Lewis and Clark. Kerouac and Cassidy. Thelma and Louise. It takes two to make a travel adventure, so when Gabriel Shaffer of Red Truck Gallery hooked us both up with mural projects and a show in Asheville, I immediately offered to ride shotgun on the road trip from New Orleans to North Carolina. Being a Californian, I was as intrigued by the journey itself as I was by the final destination. Plus, Gabe is a funny guy, and I knew the drive would be a kick. Our trip was a sundry traverse of the Deep South as we jumped into a van full of art in the bustling French Quarter, drove across the bayou and wetlands of NOLA, through the fields and plantations of Mississippi and Alabama, climbing the rolling hills of Georgia to forested mountains of western North Carolina. We hit roadhouses, sampled some sticky BBQ, and made good time while managing to avoid the state police along the way.
Appalachia holds a stubbornly backwards reputation in our country’s history. As industry, urbanization, technology and globalism progressed for most of the country, the isolation of the Appalachians left much of its rural culture intact. It also left the region with high poverty rates, helping perpetuate its hillbilly image, a perception furthered in pop culture. The Li’l Abner comic strip, Beverly Hillbillies TV series, and iconic film Deliverance reduced rural mountain dwellers to out-of-touch hicks to be chuckled at, even feared.
But if hillbillies were derided in the last century, they are practically revered in the present. As ubiquitous restaurant and store chains standardize our palates, décor and fashion, we’ve become more culturally and materially homogenized, and the appeal of our deeply rooted traditions has re-emerged. We are again romanticizing the arts, crafts, skills, and traditions of our country folk. Think artisanal, hand-crafted, urban farming, farm-to-table, buy local, and so on. Today, hillbillies are hip. And so, perched in the center of Appalachia, Asheville is, not so surprisingly, urban and upscale, which explains why it evokes the sense of a boomtown. Peppered with artisan boutiques, galleries, cafes, and bars, and bustling with well-heeled tourists, it feels almost like a Colorado ski town, but without the snow. Instead, the attraction here is the timeless authenticity and quality of the local folk art scene.
In addition to proximity to centuries of Appalachian craftspeople, Asheville was also the home of the notoriousBlack Mountain College, alma mater of legendary names like Gropius, Albers, Rauschenberg, Twombly, and Motherwell. The town is stupid with arts and crafts cred.
Gabe and I did a Red Truck pop-up opening at the Horse and Hero Gallery, an unpretentious Asheville version of a hipster art gallery, which means an emphasis on both crafts and art. Owner Justin Rabuck has done a great job building a place that’s part store, part social hub, a place where tourists and collectors can mingle and converse with local artists like Andy Herod, Noah Prinson, Hannah Dansie, and Justin himself.
My first project was to create a mural for a downtown intersection wall outside the Forever Tattoo parlor. Inspired by the town’s clash of old and new, I painted a young Appalachian boy holding his rooster. His face could be interpreted to express surprise, and perhaps even fear of the modern city that he unwittingly helped to build.
My next project was for the founder of theEda Rhyne Distillery, Chris Bower, who commissioned me to paint artworks for their tasting room. It became one of the highlights of my art travels—painting inside the distillery and hanging out with the distillery crew, who were a fascinating bunch. Rhett is a farmer who grows and forages the ingredients for their hooch. Pierce is a carpenter who fashions the coolest recycled bar tops and walls. Andy is a helicopter mechanic who has become the head distiller. Chris owns two of the most popular bars in town and is an acclaimed sci-fi filmmaker. (Much of the distillery houses movie sets and props. You can’t make this shit up.) They patiently answered my questions, and generously shared samples, leading to a fondness for their Appalachian Fernet, strongly spirited and herbaceous. When I asked Chris what herbs he used, he said he’d have to kill me if he told me. He’s nearly seven-feet tall, and even with his easy smile and low-key demeanor, I didn’t ask again. Chris is descended from some notorious moonshiners, and is proudly continuing the legacy, albeit legalized. But trade secrets are still thick as blood in these parts.
Throughout my stay, I met more and more Ashevillians like the Eda folks; smart, creative, entrepreneurial, often eccentric. Asheville is a town that seems nearly devoid of chain stores, and even established brands. It has over 100 local beers, a dozen distilleries, and countless locally roasted coffees and cafes, all sharing the streets, shops, and storefronts with local yarn and fabric weavers, furniture crafters, woodworkers, metalsmiths, printmakers and glassblowers.
It was a really inspiring visit. I made some great new friends, learned some new tricks, ate and drank well, and developed a new appreciation for true folk craft. The hillbillies may be gone, but their legacy hangs around like the burn of strong hooch. Thanks to Justin, Ellis, Noah, Andy, Pierce, Monica, Chris, Rhett, Micah, and everyone who else showed us true southern hospitality. —Mike Shine
This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue.