There aren’t too many places in Asheville where “trompe l’oeil” qualifies as a punch line.
But on a recent weekday afternoon at A-B Tech’s Ivy Building, home to the school’s decorative painting techniques and restoration program, a student sent her classmates into near-stitches with a running commentary on another student’s work that culminated with a yelped “Here comes the trompe l’oeil!”
And — perhaps less twitter-worthy, but no less impressive — here comes the combing, crackling, sponge painting, stenciling, marbling, spattering, wood-graining and gold-leafing, as students busily ready the walls of their demonstration cubicles for a public exhibition this weekend that doubles as their final exam. Each student in the yearlong program is given a box no bigger than an average airplane galley to transform into a room showcasing their newly acquired skills. Past participants have produced downsized cathedral naves, medieval pubs and High Victorian sitting parlors.
“This is the only school that teaches all the things we teach under one roof,” declares instructor Tim Hanlon.
By “only school,” Hanlon doesn’t mean the only school in Asheville, or even the only school in the Southeast. It’s the only school anywhere that exposes its students to the full range of painting techniques needed to make new and neglected interiors look old again.
“It’s one-of-a-kind,” Hanlon says of the curriculum, which has been certified as the only U.S. representative of City & Guilds, a London-based licensure board that’s been giving skilled workers its seal of approval since the late 1800s. The affiliation has given the A-B Tech program a decidedly British bent; graduates emerge — by design — as well-versed jacks of all trades with no single expertise.
“By no means are you a master at any one thing when you’re done,” Hanlon admits.
Still, the 18-year-old program’s mix of classroom instruction and practical application has historically lured students from as far away as Vermont. But enrollment is off this year: While the program usually boasts about 15 students per term, enrollment has recently dipped deep into the single digits. Students are happy not to have to share their seven demo cubicles, but Hanlon hopes interest in the program starts trending upward soon.
“There’s more to do with your time now, isn’t there?” muses Hanlon, theorizing that creative folks have been distracted by other opportunities. “This is hard work. You get tuckered.”
Eloise Collier, a student from Boston, has already spent some exhausting hours in her cubicle, which she’s meticulously reinventing as a European chapel. She began her work by stripping away 10 layers of student projects, finally revealing a recreated Michelangelo that Hanlon faintly remembered a student applying to the wall in 1996. She plans to preserve that painting, counterbalancing it with a secco (like a fresco, but executed on dry rather than wet plaster) on the opposite wall. The floors will be cloaked in faux granite and the ceiling dappled with tiny gold stars.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t do any vaulting,” she says.
Collier, a graduate of UNCA, returned to Asheville to enroll in the A-B Tech program after a few unsatisfying years at an office job.
“This is a lot more creative than bookkeeping,” Collier offers. “I’m not so into being an artist, but I like to make things. This is a great opportunity for anyone interested in practical ways to apply painting skills.”
Although the program touches on highly technical topics including chemistry, carpentry, color theory and workplace safety, Hanlon says a knack for creativity unifies the student body.
“Some people know exactly what they want to do, some people are in the field already, and some have never picked up a paintbrush. Some people just think this is interesting,” reports Hanlon. “But one of the good things about the program is everyone tends to be creative.”
That creativity is ostentatiously displayed on the walls of the Ivy Building, which once was the gym for St. Genevieve of the Pines. Almost every surface is covered in faux finish — some more aesthetically pleasing than others — frozen testaments to past student experiments.
Students also work on walls outside their ivory tower: The program is rooted in a partnership with the Biltmore Estate, which, according to Hanlon, tired of importing craftsmen.
“They’d bring people over from England and then they said, ‘if we need this kind of work, other people must too.’ The goal was to train people to work for these corporations,” Hanlon explains.
While the official partnership with Biltmore has since dissolved, A-B Tech students left their mark on the estate. Under the supervision of founding instructor Derick Tickle, who two years ago returned to work as a restorer, students replaced the imitation gold leaf that sheathed the walls of George Vanderbilt’s bedroom with 3-inch squares of the real thing, sliced so thinly that a stray breeze could shatter any one of the thousands of leaves used in the project.
This year’s class helped rehab a building on Coxe Avenue that will soon open as a bank.
“The process is different,” says Collier, comparing the commercial experience to her classroom work. “We’d been working for months in plaster, but a lot of project managers prefer you use Styrofoam. Just doing it is so interesting. I feel like I have a lot left to learn.”
[When she’s not booking cruises, teaching Pilates or writing articles, Renaissance woman Hanna Raskin is Xpress’ food editor.]
A-B Tech’s decorative painting techniques and restoration program’s annual open house happens at the Ivy Building, A-B Tech campus, 340 Victoria Road. Sunday, Dec. 10. 1 to 3 p.m. Free. 254-1921.