists who are serious about what they do — and who, even more importantly, work consistently.

“We all benefit from the constant activity — and the energy generated by artistic creativity,” he asserts.

The Summer Studio Stroll will feature river-district artists at The Wedge Studio/Gallery; Roberts Studio; Curve Studios; Warehouse Studios; The Cotton Mill; Railside Studio; Phil Mechanic Studios; Highwater (Highwater Clays, Odyssey Center for Ceramic Arts and Odyssey Gallery); Candlestation and Westar. The Stroll begins with an art auction — featuring WLOS anchor John Le as celebrity auctioneer — on Friday, June 13 at the Grey Eagle (6-8 p.m.), and continuing Saturday, June 14 (2-8 p.m.) and Sunday, June 15 (1-5 p.m.). Admission is free; participating studios will be marked with a Studio Stroll Flag. Full-color brochures are available at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. For more information, call 230-4177.

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