Saïd Osio believes that Asheville’s River Arts District has the potential to be the nation’s next revolutionary creative sector.
He would know: The visual artist and owner of Nadazul Gallery grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s, when Venice Beach was what he calls “a bohemian enclave” that soon became “an art colony.” He then eventually moved to South Florida, where he witnessed the formation of the Miami Design District.
“We have the same kind of infrastructure to create something like that,” Osio says. “But we can only go deep if we have the right resources and the people who have vision.”
While he actively searches for like-minded local collaborators, Osio seeks to attract motivated individuals and inspire others during the grand opening of the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project (aka RADTIP). The monthlong celebration is hosted and coordinated by the city of Asheville, and most events — all of which adhere to current state restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 — are scheduled between Earth Day (Thursday, April 22) and the birthday of the late literary artist and environmental pioneer Wilma Dykeman (Thursday, May 20).
Steph Monson Dahl, the city’s strategic design and public space manager, calls the project “the centerpiece of a much larger effort to transform the greater RAD — and the entire French Broad and Swannanoa River corridors — in accordance with the vision laid out in the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Master Plan.”
“By getting that plan adopted in 2004, Karen Cragnolin, former executive director of RiverLink, helped the community make its case that environmental sustainability and improvements to transportation, economic development, education, and health and wellness are all needed parts of a holistic effort to repair our riparian environment,” she says.
Monson Dahl, who also served as riverfront redevelopment director until RADTIP construction began in 2018, notes that, prior to RADTIP, there were no sidewalks or stormwater management system on the 2-mile riverfront section; the connection between Riverside Drive and Lyman Street was unsafe; and “most people didn’t actually know how to get to the RAD.”
City funding and development partners remedied those issues and added 9 acres of new open spaces; almost 200 new parking spaces; 2 miles of greenway; the project’s first section of protected bike lanes; plus benches, trash cans, swings and over 3,000 trees and plants. In turn, local businesses “have a better place to engage in creative commerce,” which has resulted in an increase from 140 artists in 16 buildings when RADTIP planning began to over 250 artists in 19 buildings.
“It took a seriously collaborative effort to get us to what you see in and around the RAD today,” says Monson Dahl. “The city, local businesses, artists, nonprofits and others have been working on the RADTIP and other projects in the area for over 10 years, and it seemed appropriate to make sure that some of those same partners were given agency to create the kind of grand opening they wanted to see when it was complete.”
Festivities that Monson Dahl thinks “are going to make people smile” include an open call for photographs or artwork inspired by the French Broad River, which will be displayed via an online gallery hosted by UNC Asheville; Asheville on Bikes’ pop-up skills park for youths, which takes place multiple Thursday evenings; and an app-based trivia game created by Connect Buncombe that awards prizes to participants who play while rolling or walking the greenway.
The River Arts District Artists are likewise poised to put their imaginative stamps on the celebration, during which many studios are planning on reopening after being closed for over a year. According to Asheville Print Studio founder Denise Markbreit, a committee spearheaded by former RADA President Nadine Charlsen “brainstormed many, many ideas, settling on the most doable in the short amount of time we had, and with little to no budget.”
Among their additions are four Micro Art Galleries, which will be installed at the Art Garden at Riverview Station, Curve Studios, Pink Dog Creative and Wedge Studios. Similar to the popular Little Free Libraries, the modest-sized structures will be filled with free art and replenished each week. Markbreit says the galleries “will be an exciting long-term addition to the RAD” and a “way for artists to reach out to the community and visiting tourists.”
Each complimentary piece includes a QR code and website information linking participants to details on the work, the artist and where to find that artist’s studio. QR codes will also be featured at scenic spots throughout the RAD, directing visitors to artists who have been inspired by or have featured the particular scene in their work.
Osio hopes to make a similar long-lasting impression with the Earth Memorial Garden and related events on Saturday, April 24, next to the Cotton Mill Studios. Inspired by Christo’s The Gates installation in New York’s Central Park, Osio seeks to honor the ambition of Black Mountain College’s storied history while “connecting the dots” among various area arts traditions.
Members of the Cherokee community will construct a single-layer rock medicine wheel, offering a circular sacred walk similar to the RiverLink labyrinth on that same property. The labyrinth will host a dance troupe performance to honor former BMC faculty greats Merce Cunningham and John Cage. In addition, there will be a memorial tree area similar to Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree projects, where people can pay homage to departed loved ones by writing their names on paper ribbons and tying them on branches; a gateway installation that echoes the work of British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy; and earth altars, which the public is encouraged to construct from earth and water throughout the month.
By thinking big for this celebration, Osio hopes that the RAD and the city overall will recognize its immense potential and embrace it in new, innovative ways.
“The greenway, I think, will become the soul of Asheville,” Osio says. “It is a renaissance because I think [the spirit of] Black Mountain [College] in a way could be resurrected [here] — not as Black Mountain but as a creative energy.” ashevillenc.gov/river