There are few places that illustrate just how great an impact art can have on a community quite like the 1 square mile nestled along the old French Broad River in Asheville. Now known for its thriving community of creatives, the Asheville River Arts District was birthed out of an effort by a couple who invested in run-down industrial buildings that had been abandoned because of frequent flooding and, in one case, fire.
Revitalizing the vibrant Asheville River Arts District
Businessman Bill Goacher and his wife purchased several properties in the neighborhood and began renting space at affordable prices to artists who had been displaced from downtown. Over time, as artists proved themselves to be good stewards of a building and showed interest in ownership, the Goachers selectively sold them properties, setting an example that lives on today, according to Asheville River Arts District Artists.
A RAD Spot
It may be a happy coincidence that the district’s acronym spells out RAD. The neighborhood has truly undergone one of the most radical changes of any other neighborhood in this North Carolina mountain town. Transforming the district from an abandoned, ghostly eye sore to the global tourist destination it is today.
And the transformation continues. As part of an effort to reinvest in the arts community, the city has earmarked funds to make the Asheville River Arts District one of the most pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods in Asheville. As construction is underway to improve sidewalks, greenways, and roadways, the studios will remain open.
“We will continue to welcome you into our studios each day,” says Nadine Charlsen, president of the River Arts District Artists and award-winning watercolor artist. “Each artist and studio sets their own schedule, but you will find art happening in the RAD 365 days a year.”
The pop of colorful murals, the smells and sounds of hip eateries, breweries, and coffee shops will beg you to park your car, step out and enjoy. You could spend months or even years strolling through the district’s 25 buildings and discovering the work of more than 200 artists.
But if you only have a few days, here’s a guide—from the north end to the south—to get the most out of your visit.
Riverside Studios: Fine art by the river
The building where Riverside Studios is now housed appears on an 1891 map as a general store. After a big flood in 2004, sculptor Jim Richbourg restored the building at 196 Riverside Drive to serve as artist and sculpture studios.
Today, Riverside Studios provides six spacious working studios and a gallery showcasing the artists’ work. On the third Sunday of each month, the studios host an event called Documentary and Conversation About Art, an informal gathering to spark inspiration and meaningful discussion.
Cotton Mill Studios: Visual artists and musicians converge
The stunning brick building at 122 Riverside Drive has been a venue for makers since it was built in 1887. Originally, the Cotton Mill Corporation produced denim and flannel. In 1995, a fire burned down about two-thirds of the building.
The south wing and square smokestack are all that’s left, now known as The Asheville Cotton Mill Studios. The building houses eight studios as well as The Asheville Guitar Bar, an intimate music venue for musicians to play, network and compose.
The artists who call Cotton Mill Studios home describe their collective creativity as, “a collection of artists, makers, musicians and creatives, inspired by the mountains that surround us.”
Wedge Studios: A one-stop shop
The iconic space at 129 Roberts Street was built in 1916. It first served as the Farmer’s Federated Ag Co-op and, in 2002, was repurposed by legendary sculptor John Payne for artist studios.
Artists at the Wedge Studios say, “The WEDGE is the legacy of John Payne, sculptor, inventor, engineer. Although no longer with us in the flesh, John’s vision continues to inspire an entire generation of artists and visitors alike. John was always the first to help artists by giving them space to live and work, and by creating a community in which to flourish.”
Warehouse Studios: The original Asheville studio
This 1901 building at 170 Lyman Street first housed the Williams Feed Company. It is the first artist studio space in the district. Today, it’s a place where visitors can take in a range of visual artwork, including paintings, textiles and jewelry.
One of the artists who’s set up shop at Warehouse Studios is Pamela Winkler. Pamela is known for her original pastel paintings that capture the wear and the shine of metal or wooden objects.
She says her work starts with taking an up-close picture of an object, say a steel bridge or a railcar.
“I enjoy exploring the form and texture of both shiny new and aging objects. As these man-made items age and wear they reveal something of their past.”
Pink Dog Creative: Eclectic art meets fine art
The building at 342-348 Depot Street is one of the newer in the Asheville River Arts District. Originally the building housed a textile warehouse. The space now showcases artist studios, restaurants, and retail stores. Pink Dog Creative is its name. It is home to 21 artists working in their studios, Fresh West Wood Fired Pizza, Vivian Restaurant and RADical Elements.
The studios feature some of the most diverse range of artistic mediums, from paintings to ceramics, jewelry and stained glass.
Noël Yovovich rents one of the larger studio spaces at Pink Dog Creative. He creates jewelry and paintings using anodized titanium. For example, sterling silver, gold, copper and gems, often overlaying mediums and creating intricate scenes within her pieces.
She first titanium in her first year as a jewelry artist. Noël says, “A friend of mine was working with it and doing fairly typical things. She heat sit from one side to get gradient bright colors, for example. She showed me how to do it. Hence, I can never leave well enough alone, I started experimenting with it.”
She harnesses voltage to produce bright, vibrant color on titanium and niobium. In true Asheville fashion, Noël is generous with her demos on how this practical magic works; just ask.
Riverview Station: Come ready to learn
The Riverview Station is a red brick building. Built-in 1902 as a tannery and renovated in the 1990s. It is a River Arts District Asheville pioneer as among the first studios in the neighborhood. Artists, potters, an antique store, art galleries, and a dog training facility populate the district.
Today, its 60 tenants include painters, photographers, potters, sculptors, jewelers, metal workers, letterpress printers and clothing designers. Several of the station’s artists offer one-on-one or group classes. Anyone seeking to try their hand at a new medium or expand their skills.
Textile Classes in the Asheville River Arts District
Barbara Zaretsky, a textile artist and the director of Cloth Fiber Workshop, offers ongoing classes on textile art. Moreover, her classes cover dying cloth, screen printing, pattern design, quilting, and other topics.
“Firstly, textiles and their influence on our culture fascinate me. Secondly, color, movement, light, nature, architecture and design inspire me. Furthermore, I wish to create art for everyday use,” She says. “Functional textiles can enhance our lives in subtle yet powerful ways—from expressing who we are to communicating emotion.”
The River Arts District is just one neighborhood in Asheville brimming with art, but it’s certainly not the only one. In addition, the city is home to creativity in the form of music, food, film, performing arts, and nature. Visit Explore Asheville to start planning your trip.
Kaeley is a contemporary artist and cultural organizer who loves good espresso and a cold Coke Zero.