The making of a mecca

A decade ago, when I first discovered Asheville for myself, it was then, as now, a cultural high ground. It had been so since the days of O. Henry and Thomas Wolfe: The elite of the literati were at home here.

Ten years ago, though, fewer folks (ironically, mostly those in the arts) were aware of Asheville’s richness and depth of spirit — the elements that make it a creative matrix. Today, we have come to national prominence as a “hip” place — a center for artistry and craftmanship, a place where the inspired live and practice the art of music and an incredible variety of other art forms.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that many artists who call 21st-century Asheville home have a hard time confining themselves to one mode of expression. But don’t take it from me: Let’s hear directly from a few of these multifarious folks, and find out what drives them.

“Me first! Me first!” joked Dan Parks, upon agreeing to this interview. OK, then: Dan is a guitarist, lyricist and local open-mic-night habitue who’s also a visual artist (portraits, sketches, oil paintings, etc.). Dan writes, as well — and well indeed. Interestingly, he’s an old-school poet with a penchant for the sonnet and sestina forms of verse.

What compels him to live and work in Asheville?

“This place is conducive to my work; the spirit of our mountains manifests itself in my work. … I don’t show or display much of my visual-art projects, as I mostly have them promised in advance or give ’em away to someone for some particular reason or other,” he says. “Otherwise, I’d have more product on hand and probably do formal showings.

“Of all the mediums I work in — literary, musical and visual,” he continues, “none is more or less important than any other. If I don’t express them, I go crazy. Period. That’s how it is for me.”

John Gernandt — a k a Flute John — is a multitalented artist whose eccentricities impart to his work a “Flute John-ness” peculiar to each piece or verse, which transports the listener effortlessly to another time, another place. Flute John has collected old Celtic ballads — which he performs solo or in ensembles — for more than a quarter century.

He also does portraiture and is an accomplished wire sculptor. Not content to toil in a mere trio of media, however, Flute John also writes, draws, publishes and sells his own comic books! And you can also add jewelry-maker to his litany of titles: His is one-of-a-kind, intricately wrought stuff. (Don’t get too excited, though — he’s currently backlogged with orders.)

But back to his first love: “‘Thomas the Rimer,'” says Flute John, “is the oldest Celtic ballad I have found. It’s in the old English of the 16th century as I have it compiled, but it dates back much further than that. It took me over 20 years to compile what I have, and it may go back as far as the 11th century. Thus, it is part of Celtic legend and lore.”

After delivering himself of this, he lent his rich baritone to an impromptu performance (the art of spontaneity being yet another of his talents).

“The minstrels of the Middle Ages immortalized ‘Thomas the Rimer’ and it is with us to this day, a millennium later,” John goes on to say, adding, “I also do vocals in tenor and bass.” A highlight of his act is the clacking of the “rhythm-bones.” The term itself, though, elicits one of John’s signature chest-and-belly laughs: “Hell, they’re just bones. I call ’em the ‘bones of the last person that made me mad!'”

But seriously, John is an outstanding flutist (hence his moniker). As might be expected, he makes (and sells) his own wind instruments as well as playing them, carving his pieces from bamboo in a traditional Japanese style called Shakuhachi. Good will is an integral part of each piece — in a sense, it’s just short of the actual medium of exchange.

In his jewelry-making projects, Flute John uses mostly sterling silver. He notes: “It imparts more intrinsic value to each piece — and if the orders keep coming in, I’ll soon be able to work in gold.”

Why is Asheville important to Flute John?

“These mountains are my home.”

Sara Legatski, recently returned from a busking-and-puppeteering trip to Michigan (in the company of local wordsmith Brett Boyce), toils at the forefront of our 21st-century Smokies renaissance.

Her first puppet-making experience was “a 12-foot, papier-mache pink dragon I helped make that was arrested, dismembered and hauled off in the Asheville Police paddy wagon to be used as evidence against us during the infamous Bele Chere of 1998,” she recounts, also noting “the resultant nonsense, ad nauseam, which went down with it.”

So what keeps Sara here?

Despite her misadventures, “I live in Asheville because it has an inspirational and energizing atmosphere,” she says. Sara is a writer, puppet-maker, sculptor and more. She wields a vast repertoire of stage voices and, incidentally, is a mighty fine busker, too — that art form wherein one hits the streets with one’s buddies to sing, dance, mime and just plain carry on. Busking, by the way, is practically as old as campfires, much as Sara’s creations are reminiscent of the Punch-and-Judy puppet theater of bygone eras.

“Busking is a very underrated art form,” she maintains. “Censorship abounds! No doubt about it.”

But Sara’s quick to add, “If you’re no good anyway, you find out pretty quick.” And then there’s another, less-natural deterrent to this art form: that local entity, sworn to “uphold” the law, that nonetheless does not always respect the First Amendment rights of buskers and others.

But on to a more pleasant subject: the modest Gavra Lynn. This uncommonly fine soloist and ensemble musician also works in oils and mixed media on canvas. Gavra’s current recording is in the capable hands of Barrett Nichols of Alphajerk Studios. (Barrett recorded the live Merle CD, as well as those of Tripod, the Unholy Trio and others.)

Gavra feels that “music [is] how I express myself best.” Nonetheless, two of her paintings now hanging at The Basement suggest that her way with a brush comes in a close second.

Closing out this bevy of local talent — but by no means the least of the lot — is Katie Crawford. This photojournalist — who believes that “Asheville is a nurturing place” — is also a visual artist and jewelry-maker. Crawford has recently returned from a documentary film project (with George Whitman and Scott Kinnebrew) in Cuba. Katie’s art can be seen adorning the cover of local singer Valorie’s latest CD. In addition, her oils and mixed media on canvas and wood — which intriguingly combine the classical and the whimsical — show a talent way beyond her years (and most of her peers).

And, as with the rest of the artists herein highlighted, the sheer eclecticism of her endeavors may well come to represent what “art” means in the early 21st century.

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