Two local artists follow their passions in the RAD

ON THE WIRE: Asheville native Viola Spells crafts unique crocheted wire jewelry for her business, Zenobia Studios. She will make jewelry on commission for those with specific ideas and, "Most of my statement necklaces are one of a kind," she says. Photo by Alli Marshall

Both artwork and Asheville proved to be landing places for local creatives Viola Spells and Marcos Martinez. Spells, a jewelry artist, and Martinez, a landscape painter, have established themselves in the River Arts District, where they’ll participate in the Spring Studio Stroll Saturday and Sunday, May 20 and 21.

Spells — whose sculptural, crocheted wire designs are sometimes delicately lacy and sometimes fiercely avant-garde — grew up in Asheville. A career as a librarian took her away to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, then to Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library, which houses the school’s audio collections, and finally to Philadelphia, where Spells headed the city’s largest regional library.

While in Philadelphia, Spells’ daughter took a jewelry-making class at the private school she attended. On parent day, “I walked in and thought, ‘Oh my God! This is what I want to do with the rest of my life,’” Spells remembers. But it wasn’t until she’d retired from library work that she found time to pursue that interest.

After completing a BFA in metals at East Tennessee State University, Spells purchased a house in Asheville — she’d returned to the city to be near her ailing mother — and considered basing her business, Zenobia Studios, in her home. But, “with renovating, I couldn’t do any art!” she says. “So I decided, ‘I’ll just go where all the other artists are, to the River Arts District.’” Spells was the first tenant in the Pink Dog Creative building and — after a few moves — found herself back in the same location.

Zenobia Studios is named for Spells’ mother. “We have a lot of Zenobias in my family. It’s a biblical name,” she says. “[My mother] loved the arts. She loved handmade jewelry and earrings.”

In fact, even though Spells was forging and casting bronze while in school, “I selected crochet wire as my medium [because] I am fascinated with history and liked this choice even more because my grandmother and mother also crocheted,” she says. “Plus, I wanted to express something about women who are the backbone of families. Women adorn themselves with everyday found objects. Since women used this technique early on … wire translated textures of the fibers they used to adorn themselves and their homes.”

Home away from home

SURREALITY: Painter Marcos Martinez took some classes with “really cool teachers” but considered himself a self-taught artist. “I love how nature creatures forms, and the forms follow patterns,” he says. “That’s my inspiration — the patterns life creates. It’s an endless paradigm.” Pictured, ‘God Plays Dominoes,’ 11 X 14, oil on canvas by Martinez
SURREALITY: Painter Marcos Martinez took some classes with “really cool teachers” but considered himself a self-taught artist. “I love how nature creatures forms, and the forms follow patterns,” he says. “That’s my inspiration — the patterns life creates. It’s an endless paradigm.” Pictured, ‘God Plays Dominoes,’ 11 X 14, oil on canvas by Martinez

Martinez, meanwhile, grew up in a mountainous area of Mexico that looked a lot like Western North Carolina, he says. His family relocated to Texas, which didn’t appeal to him, and as soon as he was able, he came to to the Asheville area where an uncle was already living.

“When I was a kid, my father used to take me to these towns. … We were above the mountains. After the rain, there was the fog … it looked very cartoonish,” he says of his memories of Mexico. “When I came here, I was inspired. I enjoy the colors nature creates. My favorite saying is, ‘One is happy where one belongs, and one belongs where one is happy.’ I love it here, and I’m happy here.”

While his Mexican roots don’t directly inform his work, that love of the mountains and the shapes of clouds he delighted in as a young person were rekindled by WNC’s natural settings. Martinez is a prolific painter of such scenes. “Since the landscape painting movement is big here, I like to go to different towns and participate in different contests,” he says. “I paint to relax. Instead of watching TV, I watch nature. I like observing how the clouds move.”

But, Martinez adds, he also likes to paint his own concept of nature, marrying realistic backdrops with surreal elements — a boat on a lake through which a tree with a compass embedded in its trunk has grown; a deer resting on a beach with a red-leafed tree in place of antlers. Surrealism found him, says Martinez, who didn’t seek out the art form, but was inspired by books about quantum mechanics and astronomy.

A self-taught artist, Martinez says he likes to combine spirituality with his work. “It’s more like I do it for myself, for my soul, and the result is secondary,” he says. “But I like to share it with people.” He’ll have the chance to do just that during the biannual studio stroll.

Martinez has been located in the RAD for about 2 1/2 years and considers his current space, in Studio 375 Depot, to be the best for its sense of community. “I’ve met a lot of really cool people,” he says.

A future in the arts

Spells, too, is interested in the community of the RAD and would like to see it attract more visitors from nearby communities of color. A member of The Links (a professional organization for black women) and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, she’s been part of programs that work with local schools to engage children of color in the arts. “This year we brought the kids in. We had three series — I did a jewelry session” and others in the studio taught ceramics and collage. “I taught them how to wire-wrap a cabochon. … We’re trying to teach them that there’s a future [in the arts],” the artist says.

Spells is also a member of Asheville’s African American Heritage Commission and regularly shares information about that organization with visitors to her studio. “It is a problem about interconnecting the communities through what’s going on with the arts,” she says.

But the jewelry maker is working both to change that and to find more opportunities for connecting her own work to new audiences. Recently, she designed statement necklaces for a fashion show staged by Ananda West hair studio. She’s also constantly seeking new ideas for her designs, from textures like chain mail to color combinations (black and gold is always a big seller, she says) to shapes like wire balls and flattened discs.

“I use Pinterest a lot to get ideas,” she says. “That’s when my library skills come out.”

WHAT: River Arts District Spring Studio Stroll
WHERE: Galleries and studios throughout the River Arts District. Free parking and free trolleys. Find a map at
WHEN: Saturday and Sunday, May 20 and 21, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free


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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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