Thursday, July 3, 2008

Zen Walk

View Larger Map
Last Friday, June 27, Zen Sutherland, a photographer, computer wizard, and Asheville observer took me on a stroll through a part of downtown to point out some of its unnoticed public art.

I got to know Zen six years ago when he was managing the Asheville Botanical Gardens, which were on my walk to campus. He'd be out early among the plants, smoking a cigar, making sure everything was green, taking in the morning. Then I stopped passing through the gardens (we got a dog and when I was walking, I walked with the dog, and for good reasons dogs aren't welcome at the ABG), and he moved on and I rarely saw him.

Then, when I started Implaced in May I thought of Zen, his interest in the various sides of Asheville, art, plants, trees, and people here. I looked him up. We spoke on the phone and he agreed to give me a tour of one of his favorite places. We met beneath the I-240 bridge over Lexington Avenue, where Molly Must and her crew are painting murals of Asheville saints.

The walk took us south along Lexington to Hiawassee, then left up the hill toward Broadway, but before we got there, we turned right into a tiny alley, which some words scratched into a bit of concrete at the corner identified as "Chicken Alley."

Zen’s originally from Washington, DC. He came to Asheville via Florida. He said that as soon as he arrived in Asheville he felt right at home.

What makes Asheville feel like home?: Zen said it was the mix of creative people of many persuasions, the loose affiliation among them, linking folks across their differences. He said it was also Asheville’s proximity to outdoor things: forests and fields. That’s the botanical side of him. Then he said that there’s a spirit of tolerance here, that even though there are judgmental people, compared to other places he’s lived, people here are generally pretty live-and-let-live. He said he tries hard not to judge others, that judgment comes from a limited point of view, and who’s to say which limited view is the right one, if any?

He took me to Chicken Alley because of the art there, the graffiti. He has clearly spent time getting to know graffiti artists. He mentioned that they speak of different areas of town as “galleries.” He mentioned the “track-side gallery” off Riverside Drive, and the “Chicken Alley gallery.”

The front doors along Chicken Alley are the backdoors of buildings facing Lexington and Carolina Lane. The buildings are low and brick and speak of an Asheville largely gone now. Zen said that Chicken Alley got its name because it was a place where people killed and processed chickens. Now its doorways open into artists's studios and living spaces.

Chicken Alley forms an L and we made the left turn to Carolina Lane, which is just a bigger alley with its own graffiti. A thunderstorm rolled through and dumped a bunch of water, so we took shelter under the roofed loading area of a Broadway store. This worked until the gutter above overflowed and spilled itself all over where we were standing. We moved a few yards away along the side of the building. Zen smoked: I think they were Marlboros or maybe Winstons. I remember red letters. I should have paid better attention. I’m so far away from cigarettes now. When the rain quit, we continued south along Carolina Lane.
Identity came up several times during the conversation. He thought that graffiti artists are, among other things, putting themselves into the public arena, asserting their identity, their very existence.

“That’s the fear,” he said. “To lose identity.” Later he described the motives of an “ego” tagger, someone who scrawls an artistic name on a wall or light pole: “I’m here! That says identity: I’m here. I’ve been here.”

Zen spoke of the ordinariness of extraordinarily creative people in Asheville. How in Asheville there were people who might be “gurus” in one religious tradition or another, folks that people outside that particular tradition might regard as strange, but here they drive a Honda Civic or a Subaru Forester, wear Bermuda shorts, and go out to the ballgame like everybody else. He suggested that Asheville has normalized eccentricity. I think he meant eccentricity of a spiritual, creative sort. We both agreed that there were eccentricities that enjoyed little tolerance in Asheville.

We turned right from Carolina Lane at West Walnut, dropped half a block to Lexington, and turned right through its business district, past the shoppers, tourists, and panhandlers, back toward the 240 bridge.

Zen said he was interested in “transgression.” By this I don’t think he meant the transgression of a mugger, but the transgression of an artist, who tests boundaries, creatively explores the edges of social norms.

His interest in creative transgression lurks behind his interest in graffiti: that it is illegal, that it challenges expectations, that it is creative and artful and expressive, that it often finds itself on otherwise ugly, neglected walls. There were places he thought that shouldn’t get graffiti. For instance, I mentioned that I was seeing “MOMS,” a common tag, painted on trees. He thought that was wrong. That wasn’t the sort of transgression he appreciated. But he said many norms are simply made up. “It’s just artificial,” he said. “That’s what bothers me about boundaries.”

He called human beings “poor-weather animals,” who do best in lean times. That’s astute, I thought, thinking back to the lean circumstances of human evolution. So it isn’t just graffiti, but a certain type of individual that appeals to Zen, one who stands outside the center, who doesn't wear a gray suit and drive an expensive car. Rather Zen seems to like the spunk, wit, and creativity of folks at the margins.

He said Asheville is still small enough not to have tightly defined, exclusive communities. People are still mixed up. He used Bele Cher as an example. The street fair has gotten so commercial in the past decade that it has lost its original from-the-ground-up character. In part that’s because it has become expensive.

Zen points out, however, that Asheville has a dozen or so alternative festivals, mainly free, that allow ordinary folks and people at the margins to come and feel comfortable and express themselves. He mentioned the Lexington Arts and Fun Festival, for one, and LEAF, which charges money, but I think I know what he meant. Perhaps Leaf is funkier, more tolerant, less corporate.

He showed me a part of downtown populated by young artists. Men and women with black and brown loose-fitting T-shirts and tight off color jeans and tattoos and long uncombed hair and ink under their finger nails -- a sort of well-worn, unwashed style that has characterized this part of town since I first got to know it in the late 1970s. He was quick to add that it wasn’t the area's seediness that he liked as much as its not being a major commercial area, driven by dollars alone.
If the Lexington area is what he knows and likes, what parts of Asheville does he know least? He mentioned North Asheville and Weaverville, said he hardly ever goes to those places.

He prefers what we agreed might be regarded as “peripheral” places, where there aren’t crowds, and where people express themselves creatively: he said he likes art, the beautiful artifacts, the products, more than aggregations of many people. He likes people, he said, but not crowds. He likes one-on-one sociality, and he especially likes to witness what others have done. Graffiti, for instance.

Zen Sutherland is an extraordinary photographer and observer. Check out his blog Zenography: