Insider's Guide: Asheville's River Arts District

Just in time for the June Studio Stroll, artist Nancy Hilliard Joyce shows us around the most colorful neighborhood in her hometown
Article: Diane Daniel

When painter Nancy Hilliard Joyce returned to Asheville last year, she couldn't believe the transformations that had taken place in her old neighborhood, once a gritty industrial center set beside the French Broad River. A South Carolina native, Nancy moved to Asheville to teach art in 1997, and then left to spend time in New Mexico, New York, and Atlanta. "There were always artists around, but not like this," she says of what's now known as the River Arts District. A vibrant area about a mile west of downtown, the district features more than 175 artists (most working in studios that are open to the public) as well as a variety of new restaurants and bars. "I really think art is as important to Asheville as jazz is to New Orleans," Nancy says. "And here I can go from studio to studio and see painters, potters, jewelers, and fiber artists at work. I feel like I'm home." We joined Nancy to visit some of her favorite spots around the revitalized part of town, starting with her own gallery that she shares with painter Christine Dougherty.

Nancy Joyce Gallery
Nancy's place is located on the second floor of a renovated 1890s mill building known as the Cotton Mill Studios. Vivid colors and strong movements characterize her works that hang on the brick walls and sit on easels. She has dabbled in several mediums and now focuses mainly on acrylics, oils, and photography. "I often find myself squeezing paint from the tube directly onto my canvas and mixing the colors there," she says. "I keep some layers revealed and cover others to create depth." 122 Riverside Drive; nancyjoycegallery.com or 404/313-1246

BZDesign and Cloth Fiber Workshop
Barbara Zaretsky, Nancy's downstairs neighbor and one of 12 artisans working at the Cotton Mill Studios, is a textile artist with a keen eye for design. "I love her earthy tones—they're very warm and comforting," Nancy says. Barbara uses environmentally friendly materials such as peace silks and natural dyes in her wall pieces, pillows, table runners, shawls, scarves, and dresses. She also teaches weekend workshops ranging from dyeing textiles to creating cloth books ($85 to $190 plus cost of the materials). 122 Riverside Drive, Studio D; bzdesign.biz or 828/505-2958

Hofman Studios
From the Cotton Mill Studios, Nancy heads up Roberts Street to the Wedge Building and Michael Hofman's studio. A serious home chef, Michael creates fine porcelain tableware imprinted with patterns created by pressing antique lace and other textiles into the wet clay. He calls himself "the cooking potter" and even has a full kitchen in his studio. All of his pieces, including soup bowls ($65) and tapas plates ($25), are safe for dishwashers, microwaves, and ovens. 111 Roberts Street; livelifeartfully.com or 828/232-1401

Asheville Glass Center
A block away in the Roberts Street Studios, Nancy takes us to a place where anybody can be an artist. At the Asheville Glass Center, visitors can make their own blown-glass cup or paperweight during a walk-in 30-minute lesson ($50). Glass artisans Robert Gardner, Alex Greenwood, and Logan MacSporran offer more intensive classes in hot-glass blowing and flameworking, and also sell their pieces and those of other local glass artists in an adjoining gallery. 140-C Roberts Street; ashevilleglass.com or 828/505-7110

White Duck Taco Shop
Nancy says the addition of this eatery at the north end of Roberts Street gives the district a lively spot for lunch and dinner. "And the fish tacos [$3.25] are incredible," she adds. Last year, Ben Mixson and his wife (and chef) Laura Reuss transformed a long-abandoned space in a former chicken hatchery into the colorful, sunlit space that welcomes diners from around the district and downtown. 1 Roberts Street, Suite 101; whiteducktacoshop.com or 828/258-1660

The Junction
For an end-of-the-stroll treat, Nancy recommends a Good Memory cocktail ($9) at The Junction. The concoction includes apricot, rosemary, cardamom, el Jimador Tequila Reposado, Licor 43, and fresh orange juice. Opened last spring by Charles and Tanya Triber, the eatery features a dinner menu offering locally sourced dishes such as a pickled beet-and-arugula salad with toasted pecans and blue cheese ($9). 348 Depot Street, Suite 90; thejunctionasheville.com