Any artsy Asheville adventure revolves around plugging into its energy source: artists. And this city is overrun with talent.
My daughter Claire and I can only spend one day on our whirlwind tour of North Carolina’s 12th biggest city (and the largest city in Western North Carolina). So we devote the entire morning to exploring the arts scene. Asheville’s arts district is clustered on the city’s periphery.
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River Art District
Any art pilgrimage necessarily begins in the River Art District (RAD). The city’s long “arts-way” (my word play on parkway) consists of working artist studios and galleries located in 23 former industrial and historical buildings. The RAD is spread along a one mile stretch of the French Broad River.
Asheville’s River Arts District (RAD) is a destination that grew out of necessity. Artists needed cheap rent and large spaces. An industrial zone east of the railroad tracks had a glut of aging and empty warehouses.
If you don’t like being trapped in a staid art museum but love art, the RAD offers the optimum mix of indoor & outdoor activities. I particularly enjoy our walking tour to see the large outdoor murals and street art. There is a wraparound mural on a building at Clingman Avenue that features a clay man working his way through the river while a robot surveys the terrain. Intriguing & puzzling.
And I felt a genuine wrap around hug when I see a big yellow mural festooned with a giant RED heart and the word LOVE YOUR COMMUNITY. Yes I honestly did feel that the artists working in Asheville know the importance of working together (even with a six-foot distance) during these lonely pandemic times.
Finally my daughter Claire can’t resist modeling outside St. Claire Art store which advertises luminous oil paintings. I thought her pose was angelic!
The one thing missing during a visit to a large art museum is a one-on-one conversation with the artist.
This is not the case in Asheville. Many artists serve as the clerk to ring up your sale (as well as discuss their work). This is my favorite aspect of visiting art districts in any city—the opportunity to learn about the artist’s motivations.
I interview one artist who had painted a mountain scape viewed from an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Cindy Lou Chenard has produced multiple versions of her 2 and 3-dimensional abstracts and modern landscapes influenced by mid-century modern artists. I fall in love with Blue Ridge Evening.
I pull out my iPhone to show her my photo of the Blue Ridge Parkway on yesterday’s car ride. Then I promptly purchase a high resolution fine art giclée print of her painting for my home.
Cindy’s work can also be viewed at the Woolworth Walk in downtown Asheville. This celebrated gallery (located in the former W. W. Woolworth Co. store) features 170 local artists offering jewelry, fine art, decorative art and crafts.
We also spend a lot of time examining the works of Belgian painter Terry Thirion. She use textiles, paper articles, acrylics, inks and sometimes just oil paints. Her works range from abstract and living creatures. The artist paints vivid watercolor paintings of birds and flowers.
She provides a “virtual” personal tour by including descriptions of her “process” of creating work. Thirion said her works relate to the various cultures that have “shaped” her as an individual and as an artist.
“I attempt to convey our relatedness as humans/spiritual beings to all living things.”—Terry Thirion
Claire and I cover a lot of ground in the RAD, alternating between galleries and working studios. Since there are no typical 9-5 “Open Hours” at the RAD, you can usually always find some artist at work. More than 200 artists work in paint, pencil, pottery, metal, fiber, glass, wax, paper and more. Check before visiting on the artist’s schedules.
Set A Budget
WARNING: A visit to RAD will endanger your budget. You might come to RAD promising to “look, not buy” but dispel that fantasy on your artsy Asheville adventure.
Claire and I lose our resolve after we enter the first RAD shop at the Odyssey Co-op Gallery (238 Clingman Avenue). It features the works of 23 local clay artists who produce ceramic art and functional pottery.
The only thing that prevents us from buying a sculpture within the first five minutes of stepping into a shop was our desire to see everything before we made our purchase(s). Note plural!
Battery Book Exchange
Eventually we are feeling hunger pains, so we leave the RAD to drive back to the city center for a late lunch. Claire chooses Battery Park Book Exchange the next stop in our self-guided artsy Asheville adventure. It is located in in The Grove Arcade in the heart of Asheville.
To say this operation is eclectic is to undersell it. This is pure bibliophile decadence—velvet curtains, thick carpets, cozy chairs, leather sofas, fringed lamps and walls of bookcases. The two-story store features a sweeping bookcase from which I descend after my used book search.
This store is a literary labyrinth dedicated to snare a book lover for a hour, an afternoon … or perhaps an entire day. (Since the bookstore also offers on-premise dining and a full bar, it is not outside the realm of possibility that some Asheville residents might park themselves at the book store from 9 am to 9 pm.) Honestly you could hide yourself in its maze of connecting rooms and never be found. It’s a great place to start writing the Great American Novel.
Battery Book Exchange also functions as a Champagne Bar so I encourage all shoppers to include appropriate time for an aperitif. Since Claire and I both majored in English in college, we have no choice but to order each of the sparking (wine) cocktails named after beloved books in our past. The dog-friendly patio is pure luxury with comfy sofas and big stuffed pillows.
I quote the menu to describe its poetical descriptions of these bestsellers.
The Great Gatsby: This is an elegant take on the classic champagne cocktail that will relieve from temptation in this southern cesspool of sin.
~ sugar cube, orange bitters, orange twist
The Secret Garden: Elderflower and hibiscus plucked from the grounds of Misselthwaite Manor assist in the creation of this refreshing, floral cocktail.
~ elderflower and hibiscus syrup, candied hibiscus bloom ~
Death in the Afternoon: This is a take on Hemingway’s favorite: absinthe and champagne. Take a seat out on the patio and picture yourself sitting at Les Deux Magots in Paris.
Naturally I audibly sigh as I linger over the two-page menu of champagne, other formats, champagne flights, sparkling wine and sparkling cocktails.
“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone . . .”—Madame Jacques Bollinger
Book Store Menu
Alternately, you can skip the ablutions (? but why ?) and order a pastry and espresso. The bookstore/cafe also offers a delicious culinary respite from a hard day of reading.
But book lovers rejoice because there are more than a dozen sandwiches and snacks available to order. The menu’s witty choices include: A Tale of Two Choices, The Hummus Games, Moby Dip, War and Pate and Pride and Pimento Cheese and The Lion, The Witch & The Waldorf Salad.
I salute the management for the clever christening of its food fare after the works of such acclaimed writers as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, C. S. Lewis, Herman Melville and Leo Tolstoy.
But rather than ordering from the pantheon of literary giants, we chose The Secret Life of Cheese board. Its name is inspired by The Secret Life of Bees, which was written by a (still living) acclaimed female novelist: Sue Monk Kidd. (Coincidentally, she is a Southern writer who hails from Sylvester, Georgia.) I recommend all her novels. Her writing is luminous and always features strong female protagonists.
(The $25 cheese board features a tasty trio of cheeses with seasonal fruit, seasonal Imladris Farm preserves, locally sourced floral honey, Lusty Monk whole grain mustard, and toasted pecans. It is served with your choice of City Bakery baguette or multi-seed gluten free crackers.)
For the next hour, we enjoy a front row seat on the tree-lined terrace. It is a perfect place to watch people browse the open air market, walk their dog and converse with friends. On weekends, the Champagne Bar offers live Jazz music.
But there is one final stop on our whirlwind itinerary in our artsy Asheville adventure. We visit Cultivated Cocktails & Distillery. Consider this a must visit if you want to do a cocktail tasting.
It is also a way to help out a locally-grown family business. Since 2015, the family distillery has been crafting award-winning spirits in Asheville. It proudly proclaims its multigenerational history in the Appalachian Mountains.
“Cultivated Cocktails is a more than just a beverage company: it’s a destination where everyone is treated like family and invited to join our story.”
The staff is convivial and educated. Claire and I quiz our bartender on the best choices for liquors, mixers and cocktail recipes. Here’s a quick interview on my YouTube channel. You are encouraged to “taste, sip, savor, and learn.”
The cocktail menu guides the visitor. To build your own G&T, you can choose the HWY9 gin or Shades of Rose Gin. Next you select the proper tonic, with a wide range of options including blueberry. Alternatively, the bartender can fix a Hibiscus Chai Daiquiri, featuring the distillery’s own Hazel 63 Rum.
Your bartender will guide you on the preparation of possibly any cocktail you desire. She will also help you find the necessary items to purchase at the store. (This can get expensive.)
If time permits, you definitely should take a tour of the distillery!
Artsy Asheville adventure
In the final analysis, Asheville offers the three As necessary to a perfect visit—Art, Adventure & Artisan (Cocktails). It is also a great jumping off point to explore the region’s famous Blue Ridge Parkway, tour the Biltmore Estate and sample charming small towns, like Saluda. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t buy the t-shirt emblazoned with the pithy saying Asheville Got Weird Y’All! But I promise I will come back to Awesome Asheville and Take A Walk On The Wild Side.