Asheville probably has more public sculpture than most cities of similar size — a direct result of the region’s rich arts-and-crafts heritage. For starters, there’s Passage, Albert Paley’s abstract steel sculpture at the Veach-Baley Federal Complex on Patton Avenue; Dirck Cruser’s Energy Loop, the first city-purchased sculpture, which sits across the street from City-County Plaza; and the Asheville Urban Trail, a collection of 30 bronze, stone and ceramic sculptures scattered around downtown.
But beyond these works lies an ever-expanding, privately and publicly funded cache of unsung sculptures that often also serve utilitarian purposes: The pergola and stage at Pack Square Park or the myriad gates, railings, planters and barstools that border gardens and fill brewery patios. They’re made by a multigenerational cadre of metalworkers, blacksmiths and sculptors who transform potentially mundane structures into works of art.
To make it as an artist, “Commissions have been crucial,” says sculptor Stefan Bonitz, better known as Steebo. “They’ve allowed me to do more than just pay the bills: They helped me develop.” Bonitz, who’s maintained a studio in Asheville since 1989, says he’s had to balance commission work and creative problem-solving tactics with his fine art. Both separately and in unison, those two tracks have helped define and refine his sculpting style.
Bonitz’s works span a broad range: Think of the bar railings outside Jack of the Wood; a series of cigarette-butt collectors for Citi Stop; bike racks for Universal Joint; furniture, lights and window fixtures for L’eau de Vie. Commissions have also afforded the artist multiple opportunities to install large-scale pieces in public places, such as the 15-foot-tall ode to old-time music in downtown Waynesville.
Asheville sculptor Hoss Haley gives a similar estimate of how he divides his time between public projects (such as Pack Square Park’s fountain, canopy and pergola) and his fine art, which is represented locally by Blue Spiral 1. “The 50 percent of work that goes to galleries and museums is largely experimental, and the area in which I have full creative license,” says Haley. “The 50 percent that is public commissions is more design-based, where the needs of the client and the site require a great deal of consideration.” But however specific a commission may be, he still sees the two processes, and their end results, as inherently intertwined.
“My personal aesthetic becomes the common language that runs through everything I make,” continues Haley. “Whatever I’m doing in one arena is inevitably feeding what I’m doing elsewhere. So if I’m experimenting with a new idea or method, it will find itself in a public commission. Likewise, work on a large-scale public commission drives me to think bigger in my experimental work.”
In both arenas, Haley uses similar steel and bronze materials as well as drafting and fabrication processes. But in public works, he must appeal to a much broader audience. “I try to take in as much information as I possibly can,” he says. “Who is using the site, and how? What is that level of involvement: Are people experiencing it on a pedestrian level or driving by in a car?
Hayley adds, “I think it’s important, especially with the public art, that it has a certain timeless quality — not like a pop song that you love for a few weeks, then can’t stand to hear anymore, but more like Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and John Coltrane.”
Raising the Bar
As Asheville’s food-and-drink scene has continued to develop, so have the standards for interior design. “Bars and restaurants get a lot of wear and tear,” says Charlie Hodge, co-owner of Sovereign Remedies, a newly opened downtown cocktail lounge. “It was important to us to not only have sturdy work, but work that was resilient and beautiful.”
To meet those criteria, Hodge and his partners chose Tina Councell, an Asheville-based blacksmith and metalworker. She got her start 11 years ago as a part-time shop assistant to former Wedge Studios owner John Payne. Hodge had seen her work at Chestnut and then The Bull and Beggar, where she’d built atmospheric partitions and lighting components. Councell fabricated Sovereign Remedies’ light fixtures, barstools, tables, shelves, railing and the zinc-topped bar, sometimes collaborating with local designer Parker Reid.
Councell’s material and stylistic direction for the bar took shape once she got a better feel for the space. “Generally the work’s aesthetic is unique to each project,” she says. “I begin to pay more attention to the little elements that I find in the materials, like the way rivets can look in a piece, or how shadows are made with the added use of lighting.”
At Sovereign Remedies, her work reflects the bar’s high ceilings and tall, north-facing windows. To evoke the apothecary-meets-Victorian-greenhouse atmosphere that Hodge envisioned, Councell employed delicate yet strong linear forms accompanied by mirrors and wooden slats. “I knew that, as an artist, she could take that concept and make work to fit the space perfectly,” he says.
Commissions from restaurants, retailers and boutiques account for roughly 95 percent of Councell’s work. She recently hired two part-time shop workers to help with cutting, grinding and basic fabrication, in hopes of freeing up more time to pursue her own visions. “Most of the time I’m building other people’s projects, doing design work and problem-solving,” she says. “But there’s a lot of creative freedom in there.”