Rob Czar was a dead man.
No, there wasn’t a bounty on his head or anything like that — at least not in any Wild West sense. In spring 2019, following two months of medical issues, he suffered a massive heart attack 24 hours after being discharged from a six-day stint in the hospital.
According to Czar’s wife, Corinne Leigh, who administered CPR on his lifeless body until firefighters arrived, her husband was without pulse or breath for nearly half an hour. Miraculously, she continues, “the West Asheville Fire Department was able to bring him back to life.”
Diagnosed with granulomatosis with polyangiitis, a rare autoimmune disorder, Czar quarantined for almost a full year before the COVID-19 pandemic sent the rest of the population into shelter-at-home mode. In addition to making new DIY and craft videos for the couple’s ThreadBanger YouTube channel, which has nearly 4 million subscribers, Czar began processing his experience by painting in the basement of the couple’s West Asheville bungalow.
Roughly 300 completed canvases later — featuring imagery from nightmares, psychedelic experiences, plus conscious meditations on ghosts and death — Czar had overwhelmed the couple’s small home space. He also wanted to share his work with the public.
“I couldn’t find anywhere to exhibit my own stuff. I was looking at old restaurants and spaces that were in downtown. I didn’t know anything about the art world and how it worked,” Czar says. “Once we found out art galleries take 50% [commission] of your [sales], I was like, ‘F*** it. I’ll make my own place.’”
And so Czar’s quest began.
But he is not alone in his journey. In recent months, other local artists have been inspired to launch their own art galleries. In turn, these entrepreneurs have joined a crowded scene but seek to establish themselves by filling niches, assisting underserved corners of the community and realizing long-held dreams.
Ground floor vision
Like Czar, the owners of Modern Muse — a new gallery and working studio at Suite 110 in the River Arts District’s Riverview Station — know a thing or two about comebacks.
The gallery is a collaboration between oil painter Sandra Bottinelli and mixed-media and sculpture artist Pearl Renken, who met in 2019 while renting separate spaces at whiteSPACE in the Wedge Studios building. Both artists had a vision for the next step of their careers. Bottinelli, in particular, was seeking a more sustainable gallery opportunity after her previous downtown space, Bottinelli Fine Art, closed in 2018 within 12 months of its opening due to a less-than-ideal downtown location and dearth of foot traffic.
“I’ve been looking for a ground-floor [studio/gallery] for 10 years,” Bottinelli says. “I’ve been on this list with Helaine [Greene, property manager and co-owner of Riverview Station] forever, and she texted me five months ago to say there was a space. And I saw it, and I was like, ‘This is gigantic. Pearl, here’s our space.’”
In the suite that previously housed an antique business, Modern Muse will follow what Renken says is a business model similar to that of Art Garden AVL and other galleries that rent wall space to artists.
“If a painting is 36 inches by 36 inches, they’re renting the actual space that that painting will take up,” Bottinelli explains. “And we’re going to curate the gallery to have a nice flow through it from piece to piece, not necessarily from artist to artist.”
The grand opening is slated for Saturday, Dec. 10, though the business partners expect to be in operation before then. The curation focus will be on modern contemporary art, primarily 2D and 3D, but the partners are open to video, performance, installation and other mediums.
“I want to create a space that is like the places I seek out to inspire me,” Renken says. “We want to have artists that aren’t already established in the RAD, because there’s so many talented people that are just wanting an outlet. It’s hard to get in, so we just want to create a lot of opportunity.”
Make it work
The theme of “paying it forward” is also at the heart of Tarah Singh‘s latest endeavor. Throughout her life, she’s received support and encouragement from family and friends, including her stepgrandfather, legendary recording artist Ronald Isley, which has in turn shaped her viewpoints on nurturing expressive talent.
“I’ve always been in an environment of creatives,” she says. “I’ve never had anyone be like, ‘Oh, you can’t be an artist’ or ‘That’s fooling around.’ It’s always been like, ‘Oh, sure! You do whatever you want’ — which is, I think, a really beautiful thing to have that kind of support.”
Singh has carried that mindset into her career as a painter and sculptor, as well as an entrepreneur. She was one of the co-founders of Tiger Bay Café in West Asheville, which her cousin Philip Singh still owns. More recently, she launched Origins MakerSpace at 126 Swannanoa River Road with business partner Troy Wiley, founder of the global arts company Artovida.
While the space’s front room will showcase Artovida’s creations in fairly traditional gallery fashion, helping artists create residual income is Origins MakerSpace’s primary goal. The 6,500-square-foot warehouse has 13 maker spaces, all of which are currently rented. Monthly rates are $450-$500, which Singh says is significantly lower than usual for such opportunities.
“Our main media for makers is going to be printing and sewing,” Singh explains. Though future collaborations will likely expand what the space has to offer.
The venture has already attracted such local creators as multimedia artist Cleaster Cotton and Peggy Dodson, the latter of whom is renting a space for UBC TV, a satellite television channel and editing room, that plans to be operational in January. Origins MakerSpace will also have a tearoom with a grab-and-go vegan food service called Bernadette’s, a Tiger Bay affiliate likewise eyeing an early 2023 opening. Singh hopes all of the above brings more of an arts presence to a part of town mostly known for its antiquing businesses.
“It’s cool that we’re on the kind of front edge of something,” she says. “We’ve been joking that we should make T-shirts that say ‘OCD.’ Like, it’s the RAD over there, and here it’s the Origins Creative District.”
Back in West Asheville, Czar and Leigh’s dream of opening a gallery came to fruition in late October. With internet culture turning more cutthroat in recent years, Czar and Leigh were looking for a career path outside of YouTube and poured their savings into transforming the former Bhramari Brewing Co. warehouse at 167 Haywood Road into Czart Gallery.
Leigh says neighboring businesses nearly convinced the couple to name the new space Sweet Slope Gallery — in line with the unofficial name of the up-and-coming district that includes such sugar-centric spots as Hole Doughnuts, Short Street Cakes, Urban Orchard Cider Co. and The Hop. But considering the dark themes of Czar’s paintings and an overarching desire to have conversations around such touchy subjects, the couple resisted the suggestion.
Czart Gallery’s first show took place over Halloween weekend and featured Czar’s art. The pieces will remain on display into the new year, after which other local artists’ works will make their way to the walls with a special emphasis on larger pieces that often have trouble finding space at galleries.
“We want to create a space where everyone feels comfortable,” Leigh says. “We grew up poor and were never invited to [art galleries], so we really wanted to create this space that didn’t feel as scary to walk into and more inviting.”