For more than 20 years artist John Mac Kah has lived in Asheville, and for 17 of those years his studio has been located next to the French Broad River. But on an excursion along the river earlier this month, he spotted something he had never seen before — a pair of bald eagles soaring overhead. Rare and memorable experiences like that one have motivated him to sketch or paint the French Broad dozens of times. “The inspiration is that first synapse,” he says, “and it hits like a bolt of lightning. Then, with that in mind, a lot of labor follows to put my original inspiration on the canvas.”
Mac Kah’s love of the river has also inspired his volunteerism for the local organization RiverLink, which is devoted to the preservation of the river’s natural beauty and ecological assets. While brainstorming how to raise funds for RiverLink, he hit on the idea of an art exhibit. “I work with a band of artists, and we call ourselves the Saints of Paint,” Mac Kah explains. “We collaborate with other artists to do fundraisers for three specific worthy causes: children, animals and the environment.” Three years ago the artists collaborated to launch an art exhibit and gala for RiverLink titled “Of Time and the River,” echoing Thomas Wolfe’s 1935 novel of the same name.
This year’s event takes place Friday, Oct. 21 at Zealandia, a Tudor Revival mansion listed in the National Register of Historic Places that sits atop Beaucatcher Mountain overlooking Asheville. Artwork from 21 acclaimed local artists will be on display, as well as a large map indicating the locations along the 218-mile French Broad River where they painted their works. The artwork will be for sale during the gala and for two days afterward. Musical entertainment will be provided by composer and cellist Ron Clearfield, who has recorded with such luminaries as Paul McCartney, and the event will be catered by Whole Foods, with wine courtesy of 5 Walnut Wine Bar and beer from Sierra Nevada.
Mac Kah, who is the curator of the juried show, says that it will primarily showcase works by traditional realist painters. Because they paint not from photographs but on location, he says, there is a unique level of interaction between the artists and the French Broad River. “Realism is not just about intuition or abstraction,” he explains. “If you intend to paint the river, you have to actually go out onto the river with your easel or sketchpad. That requires a special commitment, because you may have to go back six or seven times in order to finish the work. But your response to what you are observing deepens each time you’ve been up and down the river in a canoe or have been out there camping on the riverbank to paint it.”
Another contributor to the event is fresco artist Ben Long of Alchemy Fine Art in Asheville. Before deciding to draw the historic riverfront Cotton Mill building, he walked up and down the French Broad scouting locations. He reveals that it is possible to draw using items fashioned from natural resources that grow along the river. Long executed his piece using a pen carved from a reed and homemade walnut ink. “Rembrandt used that kind of ink,” he says. “You soak walnuts when they are fresh and then boil them down until you extract an ink that costs a lot less than what you buy in a fancy shop.” The ink has an organic sepia tone that lends a distinct antique quality to Long’s drawing of the circa 1887 mill.
Other contributing area artists include Christine Enochs, Paul Blankinship, Dana Irwin, Jason Rafferty, Mark Henry, Bryan Koontz, Tony Corbitt Jr., Caleb Clark, Matthew Good, Deborah Squier, Skip Rohde, Alisa Lumbreras, Cecil Bothwell, Colleen Webster, Brennen McElhaney, Rachel Clearfield, Carol Parks and Peter Loewer.
“I am 100 percent for cleaning up the river and keeping it clean and preserving as much green space as possible,” Long adds. “A river is a natural artery that needs to be honored while also preserving the wildlife around it, instead of using the adjacent land to create an entertainment strip.”
Indeed, the French Broad River watershed is a source of drinking water for more than a million people and is home to more than 40 threatened, endangered or rare species. “But art,” Mac Kah points out, “doesn’t pollute the river.”