Creators of N.C.

Creators of N.C.

The Late Drive Home

The music of David Childers

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash

One chilly evening in early March, I parked in front of WiredCoffeeEspress in Kannapolis, North Carolina. I waited in the car for a few moments, wondering if I had the right place. The coffee shop sat in a strip mall between a discount store and a supermercado, and it seemed like a surprising spot to find one of my favorite living musicians on a Tuesday night. But then I remembered that I was there to see Mount Holly native David Childers, a universally beloved songwriter who is as at home sitting in on an intimate showcase of local musicians in front of a weeknight crowd as he is performing with the Avett Brothers in the Greensboro Coliseum.

Inside I found Childers already seated on the small stage, tuning his acoustic guitar and adjusting the harmonica holder around his neck. He and two other men about his age spent the next hour-and-a-half taking turns playing original songs, each performing five or six numbers. I knew most of the songs Childers played, but I couldn’t help but be struck by their beauty and nuance, how he was able to create rich tension between two lines that revealed a complicated duality that most songwriters aren’t capable of reaching for, much less grasping.

“There are moments of greatness,” he sang during his last song of the evening, “but this ain’t one of those.”

He could’ve fooled me.

By 10 p.m. Childers and I were sitting at a table on the sidewalk in front of the coffee shop as patrons loaded into their cars and trucks to head home for the evening, but not before several of them stopped by our table to say hello. One of them offered Childers condolences on the recent passing of Malcolm Holcombe, a singer/songwriter from western North Carolina whom Childers knew for years and who recently lost a long battle with cancer. Childers had honored his friend that evening by performing one of Holcombe’s songs.

“I’m sorry we lost Malcolm,” the man said.

“Yeah,” Childers responded, “but I think Malcolm’s in a better place.” He smiled a sly smile. “We’ll probably run into him.”

Holcombe and Childers came up together in the North Carolina music scene, two literary singer/songwriters who both seemed haunted by the South, its religious iconography, its mystery, and its hardscrabble economics. Both men released their debut albums in 1999 and spent the years before and after touring incessantly, making regular jaunts across Europe.

“I couldn’t get a gig around here in Charlotte,” Childers said, referring to a time when most bars wanted cover bands, not poets with guitars singing blue collar stories about mill closures and lost souls. “I was pretty much by myself, although I would get these bands together and eventually started getting gigs. One place was Dilworth Brewing. That let me get some experience because I started late.” Childers, in his mid-60s now, was around 38 years old when he began performing publicly while he and his wife, Linda, raised a young family, all while Childers worked 50 and 60 hours a week as an attorney in Mount Holly.

In 2007 he looked around and decided that life on the road wasn’t for him, especially when he realized that by the end of November he’d only spent four weekends at home during the entire year. There were things he wanted to do in Mount Holly: spend time with his wife and kids, work in the yard, paint.

“I’d been playing overseas, and there had been some good things, but there was a lot of disappointment, a very mixed bag. And I just realized, I don’t want to be in an airplane all the time or in strange hotels or riding in buses and cars. And Charlotte was changing, North Carolina was changing. The music scene was opening up, and I was getting more of a name, so I had more opportunities. Why fly all over the place if you can stay here and make a living?

“I don’t have the wanderlust anymore,” he said. “I don’t really want to go anywhere.”

And that makes sense if you listen closely to Childers’ more recent music, almost all of which is firmly grounded in the Mount Holly soil that rests along the Catawba River dividing Gaston and Mecklenburg counties. The songs from The Next Best Thing (2013), Run Skeleton Run (2017), Melancholy Angel (2023), and especially 2020’s Interstate Lullaby play like soundtracks of mill culture, zeroing in on the hope born in the post-war years of the 1950s and the despair felt once the lifeblood of local industries began to seep away.

“It’s there in those songs,” he said. “Those two emotions — hope and despair — they give you a conflict, and that’s a good thing to have in a song.”

A young man was standing nearby, and Childers looked up and saw him.

“Hey, man,” Childers said. He shook the young guy’s hand. “I’m glad you came out. I’ve seen you play.”

The guy seemed surprised and genuinely touched, and, before walking toward the parking lot, he invited Childers to an upcoming show. Childers promised to try and make it.

“That boy’s a hell of a songwriter,” Childers said.

We talked for a few more minutes, and then it was time for Childers to step inside the coffee shop to pack up his gear. I asked him how long the drive home to Mount Holly would take.

“It’s about 40 minutes,” he said. He stood from his chair and stretched his back.

I apologized for keeping him so long after the show ended.

“It’s OK,” he said. “It was a good show, and it was nice to chat.”

“I hope it was worth the late drive home on dark roads,” I said.

He smiled. “Hope and despair,” he said.  OH

Wiley Cash is the executive director of Literary Arts at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the founder of This Is Working, an online community for writers.

Creators of N.C.

Creators of N.C.

Chapel Hill Magic

Daniel Wallace and a community of writers

By Wiley Cash

Photograph By Mallory Cash

It’s January, and I’m at the bar inside The Crunkleton on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, where the winner of the 2023 Crook’s Corner Book Prize is about to be announced. Intrigue is high, but not for me. I served as judge for the prize, so I already know how the evening will turn out. I’m just thrilled to be among so many writers and book people for the first time since COVID shut down the public announcement of the prize not long after the 2020 winner was announced.

I’m also excited to be hanging out with my friend, Daniel Wallace, who I met exactly 10 years before. How do I know it’s been 10 years? Because this is the 10th year of the Crook’s Corner prize, and I was the inaugural winner, and I met Daniel for the first time at the awards ceremony back in 2013. He’s been one of my favorite writers and people ever since.

In 2013, my wife and I had just moved back to North Carolina after my debut novel was published, and to win what has become an iconic Southern book prize meant the world to me, as did the kindness of the writers I met the night of the award ceremony, including Daniel, Lee Smith, Allan Gurganus, Elizabeth Spencer and Jill McCorkle. They made me feel like I belonged among them, and they set the tone for how I would treat and support the writers who came after me.

In the moments before this year’s prize winner is announced — it’s Texas native Bobby Finger for his excellent novel The Old Place — Daniel and I stand around the bar and catch up. I ask him about the upcoming March release of the paperback of his latest book, This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew, a nonfiction portrait of his brother-in-law William Nealy, who was well known as an impossibly cool outdoorsman who made a name as a cartoonist who drew paddling guides to countless white water rivers throughout the South. Daniel first met William when he was 12 and William was the cool, mysterious guy dating Daniel’s older sister Holly. To say that Daniel looked up to William is an understatement.

William died in 2001, and after Holly passed 10 years later Daniel discovered William’s journals while cleaning out their house. What he read inside changed his perception of William forever. Daniel’s book is the result of his attempts to make sense of William’s life and the effect it had on so many people, including Daniel.

I ask him what it was like to write a book of nonfiction after forging a career as a novelist. The crowd is growing in the bar, and we are talking over the noise of other conversations.

“I never wanted to do nonfiction,” Daniel says. “The joy for me in writing fiction is putting the characters in motion and seeing what one of them does, and how it affects the rest of the characters in the story. There’s this joy that I get from making discoveries while following my characters.”

“In writing about William, were you also discovering something?” I ask. “Was it similar to creating a character and getting to know him as you went along?”

Daniel sips his drink and thinks for a moment. “The process was similar to writing a novel even though I had all this material that was already there that I could just pick up and read. The character I was writing about — and I have to say that when I talk about William as a character, I’m also talking about a person who was my brother-in-law and someone I grew up with — but when that person is part of your narrative, they do become a character. And even I became a character in this book.” He smiles. “Although I like to think of myself as being real. I don’t know what your impression of me is.”

My impression of Daniel Wallace has always been that he is not only real, but that he is also very kind and funny. Every time he sees my two daughters he has some type of trinket to give each of them, and he’s always gone out of his way to offer opportunities to other writers, including in 2015 when he invited me to serve as the Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill. As to his sense of humor, when I asked him for a sample syllabus, he sent me what he referred to as the “required syllabus for all creative writing students.” His novels were the only books on it.

My niece, Laela, who’s a junior at the nearby North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, is interested in publishing, so I’ve brought her along for the evening. When I introduce her to Daniel I tell her that I met him 10 years ago at the first Crooks prize party and how that evening felt like the beginning of my career.

“It was a special night,” Daniel says wistfully. “Of course Wiley’s novel was the only submission that year, but we were all still really happy for him.”

We all laugh, but the conversation takes a serious turn when we reflect on what seems like the constant changes in Chapel Hill’s cultural landscape. Crooks Corner is a great example. The restaurant opened just down Franklin Street in Carrboro in 1982 and quickly became a staple of the Southern food movement, garnering praise and culinary awards from publications and juries around the country. But, like many restaurants, Crooks closed its doors during the pandemic, and for now they’re still closed, although there are rumors that it might reopen sooner rather than later.

Daniel followed William and Holly to Chapel Hill and moved there permanently in the early ’80s around the time Crooks opened. He’s seen so many changes over the decades in a place that he chose because of its creative vibes and how welcoming it was to writers and artists.

“There was a simplicity to it then,” Daniel says. “Part of it I’m sure has to do with youth, but when you live in a place that doesn’t have a building over one-and-a-half stories tall, you feel bigger in that town, and you feel more real in a way that you might not feel now.”

Daniel had begun his undergraduate studies at Emory University, and when he transferred to Chapel Hill to be closer to William and Holly, he found himself in a creative writing class led by Lee Smith.

“It was at 8 o’clock in the morning,” he says, “and of course Lee brought her trademark power, personality and joie de vivre to it, which made writing fun. And she was fun. I loved how she taught. It was an adventure with language and story and character that was very appealing to me.”

Daniel left UNC before receiving his degree and went to work for his father for two years in the import industry. But he couldn’t shake his desire to write, and he couldn’t forget his love for Chapel Hill.

“I moved back here because of the community,” Daniel says, “and because, of course, Holly and William were here, too. But a major part of that decision was that it’s hard to exaggerate the importance of going to Harris Teeter and seeing Lee Smith shopping. The life of a young writer looking out from this hole that they’re in is made so much brighter when you can see that real people have this real job, just like you want to do. You’re not intimidated as much by the possibility of entering that world when you have these roving mentors, these mentors that you haven’t even necessarily met yet, but you see them walking around. You see Doris Betts on the street corner, waiting for the light to change. It’s human, it makes writing a human act.”

The evening is almost over. The announcement has been made, and winner Bobby Finger has said a few words to the audience, as have I. I speak about the power of recognizing debut writers and how important it is to be a member of a community like the one Crooks Corner and Chapel Hill’s writers have built over the years.

Daniel is gone by the time I step back into the audience. My niece and I find our coats and walk out onto Franklin Street, the cold winter air hitting our cheeks. I can see wonder in her face as we walk back to the car, something I’ve heard people refer to as the “Chapel Hill Magic,” the same thing Daniel felt in the early ’80s after riding his bike to The Cave to play pool with William.

The buildings are taller now, some of the old places have closed, and some of those old people are gone. But this little town, and people like Daniel Wallace, can still make you feel big.  OH

Wiley Cash is the executive director of Literary Arts at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the founder of This Is Working, an online community for writers.

Creators of N.C.

Creators of N.C.

Restless Musical Energy

The moving sound of Beta Radio

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash

Ben Mabry, lead singer of the Wilmington-based, two-man band Beta Radio, was 8 years old the first time he was moved by music.

“My mom gave me this old tape from my aunt’s church,” he says. “And it was some kind of gospel. I don’t even remember the name of it, but I remember feeling the movements of the music and just knowing something was happening inside me.”

That something kept happening to Ben, whether it was in response to Christian music, Pearl Jam or the classic rock he listened to with his dad. As a teenager, while attending summer camp in the mountains, he met someone who responded to music the same way. It was Brent Holloman, a fellow Wilmingtonian Ben had never met before.

“I remember Ben being this funny prankster,” Brent says, cracking a smile while recalling their time at camp. “He would carry around a spray bottle and walk up behind people, fake a sneeze and then spray their necks.”

“I just thought you were cool because you could play ‘Stairway to Heaven,’” Ben says. He laughs. “Brent was the first person I knew who was really good at guitar.”

We’re standing in their studio high up in the art deco Murchison Building in downtown Wilmington. The room’s windows peer out on a gray day during a fall holiday weekend. Guitars and banjos are resting in their racks along one wall; a drum kit is set up nearby. Everywhere you look are scribbled scratches of songs, mementos fans have sent, boxes of tea and snacks: the detritus of two old friends who’ve spent long hours making music together.

After their friendship formed at summer camp, it continued when they returned home to Wilmington, and they began playing music together, with Brent joining Ben’s band on bass. The band was all electric guitars and drums, but after practice Ben and Brent would get together to play acoustic, realizing their shared love for artists like Simon & Garfunkel. Nearly two decades later, Beta Radio is still primarily an acoustic guitar band, and with nine albums to their name and hundreds of millions of streams across various music platforms under their belt, it’s safe to say they are now the ones moving others with their music.

Over the years, American Songwriter has claimed the band is “evoking serenity” with “orchestral experimentation” to “emit an incandescent optimism,” and The Vogue has written that their “lyrics and music carve out a space in your head and find a way to fit into your own cosmology.” The praise is both heady and ethereal, much like the band’s previous albums, many of which are dominated by a gorgeous, yet restless, musical energy and lyrics that never quite settle on answers. That sense of struggle reflects the years of spiritual yearning Ben experienced as a younger man searching for answers during time in college and the military, and later during travels through Peru, Hawaii, Costa Rica and the desert Southwest. He was writing lyrics the whole time.

“I think it was 2009 when he went to Hawaii and ended up getting inspired by something there,” Brent says. “He’d send me these a cappella voice memos of songs, and I would write the guitar parts. And then I went to Ireland and picked up the banjo, and when I came back we started adding banjo to a few of the songs. Soon we had five or six songs, and we thought, ‘Hey, these are pretty good. Maybe we should record them.’ And by the time we got into a studio we had seven or eight.”

And then the real work began. The newly minted Beta Radio had official letterhead made, and they spent hours packaging CDs of their debut album, Seven Sisters, and sending them off to music blogs and magazines, hoping for reviews. They also submitted songs to the new streaming services, at the time dominated by Pandora, with Spotify’s reign soon to come.

“Friends were telling us, ‘Hey, I heard your song the other day on some coffeehouse playlist,’” Brent, says. “And other people were saying, ‘I heard you on the Mumford & Sons channel.’”

People weren’t just listening to Beta Radio on streaming services; they were hearing the band and immediately downloading its album.

Over the next 10 years, Beta Radio released follow-up albums at a steady clip, all of them bolstered by the millions and millions of times its songs were listened to on streaming services. Most bands have to tour voraciously in support of their records, but Beta Radio was able to stay home, working on new music.

As the pandemic emerged in 2020, the band began writing and recording the songs that would end up on 2021’s Year of Love. Once the world went into lockdown, Ben’s geographic searching came to a standstill and forced him to investigate exactly what it was that he’d been looking for. The songs on that album are mystical explorations of various forms of love, the music often swelling into sonic walls of strings and guitars, marked by gorgeous, ethereal lines like “In my soul, there’s something I want to say.” These lyrics open the album, and they set the tone for its themes of the intangibility of love and the many ways we search for it while struggling to find the language to express it.

If Year of Love is about searching for something — language, answers, love — 2024’s Waiting for the End to Come is about finding it. The songs feel urgent, tactile, narrative-driven and grounded in a physical space. This album marks the first time Ben and Brent have co-written songs with others, and the experience of spending time in Nashville and sharing ideas with fellow songwriters brought them closer while elevating what they could do musically. The two kids from Wilmington who’d been moved by music found themselves moved once again.

“There’s just no other way to say it: I began to vibrate,” Ben says of those days writing songs with Brent and others in Nashville. “Just like that guitar would if I were to strum it; I was vibrating because I was the energy.”

“That whole week flew by,” Brent adds, “and it was like we were living on a high. It was the first time we co-wrote with other people, and it was the first time we were writing songs this quickly.”

One song birthed from the co-writing experience is “This One’s Going to Hurt,” which will be released as the album’s first single this month. The line itself was written by a co-writer named Henry Brill, and its honesty and directness struck Ben.

“I would never write that line,” he says, “but I love it because it’s an admission, it’s an acknowledgement. And in all the prior stuff — Year of Love, for example — so much of the music up to now was me knowing that I had something to say but being afraid to fully say it.”

The three of us have left their studio space and taken the elevator down to Front Street. We’re sitting at a table inside Drift Coffee, where Ben and Brent regularly drop in for coffee during the week.

I wonder if the people around us, most of them young hipsters wearing headphones and ear buds and no doubt streaming music, would be shocked to learn that a band who’s part of their regular streaming rotation is sitting so close by.

As our conversation wraps up, I say goodbye and make my way back to the counter for a refill to-go. I happen to know the barista, so I tell him who I’ve been sitting with for the past hour.

“Those guys are in Beta Radio?” he says. “Brent and Ben? They come in here all the time. I had no idea. I love that band.”

Another person, moved by the music.  OH

Wiley Cash is the executive director of Literary Arts at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the founder of This Is Working, an online community for writers.

Creators of N.C.

Creators of N.C.

Books and Beans

Etaf Rum forges her own path in Rocky Mount

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash

Rocky Mount-based writer Etaf Rum’s new novel, Evil Eye, is the story of a Palestinian American woman named Yara Murad who’s struggling to reconcile her identities of wife, mother, artist, professor, native Brooklynite and transplanted Southerner. From the outside, it looks like Yara has it all: a husband who supports her work at a local university; two sweet young daughters; a career teaching the art she loves. But as the novel opens, the reader watches Yara careen through her days in a silent, stifling panic, something unspoken and unfulfilled bubbling beneath the surface of her life.

Yara’s angst finds an outlet when she responds to a colleague’s shocking display of bigotry, but she isn’t prepared for the repercussions that follow. Her mother explains that Yara’s struggles are the result of an old family curse and she dismisses Yara’s frustration by saying that she should be happy that her husband has given Yara more freedoms than Yara’s father gave her.

Many writers would lean into the trope of the age-old curse to carry their plots, but Rum never relies on gimmicks or stereotypes, not in her characters, and not in her narrative. Instead, this character-driven novel investigates the ways in which we curse ourselves by settling for jobs and relationships that don’t fulfill us. Evil Eye is a book about the monotony of unfulfilled days (and nights), yet Rum has crafted this finely drawn portrait of domestic life into a page-turner.

“Actually, I felt like my first novel was a real page-turner, but one that I intentionally crafted to be so,” she says. “With Evil Eye, I did not want to write another page-turner. But as a writer you want to keep the story interesting, and you want the readers turning the pages. And I think for me, I had to challenge myself to write a character portrait.”

She is sitting at the counter at Books and Beans, a coffee shop and bookstore she owns with her husband, Brandon, in Rocky Mount. Light streams through the windows, making the white walls appear even brighter, and the terra cotta tile floors richer and more resonant.

“I was really interested in exploring the internal life of this character in an authentic way, and I hoped and I prayed that doing so would lend a readability that is relatable, authentic and helps you get into the story. My intention was that it would be her personality and her character and all the things that we don’t know about her past that would motivate the reader to keep going.”

This reader kept going. I finished the novel in a couple of days.

But reading Evil Eye wasn’t always a comfortable experience. While we are firmly grounded in Yara’s point of view, and privy to her difficult childhood, we also have front row seats to the many anxieties she confronts in her everyday life. These anxieties are manifested in the workplace (in this case, higher education), on social media, in her role as a mother and wife, and in her struggles to pursue her passion as an artist.

“I wanted to write about these issues in the perspective of a character we haven’t seen before, a Palestinian American woman who you don’t really think about, but someone who has these universal anxieties that are so common for everyone, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity,” Rum says.

It was her hope that in seeing themselves in Yara’s story readers might see someone like Yara for the first time.

“Most readers can’t possibly connect with having an arranged marriage, but maybe they can connect with being a young mother or feeling like their dreams are unfulfilled or feeling like they’re living their lives and doing all the right things, only to wake up one day feeling so unsettled, thinking, Wait, is this actually what I want?”

In one particularly affecting scene, Yara opens Instagram, poised to post a photo in the hopes of proving that her life is more fulfilling than it actually is, but then she pauses, pondering the ways in which social media is often an aspirational portrayal of the lives we want instead of representative of the lives we’re willing to pursue. For Yara, the question in Evil Eye is whether or not she will ever reach for what she wants and deserves, or will she spend the rest of her life simmering and settling for the life she has?

“Why do we settle for what’s comfortable?” Rum asks. “Because we want to avoid the pain of growth.”

For Etaf Rum, Instagram surprisingly became a place for her to manifest her aspirations. Long before her debut novel, A Woman Is No Man, became a New York Times bestseller and a book club selection by the Today show’s Jenna Bush Hager, Rum was teaching English at Nash Community College. Before each class began, she regularly shared two of her greatest loves with her students: coffee and books.

“I would bring my students coffee and book recommendations,” she says. “And eventually they would ask, ‘What are you reading now?’ And so I created an Instagram account called Books and Beans, and it was like a joke between all of us. That was the year I started writing A Woman Is No Man.”

The Instagram page quickly garnered notice well beyond the walls of the college, and Rum soon found herself as an ambassador of the Book of the Month Club, helping them promote their selections through her Instagram account. Later, when her first novel was published in 2019, it actually included a coffee shop called Books and Beans. Writers call this foreshadowing.

This was around the time a development group was renovating Rocky Mount Mills into an 82-acre campus combining retail, dining and residences. There was a particular part of the campus Rum had her eye on. 

“They had a stand-alone old canteen building they wanted to open up as a coffee shop,” she says. “And so a bunch of people went to them and said, ‘Hey, we can open a coffee shop,’ and I was one of them. My husband, Brandon, worked in restaurants his whole life, so I said, ‘All right, you can help me with the business side of things.’”

They pitched their vision to the developers, and Books and Beans was born.

“It was my way of creating space for myself with things that I loved, and it was also my way of saying, ‘Hey, you can do whatever you want to do. There’s nothing out of reach for you. Just believe in it.’ The coffee shop was literally a manifestation of a dream that I’d had on social media, and we turned it into a physical building.”

A few years later, the shock still hasn’t worn off. Rum continually finds herself mesmerized by the fact that a Palestinian American woman born and raised in Brooklyn could create a community foothold in a small Southern town like Rocky Mount.

“Every time I walk past it I remind myself that there are girls like me who think they have no business running a shop. All it takes is believing that you could become part of something, right? If you don’t see that vision for yourself, if you don’t believe in it, then it will never happen.”

Cursed or charmed, coffee or beans, it all comes down to hard work and dreams.  OH

Wiley Cash is the executive director of Literary Arts at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the founder of This Is Working, an online community for writers.

The Creators of N.C.

The Creators of N.C.

The Adventurous Child

Illustrator Jesse White’s major minors

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash

     

When former teacher Jesse White discovered that her young students’ personalities and identities weren’t reflected in the teaching materials she was provided, she decided to take their education into her own hands, literally: She drew all of her classroom materials by hand in an effort to bring their lives more into her classroom. White, who is now a full-time illustrator, hoped her efforts conveyed how much she valued and believed in each child and how they saw themselves represented in the world. This conviction to portray the world as children see themselves in it comes from her own childhood outside Siler City, where she grew up with her mother, Gwen Overturf, and her father, Eddie White, on 10 acres of land along the Rocky River.

“Childhood is a primary inspiration for me,” she says on a bright afternoon at her home in Durham. “I’m someone who loves nostalgia and likes thinking about ways that we can reconnect with our childhood or just the child inside of us. And so that’s what I do all day; I go back to little Jesse, who was spending a lot of time in the woods with my mom and by myself exploring the rocks near our house, coming up with games, ideas and secret missions that I would go on. My primary inspiration is my childhood and the time that I spent outside in nature.”

Jesse was home-schooled until second grade and spent a lot of time accompanying her mother to various jobs where she worked in landscaping and at a goat dairy. She was left free to explore.

“I would spend a ton of time with the dog and the goats, and go wandering off into the woods.”

When her mother began teaching at the former Community Independent School, Jesse followed. And then she was off to public school for middle and high school.

“I’ve had a pretty big range of educational experiences. Looking back on it, even though there were some difficult transitions, I wouldn’t trade, it for sure. I value a lot of what I picked up and learned at each of those different types of schools,” she says.

But she felt different from other kids. After years of learning to milk goats, roaming the woods and developing elaborate games on her own, how could she not? As an artist, she was more intent on drawing the natural world than superheroes or Barbies.

“I was drawing stuff that my classmates had never really seen before,” she says. “So maybe that’s where that difference showed up.”

Jesse gained inspiration not only from the woods around her, but also from her parents, both of whom were arts-oriented. Her mother, Gwen, had a background in graphic design and experience in education. Although Eddie, her father, had a background in graphic design as well, he designed and built houses for much of her childhood. When she was in middle school, he shifted away from construction and became a full-time artist, creating large-scale metal sculptures and installations, including one for the Hilton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur.

It was in college at UNC-Chapel Hill that Jesse first considered pursuing a career in arts education.

“It was this wonderful answer to what had been missing for me,” she says. “I enjoyed making art, but I was like, ‘Man, this is missing a social aspect somehow. What can I be doing to use this to engage people and help them reflect on their own identities and their own lives and their own learning?’ And so art education blew my mind in that way. I could not only make art, but I could facilitate learning through art.”

   

Fresh out of graduate school, the first time she stepped into her own classroom, Jesse admits to having “life altering lessons” that she planned to present to her students. She quickly found that having a class of 25 to 32 kids was as much about function as it was creativity. But she absolutely loved it. “It was one of the most exciting and rewarding things that I’ve ever done,” she says, and by her second year she had learned how to balance the practical demands of curriculum and classroom management with her creative ideas on how to engage students.

After four years in the classroom, she decided to go out on her own and pursue a full-time career as an illustrator. Once she focused on her own art, she recalled the power of creating the materials that represented who her students knew themselves to be and the ways in which she once saw herself as a young girl who thrived in the outdoors. The results were illustration after illustration of young girls exploring natural landscapes, much like Jesse had.

“I don’t know why it took me so long to realize this,” she says, smiling, “but I just don’t draw kids inside very much.”

A quick perusal of her website or Instagram page reveals this to be true. In one illustration, a little girl in a rainslicker peers over the bow of a storm-tossed ship, the tentacles of a sea monster snaking below her. In another, a girl sits comfortably atop a rock and pours a cup of tea, a blue snake encircling her neck.

Jesse’s work also reveals a lack of adult characters, something others — including the editors of her forthcoming book, Brave Like Fireweed, which she both wrote and illustrated — have brought to her attention.

“‘We can’t have these kids just wandering by themselves out in the middle of nowhere without any adult supervision,’” she says, paraphrasing her editors. “I totally get that. But a huge focus and motivation for my artwork is to show kids as the capable and intelligent and independent beings that they are, and that doesn’t always require having an adult presence in order to be like that.”

People might also wonder where all the boys are because Jesse’s main characters are primarily young girls. “I’ve always found it to be incredibly important to include girls in my work who are outside, playing, exploring, adventuring, just because that’s not something that they’re always allowed or encouraged to do,” she says. “It’s something that I was allowed and encouraged to do, and that became a really important part of who I am.”

Studies examining children’s books of the past 60 years show that not only have boys been better represented than girls, but girls have also been portrayed as more emotional and less likely to engage in adventurous exploration.

Viewing Jesse’s work, it’s not hard to imagine these girls leaping from the page and striking out for places as yet undiscovered. And it’s not hard to imagine young Jesse doing the same. She still is. OH

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.

The Creators of N.C.

The Creators of N.C.

The Art of Life

Perseverance with paint and canvas

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash

In 2013, painter Tom Ward went to the beach to die. He and his wife, Mary, both natives of Long Island, New York, had been living in Durham for 11 years when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS, a disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Over time, people with ALS lose control of their muscles, including the muscles used to eat, speak and breathe. Most die of respiratory failure within three to five years.

“I didn’t know how long I was going to live,” Tom says one afternoon in late May while we are sitting in his living room in Wilmington, several of the gorgeous paintings he’s completed over the years hanging on the walls around us. He smiles a wry smile. “And I kept thinking, It’ll be too bad if I croak in Durham.”

“We’re beach people,” he says. “We love the beach. When we were young and dating, even after we were married, we spent a lot of time on the Long Island beaches on the South Shore and the North Shore. So when I got the diagnosis we came out to Wilmington and looked around. And that’s how we got here.”

Only 10 percent of those diagnosed with ALS live beyond a decade, and Tom can be counted among those few. His disease is mercifully slow moving, and some days he feels well enough to take a trip to the beach with Mary’s assistance to paint en plein air; Fort Fisher is a favorite spot. Other days, when his body does not feel like his own, he works from home, taking his motorized wheelchair into his studio, where he moves onto a padded chair positioned in front of his easel. Throughout his battle with ALS, and its attendant and unpredictable ups and downs, painting has been a constant in Tom’s life. So has Mary’s support and advocacy.

In 2016 Mary was named a fellow by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, whose mission it is to empower and support the military caregivers who care for America’s ill, wounded or injured veterans. A former Marine (Is there really such a thing as a former Marine?), Tom, like other veterans, is two times more likely than a civilian to develop ALS. Mary has spent years advocating for caregivers like herself and for veterans like Tom, even authoring three books on issues from navigating veterans benefits to service dogs to her own’s family’s experiences with war after the couple’s son served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it’s not in her national efforts that Mary’s support for Tom is most apparent. It is more evident in the small moments of their day-to-day lives: her leaving the conversation to get him a glass of water; her gently correcting his memory or assisting him as he parses the details of one of my questions. And Tom is just as devoted to Mary as she is to him, supporting her through two graduate degrees and careers as diverse as a public school teacher and a hospital administrator. It was the latter position that caused the couple to move from New York to Durham after she accepted a job at Duke Hospital.

But as much as their relationship is based on intangible evidence of love and support, the larger moments still loom in their shared past, perhaps none larger than the moment in 1993, after 13 years of marriage, when Tom contracted encephalitis and, after a lengthy treatment, showed signs of cognitive impairment that affected his executive functions. Suddenly, a man who’d served in the Marines and forged a career in risk management for an insurance company in Manhattan was having trouble parsing step-by-step instructions and remembering simple tasks like picking up their 9-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son from school. Tom’s symptoms forced him to retire from a busy job, and he suddenly found himself seemingly without purpose for the first time in his life.

       

“When our kids were growing up, I had to appear to them to be industrious in some way,” he says. “That was just my personal rule. I couldn’t sit on the couch and give into the thing and let that thing rule me, let the fatigue rule me.”

A year or so into Tom’s battle with the long-term symptoms of encephalitis, he and Mary found themselves in an art gallery not far from their home in upstate New York. Tom had always appreciated art, but he’ll be the first to admit that he didn’t know much about it.

“I thought all painting was called impressionism,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t know there was something called classical realism or other styles of painting. I thought impressionism meant painting like someone would think all cars are Chevys without knowing about Buicks or Pontiacs or Peugeots.”

Even though Tom didn’t know much about painting, that day in the gallery he couldn’t help but be struck by the work of an artist who signed their paintings “V. Walsh.” Tom approached the gallery owner and learned that V. Walsh was a woman named Virginia. On impulse, Tom expressed an interest in studying under Walsh, and he left his phone number with the gallery owner. Within a few weeks he and Virginia Walsh were setting up their easels side by side, a master and an apprentice with zero experience.

I ask Tom what drew him to Walsh’s work, what it was about her paintings that day in the gallery that caused him to make a decision that would change his life.

“She turned a form,” he says, referring to a painter’s ability to give the illusion of depth on a flat surface. “It was a painting of a plum that had a quarter sliced out, and the slice was laying as a half-moon shape on a tabletop. It was the light striking the flesh of the plum and the color that she put there. And then you could see the interior of the plum where the slice had been removed. Her use of color was just so perfect. It just grabs the eye. That’s what made me say, ‘Wow, that’s it. I want to do that.’”

Walsh agreed to work with Tom, but their time together got off to a rocky start. It was Walsh’s practice to educate by example, and she and Tom would regularly set up their easels and paint en plein air together for hours at a time. She was particular in the way she wanted his paints and materials organized, but to her frustration, Tom seemed unwilling to comply. Walsh ended up calling Mary in frustration to break the news that she couldn’t work with Tom because of his obstinate disposition. When Mary discovered that Tom hadn’t shared his struggles with executive function with his new mentor, she told the teacher that her pupil wasn’t being obstinate; he simply didn’t have the ability to comply without explicit, patient direction. Things went more smoothly after that, and Walsh and Tom continued to work together, painting outdoors through a number of seasons to exhibit for Tom the exquisite yet too often unnoticed changes the natural world undergoes when one truly pays attention.

Both his attention to detail and his deeply felt portrayals of the natural world are evident in Tom’s work almost 30 years after his lessons with Virginia Walsh, though sometimes his ALS makes it difficult for him to render detail as easily as he once could. Take the use of his palette knife when he works with it, rather than a brush, to apply a smooth layer of paint to the canvas.

“I’m just not getting the cut of the knife in a way that portrays what I’m seeing in my mind,” he says. “That’s ALS. The thought in my brain that tells my hand what to do either gets lost completely or is received in a garbled fashion. So my hand’s not really doing what I’m asking it to do.”

But, just as he has throughout his life, whether as a Marine or a businessman or a new painter struggling with organizing his paints and materials, Tom finds a way to adapt. And, as usual, Mary is by his side. No matter what comes next, it will happen to them together. And it will happen by the sea.  PS

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.

Creators of N.C.

Creators of N.C.

The Right Tracker

On the trail with Charles Frazier

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash

The first time I met Charles Frazier was in Asheville back in the spring of 2016. Along with several other authors, we had been invited to participate in a fundraiser at the Asheville Community Theater. I knew most of the authors there that evening, but I didn’t know Charles, and I was nervous about meeting him. Like most people in the world, I had read Cold Mountain after it won the National Book Award in 1997, and then I saw the Oscar-winning film, which starred Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renée Zellweger, when it was released in 2003. I’d read the two novels he’d published in the intervening years. My love for them only contributed to my nervousness at the idea of meeting their author.

But apparently Charles Frazier wasn’t one bit nervous about meeting me. He walked right up to me backstage and said, “I was up in Hot Springs a few months ago, and I saw that you were scheduled to do an event in town. I left a note for you at the public library. Did you get it?”

Reader, I was too shocked that Charles Frazier even knew who I was to be shocked by his reliance on paper technology. Needless to say, we’ve been friends ever since. He joined me onstage a year later for an in-conversation event for the launch of my novel, The Last Ballad, and I did the same for him when his novel, Varina, was released in 2018. We’ll be back onstage together on April 10 on the campus of UNC Asheville for the launch of his latest novel, The Trackers, a book that will both please and surprise fans of Charles Frazier.

There’s an old saying that serious writers never write the same book twice, and Charles never has, but he has almost always written about the same places, which is to say Appalachia and the Southern United States. The surprise that’s in store for readers is that The Trackers, which is set in Depression-era America, ranges far afield from the swamps of Florida to the big skies of Wyoming to the sooty factory towns and transient camps of the Great Northwest. But readers who loved Charles’ previous novels will find echoes of those works in his new one. Like Cold Mountain, The Trackers is the story of a man on a quest. WPA mural painter Val Welch is in pursuit of Eve Long, the wife of a wealthy rancher who has absconded with a priceless piece of artwork, and like Thirteen Moons (2006), the new novel is awash in era-appropriate research, from automobiles to art and architecture to the politics of the New Deal. Like Nightwoods (2011), The Trackers expertly employs noir tropes like tight, scene-driven dialogue and dark, ominous settings, and like the titular character in Varina (2018), Eve Long is a dashing, magnetic heroine: a former runaway turned traveling honky-tonk singer who finds herself married to a wealthy political hopeful before pulling the plug on it all and disappearing without a trace. Her husband, who is sponsoring Val’s mural project in a local post office, makes Val a financial offer he can’t refuse: track Eve and find out where she is, why she left, and, most importantly, who she really is.

According to Charles, it was nearly 10 years ago when the idea for the novel that became The Trackers first came to mind.

“We were up in Boone, and I was just killing time,” he says. “I visited the post office, which has one of those Depression-era WPA murals. After that I had more time to kill, so I went to the library at Appalachian and looked up information about WPA projects, specifically the Treasury Department art projects. One of the first images I saw was a photograph taken inside one of those small post offices, and there was a mural in progress on the wall with two young guys working on it. Standing on the floor looking up at them was an older guy and a woman. They were both well-dressed, and I thought, OK, there’s a story here.”

As the story rattled around in his mind over the following months and years, Charles dispatched with one of the two mural artists and focused on a single artist and how he might interact with the well-heeled couple who were watching him work. Artist Val Welch and rancher Jake Long and his mysterious wife Eve were born.

Charles and I are standing in the midcentury modern house he and his wife, Katherine, own in Asheville, a home that’s not quite ready for them to inhabit. Like many people in post-pandemic America, they’re waiting on the right contractor to come along to update the house and make it fully habitable. For now, Charles has set up a writing desk in the light-filled living room, a stone fireplace against one wall and tall windows opening to the yard, where, despite it being mid-January, the view is alive with greenery.

I think about Inman, Ada and Ruby, the three characters who drove the narrative in Cold Mountain, and ask Charles if there’s something that spoke to him about using a similar triangulation of characters in The Trackers.

   

“Well, that’s one of the things that appealed to me while writing this book. I could keep a handle on the relatively limited number of characters because I have a problem sometimes with expansion,” he says. “Having that very clear arrangement of characters helped me keep it under control and forced me to focus on trying to keep the book short. But, in The Trackers, Eve is the reason the triangle exists. I never lost sight of her as the main character.”

Eve is no doubt the main character. Even when she’s not on the page, her presence drives the action and tension. And even though this book is relatively short in comparison to some of his longer novels, many of the scenes feel expansive because Charles allows them to breathe and exist as the reader witnesses them in what feels like real time. One scene that comes to mind unfolds over a long night in the swamps of Florida when Val encounters Eve’s former in-laws, a dangerous band of lawless folks who are as suspicious of Val’s outsider status as they are of his questions about their former daughter-in-law’s whereabouts.

“That was a really fun scene to write,” Charles says. “It was fun to get that rhythm, that really slow, heavy rhythm to the dialogue and pacing. This is the point in the novel when Val is beginning to learn that he is truly in over his head.”

There were points in writing The Trackers when Charles began to fear that he was in over his head too, especially when the pandemic struck and he could not make use of the location scouting that had benefited all of his previous novels and brought the realities of place and landscape to the page. But he had an ace or two up his sleeve when writing about the West and about Florida: He and Katherine spent the bulk of the 1980s living in Colorado with their young daughter, and after Cold Mountain was released, they resided full time on a horse farm in central Florida. Of course the process of writing The Trackers was full of research, but when you read the novel and encounter far-flung Western states, the boggy swamps of Florida and people who understand horses intimately, you are encountering worlds that Charles Frazier knows well.

If you read the novel, you might also be reminded of a literary genre Charles also knows well: the travel narrative, which his novels certainly borrow from, especially Cold Mountain and Varina. But it is his lesser known first book, Adventuring in the Andes, a travel guide published by the Sierra Club, that most reflects his love for the genre.

During the long years of writing The Trackers, especially during the COVID lockdown, travel was on Charles’ mind, and he was itching to get out West and look around, but he found himself settling for photographs, music and art that was resonant of the West in the 1930s, especially Woody Guthrie and Diego Rivera. But writing a novel as complex and rich as The Trackers is hard, and it takes a long time, despite how many books you’ve published before or how many millions of copies they’ve sold.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” Charles says. “At least it hasn’t gotten any easier for me. And I’m just an enormously disorganized writer. Every time I finish a novel I’m a little bit surprised.”

As if to give insight to the expanse of hours spent at his desk, he shows me the tiny slips of paper he uses to record his word counts along with the dates of his daily writing sessions. When I look at his handwriting I can’t help but be reminded of the note he left for me in Hot Springs years earlier, and I wonder how Val Welch would go about tracking it down.

Well, I’m no tracker. So, to the people of Hot Springs, North Carolina, if you find a little slip of paper that contains a message that Charles Frazier wrote to Wiley Cash years and years ago, do me a favor, hang onto it until I’m back in town.  OH

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.

Creators of N.C.

Creators of N.C.

The Buddy System

Old friends lend a Haand

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash

     

If my best friends from high school and I were able to live our youthful artistic dreams we’d still be playing in a garage band called The Subterraneans. Luckily, ceramicists Mark Warren and Chris Pence, who met in high school in the late 90s in northern Florida, had a business plan. In 2012 they founded a ceramics and glassware company called Haand, which is named after the archaic Norwegian word for “hand,” and where everything is made by, you guessed it, hand. Since founding their company, Mark and Chris have partnered with restaurants around the world, including Beard Award winners and local culinary royalty like Ashley Christensen and Vivian Howard, with whom they’ve launched a special collection.

There’s an old saying that goes, “If you show me your friends I can show you your future.” If only we all had friends like Mark and Chris during high school. The best businesses, like the best friendships, grow organically from shared interest and vision, and while Mark’s and Chris’ professional paths briefly diverged after college — Mark pursued the arts while Chris worked as an accountant — they came back together over a decade later in rural North Carolina as roommates and business partners in a crumbling old mansion. (How crumbling? Let’s just say that the same bucket that caught water from the kitchen drain was used to flush the toilet.) In this auspicious setting, Haand was born.

On a warm fall morning in late November, I parked in the grassy lot outside the Haand showroom and production studio in Burlington. The 13,000-square-foot brick building was once a hosiery mill, and it still retains its industrial feel, despite the gorgeous colors and earthy appearance of the countless handmade ceramic pieces that greet you as soon as you step inside.

   

I found Mark, Haand’s creative director and co-founder, as he passed through the showroom on his way out the door. He stopped and greeted me warmly with a broad smile that was nearly hidden by a thick beard. Mark very much looks the part of a potter, and he very much looks the part of someone who might enjoy living in a house where a single bucket serves as both a kitchen and a bathroom appliance. I hadn’t let anyone at Haand know I was coming, and I felt bad about dropping in during the middle of the day, but Mark didn’t seem to mind. He casually showed me around the production studio where a couple of dozen people were at work at various stations, each one marking an integral step in the process of achieving the distinct look and feel that Haand is known for.

As we walk through the space, Mark explains the process, beginning after he completes each design, whether it be for a vase, a coffee cup or a serving dish. A mold is built from each design, and into the mold is poured liquid porcelain slip. Once the piece dries inside the mold, it is removed, cleaned, smoothed with a sponge, and hand-inspected before being stamped with Haand’s logo and the phrase “Made in NC, USA.” The piece is then bisque fired and heated to 1,800 degrees, and this is where each piece gets interesting and distinct.

“Our clay body itself is what’s called vitreous,” Mark says, “so it melts at a really high temperature, and then it will become kind of liquid during a period of the firing. The clay kind of remembers things that have happened to it. So if you bump it with your thumb or kind of move it, it might look strange going in, and then it comes out and it has melted and softened and completely shifted its form. You can’t really fight that unless you’re doing what they do in industrial kilns, which is not what we do here. There’s a deeper truthfulness that can come out of not trying to fight the process and just letting it be what it is. It’s a beautiful thing.”

There is no doubt that each piece made by the folks at Haand is beautiful not only in its design, but also in its color. After the pieces are fired they are glazed with a liquid coating of minerals that bonds to the clay, and brings a glassy and distinct color finish and texture to each piece, whether it be fern green or matte grey or one of the stunning Cloudware finishes that looks just like its namesake.

After the glazing, each piece goes into the gas kiln, where it’s fired at 2,300 degrees so that the clay and the glaze thoroughly bond. Afterward, each piece is polished and inspected before either being shipped out or stocked in the showroom.

All told, countless hands touch the pieces during the process, and every step reflects the hand of the maker who’s worked on it, which ensures that each piece, even if it’s part of a set, bears its own distinctions. Roughly 90 percent of Haand’s employees were novices before walking in the door, but each of them receives extensive training in the production process in order to maintain Mark’s vision for every individual piece.

“It’s exciting,” Mark says, still seeming struck by the beauty of the process of designing, forming and firing even after all these years. “It’s right on the edge of chaos.”

But to the layperson’s eye, nothing about the scene at the production studio seems chaotic. People of all ethnicities, ages and backgrounds work quietly, whether they’re sponging or firing, many of them with earbuds popped in so they can listen to music, audiobooks or podcasts. Their work is accompanied by glances, smiles, nods of the head. The whole scene feels peaceful, thoughtful and grounded.

But it didn’t always feel that way to Chris, company president and co-founder, who I found after he stepped out of the office and gave me a tour around the showroom, where I immediately picked out two 10-ounce tapered mugs to take home. Chris had worked with clay since high school before forging a career as a corporate tax accountant in Jacksonville, Florida, where he often worked 80-hour weeks. It was on a trip to visit Mark in the dilapidated farmhouse that Chris truly considered reconnecting with his early passion for pottery. Mark pitched the idea of the two of them starting a business together; it ended up being an easy decision for Chris.

   

But those early days, rooming at the farmhouse with Mark while working in an outdoor studio took their toll on Chris, who quickly realized the differences between plowing through a 16-hour day behind a desk and the physicality of clearing brush to create more outdoor space, moving boxes of finished pieces, making phone calls and filling purchase orders.

“Moving into that house in the woods was a totally transformative experience for me,” Chris says. “I imagine that people were having thoughts like, ‘Has Chris lost it a little bit? Is he going a little crazy? He left a job he worked so hard for.’ I really looked up to Mark and relied on him to kind of show me what this new life was like.

“But I definitely remember being in the studio by myself one day and the lights were off, and it was dark. I had a real big moment of existential dread, and I thought, have I made a terrible mistake?”

For Chris, after both the success of the company and his continued friendship with Mark, those moments of uncertainty are fewer and farther between. “I’m so passionate about what we’re making,” he says.

While Mark and Chris’ primitive way of living has changed since their days on the farm, the way they make their pottery has not.

“We haven’t changed the production method at all,” Chris says. “We’ve certainly refined it and gotten better at doing things, but if you were to have been there with us at the farmhouse and walked through how we made a pot, and then you were to walk through the way we do it now, you would see there are no fundamental changes. We can make things more efficiently, but it’s still a handmade mold, we pour the clay in, we pour the clay out, we finish it, we fire it, we glaze it, fire it again, and it’s done. The process is the same.”

Their friendship is the same too.

“Mark has just always been an incredibly fun person to be friends with,” Chris says. “I think it’s a blessing for both of us to have been such good friends before the business because having a business is hard, and it can really, really be difficult on every level, whether it’s financially, physically, emotionally or spiritually. Mark has always had my back, always been there for me, and always supported me.”

It’s clear that Mark has felt the same about Chris for years. “When you meet someone like Chris, you just kind of know them in totality. Chris is one of those people that if you know him it would be inconceivable not to want to be friends with him afterward.”

“And Mark was hilarious in high school,” Chris says, laughing. “I remember him showing up to a prom party at my house. He was a sophomore, so he wasn’t even invited to the prom.”

“Please tell me he showed up in a tuxedo,” I said.

“I think it was one of those T-shirts that has a tuxedo printed on it,” Chris says.

“It was,” Mark adds, the sudden recollection causing them both to break into laughter. “And I brought a beer bong that I’d bought on a German Club trip to Daytona Beach. It had never been used before, and I was like, ‘Let’s see how this works.’”

“That’ll be the next thing that Haand manufactures,” I say. “Ceramic beer bongs.”

“There’s a lot of demand for that,” Chris adds, and we all laugh again.

When you visit Haand or order any of their pieces online to be delivered to you, you will immediately recognize the care and attention that Mark and Chris have put into their craft. And when you spend any amount of time around Haand’s co-founders, you will say the same for their friendship.

Come for the kiln-fired pottery. Stay for the warmth.  PS

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.

The Creators of N.C.

Renaissance Bartender

Joel Finsel mixes books and bourbon

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash

When you sidle up to the bar before ordering a beer or cocktail, you probably don’t expect your bartender to have authored two books and numerous articles, have a graduate degree in liberal studies, or to be a leading advocate in the movement for historical justice. But if you know Joel Finsel and he is the one behind the bar, then that’s exactly what you would expect. You would also expect a very, very good drink.

One crisp day in early fall I spent an hour or so with Joel in downtown Wilmington at the Brooklyn Arts Center, a gorgeous, deconsecrated church that was built in 1888 and passed through the hands of numerous congregations before falling into disrepair and being saved by a public and private partnership in the late 1990s. Over the past decade, the Brooklyn Arts Center has hosted countless weddings, community events and concerts by musicians like Art Garfunkel, Brandi Carlile and Old Crow Medicine Show. The sprawling complex, which features the event space, a bridal suite, an annex that once served as an old schoolhouse, a courtyard and the Bell Tower Tasting Room, is now a busy hub of art, culture and celebration. It was in the Bell Tower Tasting Room where I found Joel, ready and waiting to mix up a few cocktails that are perfect for the upcoming holiday season.

As Joel mixes our first cocktail — a mulled apple cider — I ask him how he’s been able to build a career as a bartender with one foot in the literary world, another in modern art and another (apparently Joel has three feet) in bartending. He smiles. “I think I’ve always been attracted to chaos,” he says, which surprises me. Joel is one of the most measured people I’ve ever met, and to watch him work behind the bar is to witness a seemingly effortless precision.

     

The steaming hot apple cider is poured with bourbon and garnished with star anise, lemon and a cinnamon stick stirrer. It tastes like a winter evening, presents wrapped under the tree and the kids blessedly asleep before the chaos of Christmas morning.

I ask Joel about his childhood growing up in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, a small blue collar town on the banks of the Lehigh River about an hour and a half northwest of Philadelphia.

“Until I was 5, my family lived in a trailer on a dirt road, 2 miles up along the side of a mountain. It was awesome because there were bears and deer, and you could just pick up rocks and there were orange salamanders everywhere,” he says. “And then my great-grandmother passed away and we moved into her house in town, which changed everything for me. I was suddenly in the middle of a small town and I could walk to high school and there were girls there. And there was a basketball court nearby, which I pretty much lived at.”

The abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline also moved to Lehighton in his youth in the second decade of the 20th century. Joel’s mother had grown up in the area hearing stories about Kline and his work, and her interest led her to become one of the country’s pre-eminent specialists on everything from Kline’s paintings to his career and biography. When Joel was young, his mother began working on a biography of Kline, but it wasn’t until Joel graduated from college and was teaching school in Philadelphia that he asked for a look at the manuscript.

“I was home for Christmas, and I said, ‘Mom, what’s up with that book?’ I asked her if I could take a look at it. And then I realized what she had was a huge document of notes, but no structure.” Mother and son began working on the project together, and they would do so for over 20 years before Franz Kline in Coal Country was published in 2019, the first biography to examine this major American artist’s formative years in Pennsylvania, Boston and London before he became one of the founding members of the New York School.

The next cocktail Joel prepares is called the Cat’s Whiskers, a tipple of rye whiskey, honey syrup, fresh lemon juice and Angostura bitters that tastes like a party thrown by Jay Gatsby. If I were to turn and look over the balcony here at the Brooklyn Arts Center, I would almost expect to see a jazz band taking the stage, the audience filled with men in smart suits and women in flapper dresses, snow pounding against the stained glass windows as the hour tips past midnight.

The book on Kline was not the first Joel had published. During a long career as a bartender — one that began in college and would lead to reviews and spots in publications like Bartender Magazine, Cosmopolitan and a profile in Playboy as one of the country’s Top 10 Mixologists — Joel had accumulated countless stories from co-workers and patrons, many of which he recounted in his 2009 book Cocktails & Conversations, which expertly mixes barroom lore with the histories of mixology and cocktail recipes.

One bar customer who had an enormous influence on Joel’s life was the abstract expressionist Edward Meneeley, a contemporary and friend of artists like Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol. Joel and Meneeley met while Joel was in college at Kutztown University and working at a bar across the street from Meneeley’s art studio.

“Ed introduced me to mixing things like Campari and soda back in the day when everyone drank Captain and Coke, circa 1998,” Joel says. “Ed would come into the bar and throw his old copies of The New Yorker at me and tell me I needed to educate myself out of this town, so I got to know the work of the magazine’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl pretty well. I wasn’t even 21 yet. I started tending bar at 18, which was legal.”

The next cocktail Joel makes is called Lavender 75, and while it doesn’t include Campari, the West Indian orange bitters combine with gin, fresh lemon, lavender syrup and a splash of dry Champagne to give the drink an incredibly complex and layered taste, both dry and deeply flavorful.

When Joel and his wife, Jess James (who owns a vintage clothing boutique in Wilmington that is a habitual stop for Hollywood actors when they’re in town filming movies), moved to town in 2005, Joel brought his two main interests south with him: mixology and contemporary art. He took a job as the bartender of Café Phoenix in downtown Wilmington and designed one of the first craft cocktail menus in the city. He also curated the art on the restaurant’s walls, hosting artists like his friend Meneeley and Leon Schenker. Suddenly work by internationally known artists valued at tens of thousands of dollars was hanging where local art had once dominated the walls.

It was after a few years in Wilmington, where he eventually earned an MA in liberal studies from UNC Wilmington, that Joel first learned about the 1898 race massacre, the only successful coup in American history that saw white supremacists murder untold numbers of Black citizens while overthrowing the duly elected local government. He was shocked to learn that something so horrible had happened in a city he had quickly grown to love.

After researching the events surrounding 1898, Joel co-founded the nonprofit Third Person Project, which is dedicated to uncovering and preserving history. One of the group’s first projects was gathering and digitizing copies of The Daily Record, which was the only daily Black newspaper in North Carolina before it was destroyed by a mob during the events of 1898. Since then, the organization has gone on to host musicians like Rhiannon Giddens, who came to Wilmington to perform the “Songs of 1898” at a 2018 event with Joel’s Third Person co-founder, writer John Jeremiah Sullivan. Third Person has gone on to lead Wilmington in efforts to save historic buildings, mark burial places, and uncover lost histories, often by partnering with local institutions like UNC Wilmington’s Equity Institute.

On a smaller scale, Joel is also contributing to local history with the impact he’s had on its cocktail scene. The final drink he mixes — the True Blue — is a good example. He created it years ago when he designed the cocktail menu for the Wilmington restaurant True Blue Butcher and Table. The cocktail remains a fixture and, with its mix of pear-infused vodka, elderflower liqueur, lemon and a splash of dry Champagne, I understand why.

Our interview is over and, as Joel cleans up behind the bar, he tells me he plans to spend the rest of the afternoon working on an essay about 1898. Cocktails, conversation, curating art, correcting history. It’s all in a day’s work.

True Blue

Fresh, clean, bright. Designed after research into ancient Greek formulas for the “nectar of the gods.”

1 ounce Grey Goose La Poire vodka

1 ounce St. Elder elderflower liqueur

1/2 ounce fresh lemon (or about half
a lemon)

Splash dry Champagne

Splash sparkling mineral water

Pre-chill cocktail coupe and set aside. Mix vodka, elderflower liqueur and fresh lemon over ice in a mixing glass. Shake hard for at least 12 seconds. Discard ice from pre-chilled coupe back into ice bin. Strain mixture into coupe. Float Champagne and soda. Garnish by dropping in 3 blueberries or thin slice of pear.

 

The Cat’s Whiskers

Substitute gin and it becomes The Bees Knees. Both are Roaring ’20s slang for the height of excellence.

1 3/4 ounces favorite bourbon or rye whisky

1 ounce honey syrup (1:1 ratio of hot water to honey)

3-4 fresh mint leaves

1/2 ounce fresh lemon

2 dashes Angostura bitters (optional)

Splash sparkling water 

Pre-chill cocktail coupe and set aside. Combine all of the ingredients over ice and shake for 12 seconds. Discard ice from pre-chilled coupe back into ice bin. Double strain into coupe (make sure no green flecks of mint end up in anyone’s teeth). Garnish with fresh mint top.

 

Lavender 75

The classic French 75 cocktail was named after a cannon. This places a flower in the barrel.

1 1/2  ounces Botany Gin

1/2 ounce fresh lemon

1 ounce lavender syrup (steep dried lavender flowers like a tea in hot water, then add sugar, 1:1 ratio)

3 dashes West Indies Orange Bitters

Splash dry Champagne

Splash sparkling mineral water

Pre-chill a cocktail coupe and set aside. Combine all of the ingredients over ice and shake for at least 12 seconds. Discard ice from pre-chilled coupe back into ice bin. Strain the chilled mixture into the coupe. Garnish with 3-4 dried lavender buds.  OH

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.

The Creators of N.C.

A Purpose-Driven Art

Scott Avett follows the mystery

By Wiley Cash

Photographs By Mallory Cash

For a man whose music I’ve been listening to for almost two decades and whose face I’ve seen everywhere from the Grammy Awards to the Today show to the 2017 documentary May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers by Judd Apatow, Scott Avett was surprisingly easy to reach. After a couple of calls and texts to mutual friends, my wife, Mallory, and I arrived to interview him one day in early August. He met us in the driveway of the small house he’d converted into an art studio in the country about 15 minutes outside of downtown Concord, North Carolina.

Most North Carolinians, as well as music lovers around the world, know Scott as the other half of the Avett Brothers, who, along with his younger brother Seth, bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon, have sold millions of records and whose career has carried the band from small stages in college towns to the Grand Ole Opry to Madison Square Garden and beyond. But Scott knows himself best as a man whose purpose is to create, and painting is as much a part of his creative life as songwriting.

While his visual art has rarely been exhibited publicly aside from a 2019 show at the North Carolina Museum of Art, Scott has been a working artist since graduating from East Carolina University in 2000 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in studio art. His paintings and drawings most often speak to family life and the natural world in rural North Carolina, but his work is in conversation with the many cultural and artistic influences he encounters on the road and in his reading life.

In our time together, Scott will rattle off quotes from French Impressionist Edgar Degas and the Trappist monk and mystic poet Thomas Merton the way some of us might casually discuss Monday Night Football or the day’s headlines. It’s clear to me that while his work portrays what one could see and hear if one were to spend time shadowing him during his daily life on the land in Concord, there is a deeper spiritual mystery residing in the work that speaks to the same unseen hand that guides emotions and ideas like love, duty, purpose and one’s role in them all.

This mystery is perhaps what Scott refers to as “the revelation of meaning beyond the physical act of making” that informs his exhibition, “After the Fact,” which is running through October at the Greenville Museum of Art in Greenville, North Carolina. This exhibit will run concurrently with “Purpose at Random,” Scott’s show at the SOCO Gallery in Charlotte, which began in September and will run through November 2. The show in Charlotte features new oil paintings that Scott began working on in the early months of 2020, which means the work was created during the pandemic when he would have otherwise been on the road with the band. In a press release for the show, Scott says, “I’m not sure that it was easier to paint during the pandemic but it was certainly more available than playing concerts. Painting is a solitary activity. The more time alone the better, I think. The pandemic provided space.”

On the day we meet him, the only calendar space Scott has is a two-week break from touring, and so he’s at work completing a painting that will be featured in one of the upcoming shows. Inside, his studio reveals itself to be a place in creative flux. Paintings either hang on the walls or lean against them, some in various stages of completion. Hiding amongst them — and he will show it to us just before we leave in a few hours — is an early draft of a painting of singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile, the final draft of which appeared on the cover of her 2018 multi-Grammy Award-winning album, By the Way, I Forgive You.

We follow Scott into an open space, past a low counter where his kids’ works-in-progress are waiting for their return. The studio is bright and airy. Morning light pours through the windows on the east side of the house. Scott stands in the middle of the room with a cup of coffee brewed by the Concord coffeehouse, Verb, in hand.

As Mallory unpacks her camera gear, I tell Scott that I grew up in Gastonia, which is on the west side of Charlotte, while Concord sits on its east. We talk about what it was like to be raised so close to Charlotte in the 1980s and ’90s without much awareness of what went on in what seemed to us to be “the big city.” We joked that the only time we went into Charlotte was to go Christmas shopping at SouthPark.

“That was the fancy mall,” Scott says, smiling. I tell him that once, when I was young, I spotted NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon with his first wife at SouthPark, and that leads us to a conversation about race car drivers as Sunday races served as the backdrop of our North Carolina childhoods, especially for Scott, given that Charlotte Motor Speedway sits just a few miles away from the place where he was raised. I ask Scott how he and his family ended up on this expanse of land where he has remained despite his world travels, his parents still living just a few miles down the road, and his own family’s home tucked into the woods behind his studio.

Scott’s father was born in North Carolina and grew up the son of a Methodist minister whose calling took the family around the state. Scott’s mother was an Army kid born on a base in Germany before being raised in Kansas and Virginia. Just before Scott was born, his parents and older sister moved to Alaska, where his father hoped to get work as a pipeline welder, but the job fell through, and on the way back south the family lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for about a year. That’s where Scott was born. But they eventually found their way back to North Carolina and to the landscape where Scott’s grandfather had touched so many lives. When the family decided to settle down outside Concord — his father traveled as a welder and his mother taught school — they were gifted 2 acres and an old house by an elderly couple who had long admired Scott’s grandfather. His father renovated the home, and Scott’s parents lived there until the house burned down last year. But fire can’t burn roots, and Scott’s parents rebuilt, and they continue to reside just down the road from him.

When Scott and his two siblings were growing up, his parents made certain that education was available to them, especially if the kids were hungry for it. “They were intent on that,” he says. “They said, ‘We will see to it that you have an opportunity to go to school. If we’re broke, we’ll rob a bank to pay for it. If you are interested in education, you will get the opportunity.’” All three children went to college.

It’s clear that Scott values his children’s education as well, especially in the arts. Aside from the makeshift studio set up for them alongside his own work, his daughter regularly participates in after-school tutoring sessions in creative writing led by the owner of the local bookstore, Goldberry Books, in downtown Concord. It’s easy to imagine a holistic education in art and outdoor experiences unfolding for children in a landscape like this. If I sound wistful when imagining such a childhood it’s because I am.

But our conversation turns toward what could be considered the more practical matters of being a creator, namely, what happens when your hobby — whether it’s painting or songwriting or writing novels — becomes your job. Is the mystery of creation compromised?

“As soon as you’re doing something to pay bills, I don’t know that you’re really following your heart,” Scott says. “We’re called to have a purpose, but you can slip off that purpose really quickly, and all of a sudden the purpose becomes to pay the bills more easily. I want to avoid that. There’s a mystery in creating. I want to follow the mystery and get as close to it as I can. But when I’m caught up in success or anything else it has nothing to do with getting close to the mystery. It just distracts from it.”

Jeff Gordon and NASCAR are still lingering in the corners of my mind, and I mention that Gordon retired from driving at the age of 44, and both Scott and I are now in our mid-40s. I tell him that I doubt Gordon’s physical skills were diminished at that age, but perhaps his awareness of the risks he was taking became more apparent the older and wiser he got. I ask Scott if he’s more aware of the choices he’s making at this stage of his career and if his skills are continuing to sharpen. 

“I feel like I’m in the sweet spot, ability-wise,” he says about both performing music and painting. “Physically, I can do it, and, mentally, my tools have accumulated quite a bit. I see evidence of that when I can make plans about what project I am going to execute. Ten years ago, I might say, ‘I hope I can do this. I hope I don’t flub it and get stuck on something.’” He pauses for a moment. “I think I hold it all a little looser than I ever did, and I’m not going to be blown away by whether it hits or doesn’t hit. I don’t know why, but there’s now a barometer, and sometimes it says, ‘Hey, enough, you have enough. Now, with enough, can you lean into your purpose?’”

I ask him how it feels to let go of a painting after someone buys it. After all, when he writes a song he can always perform it whether or not it’s on a record or in front of a live audience. “It rips pretty hard,” he says. “It really does. I see painting as me telling my life story, and as I do that, it’s kind of tough to imagine that some of it’s in Colorado, some of it’s in New York, some of it’s in Texas. But I haven’t gotten too attached to any of them so far. There are only three I won’t let go of. One of my wife and two of our kids that I painted in bathing suits. They’re just portraits of them, but I’ve said those aren’t for sale.”

I ask him if his art is a result of his being anchored to this land given his family’s history on it. He pauses as if painting an answer in his mind.

“We’re all bigger than our place,” he finally says. “I am in North Carolina, and I am making the things I’m meant to make. When you can settle that and not think that New York is better than North Carolina, then you can start getting to your work.

“You have to find a corner of the world,” he says. “I truly believe that on these 80 acres there is more to explore than I can do in a lifetime. There is so much work to be done here, and by work I mean purpose. To me, my purpose is realized here. My purpose is to create. There are a lot of leaves to peel back here, and there are a lot of experiences happening.”

He pulls his phone from his pocket and flips through his photos, landing on a picture he took the night before of his 7-year-old son just after he’d fallen asleep. “There’s nothing not timeless about this,” he says. “If my purpose is to recognize relationships and see things, this is a good place to be.” He laughs and puts his phone away. “But where’s not?”  OH

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.