Down by the river

“There’s more of an appreciation for craftsmanship [in Asheville], as opposed to where I came from, says local artisan Randall Ray. “Although I had a good, successful business [on the N.C. coast], that wasn’t where my heart was. There are a lot more craftspeople and artists in the western part of the state.”

At The Furniture Works, Ray makes fine, handcrafted, Mission-style pieces that are built, he says, to “last into the 22nd century.” Ray and fellow artisan Jan Derr of Placeways share a space called The Woodworking Studios, in the heart of the city’s ripening River District.

Increasingly, the district is becoming a crafts haven. Even the 1995 inferno that razed the studio-filled Asheville Cotton Mill has not stopped a parade of candlemakers, metalworkers, glassblowers and sculptors from finding inspiration in the sun-baked, train-rocked warehouses just across the French Broad River from west Asheville, collectively called the River District Studios.

“This is far enough away [to be private], but close enough to the center of town to where people can find us in five minutes,” Ray notes. And he’s quick to add that the new Second Saturday Series of studio strolls, and the biannual strolls sponsored by RiverLink — the nonprofit spearheading the district’s revival — have done wonders to promote the area. Just don’t try to lump him in with all the other crafters.

“Artists [in the River District] as a whole are fairly much individuals,” he asserts. “It’s not necessary that we all get together and do strategy [on increasing the district’s exposure]. RiverLink and Odyssey [Center for the Ceramic Arts] really help us, but they’re not responsible for us to succeed. It’s up to each individual how we market ourselves.”

Jan Derr, Ray’s neighbor, has his own distinct approach to his profession, inspired by what he calls “enlightening” experiences in the Middle East. That spiritual perspective continues to guide Derr’s work.

“One of the things we struggle to achieve is that the wood we use is preserved, and never sacrificed needlessly,” he stresses earnestly.

Part of the challenge for this diverse group, reflects Amy Hill — manager of the Odyssey Gallery and a former resident artist at the nearby Odyssey Center — is the somewhat unusual nature of these reclaimed art spaces.

“The problem is, most of the studios are basically not open to the public,” she explains. “Some have different hours, some open up once in a while; some don’t mind if people walk in, some do. Gallery 6 is open sporadically, and [Odyssey Gallery] has regular hours, but a lot of them don’t — because they’re working studios, and it’s hard for people to accommodate visitors. … But the [publicity events] we’re working on together are starting to form more of a cohesive community. A lot more [artists] know each other now. There have been artists who have moved into the area because they’ve seen the effects of the studio strolls.”

In Ray’s case, marketing his business has taken equal parts talent and business savvy: “The struggle is finding the market, finding your niche. People who appreciate studio furniture are generally those who are into quality, integrity, anything that’s made by hand — just like some people appreciate and buy art, and others don’t. A lot of people who are retired have everything they want, while those just establishing a house may be looking to furnish it with something a little bit different. They’re looking for people like us, who make custom furniture.”

Reupholstering old furniture still constitutes a good portion of Ray’s business; he also moonlights in another field: teaching.

“It’s an educational process,” Ray explains, “making people aware that studio furniture costs more than production furniture because studio furniture is made to be heirloom quality. It’s made to last generations.”

He points out a handsome table crafted with finely executed butterfly joints. Another eye-catching piece features dark-walnut legs supporting a lighter cherry top.

“The joinery techniques we use are far superior to the stuff you’ll find with factory furniture,” Ray notes. “And we use hardwoods, with none of the plywood, staples and hot glue you’ll find with production furniture. Studio pieces are made by one or two people, and they’ve got more personality; it’s not a repetitive design.”

And the folks who find their way to Ray’s studio — like the nostalgic older couple who wanted a special, New England-style bureau — learn to savor those differences.

“I reproduced an 11-drawer highboy from a photograph, and they got a lot of pleasure in having that piece back,” he remembers. “But it wasn’t even for them. … They gave it to their son as a gift. It was a special thing that they did.”

The couple, Ray recalls, was so pleased with his work that they’ve sent him photos, to show how the wood has darkened over time. “Cherry,” he explains lovingly, “deepens into a beautiful, warm, honey color.”

But fine works in wood are just one aspect of the treasure awaiting River District visitors. This month’s exhibit at Odyssey Gallery spotlights the work of instructors from the Odyssey Center. From floral vases to renderings of spacemen on tiles, ceramic expressions of many sorts are represented here. Indeed, the show seems like a microcosm of the wild variety of talent that flourishes in the district, despite (or perhaps because of) the area’s “ghost-town” vibe, the barbed wire and abandoned buildings.

“If people drive through, they see the chain-link fences,” Hill admits, “but if you walk around, there’s a lot of beauty in the area. We had thousands of people [here during the June studio stroll], and they saw things differently. There’s a lot of controversy about how the area should be developed, but [at least] it’s getting attention.”

Planting trees is one of the Odyssey Center’s most recent plans to bring unity and beauty to the studio district. The weeding out of some less-committed studio dwellers, on the other hand, has seemed to happen on its own.

“There tends to be more serious artists now,” Hill declares. “Some people who had space here before just sort of half-way worked; this is just where they kept their stuff. Now we have a lot of professional artists, people who make a living with their stuff, instead of just doing it as a hobby.”

And public recognition has swelled accordingly.

“This last studio stroll was the most people we’ve ever seen,” she reports happily. “The potential is why I’ve stayed involved: This is the next frontier.”

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