Discovering Beauty, Dignity + Dedication in Asheville's River Arts District
A few years back I was talking to a friend about the places we loved to visit when she mentioned Asheville, North Carolina. Home to the renowned Biltmore estate, hundreds of artists and quintessential farm to table, before farm to table became a thing, Southern cuisine and more hiking trails than you could ever imagine exploring. She grew up in North Carolina about 4 hours from the artsy town nestled in the Smoky Mountains and raved about how beautiful it is especially in the fall. I grew up in Rhode Island and am familiar with fall. Yet while living there, I never quite understood people’s admiration of fall foliage. Yes, it’s pretty but it signals the impending approach of winter, the dreariest, coldest part of the year. I recall wondering in the midst of winter when exactly the last time I saw the sun was and couldn’t remember. The endless dreary days got to me even more than the cold and snow. I just couldn’t get on board with the celebration of fall.
Now that I’ve been living in South Florida for 12 years my heart is singing a different tune. The past few years when September and October rolled around I would lose myself online in pictures of the beautiful fall foliage that I hadn’t experienced in such a long time and didn’t necessarily appreciate when I had the chance. The mesmerizing range of warm colors pulled at my heartstrings and I recalled my friend’s adoration of Asheville. I waited too late to book a fall trip last year so this year I planned a long weekend getaway to the infamous Asheville, NC well in advance (for me that’s two months) for my birthday.
Low cost airline Allegiant Air has direct flights from Fort Lauderdale to both Asheville and nearby Greenville, South Carolina. The flight to Greenville worked out better for us time wise and pricewise so I booked that and a cozy looking Airbnb in North Asheville, saving us a good chunk of change. Most of the hotels were double the cost of the Airbnb as were all the other airlines.
We got in late-ish on Friday night so we grabbed a bite to eat at a nearby bar/restaurant with an industrial vibe, Avenue M.
I dug into the fries and Reuben sandwich, flinging all thoughts of healthy eating right out the window. The food hit the spot and we chatted with the guy sitting next to us, soon realizing we were going to be at the same restaurant the following night. Quite the coincidence!
Breathing in crisp, fresh air outside our door the next morning, a cool breeze caressed my skin and I marveled at the light streaming through the evergreen trees. I grabbed my camera to capture the sunburst, changing the settings to make the rays more evident.
Moments like these are why I love traveling. I think it’s the newness, the unfamiliarity of the surroundings that heightens awareness and appreciation for nature, for art and artists, for architecture, food, fashion and people. I feel truly alive and stimulated by the novelty. And my soul needs it.
As we were driving down a familiar road in Ft. Lauderdale the other night, I mused upon the boredom weighing me down and noted that if you look around all you see is a homogenous mix of averagé. (You must watch the video below to truly understand averagé. You’ll thank me, I promise.)
A repeating pattern of strip malls with CVS or Walgreens, a Mexican restaurant, some burger chain and an Asian eatery, Venetian Nail Spa, Massage Envy, Michael’s, Petsmart, etc. You get my drift. What happened to originality, the experience, a world where passionate entrepreneurs thrive on creating and providing products they believe in. It can still be found in some places. Places like Asheville and I suppose some nooks and crannies in Ft. Lauderdale. I’m not saying you won’t find chain stores or the random uninspired person or place in Asheville, but you will find originality and people with a passion for their craft. I digress.
We headed downtown for brunch, where many other people had the very same idea. The first restaurant we put our name in at had an hour and a half wait so I wandered over to the next spot and checked with the hostess at Mayfel’s. Luckily it was just a 20-minute wait. Across the street in a park/square was a market of sorts with lots of people milling about enjoying the amazing weather while checking out the goods.
A festive atmosphere and multi-colored walls greeted us as the hostess led the way to our table. Fabio and I both ordered the Pork Belly Scramble with a freshly baked biscuit. Totally indulging, I spread butter and apple butter on the warm biscuit and watched as the butter melted it’s way into every nook and cranny of the fluffy bread. I spotted a Bloody Mary bar on our way in and couldn’t resist the temptation. There were all kinds of goodies like pickled okra, olives, and banana pepper juice, which brought the Bloody Mary’s to a whole other level. As if you couldn’t tell, brunch was ahhmazing and I highly recommend Mayfel’s if you’re in the downtown Asheville area.
Exiting Mayfel’s we walked along the border of the park, observing the vendors and shoppers, the hippies with their dogs and young families. As we crossed the street I looked ahead and saw a beautiful Art Deco building, engraved with the name S&W Cafeteria. Story-high arched windows bordered with an intricate geometric pattern in shades of blue and gold decorated the face of the building along with zigzags and triangular shapes typical of the Art Deco period.
Impressed by the structure I did a quick Google search to learn about its history and found an interesting narrative by the site’s current owner. During the Prohibition Era the S&W housed a speakeasy complete with a hidden corridor. However, it is most remembered as its namesake cafeteria. S&W was a Charlotte-based chain of restaurants, founded in 1920 serving low-cost, Southern food. Seriously, a chain restaurant? Looks like today’s fast food chains need to up the ante in the architecture department. “Even though it was a humble eating experience…management wanted you to feel the experience was dignified and special.” That’s exactly what I’m talking about. A desire to create something great with a sense of pride, even when you’re serving fast food to leave a lasting impression. Now a beautifully restored event space, the S&W is in fact still dignified and special.
We hopped in the car and drove over to the River Arts District to check out the artist studios I was eagerly anticipating. Vibrantly colored one-story buildings and brick warehouses housing a variety of studios from painters, mixed-media artists, sculptors, photographers, clothing and jewelry designers lined the neighborhood’s streets.
Walking in and out of the studios admiring the work, the tools and creative spaces, and the dedication to craft, we chatted with a few of the artists. One woman, a sculptor explained how she created her pottery pieces by adding elements like copper or aluminum to the kiln to create an interesting effect on her work.
The photography work (surprise, surprise) of Pattiy Torno, who is also a fashion designer, grabbed my attention. Pattiy creates interesting and deliberate photo collages with pieces of pictures on wood blocks. I was intently looking at the display of wood block photo collages trying to understand the thought process when Pattiy came over to chat. We got to talking and she explained “I've been doing this work for twenty years and in the beginning I used to try everything to get out of the picture but I go out in the early morning and evening when the sun is low in the horizon and it’s just about impossible to get out of the shot so I thought, well maybe I'm supposed to be in it and just embraced it.
The work has always been about proportion- the proportion of how much nature vs man made elements I need in my life. Some days I need more nature so I go out into the country and sometimes I need more man made elements and that's when I go to the city. I often don't even realize it, it's just what I'm drawn to and then I look at the pictures and they give a voice to what I’ve been feeling.
It took a long time for printers to produce accurate color but about 8 years ago I saw the technology was good enough and bought an Epson printer. So now what I see in the camera is the same as what I see on the monitor and it's printed beautifully on archival paper. I then cut the pictures up and glue the pieces to a wood block that I’ve sanded and stained the edges and finally seal the photographs with lacquer.”
I had to have one of Pattiy’s photo blocks and deliberated carefully over which was my favorite. I selected one with photographs taken in Bellevue, Washington and I believe upstate New York. A mix of tall golden grass overlaid with Pattiy’s shadow, rippling water and chain. An interesting combination of textures that is so intriguing.
We drove over to another section of buildings and continued exploring studio after studio.
Stopping for a moment to observe people taking an art class, I decided then and there that’s how I would spend time in my old age, taking art classes and creating beautiful pieces. Playing with encaustic wax, creating mixed media pieces and taking photographs. Who knows maybe I’ll even take up painting!
We eventually became a bit weary and decided to head back to rest. On our way out of the parking lot a sign for a tannery called out to me so we followed the sign’s indication past dilapidated buildings covered with murals and street art. We didn’t find the tannery but we did stop to photograph the interesting mix of collapsed buildings that had served as someone’s canvas.
An inspired feeling filled my soul as we drove away. A day filled with beauty, dignity and dedication. People following their instinct to create and contribute their voice, their perspective to the world, in turn writing a beautifully illustrated narrative.
Stay tuned for a kaleidoscope of color from our beautiful drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Smoky Mountains. For daily inspiration follow @kpotenti on Instagram.