“I used to say that my attention span for working on public projects was a year and a half,” says Pattiy Torno. So CURVE Studios & Garden, a collection of artists’ workplaces tucked into the bend where Lyman Street meets Riverside Drive, morphed from a punk club to a live-work space to its current iteration as a River Arts District destination, complete with a lush urban garden. “But to have this little Shangri-La instead of the gravel parking lot [that previously dominated the site] takes a long time,” Torno points out.
Still, those decades it took for the crepe myrtle trees on the property to mature — and for the RAD to find its footing in Asheville’s creative landscape — passed, Torno says, “in the blink of an eye.” CURVE Studios & Garden recently celebrated its 30th anniversary and will be part of the River Arts District annual Studio Stroll on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 9 and 10.
Currently, CURVE is home to Torno (a clothing designer, fiber artist and photographer), along with ceramics artists Cassie Butcher and Angelique Tassistro, studio potter Maria Andrade Troya, Brandy Clements and Dave Klingler of Silver River Chairs, and jewelry makers Olivia De Soria, Amber Mahler, Melanie Merenda, Alice Scott, Mary Timmer and Pamela White.
With its collection of tidy buildings and luxuriant landscaping, it’s easy to get the impression that CURVE has always been exactly this. But, in fact, the River Arts District — as a branding for the group of makers who work in the area — has only existed for a decade and a half. While Torno doesn’t take credit for coming up with the name, in 2005 she walked into a Convention & Visitors Bureau meeting about wayfinding with the goal “to say ‘River Arts District’ five times,” she says, which started the conversation about the difference between River District Artists, a private organization, and River Arts District, a milelong stretch of riverfront where a confluence of artists set up shop. While the CVB couldn’t promote the RDA as an entity, it could promote the RAD as an area of town.
“From having worked on the River District Design Review Committee for the city for two or three years at that point, what became clear to me was … we needed to locate ourselves and delineate where we were on the entire [14-mile-long riverfront within the city’s boundaries],” Torno says. “The result of that meeting was we got 16 signs saying, ‘River Arts District this way.’”
These days, more than 200 makers keep studio hours in more than 20 buildings, according to the River Arts District’s website. A number of those edifices are now on the National Register of Historic Places.
When Torno (who moved to Asheville in the mid-’80s, attracted by the city’s creative culture and health consciousness) purchased the former Standard Oil distribution center, “this was out in the middle of nowhere,” she says. At the time, musician Danni Iosello was running an under-the-radar club in downtown Asheville. When the city shut it down, she and Torno went in search of a new location and the then-out-of-the-way Riverside Drive spot seemed like a good fit. Torno had recently sold her Tornado Clothing Co. and had cash to purchase the real estate that became Squashpile.
The venue was able to pay its bills but little else (including salaries), and “I realized I wasn’t a night person,” Torno admits. “The reason I bought the buildings was I liked the physical space they encompass. It was a matter of how to make it functional [and] I thought, ‘I’d want to live and work in the same place, and this would be a good place for that.’”
She adds, “The phrase that I use for myself is that I’m an opportunist. I can look and go, ‘Oh, there’s an opportunity. Let’s go do that.’”
But in the flooding of 2004, which caused $200 million in damage across Western North Carolina, artists who had first-floor residences at CURVE lost everything. Not wanting to risk that happening again, Torno decided to discontinue the live-work option. That ushered in CURVE’s current iteration, which includes a strong retail component, with business hours six days a week.
Instead of viewing the shift as a loss, Torno says, “That incremental, organic change suits my personality. When you’re a creative person, that’s where the joy in life comes from — having an idea and doing the experimentation to see if it’s possible. Some things work, others don’t, but it creates a life worth living.”
Torno does admit that, most likely, gone are the days of artist-owned buildings in the RAD. The Cotton Mill Studios, adjacent to CURVE, sold for $1.95 million in 2017 — a price out of reach of many local makers and unimaginable two or three decades ago. The Phil Mechanic Studios building, for example, was assessed at $200,000 in 2001 and just under $2 million this year, according to county property records.
And, as the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project’s walking and cycling-friendly greenways are completed, “There’s going to be more pressure from recreation on this location,” Torno says. Those upgrades have already brought changes to Lyman Street; a newly installed roundabout near CURVE resulted in the studios and garden getting a new address: River Arts Place. People ask Torno if the road is a good or bad thing: “That remains to be seen,” she says. In the future, a bike rental shop or similar enterprise might turn out to be the best use of CURVE Studios.
But for now, art enthusiasts outnumber those in search of outdoor activities. “Overall, we still get an art-buying public,” Torno says. “There are still people who walk in the door who clearly have an aesthetic.”
WHAT: River Arts District annual Studio Stroll, riverartsdistrict.com
WHERE: Various locations through the RAD; CURVE Studios & Garden is at 3 River Arts Place, curvestudios.org
WHEN: Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 9 and 10, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily