Like other tucked-in Southern communities, Tryon boasts lovable eccentrics, off-the-path wonders, and many small marvels. Of the latter, Nina Simone’s 660-square-foot childhood home — co-owned by four New York-based artists and recently designated by a preservation group as one of only two National Treasures in North Carolina — is perhaps the most marvelous of all. There’s something magical but edgy about the Blue Ridge Escarpment where Tryon sits — winding roads that skirt the edge of the mountains where they drop into foothills, a town just north of the South Carolina line and the so-called “Dark Corner” region of embattled history.
All of which might, at least in part, explain the ever-expanding, wonderful, wild, weird world of Tryon-based painter Mike Locke. Locke’s work is filled with music and musicians, strange beasts, and street parties. It’s the kind of brilliantly hued, mischievous hubbub that feels like it might, at any time, come to life, run off the edge of the canvas, and go make some noise on the front porch.
But while there are plenty of three-headed cats, clown-hatted blue-faced revelers, and Mardi Gras parades, there’s also a clear, pervasive affection for the region Locke calls home, by way of white-frame bungalows, sunny green vistas, and affectionate portrayals of small-town Americana via Locke’s expressive, highly idiosyncratic style.
He credits his early interest with spending time in the library as a child, getting lost in books and the strange new worlds they conjured. “I always loved Dr. Seuss and fantasy stories,” he says. Thus inspired, he started drawing in third grade. His doodles became at once more complex and refined over his young years. He developed his passion and looked toward pursuing a career in the arts, attended the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, where he studied with celebrated faculty and found himself “capable of producing work that was much more expressive.”
After leaving Florida and moving to Winston-Salem, Locke forged a friendship with artist Clark Whittington, creator of the Art-o-mat and founder of Artists in Cellophane, a group of collaborating artists and Art-o-mat participants. Art-o-mats are vintage cigarette-vending machines repurposed as miniature-art delivery systems. For a nominal price, patrons can explore a wide variety of original works by new artists in cigarette-box-shaped packaging.
Locke saved up a trove of empty cigarette boxes for Clark at the beginning of the project. He views his history with Art-o-mat fondly. “[It’s] a great place to market your wares,” he says. “And Clark is a cool guy and a great artist. I started giving him pieces in the ’90s. I made punk-rock puppets out of cigarette packs.”
These days, there are more than 100 active machines across the country and overseas; the endeavor is a cult favorite with artists and patrons alike. Locally, there’s an Art-o-mat at The Garage on 25 in Fletcher, an 80-vendor collective of local crafts and upcycled vintage items (The Garage also shows larger, non-cigarette-box-sized work by Locke).
The artist left Winston-Salem and followed his brother to the Polk County town of Columbus in 2006. The move proved fruitful, and he decided to stick around. Almost immediately, Locke found plenty of support within a community always hungry to discover new talents and encourage creativity. He showed at local galleries and coffeeshops and acquired a devoted group of fans who continue to follow his art, both on the walls and on the virtual gallery of Instagram.
Still, in true folk-art style, he remains somewhat elusive, a family man who modestly says, “I’ve enjoyed living here in every way imaginable … the area is so fertile. There is so much art and music.”
Mike Locke, Tryon. The artist’s work is shown at The Garage on 25 (3461 Hendersonville Road, Fletcher, 828-376-0198, garageon25.com). Find him on Instagram at @locke8057.