Aspects of Asheville

Tracey Teo

The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, is more of an art- and antiques-filled fairy-tale castle than country home, giving new meaning to the “house museum” concept. This sprawling, 250-room French Renaissance chateau built in the pastoral Blue Ridge Mountains in 1895 would be a standout attraction even if it were empty, but owner George W. Vanderbilt, heir to the massive Vanderbilt fortune, compiled a treasure trove of souvenirs from his travels abroad.  

The 35-bedroom mansion with its indoor pool, bowling alley, and cavernous Banquet Hall, is so vast and grand, it’s hard to take it all in during a single tour. As you are admiring architectural details and fine furnishings in the Breakfast Room, you might just miss those impressionist masterpieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir – “Child with an Orange” and “Young Algerian Girl,” or while you are contemplating Vanderbilt’s collection of 22,000 volumes in the two-story library, you could fail to look up at Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini’s 18th-century ceiling painting, “Chariot of Aurora,” that once graced a Venetian palace. (The painting is on a series of canvases that were reinstalled at Biltmore.) To prevent such mishaps, rent the audio guide. 

Art enthusiasts often linger in the Tapestry Gallery, perusing 16th-century Flemish tapestries and life-size portraits by John Singer Sargent. Two depict the men that helped Vanderbilt realize his vision of a palatial country estate, architect Richard Morris Hunt and pioneering landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted. 

“I like to think about the significance of these two great designers, forefathers of American architecture and American landscape architecture, being painted by arguably one of the best painters of the time,” said Curator of Interpretation Leslie Klingner. “I love to think of that happening here at Biltmore, a meeting of great artists and minds. And our guests see the works as they were meant to be seen, in a residence rather than a museum gallery.” 

Impressive as the Biltmore collection is, it’s important to note the Asheville arts scene expands far beyond the boundaries of this opulent estate. When you exit this Gilded Age world, you’ll get caught up in the vibe of a progressive, forward-thinking city, a Southern hub of creativity that abounds with museums, galleries and studios.  

Ashville Art Museum 

Those familiar with the Asheville Art Museum before it underwent an extensive $24 million renovation and expansion are often struck by the contrast between the old, dark facility and the new, light-flooded Windgate Foundation Atrium.  

The bright, inviting entryway is ideal for showcasing large-scale artworks, such as Wesley Clark’s “My Big Black America.” Shaped like a map of the United States, the 2015 wood sculpture is a tribute to generations of African-Americans whose labor helped build the infrastructure and fuel the economy of the world’s wealthiest nation.  

A big advantage of the fresh, 54,000-square-foot-facility is space to showcase more of the museum’s permanent holdings. 

American Art from the 20th and 21st centuries unfolds on three levels, with an emphasis on artists from Black Mountain College. The avant-garde institution in the town of Black Mountain operated on the outskirts of Asheville from 1933-57, producing titans of modern American art. 

“Intersections in American Art,” a reinstallation and reinterpretation of the museum’s collection, is revealed in 10 galleries in the SECU Collection Hall. 

 Joseph Fiore’s 1953 “Green Landscape” is an example of how Black Mountain artists were often inspired by the striking natural beauty of their surroundings. The abstract oil-on-canvas painting is shown next to an earlier, more traditional landscape by another artist to encourage viewers to interpret art through time and place, one of the themes explored in the exhibit. 

Also noteworthy is Ruth Asawa’s untitled iron wire sculpture, thoughtfully lighted so that its countless loops cast fanciful shadows around the gallery. Asawa attended Black Mountain in the ‘40s.  

When it’s time for a break, grab a pimento cheese sandwich at the Perspective Café adjacent to the rooftop terrace for a bird’s-eye view of the busy urban landscape and the untamed mountain range beyond. 

River Arts District 

For art you can take home, check out the galleries in the River Arts District. More than 200 artists work in a cluster of renovated industrial buildings along the French Broad River, and many welcome visitors to their studios. 

If you’re lucky, you might catch Japanese potter Akira Satake at work at his wood-fired kiln at Akira Satake Ceramics/Gallery Mugen. He’s usually open to a chat about current projects. 

“My work is a collaboration of clay, me and fire,” Satake said. “It’s always serendipity; I never know how it will come out from the kiln.”  

But there’s a lot of skill behind that so-called serendipity, resulting in sculptures that seem to have a sense of movement from the natural world, like a river flowing or the wind blowing across the mountains. 

Satake creates both functional and decorative pieces, so if that sculpture you are longing for isn’t in the budget, you can at least go home with a super cool coffee mug. and  

Don’t miss Jonas Gerard Fine Art. Like Satake, the abstract expressionist painter has an element of surprise in his works. He’s a risk taker, always experimenting with a variety of methods. He paints to music, letting the rhythm guide his paintbrush in broad strokes across the raw canvas. The result is large, vibrant works that dance with joyful colors.  

To see works that reflect a much different painting style, visit Mark Harmon and Tebbe Davis Art Studio. Well-traveled painter Mark Harmon describes his canvases as a “window to the world.” Whether he’s painting a cathedral in Barcelona or a street scene in Havana, his work evokes an authentic sense of place. By combining traditional and contemporary techniques, he captures light in a way that makes viewers practically feel the sun on their skin. 

For wearable art, buy an eye-catching piece from jewelry maker Nora Julia at Ignite Jewelry Studios. Intricate pieces created from tarnish-resistant sterling silver filigree and fused glass enamel are souvenirs that easily fit in your suitcase. To learn to make your own jewelry, enroll in her workshop. 

Wherever your Asheville arts odyssey takes you, you’re sure to return home with a deeper appreciation for creative spirits past and present that help define this ever-evolving city. 

Around the State 

Tryon International Equestrian Center, Mill Spring – You don’t have to be part of the horsey set to be wowed by this facility that accommodates practically any equestrian sport. Catch a game of Gladiator Polo, a variant of arena polo that’s an action-packed, lightning-fast frenzy of hooves and mallets. 

Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kill Devil Hills – Stand on the site where Wilbur and Orville’s revolutionary flying machine was launched in 1903, and see a replica of the aircraft at the visitors center.  

Museum of Coastal Carolina and Ingram Planetarium, Ocean Isle Beach – Learn all about the local sea life through interactive exhibits. A dazzling laser light and music show at the planetarium is a kid favorite. 

Jockey’s Ridge State Park, Nags Head – One of the best ways to see the park’s sweeping sand dunes is from a hang glider. Rentals are available near the visitors center. 

Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail – Anglers are “hooked” on this 4,600-mile trail that connects some of the state’s best trout streams. At least 15 waterways teem with a variety of the tasty fish, with the Tuckasegee River being among the most popular. 

Tracey Teo is a writer living in Evansville, Indiana.