Asheville preserved

No doubt about it: Life changes in the blink of an eye. And Asheville — with its unique mix of people, its remarkable store of creativity, and its marvelous architectural heritage — is no exception. Our city is constantly evolving, shaping and reshaping itself with each passing moment.

But thanks to Gloria Gaffney’s exquisite pen-and-ink renderings of life on our fair city’s streets, we’ll have an enduring record of what she calls, “this golden period in Asheville’s history, this cultural renaissance.” With her impromptu “street studio” (consisting of camper stool, drawing board, bottle of water, plus pens and ink), Gaffney is slowly documenting the Asheville that’s important to her — the people and places that reveal the spiritual and creative face of Asheville at the beginning of the 21st century.

Gaffney studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran School of Art, George Washington University, the University of Illinois and the Art Students League in New York City. Oil had always been her primary medium, but after moving to Asheville four years ago, she rediscovered her love of pen-and-ink drawings (which she had explored years before).

She was inspired to return to this delicate medium, she says, by Ben Long — the renowned fresco artist now living and working in Asheville. On a whim, she looked into pen-and-ink classes being offered by Long. The rest is richly rendered history.

Gaffney’s career as an oil painter flourished in her native Pennsylvania — where she maintained a studio and a thriving decorative-arts business, produced a series of instructional art manuals, and hosted a cable-TV program on the art of decorative oil painting.

In the late 1990s, she and her now-deceased husband hatched plans to head south. They stopped in Asheville, just to look around — using the city as a base while considering relocating to Charlotte or Greenville. But, says Gaffney, the visit to Asheville proved serendipitous. After just a few days, both of them felt they were coming home. “It felt so comfortable, like I had lived here all my life,” she recalls.

Her husband’s untimely death just before the move did not deter Gaffney. On the contrary, it gave her a firm resolve: “I felt compelled to complete our plan.” She pulled up roots, moved to Asheville, and has never looked back.

Gaffney says her artistic spirit has been reborn via pen-and-ink. She’s enthralled by the medium’s immediacy, the spontaneous interplay of light and shadow, and the ability to translate life’s fluidity so quickly to paper. “I just have a feeling, a drive, that this is what I should be doing, ” she says about her current project, documenting Asheville. “One thing I wanted to capture were all the different sides of Asheville. They’re changing as we speak,” she observes. She loves Asheville’s visible history — but most of all, she loves the people. “Their humanity,” declares Gaffney, “reaches out to me.”

More often than not, it’s the typically unnoticed individual who inspires her — a mother clutching a child in her arms, crossing a busy street; an elderly person on a street bench, watching the world go by; a free-spirited window washer plying his trade; a bearded street philosopher; a down-on-his-luck war veteran.

With the stroke of a pen and sepia ink, Gaffney creates moving portraits that translate the emotion of each encounter, revealing each individual’s strength and dignity. In the constant interplay of light and shadow, she captures the dynamic flow of human life — freezing the moment for posterity. “I start at a certain point, and all the rest … is related to that point,” she explains.

The city’s remarkable architectural and cultural heritage also take center stage in many of Gaffney’s drawings. And her deftly rendered compositions offer new perspectives on what some might consider the mundane. Through Gaffney’s artistic eye, the concrete span of the RiverLink Bridge becomes a marvelous exercise in form and function, and turn-of-century buildings become fascinating puzzles of invention.

“These are just pen-and-ink drawings on paper,” she observes. “But I would, more than anything, like them to outlive me — to have some value.” In a reflective moment, Gaffney reveals, “There’s a little part of me in every subject.”

And those of us who live here may find a little part of ourselves in Gaffney’s artistic record of Asheville, as well.

[Gloria Gaffney’s pen-and-ink drawings are on display at the Kress Emporium (19 Patton Ave.) in downtown Asheville. And as the temperatures rise, keep an eye out for the artist on the city’s streets.]

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