The evolution of an artists’ collective

Jimmy O'Neal created this pattern based on the

Artist Jimmy O’Neal describes his pattern on 5 Walnut WIne Bar as “just the last sip of wine.”

Jimmy O’Neal gets a lot of questions about his new mural on the wall of 5 Walnut Wine Bar. And without context, his answers might seem a little nonsensical. “People ask, ‘Is that the moon? Is it the universe?'” says the globally-renowned artist. “And it’s kind of beautiful that they think that, because it’s really just the last sip of wine.”

O’Neal offers this explanation from the floor of his cavernous studio. An enormous mural covers one wall, a fabric and PVC structure hangs from the rafters, and pieces of various installations — including a hot air balloon’s gondola — crowd in on him. “You know how, with the last sip of wine in a glass, you can make the glass sing?” he asks, twirling his finger as if around the rim of an imaginary glass. O’Neal performed the acoustic trick with the final bit of wine in one of 5 Walnut’s glasses. “And that created a frequency. I analyzed that frequency, found out that it was 511.95 Hertz. And so I put that into the cymascope and created this big mandala,” he concludes, as if all painters work this way.

But what is a cymascope? O’Neal marches into his chaotic collection of art and re-emerges pushing a cart that trails electrical cords and speaker cables. Cameras and lights stick out from its edges like antennae. On top of the cart is a computer screen and a large, upturned speaker on which sits an empty dish.

This is not something you buy at an art supply store. O’Neal explains: Water is added to the dish. The speaker generates a particular frequency whose vibrations produce standing-wave patterns in the water, which are then captured with the cameras and lights. So what you see on the side of 5 Walnut is a painting of a pattern made by a frequency produced by the last sip of wine in an almost-empty glass. Got it?

“I’m a painter,” says O’Neal. “But we live in a time when you have to venture into different realms to be a painter.” He’s not speaking figuratively. O’Neal is one of over a dozen artists working in the French Broad Studios, a loose organization growing in a re-purposed elementary school just outside of Asheville in Alexander. Drawn by the affordability of its space, the painters, sculptors and musicians here have discovered an enclave of creative fellowship. “It’s like going to an island,” says O’Neal. “We’re out in the middle of these mountains, and we go there and work, and we get rowdy and do our thing. We’re here messing with anything and everything to get it done.”

The school was co-founded by O’Neal’s “art-brother” Nate Green, a wood worker and artist who discovered the derelict building in a search to expand his own studio space. “It was a shuttered place that was actually collapsing in on itself,” Green recalls. “But when I looked at it, I thought, ‘that could be the place for my studio and it could be the space for so much more.'”

Originally called the French Broad Consolidated Public School, the building itself was designed 90 years ago by the notable Asheville architect Thomas Edwin Davis. Beginning in 1924, it served around 260 students per year until its decommissioning in the late 1980s. It sits on a hill overlooking its namesake French Broad river, and on a clear day you can see downtown Asheville from its roof.

Seven years ago Green and his partners bought all 22,000 square feet of the dark, labyrinthine structure. And though the building’s facade is still hauntingly austere, its interior has evolved into a vibrant hive of productivity that Green likens to “an oil rig in the center of the universe” — it’s an isolated place where serious work is accomplished, and where wealth is drawn from a deep source. “We are a collective of people who are committed to our own work and our endeavors,” says Green, “and we also have an opportunity to collaborate deeply and kind of reflect and bounce concepts off one another.”

It’s a sentiment mirrored by O’Neal’s collaborator Jerome Widenhouse, an Asheville musician who serves the school as a groundskeeper of sorts. “I’m the diversity,” says Widenhouse, who adds the bright tone of his cornet to the strident drills and table saws of the visual artists. “It’s a synergy of artists who have supported me.”

Woodworking craftsman Dan Mayer, a self-described “green collar worker,” says the affordability of the School’s studio space is only part of the reason he’s been there half a decade. “My dream was to build an inventory of the native exotic woods that we have here; cherry, oak, maple, walnut,” he says. “The studio is a great place for that. But there’s also the potential to collaborate with other artists and craftsmen, in the areas where metal and wood meet, where paint and wood meet.”

Mayer focuses on harvesting wood from urban trees, and much of his time is devoted to running his own sawmill and overseeing the school’s solar kiln, where much of the wood for Green’s projects is dried. This sort of re-use is central to Green’s work. “It’s about reverence and respect for the material,” Green says. “How to utilize it, and how it connects back to the world in a meaningful way.”

In that vein, he’s recently been commissioned to restore, of all things, a 1975 Airstream Land Yacht. It’s parked in the school’s parking lot, and extension cords stretch from its open doors back into the building. “The possibility of the Airstream,” he says, “was to take something that is an iconic symbol and re-imagine what it can do and how it can function.”

O’Neal, who has been working at the school for three years, says that Green’s restorative work makes him not just a woodworker, but “a national treasure.” It’s a comment Green dismisses, but he admits his view of the world is “fundamentally different” from that of mainstream society. “I’m restoring an old school because I see value where other people see neglect and loss,” he says. “Kids have been walking through this facility for years in order to learn and grow. That frequency and vibration is a lovely thing.”

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