At first glance, composer and songwriter Syd Barrett — best-known for his role in Pink Floyd — and artist and writer Zelda Fitzgerald — best-known for being married to F. Scott Fitzgerald — had little in common. But local event organizer Jim MacKenzie made the connection. He was at the “Tribute to Syd Barrett” at The Grey Eagle in November, a benefit for Aurora Studio & Gallery, when he realized that, like Barrett, Zelda also suffered from mental health issues. (She was a patient at Asheville’s Highland Hospital off and on for more than a decade, and tragically died there in a fire.) Because the Grey Eagle show helped to raise funds for Aurora Studio & Gallery, which provides a supportive art program to artists affected by mental illness, MacKenzie began to dream up another benefit event — one that would also draw attention to Zelda’s place in local history.
The Celebrate Zelda! events, on Thursday, March 10, honor one of Asheville’s first resident celebrity artists. The festivities will help not only with raising funds for Aurora Studio & Gallery, but in fighting the stigma of mental illness. “When we think of icons of Asheville, Zelda belongs up there,” says MacKenzie. “She was one of the weird, different, outcast people who had the creative spark in them. If Asheville was ever looking for a patron saint, she fits the bill.”
A self-proclaimed fan of the local literary scene, MacKenzie acknowledges it’s a bit of a boys club, with Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry among the writers often mentioned. Zelda, who wrote, painted and danced — not to mention originating the quote, “She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring” — is almost swept under the rug. “There’s no public acknowledgement that she ever spent time in Asheville,” MacKenzie says. “I thought it was time to give her her due.”
The observance includes a Zelda gaming competition throughout the day at Orbit DVD (the Japanese action-adventure video game is among Nintendo’s leading franchises), literary readings at both Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe and Firestorm Cafe & Books at 6:30 p.m. and a silent auction and party at the Masonic Temple (1920s-era costumes encouraged) featuring the Firecracker Jazz Band. A proclamation, declaring March 10 — the day of Zelda’s untimely death — Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald Day, was scheduled to be read at the Tuesday, March 8, City Council meeting.
“She was intelligent and creative and put forth a lot of art,” says Lori Greenberg, the program director of Aurora Studio & Gallery. “She was a strong force in terms of feminism and what it means to be your own person. And she’s from the South, which, in some ways, is even more profound.”
Zelda was famously dubbed “the first American Flapper” by her author husband. “One of the most profound pieces of her writing, for me, is ‘Eulogy on the Flapper,’” says MacKenzie. In the essay, which appeared in Metropolitan Magazine, Zelda wrote, “The Flapper is deceased. Her outer accoutrements have been bequeathed to … several million small-town belles always imitative of the big-town shop girls via the ‘novelty stores’ of their respective small towns.”
According to MacKenzie, Zelda meant, “It used to be a movement, but now it’s just fashion.” He adds, “She might have been the first pop icon to say, ‘It’s all given over to fame and image, so it’s just over.’”
Even in her years as an inpatient at Highland Hospital, Zelda remained productive and creative. Her life has been well-researched and documented, both in biography and fiction — Lee Smith’s recent novel, Guests on Earth, is set at Highland Hospital and includes Zelda as a character. That particular treatment center, aka “Dr. Carroll’s Sanatorium” for its founder Robert S. Carroll, incorporated exercise, diet and occupational therapy. Carroll’s wife, a concert pianist, also ran a music school from their home on the grounds.
“We run a program for artists just like Zelda who have experienced mental health or substance abuse issues,” says Greenberg. An addiction counselor, she founded Aurora Studio & Gallery in 2012 and began offering classes in 2013. “It’s a therapeutic art program, but it’s not art therapy,” she says of the half-day classes. The organization also displays the work of its artists in periodic exhibitions.
Currently, Aurora Studio & Gallery can host up to 10 participants. A visiting artist offers instruction every other week, and the nonprofit depends on donations of materials (acrylic paint, watercolor paper and brushes are in high demand), food for participants (Roots Hummus has been an ongoing supporter), and even space. The organization is gifted the use of a room above the Lexington Avenue boutiques Funky Mutt and Mountain Lights by business owner Susan Durrence.
The need for such programming far exceeds what Aurora Studio & Gallery can provide on its present shoestring budget. But Greenberg has high hopes for increasing services in the future. “I’ve been getting a lot of referrals, which is exciting,” she says. “We’re looking at ways of networking with businesses and other small nonprofits so that we can expand.”
WHAT: Celebrate Zelda! Silent auction and party featuring the Firecracker Jazz Band
WHERE: Masonic Temple, 80 Broadway, aurorostudio-gallery.com
WHEN: Thursday, March 10, 7:30 p.m. $12