One thing we can argue about nearly as much as politics is the arts. You enjoy a nice country ballad; I love a nice bit of Bach on the harpsichord. You like that singer with the nasal whiny voice; I like the painter that throws splotches all over the canvas. I look forward to curling up with a nice meaty Henry James novel; you would like to get through more than two paragraphs on your lunch hour. We don’t always feel the same way about the same artists. But we can probably agree on one thing.
Life would be pretty bleak without the arts.
North Carolina artist Kathryn Abernathy
This theme kept popping up in North Carolina last week as we drove through the windy Appalachian hills. Our friends live near Blowing Rock which was the definition of Quaint. Small towns in America work hard at developing that proper Quaintness – enough shops to wander in and out of, a nice park or two, a restaurant with good fried pickles, and the best place to get ice cream. Along with the good ice cream and the old-fashioned barrels of candy, the coolers with Cheerwine and SunDrop, there was a lot of local art that was pretty darn good.
Banjo Music on Cassette
Some of it was – as another friend put it – mostly crafty, but it was less crafty and more arty than I expected. The mountains inspire, no doubt about that. We stopped at the Parkway Craft Center which did have the aforementioned crafts, but also some evocative watercolors and wistful banjo music, on sale near the register – get this — on cassette tapes.
For the younger of you, there were these things called cassette tape recorders before Walkmen before CD players before iPods before smartphones before… oh, never mind. A lot of phenomenal musicians started that way, the acoustic guy or the duo on a cassette tape like Jake Shimabakuro or the Indigo Girls.
We drove on to Asheville, the big town in the western part of the mountains. Asheville is Quaint on Steroids.
Art Makes You Happy
Asheville is famous for the Biltmore, the mansion that robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt stuck in the middle of these hills, pretending it was an American castle. I’d wanted to visit for years, but, frankly, I balked at the $65 price for entry (didn’t even include a tour). I’ve seen Hearst Castle out here in California and the mansions at Newport, Rhode Island. Suddenly, it didn’t seem that urgent to spend $65 to view Cornelius’ hired expert’s choice in paintings that we wouldn’t even be allowed to photograph. Better to spend the time walking and in and out of galleries looking at local artists’ paintings. I was really happy with the choice.
Maybe it was because I had just spent time the week before at the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Mind you, I was raised on modern art. I like a good Picasso. Our house is full of Georgia O’Keeffe prints. But I also feel like art in the big bucks museums hasn’t improved much in a hundred years. The new museum had been expanded to be twice its previous size, and I appreciated that there was a lot to see — maybe eight different unique exhibits? But even after a room chock full of Calder mobiles and some lovely abstracts, wild with color, I still felt like I hadn’t seen anything inspiring. A lot of it seemed like art that was intended to be bought by rich people.
(For example, one painting was of a nude in a chair hung upside down, or painted upside down, hard to tell. The card explained that Donald Fisher, who founded The Gap stores, had bought it for big dollars at first viewing. I could not help but suspect he didn’t like it as much he thought it would appreciate in value. But what do I know about art?)
What I do know is that Asheville was full of art. Some venues were stores more than galleries; some called galleries but really just small stores. And, yes, some of it was cutesy hand painted trivets – but plenty of it showed imagination, interesting perspective, or breathtaking views. I really liked the impressionistic style of Kathryn Abernathy (the painting above is called “Whisper.”) Even the quilts were darn sophisticated. So although the town was touristy and had as many cell phone stores as candle-makers, the artists were thriving in this community.
They Drove For Hours
Meanwhile, back at the bookstores…by the way, if you’re lucky, your town still has one. The reason we went to Asheville in the first place is because my spouse had a writer’s gig at the Malaprops bookstore. This was a Very Happening bookstore as bookstores used to be and can be. It had an excellent fantasy/sci-fi section, which is always the way I judge. (Do they have an unusual book that is a favorite of mine? Check! Then, they are an excellent store.) The bookstore was full of browsers on a Saturday which was great to see, because small businesses like Malaprops have been hit hard by the boycott over HB2 in North Carolina.
I haven’t been to a reading for a while, not much since the early days when the bookstore reading consisted of four people – the author, the author’s spouse (me), the bookstore owner, and one fan. Thank you, one fan, who stayed the whole time! There is nothing braver than an author sitting at a table in the bookstore with their little stack of books and no one talking to them. If you ever see that when you go to a bookstore – if you are lucky enough to still have a bookstore – please go up to the author. Just say hi. Say anything! They’d like you to buy the book, but they’d like to just have someone at the table.
This crowd – who came to see the internationally acclaimed authors Karin Kallmaker and K.G. MacGregor – was a good couple dozen people. The store owner was gracious, glad for the group that showed up, and grateful that they bought some books. What was also striking was that the readers were so respectful and frankly quite touching. One of them missed a Tennessee football game for the first time in eleven years just to travel to this Event (the one time Tennessee beat Miami, too, which was apparently a big deal). Several others drove for three, four, or eight hours to North Carolina from Georgia or Tennessee.
At another event in Raleigh the next day at the LGBT Center, with a few more authors and a few more readers, the vibe was similar. One person pulled a couple stacks of books out of a big gym bag to be signed. The spines were faded compared to the covers, so they had been owned for quite a few years. Neither artist nor fan, I enjoyed observing the bond between the two.
These artists-writers-musicians who labor for hours in their little studio, office, or kitchen table just to produce this cassette tape, this stack for a bookstore reading, or that calendar for a local gallery don’t get paid diddley-squat. The appreciation they get does mean a lot. Plus, please try to pay full price whenever you can afford it! The small businesses that bring these artists in themselves always operate on a shoestring. And if they all disappear, we’re going to be left paying $65 for the privilege to see a few 19th century portraits and not much else.
On the plane back to California, the lady in the middle seat next to me was flying for the first time. She chatted nervously and was relieved when Window Seat engaged her in conversation. They discovered they both sang in church choirs and her face lit up. She put it well, I live for music. Something about it keeps me calm and gets me through the tough times.
Then, when I was driving home yesterday, I noticed that a woman was painting flowers on the ugly electric junction boxes that sit at the top of the intersection to our neighborhood. The local artist said she was paid by the county, and I thought, I am thrilled that somebody in the county understood that this is a good use of our tax dollars. It’s not Georgia O’Keeffe, but it’s a damn sight better than a green rectangular box. I know it will make me happy to drive by every day.
I’m getting happier just sitting here thinking about it.