Some artists can only create if they have the finest materials—or at least the finest funds from fellowships, grants or corporate sponsors. Others will only exhibit their art in the most dedicated and pristine surroundings.
DeWayne Barton is not among them.
Once, art was not a thing apart but a part of daily life. It is Barton’s ambition to bring this attitude to his West Asheville neighborhood. His materials are found in trash piles. Any money needed comes from his salary as an employee of Asheville City Schools. And his work will be exhibited, more or less publicly, in the sculpture garden and community performance space he and wife Sharon are carving out of an overgrown lot beside their home.
Barton’s art has been shown at some impressive venues, most recently at the Anacostia Community Museum, a part of the Smithsonian in Washington. His work was featured in On the Road: A Survey of North Carolina Art at Duke University, and, closer to home, at Upstairs Artspace in Tryon.
These opportunities have been satisfying, but Barton says he wants more: namely, to change life for the residents of his neighborhood. “This was a heavy drug area when we moved here,” he says. “Things are better now.”
Since Xpress last reported on Barton’s backyard “gallery,” its community-garden portion has experienced impressive growth. It is beautifully laid out: Young tomato plants reach for the sun; English peas climb 4 feet up a bright-red trellis made from discarded playground equipment.
“There are older people who have lived here for a long time, and newcomers who are younger,” notes next-door neighbor Jeff Makey. “Changes are always difficult … DeWayne is a key person in building bridges here.”
Dray Payton just finished eighth grade at the now-closed Asheville Preparatory Academy. He and several other teen boys earn $5 an hour clearing the tangle of vines and brush from the site. “DeWayne encourages us to use our creativity and our imagination,” offers Payton.
Barton’s found-object sculptures are flourishing as organically as the vegetables. A just-started peace sign at the edge of the garden uses 40-ounce beer bottles, a homage of sorts to the debris left by former occupants.
As they turn up, new bits are added. “Driving While Black” was once about 3 feet in diameter. It has expanded naturally to include the door of a car and several other automotive parts. “Gentrification Park,” a work appropriate to the area, has added more doors and children’s construction equipment. Newer sights include a large work-in-progress about Hurricane Katrina, and a piece about citizens being watched. Innocence is depicted with a photo of young children, while surveillance cameras peek around corners.
Placement is not as random as it seems. Each work is placed so that it has its own space; the pieces will eventually start at the street and wind through the trees and down the steep embankment to the community garden. At the end of the sculpture trail there is a flat clearing with a brick-lined fire pit and a couple of picnic benches. A performance poet, Barton envisions a gathering place for music, drumming and poetry readings.
“The young African-American boys in the neighborhood need to see what you can do with what you have,” says Barton, who has approached neither government nor arts council for help (though he admits he could use some advice about building a retaining wall with salvaged bricks).
“Growing up, I knew basketball players and dope boys. I did not know that there could be an African-American artist.”
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer.]
DeWayne Barton’s sculpture garden is currently open by appointment: 252-5603.