Blue Spiral 1 and its Artists
Asheville’s adjectives have changed a lot in recent years. From run-down to up-and-coming, stagnant to revitalized, we’ve received lexical boosts in most of our markets: our economy is “thriving,” our breweries “burgeoning,” our culinary scene “renowned.” But one adjective that’s remained a laudatory, unwavering constant? “Artistic.”
Perhaps it’s the rich history of Appalachian craft, or the inherent inspiration of the mountainous landscape. Or perhaps it’s the work of aficionados like John Cram and the artists with whom he’s long worked.
Some 30 years ago, when the majority of Asheville remained in the slump that had defined it since the Depression, Cram opened New Morning Gallery in Biltmore Village. After establishing the craft gallery, Cram turned his eye to a new medium—fine art—and a new neighborhood. In 1990, he opened Blue Spiral 1 in what was then one of the more derelict areas of Asheville: downtown.
After converting the former radio supply company into Blue Spiral 1, and the shows in the theater next door from skin flicks to more respectable artistic features, visitors began to visit the stretch of Biltmore once more. Cram’s still seen as largely responsible for revitalizing one of downtown’s most central blocks and, in effect, the area as a whole.
Almost 30 years later, Blue Spiral 1 continues to be a forerunner in Asheville’s prosperous art scene, offering three floors filled with a diverse spectrum of art, much of which hails from the nimble fingers of renowned, collectible artists like Julyan Davis and Mitchell Lonas.
“I think all artists are outsiders,” Davis proclaims in a British lilt. “It’s good to be slightly one step removed—you tend to see things that other people have got used to.”
Davis’ proclamation takes shape in his own paintings, many of which are astute observations of the South, both her people and her places. His landscapes—waterfalls both epic and delicate in their scope, revelatory mountainscapes—are sweet escapes for the eyes, but it’s his work threaded with figures and narratives that tell the story of the South, stories he’s privy to given the unique perspective of his European heritage.
“What I’ve done through my career is work toward a point where I’m able to pursue all the different subjects I’m interested in,” he says of his vast range of work. “So I have a wide range of subjects and ways of handling things, and I’ve methodically worked toward having that freedom. One of the great things about Blue Spiral and the other galleries I show with is that they allow me that, which is great. And quite rare.”
Though his landscapes are breathtaking, clear from Davis’ dynamic observations that it’s the narrative pieces also have his heart these days. “I’d always been interested in the history [of the South]. The Greenville Museum of Art had bought an interior of mine—this was about eight years ago—and they expressed an interest in the fact I was doing paintings based on these Appalachian ballads, so they showed those and that got the ball rolling. I’ve picked up other narratives since then,” he explains. “There’s lots of projects for me to paint for a years to come.”
Like a series he’s currently working on in conjunction with African-American poet Glenis Redmond that dives into a slave legend about mermaids in the Low Country. “I think the dark side of the South’s history actually keeps all these stories alive,” Davis notes. “The landscapes I do speak for themselves, but the narrative work is more evangelical, and to get the word out I do enjoy the process of introducing people to these tales.” With the careful stroke of his paintbrush, sometimes aided by vocal tread of his words, Davis depicts the overlooked stories of the South and reinvigorates those narratives for generations to come.
Artists often carry reputations for egoistic selfdom or preening conceit. Mitchell Lonas is not one such artist.
He speaks of his early talent with humility and humor, and points to his parents as proponents of and inspiration for his art. “My father and mother are both very creative,” he says. “My dad has been a woodworker since his teenage years. I always saw him being creative, and to me that’s what it was to be a man… I watched him work silently in his shop, and that was my goal, to have that some day.”
In addition to a creative eye, his parents also instilled in Lonas an unflappable work ethic, so his pursuance of art was—even from a young age—not trivial folly, but an intentional career. While on break from the University of Tennessee, Lonas began painting portraits. “That really took off,” he remembers. “Within a few months, I had enough work to last a couple years.” Through his 20s and early 30s, he remained a successful portrait artist.
Many creatives fantasize of a career in the arts, but for those lucky enough to monetize their talents, the reward is often lethargy, their art compromised by commission. Weighted with the tedium of portraiture, Lonas began to experiment within the medium, painting on wooden panels to recreate the look of linen and carving into them to suggest depth. And then, 12 years ago, he found inspiration in a new medium entirely.
“I had carried around some aluminum and different metals from each studio, I don’t even know why,” he recalls. “I ended up throwing them up on a board on the easel one day, and I immediately saw the light come through the metal, and I was like, ‘I haven’t seen this.’ Immediately, I knew something was there.”
Lonas traded his brush for the elegant glint of metal, and his usual subject, people, for studies more organic. “My mom had given me these series of nests that she had found that were made entirely out of horse hair. I had tried to draw those, paint them, I put them on lucite cubes just as artwork on the table. So that was some of my first subject matter. I could never draw it, but carving it worked, and it read as the mane and tail pieces.” Nests, tangled and lustrous, remain a constant theme in his work today.
Lonas continues to examine nature through his metalwork, like in his current forest studies. “They’re a simple concept, but what I’m trying to convey in that is to be in nature, and to be alone in nature, it’s sort of eerie but it feels safe too. There’s something wonderful about it,” he pauses, trying to put into words these intangible ideas that speak so clearly through the subtle glint of his work. “When you start to notice things is when your senses are heightened in those places.” For us, it’s not the place he depicts but the depiction itself that heightens our senses. bringing into shining focus the most intricate of nature’s beauties.