Ceramic artist Joey Sheehan describes the Phil Mechanic building as an intimidating place to walk into, and from my experience, he’s right. The first time I entered this four-story maze of artist studios and gallery space I felt a little like I was walking into somebody’s home. There’s a private and personal feeling to the space inside Phil Mechanic Studios; because more than any other building in the River District, this collective of creative people functions like a family.
The Phil Mechanic has been through many iterations during its life in the River District. It was once a grocery warehouse where food goods were brought in from the railroad and stored for distribution to local groceries and restaurants. When the eponymous Phil Mechanic took over the building in the 70′s it became a construction materials business. And when Jolene Mechanic and her husband Mitch inherited the building in the early 2000′s, they converted it into its current identity as Phil Mechanic Studios. Today, the bottom floor is the production facility of Blue Ridge Biofuels, a noisy, industrial space where waste vegetable oil is “magically” converted into fuel to power your car or heat your home. One floor up is the Flood Gallery, a space known for attracting the more progressive and culturally challenging voices in the art world. And off of the Flood Gallery there is a public photography darkroom, a set of art studios called the Cooler (it used to be a meat locker), and one more hidden gallery space that features the work of Asheville artists Sean Pace and Melissa Terraza.
This is the way with the Phil Mechanic building: Just when you think you’ve fully explored one level you will find another door that opens onto a new studio or gallery space that you never imagined was there. This cavernous edifice is jam-packed with creative endeavors, and walking the long stairwell between levels can make for a very effective exercise routine. One brisk day in January I spent the afternoon doing calisthenics up and down this blessed stairwell as Jolene Mechanic showed me through the building.
Jolene Mechanic is the straight-talking, fast-walking magneto of energy that keeps this place running. She is landlord to the artists, manager of the Flood Gallery and Fine Arts Center, member of many boards around town (from Asheville Go to Black Mountain College), and as the artists of the Phil Mechanic will tell you, she is a mother to all and a benefactor to anyone in need. The fact that the Phil Mechanic operates at such a high level of community and cooperation is no mistake–the community environment exists here because of the influence of Jolene. Every Wednesday there are community potlucks, every Friday night there is a free film-showing, and Jolene’s office is always open for a conversation or a treat for your dog.
When I began work on this video series I wanted to explore not only what individual artists were saying through their work but also how these artists were helping each other and interacting in community. Over time I discovered that the opportunity for community is not the first draw for many people in the River District. It seems the majority of artists working in the area were primarily attracted by cheap rent and the economic advantages of being part of a fine art destination. In the Phil Mechanic Studios, however, community is at the heart of what’s going on. There is constant collaboration, critical dialogue, and cross-pollination happening within the studios and even across disciplines. Lingerie designer Elise Olson is refreshed by visits to the ceramic studios one floor down, the ceramic artists share tools and secrets in their daily work, and Celia Barbieri (the Button Florist) reclaims the colorful plastic bottle caps left over from Melissa Terazza’s sculpture, turning them into attractive craft flowers. From Bio-Fuel to found objects sculpture, the ethic of recycling the exhaust of industrial society is felt strongly throughout the Phil Mechanic building.
As for Jolene, her great passion is to serve young people through art education. Through the Flood Center Jolene organizes interactive experiences for local schools and camps employing painting, music, dance, and any form she can use to engage the minds of children and help them think outside of the box. She often rallies the talents of her artist-tenants at Phil Mechanic to make these programs soar.
There’s too much going on at Phil Mechanic to cover here. I could get lost in telling you about the building’s public spaces (the library on the top floor is lined wall-to-wall with books and offers free wi-fi). Jolene has numberless stories to share about the positive impact that Flood is having with area youth. The Bio-Fuels plant deserves a video unto itself. And Sean Pace (a founding member of the Phil Mechanic Studios) always has a novel scheme cooking (ie. purchase a retired Navy vessel and convert it into a traveling community for artists). So, I’ll have to leave you with the video for Phil Mechanic, which just manages to scratch the surface of this amazing community. I’ll also strongly urge you to pluck up your courage and walk into the building someday. Begin exploring the rich experiment in community and art which is happening at Phil Mechanic, and consider what you can do to support this valuable work.
Here are some more stills taken during production and grabbed from the finished video. Please enjoy this glimpse in Phil Mechanic, and chime in with your comments below. Thanks for taking a look!