Asheville, you may have heard, has got some art. Whatever your taste—high or low; good or bad—the city probably has you covered. Its offerings are broad, comprising both tourist take-home fare and challenging street murals barely up for a month.
Less familiar to casual observers, and even many locals, however, is the portfolio of artists such as Scott Arthur. Scott, an Arden resident, is very likely the city’s—nay, all of Western North Carolina’s—most accomplished renderer of Michael Jackson. Indeed, every single one of the 37-year-old’s paintings is a tribute to the King of Pop. While the palette (and album reference) of each may change, Arthur’s “MJ” paintings, as he refers to them, all express a gratitude easily recognized by anyone who has shaken it to the likes of “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” or “Bad.”
Despite his mastery, Scott is not, however, a classically trained artist. He learned to paint while attending the Open Hearts Art Center, a habilitative care center in Malvern Hills “serving adults with a variety of developmental, mental, physical, and emotional disabilities.” Founded in 2005, Open Hearts is staffed almost entirely by artists, all of them dedicated to teaching the 35 enrolled students their techniques. Scott, who has Down Syndrome, has been a student at the Center since it opened.
While works produced by the Center’s student-artists can be located around town, some have made their way further afield, thanks to an increasing interest in “visionary” or “outsider” art, the terms commonly used to refer to art created by nontraditional or self-taught artists. In 2007, Open Hearts student Merlin Strivelli’s Comics and Stories Part 1 was selected to be part of an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Ripley Center, and Open Hearts staff have sold paintings at visionary arts festivals in Atlanta and New York City, the big, bad capital of the modern art world itself.
For Sonia Pitts, one of the Center’s three directors (the others are Debbie Dearborn Harris and Jessie Francis), the appeal of students’ artwork is plain. “[Students] have no preconceived idea of what society should look like,” she says. “Ultimately, they have total artistic freedom.” Students are equipped to see the world as it is, not as we have each constructed it.
An appreciation for artistic independence seems to guide the Open Hearts Arts Center. Accordingly, Staff-Student Coordinator Bryan Ottiviano sees a natural connection between his background in performing and choreography and his work at the Center. “What happens here is definitely genuine expression,” Bryan says, that “comes from an inspired place.” Scott Arthur, whose dedication to Jackson influences so much of his life—when we meet, he’s wearing a T-shirt with the “Thriller” album cover—confirms this. “I love [Jackson],” Scott says, adding that he “likes to do everything” to honor the fallen legend, including singing and dancing, in addition to painting.
Bryan is one of two full-timers among the staff of fewer than 15. Given its unique programming and Asheville’s artist-magnet status, Open Hearts is a coveted place to work or volunteer, says Sonia Pitts. (It’s so popular, in fact, the Center has to frequently turn jobseekers away.) Most of the staff have studios in the River Arts District or work as musicians, helping the Center forge connections around town and find outlets for students’ artwork.
Locally, paintings by Merlin, Scott, and other Open Hearts artists hang at the Woolworth Walk gallery, and restaurants City Bakery, HomeGrown, Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack, and Neo Burrito. There’s also a gallery at Open Hearts itself. The artists’ biggest exhibition, however, is the Center’s annual February show, Work of heART,” to be held again this year at the Satellite Gallery at 55 Broadway Street downtown.
The program has had considerable success at HomeGrown, according to owner Miki Kilpatrick. Since opening two years ago, the restaurant has sold more works from Open Hearts artists than from all of the other artists on display combined. Paintings from Open Hearts “are always very interesting,” Miki says, and often vary in medium and subject matter.
Like all of the local sites that exhibit the Center’s art, HomeGrown does not receive any money for any paintings that are sold. Half of all sales go directly to the artist, and the other half goes toward administering the program. This amount, however, is a small piece of the Center’s funding, which comes mostly through Medicaid and the state of North Carolina.
While Sonia Pitts and her co-directors ensure that students’ needs are met, the relationship is more than reciprocal. “Students teach us more than we teach them,” she says. “Who wouldn’t want to work here?”
Open Hearts Art Center is located at 5 Woodland Drive in the Malvern Hills neighborhood of Asheville. For more information, call 828.505.8428 or visit openheartsartcenter.org. You can also visit the Open Heart Art Center shop on Etsy.
Adam Rosen is an editor at Soomo Publishing in Asheville. He is also a Capricorn.