Travel can broaden anyone’s horizons, but for Hendersonville’s Ashley Spero, it has also shaped a striking body of visual art. Her work is inspired by her trips through the Central Americas and India, where she gathered not only artifacts of these populations, but also absorbed traditional rituals and spiritual exercises.
“I’ve always been fascinated with indigenous cultures,” says Spero. “My art seems to be channeled from some deep and ancient place that I won’t pretend to fully understand.”
Her work combines carved and collaged pieces of reclaimed wood and other found items with brilliantly colored acrylic designs, some of the pieces botanical in inspiration, others mandala-like intricate patterns and geometric shapes. Spero has compared these more abstract pieces to shrines or votive objects that draw the viewer into a contemplative space. “I paint energy. I paint emotion,” she says. “I hope my work makes the viewer feel something bigger, something deeper. A reflection of their inner world.”
Her post-college wanderlust may have been born during a peripatetic childhood. Her mother’s work as a traveling nurse sent the family from Spero’s native Florida all over the country, where they often lived out of a van. Despite the changing backgrounds, there was always inspiration to be found in nature. “I remember arranging sticks and rocks into patterns, building tree houses, talking to trees,” Spero says. “Just spending a lot of time solo, entertaining myself in nature.”
Going on to create nature-inspired art evolved early, then — but her mentor was a family late bloomer. “My grandfather was a woodcarver, and late in life he began creating hundreds of caricatures, little carvings of just about every type of person and animal,” she says.
In her teens, the family landed in Chapel Hill. “High school was rough,” Spero recalls, “and I made a lot of art out of rebellion. But going to college in Boone changed my life. I found my tribe.”
Her years at Appalachian State University were her first exposure to formal art study. “Nothing ever made me feel so alive,” she says, as learning techniques for two- and three-dimensional art. And Spero’s rebellious urges were still active: she cites a turning against aspects of Western society and a passion to “maintain a connection with nature and all its wildness” as her driving forces. Fascinated with the Surrealists and the feminist-themed sculpture of Louise Bourgeois, she graduated in 2009 with a degree in sculpture and painting.
Then she hit the road again.
There were stops in Maine and California (“I was pretty deep in the [music] festival scene,” says Spero), a one-way ticket to Costa Rica to learn permaculture and herbalism at an environmental retreat center, and a return to the mountains to work on a farm in Asheville while living in a yurt, followed by a stint in Guatemala as a sculptor, painter, and herbalist. She journeyed the length of India absorbing that country’s kaleidoscopic colors, textures, and architecture. All of it worked its way into her art.
“I think of most of my paintings as a plant,” says Spero. “It starts in the center with a seed and grows roots and grows branches. Everyone can relate to a plant on some level.”
A remarkably varied collection has grown from those seeds, including drawings, murals, and handcrafted jewelry. While her larger painted items can be seen at her own gallery and at other exhibition venues, the artist — not surprisingly — prefers to tour and sell the smaller pieces herself, a person-to-person endeavor that eventually allowed her to form her own company, Spero Art, in 2016.
In a posting on social media, she once noted there was a time when she was certain she’d end up living alone in some remote location, making art that no one would ever see. But even given her feelings about the turmoil of contemporary life and culture, that didn’t happen. Now she needs to find common ground.
“My art relates to these shifts in every way. It’s just ambiguous enough that each person who views it has a different perspective.”
Spero Art Gallery + Studios, Visionary Fine Art, Hendersonville, speroart.org, studio visits by appointment. Find Spero Art on FaceBook and on Instagram: @spero_art. Ashley Spero’s work is exhibited at Level 42 Gallery & Studio (47 Foundy St. in the River Arts District, Asheville, 828-767-0466, level42gallery.com); Modern Wave Art Gallery (122 Riverside Drive, Studio E, Asheville, 828-756-1843); Asheville Salt Cave (12 Eagle St., 828-236-5999, ashevillesaltcave.com); and Green Mother Goods (21 Battery Park Ave., Asheville, 828-505-4863, greenmothergoodsavl.com). Her work can also be seen in downtown Hendersonville as part of the Artscape banner project, artscapehvl.org.