Art and soul

You can get a glimpse of Francois Manavit’s dazzling painted tiles at the Arts Alliance Front Gallery on Biltmore Avenue. But it’s hard to confine the scope of the native Frenchman’s “work” within a given boundary. Tiles are measurable; not so the blissfully expansive range of this man’s vision.

His projects range from the near-outlandish to the disquietingly logical. Inspired by the encroachment of a mobile-home development near the verdant Fairview property he shares with his wife (nationally recognized puppeteer Lisa Sturz) and their young children, Manavit proposes a kind of alternative trailer park, whose willing participants would disguise their units with merciful coverings of roses or ivy.

“Where can the value of a [mobile home] go?” he asks rhetorically. “Only down — so, at least while you’re living there, you can be surrounded by beauty.”

Equally ambitious — if perhaps a tad more feasible — is the artist’s vision for another, more anchored, local structure. On Biltmore Avenue, near the entrance to Biltmore Village, sits an ornate (though little-noticed) stone bridge over the Swannanoa River, whose gothic beauty is crumbling.

Uniting natural and structural beauty is a central tenet of Manavit’s vision — and should be for the city, as well, he believes. “Look at what you have, Asheville!” he urges passionately. “[The bridge] is so beautiful, but no one knows about it. If the city would repair it, I would do the tile work for nothing.”

Philanthropic leanings notwithstanding, however, Manavit also needs to make a living. To that end, he founded French Bread Tiles, a kind of pragmatic offspring of his marriage of form and function.

“It was the only way I could keep on living as a painter and be able to feed my family,” he explains.

Nevertheless, something in the intense and unerring palette of Manavit’s tile works reflects their lofty conception. The charm of these tile paintings ranges from the directly channeled (several are inspired by the paintings of postimpressionist Paul Gauguin) to the mildly surreal: One serene beachscape is dominated by a gnarled form that most viewers see as a monster, though the painter insists it’s a tree. But all of Manavit’s works exhibit an unruly spirituality that is consistently dreamlike — without ever paling toward “dreamy.” One landscape, which features a stream snaking through a bright-yellow field under an indigo night sky, manages to evoke an alien environment — using purely earthy logic. “Why shouldn’t the moon shine with the same force as the sun?” it seems to be asking (or rather telling) you.

Manavit credits Blue Moon Bakery with giving his growing business daily notoriety. His art can be seen enlivening the counters of the Biltmore Avenue eatery; in fact, installing the tiles in the bakery has proved a satisfying endeavor for both parties.

“I’m [earning] my bread from the tiles,” he explains with gentle wit.

That brings to mind another pet saying, which proclaims the artist’s expansive view of life: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift — that’s why we call it the present.”

To be worthy of that gift, Manavit believes, we need to be conduits, constantly passing on the energy we’re given. “I don’t believe that you should keep anything [inside you],” he says. “That leads to cancer, depression. … Nothing should stick to you: You should always be regiving what you receive.”

For Manavit, this is not a platitude — it’s his life’s purpose. “I’ve done so much in my life, [but] I wake up every day, and there is [still] so much to do,” he muses. “I have a great family; I live in a paradise. It’s time for me to give something back.”

One of his deepest concerns is the plight of a nomadic North African people called the Tuareg. Since the early 1990s, this peaceful group has been the repeated victim of drought and government-sanctioned massacres. They are a gentle, pure people bound by an ancient code of silence, honor and freedom, says the artist — and therein lies their “crime.”

“[The government] wants to destroy them because [it] can’t control them,” Manavit says disgustedly. “They want to put a little tag on them and identify them and try to keep them where they want them.”

The Tuareg have a saying of their own, which Manavit suggests — only half-jokingly — would make a fitting motto for the Buncombe County flag: “They say: ‘Place your tents as far away as you can from each other, but keep your hearts together.'”

On a recent trip to the family’s art-and-animal-adorned home, I was treated to lunch and then a trip around the grounds. The tour included a stop in Manavit’s studio — one of his current works in progress is a peacock whose feathers are decorated with actual melted crystals — and ended with a visit to the family’s organic garden.

“I want to do so much,” Manavit confessed earnestly, as we walked. “I want to do everything. … But I can only do my best. I won’t be the king of Wall Street, but maybe I can try to repair some of the mistakes that have been made.”

Loading me down with the choicest vegetables he could find, Manavit called my attention to a cluster of voracious beetles consuming a hapless leaf — observing, with wry optimism, that at least they were destroying a weed, this time.

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