When they left New York for Asheville in 2003, drawn by stories of the creative and innovative spirit of Black Mountain College, Robert and Arlene Winkler arrived in the mountains with an idea.
A big idea. Bigger than any one gallery could hold, in fact. The Winklers wanted Asheville to have an outdoor sculpture exhibition.
Hoping to put the wheels in motion, the Winklers first met with the Public Art Board. The board was relatively new at that time, and was deeply embroiled in controversy over their purchase of the still-homeless Ida Kohlmeyer sculpture “Conversation Piece #4C,” and weren’t able to take on any other large-scale projects.
But the Winklers didn’t give up. They approached other groups in the community, but always got the same result. Then, a couple of years after their arrival, Arlene interviewed Mayor Terry Bellamy for an article she was writing. Winkler recalls that Bellamy told her: “I want to be the art mayor. We talk about our artists, but we never do anything for them. Do you have any advice for me?”
Arlene had advice.
Later that year, the Winklers were sitting in the Asheville Parks, Recreation & Cultural Arts office trying to explain why a weekend sculpture event wouldn’t do. Sculpture can be heavy and difficult to install, so it should be up for at least a month. A call from the North Carolina Arts Council confirmed the Winkler’s position, with the state agency suggesting that a two-month time period made more sense. That call, say the Winklers, sealed the deal.
Launched last year, the RiverSculpture Festival was a huge success. Many people who had never visited the French Broad River Park came to see the art, and there was a constant flow of visitors—some of them tourists, but mostly local families. Children were particularly delighted to see these strange new shapes and colors in the park.
In the end, the interest and pleasure that the community took in the exhibition appeared to cause widespread surprise among bureaucrats and those who had turned down their chance to be involved. (In fact, more than 70 percent of the funding came from private donors.) The Winklers, however, were not surprised.
This year’s festival is sponsored by Asheville Parks, Recreation & Cultural Arts, the YMI Cultural Center, the Asheville Area Arts Council, the Chaddick Foundation, Mountain Xpress and a number of private donors. The Winklers have once again put many hours of effort into their project, and have expectations for an even greater success.
The exhibition will include 23 sculptures in the French Broad River Park, all from artists based in the Southeast. The works this year aren’t limited to the park, however. Exhibits will spill over into downtown venues, and even include indoor pieces on display at the YMI.
Honoring the Black Mountain College philosophy of collaboration and interdisciplinary works that brought the couple to the area, the Winklers have involved dancers, musicians, actors, storytellers, poets and educators in the event. Every Saturday, from Sept. 1 through Oct. 6, a special activity will be presented. Better yet, everything will be free!
Many of the sculptures in this year’s show are made from traditional materials: wood, marble, bronze and steel. And then there are less traditional approaches.
For instance, Asheville-based artist Larry King works in bamboo. He was inspired by seeing minimalist sculptor Richard Serra on Charlie Rose’s PBS show talking about how important it was to him that people be able to interact with his work, not just look at it. King has created a 22-foot work in a Serra-like shape, but with none of the threat of Serra’s work. The piece is all grace and comfort. King will also have an indoor work at the YMI exhibition.
Another interactive work is “Pecker” by Barron Brown. Passersby can activate a bronze chicken with a foot pedal, causing the chicken to peck away at a stone to create an egg shape. Kids will love it!
Other nontraditional materials will include a sound work by Wayne and Hamilton Kirby, a light work by UNCA physics professor Charles Bennett, and a piece made of recycled beer bottles by Alyssa Ray.
There are a few figurative works, but most of the pieces are abstract. The works are also as varied in concept and intent as they are in media. Karen Ives’ “Underbrush,” made of brightly painted wood, is cheerful and somewhat whimsical. Gary Gresko’s “Yap Stones” provides a wonderful comment on today’s information overload. Serious intent is apparent in “Compromised” by Brian Glaze. The work brings to mind the paintings of Fernand Leger, but is executed in painted steel. Waylon Bigsby’s towering “Captain’s Vessel” evokes the movement of wind-filled sails.
And then there’s the work of co-organizer Robert Winkler, who has a foot in both camps. His “Look Homeward, Angles” is a graceful but somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment on our obsession with Wolfe’s angels. He is, however, dead serious with his 16-foot-tall “Gated Community.”
In the end, the RiverSculpture Festival is another reminder that Asheville is blessed with many talented artists with visions that are sometimes bigger than the establishment can easily understand. It is a triumph, not just for the Winklers, but for all those who didn’t give up on their dreams. These are the artists who truly make Asheville an arts town.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer whose work can be seen in The Small Works Invitational at the Blue Mountain Gallery in New York City.]
The RiverSculpture Festival opens with a reception in The French Broad River Park on Friday, Aug. 31, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Works will be on display through Wednesday, Oct. 31. www.RiverSculpture.com or 225-3766.