One Billion Seconds

Heinz Kossler. Photo by Rimas Zailskas.

Heinz Kossler. Photo by Rimas Zailskas.

A pioneer of Asheville’s River Arts District is going home.

Heinz Kossler, who hid out in Asheville 30 years ago as an illegal immigrant dodging the German Army, will have one last show before he goes — “One Billion Seconds,” which roughly equates to the more than three decades he’s lived here.

“It reflects that you learn so many new things when you go somewhere else,” Kossler said recently, his thick German accent booming off the walls of his ceramics studio in The Wedge building. “There’s something happening every day.”

These days, though, not so much is happening, work-wise. Kossler makes his living creating and installing architectural ceramic pieces such as fireplace surrounds and kitchen backsplashes. But with so little work, he can’t afford the increased rent on his studio, much less the doctor’s attention he needs for knees that are starting to give out. So he is returning to Witten, Germany, where he has family and can likely get medical care through the country’s social-welfare system.

Returning to Germany will bring him full circle. He moved to Asheville from there in 1981, impelled by the German Army, which wanted to draft him. “So I disappeared,” he goes on, wearing a knit hat because of the studio’s chill. “I was looking for a place where I could hide out because I was illegally here. Asheville in the early ’80s was a hole in the wall. There was not much going on. I felt I could hide and make a living here.”

For years he worked in construction. In the mid 1980s, he joined the Asheville artist cooperative Square Zero (located where Blue Spiral 1 gallery is now) with artists Rob Amberg, Tom Jones, Kevin Hogan and Tony Bradley. “They basically forced me to do art. They said, ‘You can’t just hang out with us — you have to do something.'”

“I do remember discussions about that,” says Amberg, a photojournalist who lives in Madison County. “The Asheville Art Museum had an exhibit every year, a competitive exhibit. Heinz decided he was going to enter — this was about two days before the competition — and with pure energy, he put together this piece that was very, very off-the-wall for that period of time for Asheville. And he won first prize.”

“It was a big surprise to me,” says Kossler. “I didn’t think much of that painting.” Kossler moved into ceramics, and into a studio in the old Chesterfield Mill in the River Arts District, building large letters and words out of slabs of clay, primarily as a way to explore and understand English.

“The ‘word’ pieces were a way to get closer to English, a little bit, to find nuances in the language that was not my own,” he explains. “But I also try to figure out, what does English do to me, as a person, as an artist? Do I behave different when I speak English? I think I’m a lot more positive when I’m in the English mode. When I’m talking, I express myself a lot more negatively when I speak German. Heritage, German precision — German creates this perception that somebody above you knows things better than you.”

“It’s revealing to see our own language used by a guy whose language is not this language,” concurs Robert Zimmerman, an Asheville-based Internet programmer and friend who is curating Kossler’s exhibition at Flood Gallery. Zimmerman has contacted the Asheville Art Museum and other collectors of Kossler’s art. He himself has several. Kossler, legal now, is making some new pieces, including one that shares the same name as the show.

In “One Billion Seconds,” small cross-motif ceramic tiles assembled in the pattern of the American flag spell out, in raised letters, Kossler’s impressions of his stay here. Displayed down and across are messages, such as “One Billion Seconds In The Pursuit Of Happiness & Integrity” and “One Billion Seconds Learning How To Drink Water” (which Germans don’t do, out of the tap, anyway).

Happy memories. “And now,” Kossler says, his mood dropping perceivably, “I’ve run out of luck. I’ve never been a good businessman, even in the good times. And in the bad times, all the money goes into paying rent and there’s nothing left. There comes a breaking point, and that came for me this summer. I was three months behind on my rent, and my landlady says something has to happen here, and I said, then I have to move out.”

Kossler paused. “It’s all right, you know? The idea came, go back to Germany. I’ve been here 30 years, let’s go start something new. New stuff is good.

“But I get so emotionally torn back and forth because everybody’s so nice to me right now,” he adds, laughing, breaking the tension. “Work is coming in, all of a sudden.” And, unlike the worst times, he’s eating three meals a day.

Kossler was planning to leave in May, but it depends on the work. He has to finish the jobs he’s started, and he has a studio he can use if he needs to stay longer (or if he decides not to leave). Breaking his reverie, the artist moves to another piece he’s doing for “One Billion Seconds,” something that reflects his feeling for Asheville. It’s called “Made in the Free Republic of Asheville.”

“Free of evil,” Kossler explains. “Asheville has been a big bubble for me, a really pleasant community with really good people. And helpful people. I wish I was a better businessman so I could tough it out here. But I’m not. That blame lies with me and not with Asheville.”

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