Evan Kafka spent this past Friday night mounting animal heads on a wall as people strolled by sipping cups of wine.
To be clear, Kafka’s “trophy series,” as he calls it, are photographic portraits of animals that are very much alive. You can find Kafka’s work locally in a couple small boutique galleries. But Kafka is among about 120 people renting space at the massive new art market called Marquee. He said the potential exposure and sales are too promising to pass up.
“I didn’t want to miss out on being part of this market, which I think is really cool,” he said. “I think it’s a great fit for the scene here.”
In sheer scale and, also, in vision, Asheville hasn’t seen anything quite like Marquee. It’s longer and wider than a football field—an open, 50,000-square-foot rectangle of a refurbished warehouse at the foot of the River Arts District. Friday was the soft opening.
There’s fine art and folk art, furnishings and furniture, craft and kitsch, high end and back alley. There are other local mall-styled markets with more narrow avenues of content, such as art or craft or vintage goods.
“Most of them have kinda like their focus, and I wanted to mix those worlds,” said Marquee’s founder, Robert Nicholas.
He dreamed this up about six years ago and kicked it into high gear during the early months of COVID. Years earlier, he started the Uncommon Market right outside these doors and opened his own store, Splurge, in the Wedge Studios. He knew the owners of this warehouse so well, he had a key to the building that became Marquee. Nicholas has moved the contents of Splurge inside.
“I just kept thinking about this, and so I’d sneak down with my key and walk through here,” Nicholas recalled. “This floor was dirt. This place was dark. It was cold. These nice doors were just warehouse sliding doors that would move and shake with the wind going through here, and I’d think this place has a lot of possibilities but it’s also a lot of work.”
Nicholas is the common thread connecting every initial tenant. He either met them through the arts scene or the antiquing community and personally invited them. Monthly rent ranges $100 to $575, though some artists are renting and connecting more than one space. What they do with their spaces is largely up to them.
“It’s amazing. I love it, because I don’t feel like everything is on me to do,” said artist and tenant Valerie Hoh. “I feel like I’m part of a community of artists.”
Hoh makes what she calls fashion assemblages from brown paper bags and sculpture from found metal. Until now, she said locals knew her more for her political activism than her art. With her section near the center of Marquee, she wants to rebalance that.
“I call it my last hurrah,” she said. “I’m 72 now and at the last stage of my life, I’d like it to be more filled with more creative work than having to just get people out to vote.”
Nearby, married couple Bill and Carrie Shea are hoping for broader public exposure of their custom backgammon boards made from hunks of carved wood and tabletop glass.
“We foolishly thought, before we started this, we’re gonna retire, let’s travel, let’s do festivals. And then we picked up some of our pieces, which are substantial and pretty heavy, and I’m like ‘I’m not moving furniture all the time,’” Carrie Shea said. “So we need a permanent space, a retail space, and we got in at the right time, and we’re thrilled to be here.”
Marquee’s founder, Nicholas, grew up in Huntington, W.V., and spent many years in Jacksonville, Fla., and Atlanta, where he worked as a youth pastor and camp director. Nicholas said he also mentored kids through a nonprofit, some of whom are now in their 30s and still keep in touch with him.
“It was more of just helping people find a calling or destiny, and I think this is just a grownup version of what we were doing,” he said. “I think it’s part of an extension of my childhood. I was always the kid pushing the lines and envelope, and I’m usually drawn towards those troublemakers.”
Nicholas said Marquee will soon have a vendor selling beer and wine by the glass, a restaurant that will double as an event space and, eventually, a small food truck court in the parking lot. He also said he envisions replicating this model in other cities.
With a soft-spoken prayer, a few dozen members of the Eastern Band Cherokee welcomed others to view what they have held sacred for centuries: handcrafted baskets.
“Weaving Across Time” is a new exhibition on view through April 22, 2022, at the Center for Craft in downtown Asheville. It examines the line between craft and art, showing off traditional forms and practices in a contemporary context.
It was only a few minutes after noon on Saturday when Tricia Arcos made her first sale at her first Big Crafty.
“Excitement comes up in lots of forms, which sometimes looks like anxiety,” she said with a laugh. Arcos sold intricately carved and painted wooden figurines, naming and endowing each with traits and powers.
“But yes, it’s kind of a big deal for all artists to show their stuff for the first time, and here I am,” she said.
If you’re an artist or craftsperson in Western North Carolina, the winter Big Crafty is typically one of the year’s pivotal events. It’s positioned for Christmas sales, drawing several thousand people over two days to the Harrah’s Cherokee Center. Its cancellation in 2020 cut deep into artists’ potential revenue, but on Saturday, artists said they also missed the sense of community during a year marked by isolation.