When he’s organizing community workers or performing his poetry, this dynamic, barrel-chested neighborhood activist is known by his given name, DeWayne Barton. But when he’s sharing his passionate dream to turn “art into action,” everybody calls him “B-Love.”
He’s certainly not a fame-seeking rapper — so why give himself the name B-Love? Why not Neighborhood Man? Or Seed Starter? Or Get Things Done Dude — names that reflect his public persona? “I used to be violent,” B-Love says, offering no specifics. “I had to fight all the time. ‘B-Love’ reminds me and other people how we should be instead of fighting.”
Active in more than a dozen community associations, B-Love is also a visionary entrepreneur, a darn good poet (Urban Nightmares, Silent Screams, 2008) and a mesmerizing spoken word performer. His most tangible contribution to the community is literally in his West Asheville back yard, on a once-wooded hillside that his wife, Safi Mahaba, transformed into a neighborhood garden. Begun 10 years ago, when the country was at war in Iraq and the neighborhood was being invaded by crack dealers, they named the space Peace Garden to reflect their hope for change.
Now Peace Garden is full of flowers and wind chimes, birdbaths and stepping-stones, there’s a greenhouse, an education pavilion and a pizza oven. It’s also the site of the most extraordinary sculpture garden in Asheville, a place so rarely seen by people outside the neighborhood that many local artists consider it to be Asheville’s best kept art secret.
No Greek statues or chain saw cut totem poles here. These sculptures are wild, unapologetic, in-your-face pieces, made by an artist who may have unclenched his fists, but still gets riled up by injustice and inequality. The sculptures are built, not from bronze or stone, but from thousands of pieces of the detritus of popular culture. In other words, from trash: smashed TV sets, dolls with missing limbs, a platoon of plastic Santa Clauses, stuffed animals minus an ear, an army of broken things protesting their obsolescence.
You don’t have to apologize for not understanding these sculptures right away. First find and read the title of the sculpture and the accompanying poem by B-Love. Then things click. The meanings of Debt to Death: The Emotional Dysfunction of Consumption becomes clear and so does War Machine and The State of Black Asheville and others. That doesn’t necessarily mean you will like the message, just that you’ll get it.
When B-Love started making his sculptures, it was as if he were being guided. A dream would tell him to do something. At first he resisted — make art with trash? Ugh. He had no training as an artist. He didn’t know its rules. Then he gave in, and with growing trust in the voice and his own powerful creative urges, he eventually filled up the garden with a dozen refrigerator-size sculptures.
Only much later, when he saw an exhibition of found art at the Smithsonian at the National Museum of African Art, did he discover that his kind of art not only had a name, but was being made by other artists. He was completely shocked. He showed photos of his work to the curator, who was so impressed he asked B-Love to deliver a piece to the museum for display. ‘It was the highlight of my life,” he says.
B-Love recently prioritized his community activism into one compelling issue. “My main concern now is the environment, the urban environment, more specifically that in black Asheville.” His new motto has become: “Value you. Value me. Together, value the earth.”
With partner Dan Leroy, he founded Green Opportunities, an innovative development organization that creates jobs in the growing green industry and trains under-employed young Ashevilleans to fill them. Ten “GO Training Team” trainees have come to the garden to work on a bitter cold day, the third day of their weeklong training. B-Love beams as the trainees repair and add to the sculptures and argue among themselves about what the sculptures mean.
“Life goes full circle,” B-Love says. “I was born in Asheville, raised in Washington D.C., now I’m back in Asheville…When I was a kid it was annoying how many adults were giving me advice. One here, one there. Darts of wisdom falling on me like seeds. My stepfather, the mothers in the church who anointed us with oil, the bus driver who took me home when I was lost…so many. I didn’t pay attention. Then I got older — and what they told me came back when times were tough. Now I scatter those seeds here in this garden. The young people see the sculptures and find something that has meaning for them — that’s “Art into Action”
“My job is to plant the seed in these young people. To build community and have them train others behind them. Change doesn’t happen quickly. I’m just a seed planter — I don’t have to be around to see the harvest, it will come in time.”
Learn more about Green Opportunities and GO Training Team, visit www. greenopportunities.org.