New art project honors The Block

MADE OF STEEL: Local artist Cleaster Cotton describes her latest public art installation, 'Going to Market,' as "a highly charged and highly political project ... touching upon the nerves of black Asheville." Photo by Joe Pellegrino

Joy and pain coexist in Cleaster Cotton’s latest art project, Going to Market. The design, which features 11 cubist figures fabricated in corten steel, was unveiled on the new 55 S. Market St. condominium’s Beaumont Street wall on Aug. 10. The 67-unit structure sits in the heart of Asheville’s former African American business district known as The Block, which today more closely resembles a microcosm of the city’s ongoing gentrification.

For Cotton, part of the artwork’s joy is derived from the figures themselves: They represent the area’s former residents. Through this lens, the steel symbolizes the group’s strength and permanence. The community itself might be gone, but the installation offers a daily reminder of what was.

“I want people to know black people were here,” the artist says. “And we were not just here as servants. We were here as business owners, as intellectuals, as creatives, as philosophers. … We were here.”

Meanwhile, the artwork’s title alludes to the country’s more shameful past when enslaved men, women and children were brought to market. Herded in chains and examined like cattle, these people (whose progeny would be among those who ran The Block) were sold off, with mothers often separated from children and husbands from wives. From this perspective, the steel symbolizes the bondage and brutality that Cotton’s ancestors experienced.

The duality is essential to the piece, says Cotton. “That dichotomy, that polarity, is the life of a black American,” she explains, noting the inescapable pain that she and fellow African Americans experience when researching their past and considering the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow South in the present day.

Cotton was one of 19 artists vying for the project, which was commissioned by the condominium’s financiers. According to developer Chris Pearce, the decision to host a communitywide art contest was originally born out of necessity: The city required that the property’s Beaumont Street wall be beautified.

The project’s aim, however, found its focus once Pearce began attending monthly community meetings organized by Cam MacQueen, owner of The BLOCK off Biltmore. According to Pearce, the group (known as The Block Community Collaborative) formed in 2017 to discuss and help shape the area’s future development. Neighborhood merchants, residents, developers, city employees and members of Just Folks and the East End Neighborhood Association make up the group. Through these sessions, Pearce says, “It became clear to me that we needed to connect our property better to The Block, to the people of The Block, to the history of The Block in whatever way we could.”

Ultimately, the 19 submissions were narrowed down to five. The finalists presented their work to The Block Community Collaborative. The group’s input, notes Pearce, helped the development team determine the winner. Cotton’s selection came with a $10,000 prize. The work itself was completed in partnership with UNC Asheville’s STEAM Studio and local fabricator Justin Turcotte.

For Cotton, there is relief and joy that the project went to an artist of color. However, she doesn’t want her work’s selection to be misconstrued. It’s not a consolation prize, she says; Going to Market will not bring back what was lost, nor does it excuse what happened. Still, the artist is pleased in knowing her work will help keep her ancestors’ stories alive on The Block.

“This used to be the financial center, the economic core, the social hub,” Cotton says. “The BLOCK off Biltmore — that used to be the drugstore. And in black history, drugstores were not just where you went to get medicine. We weren’t allowed to go into white establishments. So our drugstores were where we could go and eat and talk and meet … and actually use the bathroom.”

These stories, notes Pearce, are important to share. With all 67 units at 55 South Market sold, the developer is working to connect the homeowners association with The Block Community Collaborative. “We’re really going to encourage [new residents] to be part of the BCC because it’s just what they should be doing,” he says.

Over time and through oxidation, Cotton says, the 11 corten steel figures of Going to Market will change colors. “They’ll go from this rust orange to an almost black,” she says. The process, she explains, was an important factor in her decision to use the material. The range of colors, she says, symbolizes and celebrates the diversity of skin tones among African Americans: “We go from light-light to dark-dark and everything in between.”

Cotton continues, “I want to celebrate blackness without it being muddied.” Yet the pain associated with the project’s design cannot be ignored, she says. Going to Market, Cotton notes, is part of a larger dialogue that she and fellow community members are actively engaged in. “I am committed to working on an infrastructure that will be a foundation by which to regrow Asheville in a healthy way where there is equity, where we actually have communication between the races and we talk about what happened and we talk about how we’re moving forward,” the artist says.

“But there cannot be a solution without economic empowerment being a part to it,” she emphasizes. “How can we ever have a truly healthy state if that piece keeps being ignored?”

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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