Asheville is to a travel writer how free paint is to an artist.
“I can’t believe this place exists,” Chelsea kept marveling the first week we arrived in Asheville.
It’s certainly a quirky, delightful city—though, coming from Los Angeles and Singapore, I wouldn’t describe it as a “city” myself. Chelsea finds Asheville fascinating because it’s a juxtaposition of rural hills and metropolitan communities. I find it fascinating because Asheville sprouts such a mix of unlikely characters.
I was sitting at an “Asian” restaurant once in downtown Asheville. Behind me sat a gay couple, who sat next to a cape-wearing cultish group, who sat next to a WASP family, who sat next to a couple of hippies with unwashed hair and hemp skirts, who sat next to a small group of punks in leather boots and tattoos. What the what?!
But no matter who they are or what they’re dressed like, I felt like every single person in Asheville is so…nice. God, they’re so startlingly pleasant! I’m not used to such friendliness! These people don’t just smile at you when they pass you. They actually lift up their hand to wave and speak to you! Even though we’re total strangers! “I feel like even their dogs are smiling at me!” I exclaimed to Chelsea. And it’s true! Even the dogs are incredibly well-mannered, though they still have that nasty habit of sniffing people’s crotches.
Another thing that blew my mind: there is NO traffic in Asheville. Is this heaven? I suddenly loved driving. I loved driving so much I sometimes just hopped into the Olaskys’ Ford and drove round and round the mountains just for the fun of it. It’s such a delight to drive in Asheville, because the roads wind narrow and steep, so if you go at just the right speed over the speed limit and just verrrrry gently lift your foot off the brakes, you feel like you’re on an Amusement Park ride.
And again, the drivers are SO freaking nice! I have not heard a single honk while driving in Asheville. People drive nice and steady at a reasonable pace. They don’t cut into your line. They don’t scream F’s and B’s if you cut them off. When it rains, everybody slows down so they don’t splash the pedestrians. If you stop in the middle of the road (and I’ve done this), they stop too– and wait! They just wait for you to start again! I was flabbergasted!
That’s one thing I missed while living in Los Angeles. Now I love L.A. (forever and ever, muah!), but there’s not much to be said about the civility on Angeleno streets. I have to actively try to make direct eye contact with fellow pedestrians, and I get this immense satisfaction from eliciting just a tiny smile from them. And the drivers? Don’t get me started.
So yes. The greatest, most distinctive thing about Asheville is the community. Other than the fact that I have to drive across the mountain to get to the nearest Starbucks, the community was the hardest thing for me to get used to.
Consider, for example, this fabulous tradition they have called drum circle.
It’s an informal gathering that takes place every Friday evening. People of all ages and size and sexes sit next to each other in a semi-circle.
They bring their African and Native American drum, and they start slapping and hammering away. The music is entirely free-form but everybody contributes to a collective rhythm. They start forming a singular voice, an echoing beat, a united song.
Oh my God. It’s not just beautiful, it infuses you. You stand there, with these beats and rhythms pulsating in your head, your ears, your fingers, your toes. It’s like back in the ancient times when a village would finish off a feast with this free-style entertainment built by simple tools and love for communion.
At times, the drumming will speed up and get louder, and then it’ll slow down as one person starts getting tired and everybody else accommodates to that slowing beat. I stood behind these drummers and I could feel the whoosh of compressing and expanding air as each drummer pounded on their instrument, their expressions serious and intent, their ears perked for any signs of changing rhythm.
And then out in the middle of the park is where the true party revels.
Look at that. Swarms of people young and old meshed up into an outdoor disco. They are circled around an empty space for any brave soul to break through the circle and dance. When someone does that, everyone screams and cheers and claps, even if the dancer just shakes loose for a few minutes. They take such joy in celebrating a stranger’s courage to dance in public, especially if he had his kid sitting on his shoulders.
I was seized with delight and wonder as I nodded along, mesmerized by the sea of writhing, stomping, swirling bodies in front of me. How wonderful and exciting it must feel, to be completely in love with the movement of your limbs! I really wanted to join in, but I didn’t have enough chutzpah without a buddy to join me, and I knew Chelsea would balk at the idea of dancing in public. Now I regret not swallowing my timidity, but it was really as much fun just watching.
Chelsea and I spent about an hour each Friday evening just observing the people there. We watched the drummers pounding, clacking, clapping, clanging, smacking, hammering, whacking, thumping, pummeling as though lost in a trance.
And then we stared at the dancers swaying, shaking, stomping, capering, careening, cavorting, frolicking, hopping, tangoing, boogie-ing, bopping, bouncing, leaping, also lost in trance.
Then I turned and looked at all the other observers, who all had smiles on their faces. Some clapped along. Some whistled. Some just nodded along with their eyes closed, a serene expression on their faces.
So this is what a local community feels like. So this is what it smells like— warm sweat mingled with musty puffs from ancient drums, seeped with aromas of cooked foods from nearby restaurants. How quaint. How glorious!
If you’re an artist or musician or hipster, you’ll love Asheville. The drum circle isn’t the only music playing in the streets. Stroll around downtown, and you’ll pass singers and instrument players in every corner.
Take this guy playing this hammer dulcimer, for example.
You can’t ever make eye contact with him when he’s playing, because this guy is utterly lost in his own music. He’s just hammering away, eyes zoned into the intricate strings, his entire arm clenched with concentration.
Beside him stood his partner, who strung the cello in tune with his melody. Their compositions are original, and they’re regular performers at the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar every Thursday.
Not only is Asheville alive with music, it’s also alive with tangible colors. You have to visit their River Arts District, a vibrant neighborhood along the French Broad River that hedges rows of working art studios built into 18th century industrial buildings.
It’s unreal! It’s like a strange, twisted utopia for artists. We came across some kooky buildings, and some of them are actually residential houses. Check out this amazing gate:
It’s made of scrape pieces of metal and tools. There’s something sinister yet beautiful about it.
Chelsea and I visited River Arts for a primary purpose: visit Carol Bromer, an artist friend of Susan’s. It took us a while to find her gallery because there were so many galleries.
Carol is this sweet, somewhat scatterbrained but genius self-taught Christian artist. Her art has grown and prospered over the years as her theology deepened, too.
I don’t usually “get” modern art—so it was enlightening to have Carol explain each of her paintings to us.
Although all her paintings have Christian themes, a lot of her customers are non-Christians who just fall in love with something about her art. Art is such a subjective thing—there isn’t a right or wrong about doing art, but there’s just…something.
What is it about art that makes art art? I still have no idea. It might be the passion and the intent of the artist? The interpretation made by the viewer?
We spent about a couple hours with Carol, who was extremely friendly and engaging. She was just such a pleasure to chat with, and over iced coffee and a giant oatmeal cookie, we talked about everything from matchmaking to future dream jobs.
As you can see, you can’t live in Asheville without wanting to…create something. It’s been so, so, so long since I last drew something that wasn’t an animated poop in my notebook during class. Chelsea is an enthusiastic painter, so she brought all her paints along with her. And she painted me!
Hello. She painted me while I was interviewing someone on Skype.
Now, I’m a terrible painter, so I had brought my colored pencils with me just in case. And honestly I wasn’t really planning to use them, but being surrounded by artists just tingled the inner artist in me. Suddenly I was dying to pick up a pencil and start drawing.
So I did. That’s Woody Allen, if you can’t tell. Man, it felt good to draw again.
And then Susan had another brilliant idea. She gave us plain white dishes and a bunch of markers and told us to scribble whatever we wanted on them. Apparently, if you doodle on ceramic dishes with markers and then bake it for half an hour at 350 degrees, the colors will not wash off! So long as you don’t throw the dishes into the dish washer, your art will be permanent.
So Chelsea and I drew on a whole bunch of plates and dishes. And then we drew each other. Here’s Chelsea with her drawing of me:
And me with my drawing of Chelsea:
Do we look like each other’s drawings? Haha. We drew each other so the Olaskys will have to stare into our faces every time they get a snack. That’s our evil plan.
I have a dream. I wish I can create some sort of a drum circle here in Los Angeles, too. Except instead of drums, there’ll be a boom box and people will have rap in harmony, and everyone will dance hip-hop.
Question of the Day: Does your neighborhood have something like a drum circle?