Bigger than the Gold Rush

“It’s not a street festival with art, but an art festival that happens beyond the streets,” muses Dana Davis, director of operations for the Asheville Area Arts Council.

She’s trying to explain the raison d’etre of the Urban Trail Arts Festival, a newly expanded event that aims to honor both Asheville’s history and its love affair with the arts.

And that two-pronged goal also envelops the actual Urban Trail sculptures, which were built less for their own sake than to represent eras of the city’s storied history.

Last year’s inaugural festival was a one-day affair featuring free Urban Trail tours (a small fee is usually charged) led by costumed guides, plus a handful of artists’ booths scattered around Pack Square.

This year, the festival has swelled dramatically, and will present more than 170 artists’ booths on Saturday and Sunday. Features include double performances of the Urban Trail Radio Show, a two-hour staging of mountain-flavored singing, dancing and drama representing the same historical eras as do the trail sculptures; a recycled-art demonstration in Pritchard Park; and a sacred-music concert that will unite an inspiring cross-section of area congregations (see accompanying schedule).

The bumpy road to legacy

The advent of this major new arts festival may seem sudden — but the actual Urban Trail has been more than a decade in the making.

The downtown appointment of 30 “stations” (marked by sculptures of various forms and sizes arranged in five historical periods) began in the early 1990s as a small collection of installations and a dream — which was then directed by the Urban Trail Committee.

Early sculptures were the work of local art students, but as the trail evolved, the installations became larger and more complex, and the board sought the work of professional artists. The selection process varied depending on the desires of each station’s donor (all installations were created with private donations; in some cases, the donors come from families historically tied to a particular station).

“Grace Pless was the one who really got behind the [Urban Trail] effort and raised a lot of the money,” recalls Barb Lothrop, tour coordinator. She adds: “It’s a popular misconception that the sculptures came from other parts of the country. In fact, most of the sculptures [were made by] North Carolina artists.”

An exception is Gary Alsum of the National Sculptors’ Guild in Colorado, who designed the merrily dancing figures of “Appalachian Stage,” which enjoys a high-profile placement just outside the Asheville Civic Center. (That particular commission was the result of a national competition.)

“Upon completion of the Urban Trail in terms of stations, plaques, etc., the committee was looking for an organization that would value the trail and possibly take it in a new direction,” Dana Davis reports.

“Historically, the Urban Trail Committee produced an event called A Walk into History [featuring free tours led by costumed guides], and the City of Asheville has, for years, wanted the Arts Council to produce a first-class arts event,” she explains.

So when the council took over the trail early last year, they saw it as an opportunity to create the Urban Trail Arts Festival.

That’s right: The city — which owns and maintains the Urban Trail — asked the Arts Council to “inherit it,” Davis reveals (which means that now the council manages the program, books tours and trains volunteers to lead them).

Of course, the sculptures’ public status also has meant that the artwork equally “belongs” to tourists and residents. The realistic, if amusingly oversized, rendering of an actual flat iron near Battery Park’s historic Flat Iron Building is a favorite backdrop for snapshots (not to mention a desirable climbing object).

But not all the Urban Trail pieces receive such love. Alsum’s Appalachian dancers have been dissed for perceived errors in proportion (“those dwarves outside the Civic Center,” one Asheville art critic has called them). And Jim Barnhill’s “Past and Promise,” a sculpture of a young girl drinking from a historical style of water fountain, is a favorite target for locals, who’ve tagged her “the puking girl” — though area residents also regularly vote her their favorite local sculpture in Xpress’ annual readers’ survey.

Buried treasure

Certain locals, though, take the historical markers much more seriously. Getting ready for the UTAF meant that the trail guides — all volunteers — were required to complete a several-week training session.

“They’re fully knowledgeable about how the trail was created, what each statue represents, and some of the history of Asheville,” Lothrop points out. The guides, she says, “are all amazing. They’re mostly all retirees who are still taking classes on various subjects.”

The tours tie into the festival’s Urban Trail Radio Show, produced by Deborah Austin, an Asheville Community Theatre veteran. Austin has, for three years, been creating similar shows — staged performances incorporating music, dance and history — at Biltmore Estate for the grand house’s Roaring Twenties Festival.

The Urban Trail Radio Show will function either as pre- or post-tour entertainment, tying all the pieces of Asheville’s history together. Austin and her cast have woven the music and dance of specific time periods into the context of local culture. For example, the WWII section of the show isn’t about what happened in Europe, but about the first time Western North Carolina experienced a blackout, and how the Grove Park Inn was used as an internment center for prisoners of war.

“The challenge with this show,” Austin says, “is that we’re looking at history starting from the 1700s, long before there was radio. In radio format, we’ll take a walk along the Urban Trail, but it won’t necessarily be chronological.”

She mentions, as example, Elizabeth Blackwell’s memorial statue on Patton Avenue. “We’ll look at the [California] Gold Rush and the Civil War,” Austin elaborates, “because she had ties to both events.”

But, Austin reminds us, “the announcement that [Blackwell] was the first woman doctor hit the newsstands the same day as the news of the gold find — and was equally big news.”

Trail mix: festival highlights

The second annual Urban Trail Arts Festival takes place on Saturday, Oct. 25 and Sunday, Oct. 26 in downtown Asheville. Highlights include:

Free Urban Trail Tours: Leaving from Pack Square hourly, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 25 and Sunday, Oct. 26.

Artists’ Booths: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 25 and Sunday, Oct. 26 at City/County Plaza and Pack Square. Featuring more than 170 painters, sculptors, jewelers and other fine artists.

Urban Trail Radio Show: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 25 at City/County Plaza. This old-time radio show will be set in once-upon-a-time Asheville. Music (from ancient Appalachian ballads to ’50s favorites and modern melodies), interactive dance, a fashion show and vintage advertisements — including jingles for the Bon Marche Department Store (now the Haywood Park Hotel) and New Grape Soda — and news updates will be broadcast from mythical station WUTF. Buncombe Turnpike (bluegrass music), Becky Stone (storytelling), Joe Mohar (tap dancing), and Laura Boosinger (old-time singing and playing) will be among the featured performers.

Recycled Art in the Park: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 25 in Pritchard Park. Local environmental group Quality Forward will offer a recycled-art demonstration and interactive workshop. Children and caretakers will join recycled-art expert Jeff Menzer as he demonstrates how to turn ordinary found objects into whimsical art; participants can then create their own art to take home.


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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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