A new way to explore and celebrate Asheville’s urban art
In May 2021, roughly a dozen pairs of red- and hot pink-painted dolls appeared slung over telephone wires on Haywood Road in the heart of West Asheville’s business and restaurant district. A note signed by the artist “Rudolpho El Chivante” stapled to a telephone pole called the work Into the Land of Discarded Dolls. Some viewers pronounced the creepy red babies an eyesore. Whatever your analysis, the painted misfits caused a stir. In fact, turn any corner in Asheville’s hot spots and you’ll come face to face with pop-up art, a street musician, a sculpture, or a mural.
Krista Stearns, the operator of Mountain Murals tours, wants to call attention to Asheville’s thriving public art scene, in particular, its wall art. Murals and other displays of public art, she said, may charm visitors, but have a more meaningful purpose. For one, they celebrate a community’s values and tell a neighborhood’s history that may not be obvious to visitors.
“Murals have always been art that I’ve admired. They can really give a voice to a community that may not have one otherwise,” said Stearns. “Murals give neighborhoods identity.”
While murals are now aplenty in West Asheville, two decades ago there wasn’t much to see. In 2002 the West End Bakery in West Asheville commissioned a mural on a side of the building fronting their parking lot. “Our goal was to create a community gathering place,” said Stearns, a former owner of the bakery. At the time, Haywood Road was at the onset of its commercial and residential boom and experiencing significant change. “We wanted to manifest a space where new and long-time residents of all ages would feel welcome.”
The artist, Sally Bryanton, invited members of the community to paint or add to the mural that depicts a farmer’s market. Soon after the mural was completed, it became the site of West Asheville’s first tailgate market.
Building a community is just one of the purposes of public art. Jack Becker, a leader of the public art movement in Minneapolis, famously described public art as the four “Ms”: Murals, Monuments, Memorials, and Mimes. Those four categories capture plenty of modes of art, but of course, art can take a broad range of sizes, forms, or scales. It can be permanent or temporary. Art interprets a place’s history or addresses a social or environmental issue. It fosters community, creates belonging, and adds beauty.
The benefits of public art are also open to judgment. Perhaps not everyone agrees on what constitutes public art, but what is indisputable is the inflexible physical characteristic that defines it: by virtue of its public presence, there’s no cost to view it, hear it, be inspired by it, or perhaps even abhor it.
Sure, many artists aren’t in it for the bucks, but public art can help pay the bills. Ask any busker on a downtown corner in the peak of tourist season. No observer has an obligation to pay, but some do.
That is one of the biggest hurdles of public art, there’s a cost to the art: the materials, finding the scarce space where it exists, and the work and talent of the artist. In many cases, public art is artist-driven and self-funded. Public art may also be developed and managed by a municipality or nonprofit arts organization, both of which have played a crucial role in the expansion of Asheville’s public art scene.
They may also be funded by businesses, such as the West End Bakery mural, or part of a construction or public redevelopment plan, such as the revitalization of the River Arts District along the French Broad River. Until a revival that began along the river in the 1990s, the warehouses, factories, and buildings of Asheville’s riverside were abandoned, with crumbling facades covered in graffiti. Disconnected from downtown, the river was merely an obstacle to getting from one side of town to the other. Now it’s one of the trendiest destinations in Asheville and public art is a central feature.
The City of Asheville has funded a public art plan that includes permanent and temporary works along the Wilma Dykeman Greenway on the riverfront. The city has commissioned public art along the greenway, providing a stream of funds to bring art to the greenspace, such as a verse from a local activist’s poem anchored to a footbridge.
Among the most admired works of public art in West Asheville is a humongous bust of Dolly Parton’s legendary blond visage spray painted by local artist Gus Cutty in 2018 near the Beauty Parade Salon on Haywood Road. During the pandemic, Cutty painted a bust of drag queen and television star RuPaul next to Dolly. Both works were commissioned by Terra Marshall, the salon’s owner.
“Dolly was my choice mainly for her graciousness, dedication to spreading love, self-love, and helping the world become a better place by bringing all types of people with different backgrounds together,” said Marshall. “She has a message of acceptance and doesn’t tolerate hate or division.”
The portrait of RuPaul was intended to be a celebration of life during the pandemic. It’s also personal for Marshall, who survived breast cancer during the pandemic. I decided to add RuPaul because, much like Dolly, he’s spread a message of love and acceptance [that’s] broken down barriers for the LGBTQ+ community,” she said. “Both murals create a powerhouse and are in honor of love and acceptance.”
The portraits of the two entertainers are a stopover on the Mountain Mural art tour. Stearns hopes that the uber-popular murals of the two celebrities—and other more inconspicuous pieces of art—will elevate the artists and their work, but also deliver a better sense of the values of her West Asheville neighborhood.
“My hope is to share the work of these amazing muralists with visitors to Asheville and people who live here too,” said Stearns. “Their art has really made this community a better place to live.”