Her Story

“The space is everything,” says Heidi Swann, who started aSHEville Museum with her daughter, Gems Ouizad, in a sleek modern building on Wall Street in downtown Asheville. But how the pair have filled that space means even more. Photo by Max Cooper

“The space is everything,” says Heidi Swann, who started aSHEville Museum with her daughter, Gems Ouizad, in a sleek modern building on Wall Street in downtown Asheville. But how the pair have filled that space means even more.
Photo by Max Cooper

As 2014 swung into gear, Heidi Swann was depleted. After 16 months helping husband John launch the specialty-food store Katuah Market in Biltmore Park, she had plans for a six-week renewal at an Ashram.

But then Swann and her daughter Gems Ouizad stumbled upon the commercial space at 35 Wall Street. The sleek modern building was perfect for a museum, and it was available. But the women were completely unprepared: no business plan, no web presence, no way.

Swann says the inspiration for aSHEville Museum (the “she” in aSHEville is pronounced) first came to her a couple years ago, on a road trip. “I was thinking how our lives are a collection of stories, and women can create their own story and not necessarily be defined by the culture they were raised in,” Swann says.

But Ouizad saw the project take root long before that fateful road trip. “My mother has been supporting Women For Women International [a nonprofit that helps women survivors of war] for over 30 years,” says Ouizad, “even when she didn’t have the money.” She says her mother was also greatly influenced by having just read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Regardless of the idea’s origination, her daughter was on board. “I designed a logo that same night,” she recalls.

Although Swann had purchased the domain name Ashevillemuseum.com two years ago, for a long time, it remained only that. But the physical address’s central downtown location and huge windows gave their dream a concrete form. “The space is everything,” Swann says. However, their elation was short-lived: There were already two other offers on the table.

But this mother/daughter team proved themselves serious contenders in the real-estate arena. “We had a business plan and website up within 48 hours,” Swann says. “The stress of that was insane.” As negotiations commenced, the women kept updating their business plan and working to satisfy the landlords. Fortunately they didn’t know who the competitors were, learning later that a woman-based business they admire was one of them.

“I’m glad we didn’t know, because we might have given up,” Swann admits. Finally, after three months of negotiation, Swann and Ouizad signed their lease in April.

Making Connections

Influenced by her own extensive travels and experiences connecting with women around the globe, Ouizad retained the colorful, emotionally vivid work of Ami Vitale for aSHEville Museum.

Vitale’s award-winning photojournalism has taken her to 85 countries; she is currently a contract photographer for National Geographic. Her images have appeared in numerous top-rack publications, including Time and Newsweek, and she is the recipient of multiple awards — including a Daniel Pearl Award, named after the Jewish American journalist slain in Pakistan, and Magazine Photographer of the Year.

On layover at the Atlanta airport, returning to Montana from Haiti, Vitale spoke to Bold Life. “With all the travel I do, I’d think I would be desensitized,” Vitale says with genuine wonder. “But the experiences are so powerful, there are no words. Even pictures can’t do justice. I wish they could.” But for those unable to experience firsthand diverse cultures such as Afghanistan, Tibet, and Kenya, Vitale’s installation A Day In Her Life: Women Around The World is a riveting photo essay that captures the emotional subtleties of daily life for these women.

aSHEville Museum’s exhibits range from the sublime to the brazen, and naturally include the experiences of women in Appalachia. Forever Free, a documentary film about Sarah Gudger, a slave born September 15, 1816 in Old Fort, loops for viewers in the central area. Gudger died at age 122, among the longest-living people in the world.

The adults-only room in back contains A History of Hysteria & Antique Vibrator Collection (still working, and with some scary-looking attachments). Along the East wall, 100+ Years of Sexism in Advertising displays original ads dating from 1890. “We’re trying to get the licensing to show more recent ads,” Ouizad says.

Making a Difference

Licensing fees are among the biggest costs for the museum. “It can be $10,000 for the licensing alone; then there are shipping fees, insurance, and marketing,” Ouizad explains. One exhibit can cost up to $25,000. Swann and Ouizad have funded the aSHEville Museum with their life savings, credit cards, and personal loans, but they seek advertising sponsors for each exhibit.

The final opening installation, a “Take Action” wall, offers educational information on how to get involved. “We have so much in the U.S.,” Vitale notes. “If you think you can’t make a difference, go see the people in those conditions making huge differences.”

35 Wall St. Summer hours: Monday-Thursday 10am–7pm, Friday and Saturday 10am – 8pm, Sunday noon-5pm. Admission. 828-785-5722. aSHEvillemuseum.com

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