Joshua Spiceland’s art is sprinkled all over downtown Asheville’s inside, outside even underside. Some works are highly visible, like his painting of a vivacious smiling face, nestled between Izzy’s Coffee Den and Dobra Tea on Lexington Avenue. Others are harder to see from the sidewalk, like the mural at Feathers Gallery on Battery Park Avenue, angled behind the shop’s windows. Spiceland’s latest commissioned work for The Chocolate Fetish is one of the latter sorts. Hanging quietly in the atrium of the Haywood Park Hotel is an elegant visual representation of the human, agricultural and mechanical ingenuity behind the creation of fine couverture chocolates.
Xpress spoke with Elizabeth Foley, daughter of owners Bill and Sue Foley, about their decision to commission the mural as part of their celebration of the shop’s 25th anniversary.
“As anyone that has been in Asheville for a while knows, small businesses are always coming and going,” Elizabeth said. “We think it’s pretty special to have been a part of downtown for so long.”
After years of travel, visiting cacao growers in the Caribbean and South America, and chocolatiers in Europe, the Foleys wanted to pay homage and bring awareness to the arduous process of refining a tropical bean into an artisanal truffle.
Familiar with Spiceland’s work for the Asheville Mural Project and a recent commission for Justin Harrell of the Watchmaker’s Shop (their neighbors in the Haywood Park Hotel atrium), the Foleys knew he was the man for the job. His contemporary interpretation of folk art meshed with their vision for the mural. He’s also a chocolatier at the Fetish, and understands the artistry of confection.
“Seeing all his work assured us that he had the talent necessary to create a mural that would not only be visually appealing, but would tell the story we wanted to tell,” Elizabeth said.
The first two panels of the mural are immediately visible, in the entryway of the Haywood atrium. The other two panels wrap around the corner leading to The Chocolate Fetish’s kitchen. Although visitors aren’t allowed inside, the Foleys offer tours that include a look through the glass windows of the kitchen, telling the story for the confection stage of production of the truffles and treats that fill the storefront’s cases. On any given day visitors can watch the slow river of chocolate, dipped, swirled or covering caramels on a small conveyer strip.
Hung with a custom-made framework, the mural tells a cohesive story. Spiceland’s use of drawing media and acrylic paints in an earthy palette deftly molds space and time into a complex narrative of color and form. As in a graphic novel, the mural’s panels transition seamlessly from one to the next. Time is fluid, and space is both compressed and compartmentalized. Sectioned and framed scenes like the delicate cacao flower and the cacao banner in the first panel lend the mural an instructional air. Likewise, differing scales of figures in the fore, back and mid-ground bring a dynamic flow to the mural saving it from a textbook feel.
The opening panel depicts a grove where indigenous people harvest cacao pods under the watchful eyes of a troop of monkeys. Like many in Spiceland’s other works, the figures are serene and regal. All appear to be absorbed in their work as they pluck, sort and even eat cacao bean pods.
The second panel provides a cross-section of the cacao pod and its fleshy white pulp, the “baba de cacao,” which aids in the fermentation process. Strategically placed figures and hands cradle the dried beans and break up the contrast problem of brown on a brown-earth background. In the lower right corner, a ship takes the viewer from the cacao regions of South America and Africa to chocolate-manufacturing facilities overseas.
Then the beans leave their organic origins and enter a well-designed maze of machinery. Spiceland meticulously arranges both traditional and contemporary chocolate-making equipment that take the roasted beans through the winnowing, grinding and conching process. Amid the machinery, engrossed workers fine tune chocolate liqueur, cocoa butter and chocolate paste.
The succeeding panel details the small-scale confectionary stage of chocolate production, as seen in The Chocolate Fetish’s real life vivarium of a kitchen. In the illustrated version chocolatiers are shown carefully tempering the chocolate and creating delicately flavored, rich ganache. In the forefront, several truffles are underscored by a cacao tree bough that appears throughout the mural, serving as a reminder of the tropical origins and the many hands that helped create the final product.
The mural concludes with an incongruous collection of characters including a jolly, top-hatted customer, with his nose deep in a coffee cup, and a contemporary woman evaluating a slab of chocolate. Both figures lend to the work a sense of history and timelessness. A small, grinning boy holds up his chocolate to the viewer, suggesting that you should perhaps go inside and try a treat.
This new mural is decidedly and recognizably Spiceland. In this visual history Spiceland accomplishes the difficult task of encapsulating the years of cocoa growing and chocolate production processing time and space into four window panels. This new addition to a wide repertoire of commissioned works establishes a solid niche for Spiceland in the Asheville art scene. Although he says he is hibernating this winter to work on a new series of paintings, keep an eye out — you never know where a new Spiceland piece might pop up.
— Rachael Inch is a freelance writer living in Asheville.