A lone artist tramps across the tobacco field at dawn, bucket in hand. A coil of gauzy mist spirals up from the hollow, revealing a green patch of forest and the zigzag horizon of the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond. The young man sips coffee from a ceramic mug made by his own hand, then cuts into the earth with a shovel. It yields a muddy treasure—the wild, blue-tinged clay of Asheville, North Carolina.
“The bluish color comes from decayed organic material,” explains ceramic artist Josh Copus, shaping the wet clay with his fingers, “But that all burns out in the firing, leaving a beautiful red from the iron content.”
While most potters use purified, industrial-grade clay, Josh prefers Asheville's wild variety.
“There’s this idea in art that you find material that serves your idea, but this material has its own unique properties, and those become the idea,” says Copus, who works from his studio in Asheville’s River Arts District.
Over the past decade, this row of brick warehouses and old textile mills along the French Broad River has become a creative hive, twitching with artists and makers like Copus who value deliberate, personal craftsmanship. Exploring the open studios with John Almaguer’s guided art tour shows the amazing range of talent in this city, encompassing the wrought iron objects d’art of blacksmith Zachary Noble and the expressionist animal canvases in the biscuit factory-turned-fine art gallery of painter Daniel McClendon, or the upstairs workshop of Anna Toth, whose Bow and Arrow Apparel makes women’s jeans to measure.
“Big business has capitalized on women’s insecurities,” Toth explains matter-of-factly. “We’ve been reduced to an algorithm that doesn’t fit. As a pattern maker, I find it so satisfying to make a woman feel confident and happy in her own clothing.”
Reinventing the rules is an Asheville tradition—be it visual art, cool crafts, funky music, theater, or film, Asheville is an experimental epicenter—and always has been. “Leap before you look,” was the founding principle behind nearby Black Mountain College. Believing art was central to all learning, the progressive school became the creative nest for teachers like Anni and Josef Albers (of Bauhaus fame) and architect Richard Buckminster Fuller (who patented the geodesic dome). Shuttered in 1957, Black Mountain left a legacy of alumni who reflect a veritable who’s who of the American avant garde, including artists Cy Twombly, John Urbain, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert De Niro, Sr., and Basil King.
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For a closer look at Asheville’s experimental legacy, visit the Black Mountain College Museum, with regular exhibits that showcase the works of former students and staff. The Asheville Art Museum (free on Wednesday afternoons) also houses an extensive collection of Black Mountain artists, along with a brilliant array of North Carolina folk art, portraits, photography, and sculpture. Lest you think Asheville’s art scene is stuck in the past, hit up the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design, which supports the work of the region’s up-and-coming artists. The welcoming space is typically filled with provocative pieces by some of the world’s leading innovators in today’s maker movement.
Invest in local creators by hunting for souvenirs in the hip Downtown Asheville Art District. Horse and Hero features nifty woodblock and letterpress prints, distinctive wall art, and cool neo-Appalachian crafts, while the Mora Collection sells a spectrum of bizarre and beautiful jewelry, fashioned from precious metals, and things like coyote bones and recycled skateboard decks. After browsing the Grove Arcade galleries, take time to admire the building’s brilliant facade. Kevan Frazier’s architecture and history tours can pinpoint other art deco splendors about town, including Douglas Ellington’s First Baptist Church, City Hall, and the Asheville Citizen-Times building.
For the ultimate experience in art and architecture, visit the nearby Biltmore Estate, home to the private collection of George Washington Vanderbilt II, which holds original works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and John Singer Sargent. The same spirit of artistic grandeur lives on today, and Asheville remains a city that draws in some of the most creative people in the United States.