Pilgrimage to Mecca

October 6, 1999
A.D. Reed

     Two weeks ago North Carolina's Poet Laureate, Fred Chappell, came to Asheville to talk about his work as a writer. I could not attend, but my partner did, so I heard a first-hand account to accompany news reports of his visit. One autobiographical gem that this fine poet, novelist, and teacher shared with his audience was that he grew up in "the hub of the Arts world -- Canton."
      Now, anyone who was reared in these mountains knows that Canton's claim to cultural fame derives, at best, from its manufacture of paper that words might be written on. But Chappell's sardonic comment got me thinking about how much culture thrives in Appalachia, despite the area's cartoon reputation as a benighted backwater. From North Carolina's far west to Mitchell County in the north and Rutherford in the south, creative talent and an appreciation for the arts are nurtured by our citizens. Woodcarver Goingback Chiltosky, writers Wilma Dykeman, Fred Chappell, and Thomas Wolfe, painter Stone Roberts, musicians Roberta Flack, Warren Hayes, Annie Lalley, Brian Sutton, and Doc Watson, comedienne Moms Mabley, puppeteer Hobie Ford, the Penland school artisans.... What a diverse list of talents with roots in our ancient mountains.
      This ongoing history of creativity has also helped make Asheville, the region's geographic hub, a preferred destination for visiting exhibits and artists. In early October alone we can enjoy "Abstractions" from the Whitney's collection at the Asheville Art Museum and paintings by Jose Ibarra at the YMI, and attend performances by Bela Fleck, Kate Clinton, Freddy Cole, Elton John, and the Bolshoi Ballet.
      What is it about our region that grows talent the way Texans grow beef? Western North Carolinians who paint, make music, write, dance, carve, weave, are not a new phenomenon, nor is the appreciation they earn from their neighbors. Perhaps these mountains give strength to live our convictions, and teach us to respect those whose convictions lead them, and us, onto untrodden paths.
      Long before whites arrived the Cherokee were a self-sufficient people who farmed and traded with other native tribes. Their crafts, arts, and history developed apart and distinct. Isolated, but not isolationists, Cherokee were neither subjects nor conquerors of other nations, and evolved into a strong people with a multifaceted heritage. Similarly, separate from distant

cultural centers, with terrain that was difficult to settle, farm, or develop industrially, the mountains attracted independent men and women who by necessity and by choice thought for and entertained themselves. The early years of white migration into the region brought those who, like the families of Cades Cove, maintained and developed their traditions without regard for what outsiders might think.
      This century, too, iconoclasts have found their way into the mountains, just as our native artists have found the strength and independence to pursue their art their way. The natives often leave to build their careers and return as successful artists to their home territory. The newcomers seek out the variety of home-grown and imported arts and entertainment that are so readily available. While Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville were growing into booming metropolises, Asheville was quietly drawing on the cultural vibrancy of the surrounding mountains, whose people developed their own distinctive art forms and movements.
      Bittersweet Productions, the company responsible for bringing the Bolshoi to Asheville, is owned by one native and one transplanted Carolinian. Deborah Austin left Asheville as a young woman and returned to lead arts organizations such as the Arts Council (later the Arts Alliance) and Asheville Community Theatre. Keith Yeatman migrated from Canada as a young man and found he could carve out a life here as an actor, producer, and businessman. Together, they see the region's people, both natives and transplants, as an audience eager to appreciate the highest level of cultural development.
      The Bolshoi's first visit to Asheville drew crowds and appreciation comparable to Nureyev's performance here in the 1980s, cementing Asheville's reputation as an international cultural mecca. The company's return this Saturday offers those who missed the earlier visit another opportunity to see a performance that has thrilled audiences all over the world. I plan to be there, glad of the opportunity to enjoy world- class dance in our world-class city.
And lest anyone be offended, let me assure you I am deeply attached to Canton, where many of my relatives have lived for more than half a century.