Fashionable shops and bistros fill once-boarded-up buildings not just in Asheville anymore, but in Waynesville and Hendersonville, and even in many of Western North Carolina’s tinier outposts. You hear voices on our streets today hailing from Los Angeles, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston and New Orleans.
For Luzene Hill, though, it was the voice of her paternal grandmother that brought her to WNC — brought her back, to be exact.
The artist was raised in Atlanta, where she still lives, but was born in the Yellow Hill section of the Qualla Boundary. As a child, she often returned there to visit her grandmother.
The Qualla Boundary is better known as the Cherokee Indian Reservation — possibly the place, thanks to massive Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, that’s seen the biggest inrush of the outside world in recent years.
But with the opening in downtown Cherokee of LIFT Contemporary, a new art space with an obligatory adjoining cafe, this gamblers’ town is set to take off in yet another new direction — casting its cultural lot with the mountains’ trendier spots.
Her father, Hill says, “was always making things.”
What he made “wasn’t separate or special,” she elaborates. “It was just a part of his life.”
However, Hill’s main piece in LIFT’s inaugural exhibit, Flight, is definitely based in the clouds — specifically, it embodies the Cherokee version of the legend of the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. This constellation, so prevalent in human myth, shows up in the storytelling repertoire of practically every ancient culture on earth; in the Cherokee tale, the seven stars, or sisters, are sometimes acknowledged as the forbears of all humanity.
Hill’s “Transparent to Transcendence” features seven beeswax figures of somewhat androgynous-looking adolescent girls. They are suspended from the gallery ceiling in the pattern of the Pleiades constellation.
“The children,” declares Hill, “are not afraid. They are pulled into the heavens because they do not resist the energy drawing them higher and higher. They move as though they are free-falling up.”
Hill recognizes mystic philosopher Joseph Campbell as an influence on her work. “Transcendence,” she paraphrases from him, “requires being shattered.”
And this shattering is the impetus for her sparse but powerful drawings, wherein small, abstract images are surrounded by large negative spaces representing body parts. Red passages denote the energy used in this fearsome deconstruction, and the blank paper is a signifier of the solitary state required to accomplish the tearing apart.
An arts catalyst
Hill is joined in Flight by an extraordinary group of international artists working in many media, including photography, installations and audio and video. The gallery, located next to the Cherokee Visitors Center, is the brainchild of Cherokee-born Natalie Smith and transplanted Brooklynite Leon Grodski.
Behind the main gallery are two smaller spaces — one will eventually house a high-tech version of Yoko Ono’s 1966 “Sky TV,” and the other, an audio-visual piece by Johan Grimonprez about hijacking an airplane.
A large glass case in LIFT’s connecting hallway will hold works by traditional Cherokee craftspeople, beginning with the pottery of Amanda Swimmer.
“Our ambition is to be a catalyst between the local community and the larger art world,” offers Grodski.
Indeed. Artists with works previously exhibited in the Whitney Biennial, the documenta X project, and other prestigious art arenas are participating in LIFT’s first exhibit.
And in the gallery’s adjoining cafe, plenty of urban-flavored amenities abound, including shade-grown organic coffee, the Sunday New York Times, a playroom for kids and a stage for storytellers. All of this in a town you might have been taken to as a small child to be photographed beside a Native-American Cherokee man in a Plains Indian headdress.
Yes, Cherokee has changed. And LIFT just may prove the community’s biggest gamble yet.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer.]
LIFT Contemporary (516 Tsali Blvd., in Cherokee) will open its first exhibit, Flight, on Saturday, Oct. 9. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m.-6 p.m., and Sunday from 12-4 p.m. The show runs through Saturday, Jan. 8. For more information, call (828) 497-0707.