In Asheville, North Carolina, weird comes standard. A city of about 90,000 residents, Asheville is quickly being recognized for its booming art scene. With a hopping beer culture, strong musical bookings from clubs like The Orange Peel, and nearby festivals like Gratifly, Moogfest, and LEAF, it’s a place you’re bound to hear a lot more about in the coming years.
On Saturday, December 14th, Asheville asserted its arts-focused reputation when it played host to the final stop of a trinity of shows entitled the Visionary Art Fair. With a completely new model of artist-centric billing and placement, the Visionary Art Fair presents a unique new model, elevating the role of the artist into prominent locations in both physical space and marketing style.
Featuring headlining artists Alex and Allyson Grey, the third annual gathering brought out a standing room-only crowd to the Metropolis space in downtown Asheville. Consisting of three different clubs, the complex featured a wide variety of entertainment and wall-to-wall visually stimulating fine art. Though the event suffered from some logistical speed bumps, the density of creative energy on display was astonishing. Pre-event buzz from the Greys, Desert Dwellers, Keith Prossick, and A Ghost Like Me helped fuel interest and ticket sales.
Area 51 Presents, an Atlanta-based Burning Man Sound Camp-turned laser-lighting/video mapping/event promoter oversaw the event over its three-day run through Athens, Atlanta, and Asheville. Promoter David Morris and Creative Director Sugar Kayne certainly felt the build-up of pressure from a southern scene nearly bursting at the seams. With a sold-out, standing room-only crowd packed into a multi-level venue, the Area 51 team scrambled to make room for tons of live artists, 3 stages of music, vendors of every variety and a crowd of at least 700 patrons.
On the morning of the event, the Area 51 crew experienced a day rife with symbolism, transcending cliché and metaphor, as his crew bus blew a gasket right before leaving Atlanta on the way to Asheville.
These sorts of growing pains are typical for events and promoters still putting together their administrative teams. Area 51 is still new to the industry, having only produced a handful of shows, none of which have sold out before. Time will tell what lessons were learned, but for their part, Area 51 Presents has been vocally apologetic and responsive to concerns expressed by phone and on Facebook.
A stretching queue at the entrance provided this author ample opportunity to schmooze with eclectic locals and out-of-towners from at least ten different states.
Outside new friendships were being kindled, young artists were selling art, and a busker was singing old Jerry Garcia Band songs. Guests danced, sang, smoked, and admired the variety of fairy/goddess/Jedi couture in the crowd.
A Burner-Esque Craft Bazaar
Once inside the door, we entered Club Hairspray, normally a GLBT-focused club transformed into a high-quality Burner-esque craft bazaar. Featuring leatherwork, hand-blown glass, fired mugs and bowls of clay as well as clothiers aplenty, the event sought vendors with an extremely high degree of artisanship. With a storied history of folk craft in the neighboring Blue Ridge Mountains, it was great to see a strong focus on hand-crafted, locally-owned crafters like Solar Stone Studio, Intergalactic Hobo, and UberKio.
Hairspray featured a DJ booth and had plenty of space to move around, even as the lower rooms increased in density. Sets by Citron, DJ Gon, SnellVillain, and Ninja Flash kept the upstairs crowd entertained and intrigued with everything from trap to trip hop, while guests perused leather festival belts and holsters, pipes, hula-hoops and fairy wings.
Connecting Entheogenic Art Through the Ages
Most of the crowd had made it inside the Metrosphere space by 10PM, when Alex and Allyson took the stage for their presentation on Entheogenic Art. With everyone packed in to linger on the luminary duo’s every word, Alex suggested everyone take a seat. As the costumed masses cuddled up, the Greys launched into an impressive history of cross-cultural art. Illuminating similarities across a wide spectrum of spiritual visionaries, shamanic ceremonies and modern festival culture, Mr. and Mrs. Grey are a powerful force amongst artists who are often unable to elucidate the space between visionary imagination and actual artistic execution. Though the lecture was reflective of previous knowledge systems and shamanic traditions, it was not mired in nostalgia.
The Grey’s are more than just great artists; they are figurehead communicators of a rapidly expanding movement. Mr. Grey is most successful when interweaving the visionary experiences of fine artists like those gathered at the event with the supposed lost cultures of our past. With a firm stance on the positive effects of hallucinogenic experiences, Grey envisions a future deeply connected to the spiritual expression of art.
In the last portion of the presentation, Alex and Allyson excitedly discussed ongoing developments at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, a temple-building project centered on property in New York State. New doors, years in the making, arrived on-site while on this stretch of shows. I know the community is excited to see CoSM come to life after its movement’s artist laureate has dedicated so much energy into its creation.
After the lecture Alex and Allyson set up their canvases on stage right of the main stage. Seeing such iconic artistry at work in a live setting was a thrill. With the hundreds of visionary artists I’ve seen create incredible work at festivals, it was still incredibly special to see these masters at work. Alex Grey’s iconic style is both jarring and deeply stimulating. The piece he worked on at the event featured a blend of faces that will adorn the outer walls of CoSM with a mushroom-shaped head reminiscent of ancient Mayan designs he had presented earlier in the night.
Let the Dance Party Begin
With the keynote out of the way, the night kicked into gear, even as the temperature dropped and the wind picked up outside the club. There was no shortage of space to explore. Three different rooms provided music and art, along with booths, body painting, kombucha, and liquors.
Metrosphere’s stage set-up was perfect for the event. With an intricately mappable surface, visual artists and stage designers went to town with multimedia visualizations and video. David Morris of Area 51 Presents described the vibe of Metrosphere as “Temple step, a spiritual style of organic dubstep. That’s what Alex likes to paint to, a lot of the West Coast vibes to it”.
Desert Dwellers certainly fits that description. Treavor Moontribe’s background in psytrance and full moon gatherings, coupled with Amani Friend’s otherworldly mystique provided a perfect backdrop to artists’ paintbrushes moving gracefully across shades of psychedelic inspiration. Halfway through Desert Dwellers’ set, the fire alarm went off and the packed crowd wondered silently whether they should make their way out into the cold or just patiently wait out the annoyance. As the noise faded back into the pulsing rhythm on-stage, a sigh of relief could be felt as everyone felt the weight of worrying meld into dance moves and sensory excitement.
GalaxC Girl arrived with bespoke video assets, including Alex Grey clips, mixed intricately with chunky bass lines. Sugar Kayne adorned the stage with floating vocals and intricate costumes. In a style slightly more frenetic than Pretty Lights, the duo known as Chronicles of the Landsquid played a blisteringly high energy set, somehow managing to lose their t-shirts while aerialists climbed up silks scattered from the ceiling. Clan Destiny Circus, an Asheville-based aerial and performance troupe oversaw jaw-dropping interventions of floating dance, with the hardware floating from rafters in the middle of the dance floor.
Tucked into the corners of Metrosphere, artists like Andy Reed, Emily Kell, and Christian Jaxtheimer splashed everything from acrylics to watercolor, pen to chalk, as images from other dimensions came to life in front of captivated partygoers. Reed, who also DJ’s under the moniker Infinite Geometry, was deep into firey reds and oranges, while next to him, Ms. Kell worked in shades of purple to create a woman decorated in eyeballs turning a third eye vision into tangible shapes. Christian Jaxtheimer swiped away on a female portrait as well, adorned with a black mask and comprised of thick square geometry. Jaxtheimer’s work builds from a synthetic base — wood, stardust, stucco — and introduces you to a character with a façade belying simplicity. They’re the sort of gods and goddesses you meet in some magical moment, a dream guide or tattooed enigma from another dimension.
Near the door Dela Cruz was hard at work on my favorite work of the night. Am I impartial due to my wolf blood? Perhaps. But the deep, swirling night sky set against a mountain range silhouette of howling wolves was astonishingly simple, a poignant idea executed in lucid precision.
Outside artists huddled around their art, happy for the exposure though chilly from the elements. One particularly entrancing piece was a collaborative, digitally mapped Rorschach with interactive visuals in the white space which was created by the newly formed collective Activated Art, Nicholas Daily and Bryan Bailey who designed the canvas on-site, while Dustin Klein (Videometry) executed the mapping and visuals, running a host of software to simulate groovy, intricate mandalas. Eventually the projector had to come down as wind turned to icy rain and flurries of snow, and the Rorschach was left without the final coats of texture the artists had hoped to create.
A Surreal, Alien Dance Party
Across the hall in Club Remix, another scene was unfolding with a stronger focus on live psychedelia. Set up like an other-dimensional living room, artists had a little bit of extra room to spread their wings, dance with their brushes and create art that exploded off their canvases. Guests could sit on couches, and many sat on the floor, giving their feet a much-needed respite from hours of standing in line and dancing.
Brave volunteers had their bodies painted with trippy, twisting designs that glowed vividly under the black lights. Bare-chested models, both men and women, appeared as strange lava lamps illuminating a surreal, alien birthday party. One can only hope that they found enough warmth throughout the night!
Atlanta-based Keith Prossick, a highly recognized artist and student of Alex Grey, had a large collection of work to show and sell. Though he was nestled into a back corner of the club, discovering his table was a treat for the adventurous patron. Prossick was hard at work on a trance-like mandala with a peaceful Vishnu-esque figure dancing at the center. The scale of the canvas was impressive in and of itself (4’x4’), while the colors were earthen and vibrant.
Rob Seven wore a set of gloves with paintbrushes at the end of each finger which enabled her to reach another level of finger painting. Next to him, Ashton Hill painted over a plaster-casted face and hand escaping out of the two-dimensional canvas plane, reaching out as if her subject wanted to explore the surrounding scene.
Asheville-based band A Ghost Like Me performed a strong set, one of many shows the group played in the month of December. Their infectious energy, laden with synesthetic grooves and silky horns, is sure to garner national attention in upcoming seasons. With too many instruments and pedals to count, their set was perfectly tuned to either dance or bob your head at. Guest vocalist Chelsey Grey shared the stage with great presence and energy.
Medisin, another Asheville-based act, helped transition the room from live grooves into darker, glitchier synth lines. With lo-fi samples, crunchy bass, and quick tempo changes, Medisin seemed to always be on the edge of falling into a liquid DnB hodgepodge. Yet, somehow, his control over the production kept building momentum without settling into a conventional groove.
Also on stage at Remix was Quetzatl, adorned in a white, mystic robe designed by his wife, GalaxC Girl. Providing a full-frontal aural assault, the set was a late-night wake-up call, certainly more effective than a cup of coffee.
What’s Next for the Visionary Art Fair?
The scene in Asheville, awash in great beer and coffee, art and music, is clearly pulsing and ready for more exposure. The night was a showcase in an excess of demand, despite coinciding with the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam. “To be honest… We were like, well, if we get 500 people we’ll be happy”, said Area 51’s Morris, who was amazed at the turnout in spite of the cross-town event which featured heavyweights like Government Mule, Michael Franti, and Gregg Allman.
“During times of adversity is where we see the cracks in people’s character”, said Morris, who envisions the event evolving into a larger outdoor space at a more hospitable time of the year. “Putting a fence around the outside of the parking lot and doing it in the spring would be pretty cool.”