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.  PS

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.

A Shared Life

Judy Goldman looks back on the Jim Crow South

By Wiley Cash

Photographs by Mallory Cash

I first met author Judy Kurtz Goldman in the summer of 2013 when we were seated beside one another at a dinner sponsored by a local bookstore in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Of that evening, I can remember Judy’s elegant Southern accent, her self-deprecating humor, and her teasing me that my calling her “ma’am” made her feel old. But Southerners like Judy know that the conventions you were raised under are hard to buck, regardless of whether they are based on something as benign as manners or as oppressive as prejudice.

According to the late Pat Conroy, Judy Goldman is a writer of “great luminous beauty,” and I happen to agree with him. She’s published two previous memoirs, two novels, two collections of poetry, and she has won the Sir Walter Raleigh Prize for fiction and the Hobson Award for Distinguished Achievement in Arts and Letters. In her new memoir, Child, Judy confronts the horrible legacy of the Jim Crow South while coming to terms with the fact that the customs and laws born from Jim Crow delivered one of the most meaningful and long lasting relationships of Judy’s life. The memoir explores the life she shared with her family’s live-in domestic worker, a Black woman named Mattie Culp, who came to live with and work for the Kurtz family in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when she was 26 and Judy was 3. From the moment of Mattie’s arrival, she and Judy were close physically and emotionally. They shared a bedroom and a bed. (Mattie shared the single bathroom with Judy’s parents and two older siblings.) Judy and Mattie also shared one another’s love, and that love would cement their indescribably close bond up until Mattie’s death in 2007 at age 89.

“Our love was unwavering,” Judy writes in the book’s prologue. “But it was, by definition, uneven.”

There is an old saying that writers write because we have questions, and while Judy has no questions about the depth of her love for Mattie or the depth of Mattie’s love for her, she has spent much of her adult life pondering questions about the era and place in which she was raised. Judy came of age in the 1940s and ’50s, and although she has spent decades living and raising a family in Charlotte, Rock Hill is the defining landscape of her literature. 

“Rock Hill is in every book I’ve ever written,” she tells me one morning in early March. “It’s a love affair.”

But love, as Judy makes clear in writing about her relationship with Mattie, is a complicated emotion. While Judy’s childhood in Rock Hill was blissful on the surface, as an adult she looks back on her life with a discerning eye that is able to appraise the dichotomy of the Southern childhood. This act of remembering and then re-seeing brings a whiplash of honest realizations to the memoir’s pages.

For example, as a child, Judy was proud of the beautiful school with the new playground that she and other white children attended. She did not know that Mattie, who regularly walked Judy to school, walked her home and took her to play on the playground, had attended a Rosenwald School built for Black children in 1925 in the countryside 10 miles outside of Rock Hill. Judy only learned this information while writing her memoir, and she was able to find old photographs of the school: a two-room wood frame building with an outhouse, a far cry from where Judy had spent her school days.

As she grew older, Judy would wonder why Mattie and her boyfriend would sit in his car in the Kurtzes’ driveway and chat instead of going out on dates like regular couples did. “I wondered why they never went anywhere,” she writes. “I know now there was no place for those two Black people to go in Rock Hill.”

Life was good in the Rock Hill of Judy’s youth, but it was not always good to everyone. In one reminiscence, she recalls the lush gardens in her neighborhood where blossoms and blooms abounded in manicured yards. But when she would least expect it, a snake could slither free from the grass and cross her path on the sidewalk where she and Mattie walked together. “Camellias and snakes,” Judy writes. “The particulars of our lives. The irregular ground on which our life stories were built.”

The irregular ground of Judy’s childhood was laid by her parents. Her father owned a clothing store and went against local custom in the 1950s by hiring a Black saleswoman named Thelma to serve the all-white customers. (In one of the memoir’s most harrowing scenes, a white saleswoman’s husband shows up in the middle of the night at the Kurtz home and drunkenly demands that Thelma not be allowed to use the one restroom available to the store’s staff. Her father refused the request and sent the man on his way.) Judy’s mother kept the books at the store, and while Judy claims that her mother “couldn’t boil water,” she never missed an opportunity to celebrate, meaning that the Jewish Kurtz family hid Easter eggs and put up a Christmas tree every year.

These irregularities — going against local custom and religious practice — are somewhat easy to explain, considering that Judy describes her father as fair and her mother as someone who loved joy. But there were other, harder to explain inconsistencies. The Kurtzes were a progressive family, so how could they employ a live-in domestic worker who never shared meals with them? Judy, the youngest child in the family, was being raised by a Black woman who, when just a child herself, had given birth to a daughter of her own named Minnie. Why wasn’t Mattie raising her? Judy has spent much of her life pondering these questions, and she decided that taking them to the page was the best way to try to answer them, but the answers would not be easy to find, and even if Judy found them, could she trust how she had arrived there?

“Can we trust anything inside the system we were brought up in?” she writes.

Judy and I are standing at the dining room table in the third floor apartment she shares with her husband, Henry, near Queens University in Charlotte. Family photographs are scattered on the table in front of us. In the living room, my daughters Early and Juniper peck away at the piano while Mallory breaks down lighting equipment and talks to Henry. He stands with the cane he has used since recovering from what was supposed to be a routine back surgery that ended up briefly paralyzing him, resulting in years of physical therapy just to be able to stand and walk again.

Judy’s last memoir, Together, which was published in 2018 and received lavish praise, including a starred review from Library Journal, is about Henry’s surgery and its aftermath, but it is also about their long and loving marriage. I look down at the photos of Mattie and recognize her from the photograph on the cover of Together. In that photo, a newly married Henry and Judy are coming down the steps of her parents’ home while smiling friends toss rice into the air. Mattie stands in the background, smiling as if her own youngest child has just gotten hitched.

I ask Judy, after a lifetime of knowing Mattie, what made her want to publish a memoir about her now.

“I think it felt right to publish it when I turned 80,” she says. “I thought, if I don’t do it now, I’m not going to do it, it won’t get done.” She pauses, looks down at the photographs. One of them, a black and white portrait of Mattie taken around 1944, which was when she came to work for the Kurtz family, stares back at us. “I never thought I had the right to tell this story,” she says. “A privileged white child in the Jim Crow South talking about her Black live-in maid. The more details you hear, the worse it sounds.”

But over the years Judy came to understand that her and Mattie’s story differed from the stories some of Judy’s friends and acquaintances would tell about the hired women who had raised them. Judy often came away from those conversations with the full understanding that many of those people had not truly examined the inequity of those childhood relationships, choosing instead to focus only on the love Black women had shown their white charges, not the full scope of what the price of that love might have been.

“I don’t want to join them in that,” Judy says. “If my book did not really examine that situation with Mattie and me, then I wasn’t going to publish it.”

Child is full of Judy asking tough questions of herself, her family, and the place she has always called home. “How do I cross-examine the way it was?” she asks in one scene. “Can we ever tell the whole truth to ourselves?” she asks in another.

Child shows that truth — at least truth of a sort — can be found. When she was a teenager, Mattie’s daughter Minnie learned that the woman she had long assumed was her aunt was actually her mother, and Mattie eventually put Minnie through college. She would end up earning a master’s degree, as would Mattie’s three grandchildren. The irregular ground of life’s stories. Camellias and snakes. Jim Crow and a lifelong connection that endures beyond death. As Judy writes in her closing lines, “It is possible for love to co-exist with ugliness.”  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.

The Burden and Beauty of Home

Carrying the weight of
William Paul Thomas’ art

By Wiley Cash

Photographs by Mallory Cash

I’ve met William Paul Thomas twice, both times inside an art gallery. He wasn’t present for our first meeting, but his work was. In October last year, I encountered his portrait of Alexander Manly, editor of The Daily Record, which was North Carolina’s only daily Black newspaper, as part of the Initiative 1897 exhibit at a gallery show in downtown Wilmington. The exhibit featured prominent Black civic leaders in the years preceding the 1898 race massacre, a violent coup d’état that saw Wilmington go from being one of America’s most successful Black cities to a place where racial terror and murder were used to take over Black-owned businesses and homes.

The second time I met William was in late February inside the Nasher Gallery on the campus of Duke University, where his portrait series Cyanosis was part of an exhibit titled “Reckoning and Resilience: North Carolina Art Now.” The subjects in the nine paintings in the Cyanosis exhibit are not as historically prominent as Alexander Manly, but they’re nonetheless important to William’s life. Each person is either someone he knows or someone he’s met during the course of a day, perhaps someone with whom he shared a passing conversation or a quiet moment that changed the trajectory of an afternoon.

Top row: Regine’s Brother, 2021, Lindsay’s Friend, 2018, Donna’s Son From Chicago, 2017. Second row: Le frère de Nathaly, 2019, Leticia’s Dear Friend, 2021, Kenna’s Dad, 2019. Third row: Tamara’s Father, 2019, Lydia’s Only Caregiver, 2017, Stephanie Woods’ Fiance As An Icon of Piety, 2017.

The name of the series is taken from the medical term that refers to the blue pallor skin takes on when it is not sufficiently oxygenated. The idea first took root in a portrait William painted of his young nephew Michael. He painted half of Michael’s face blue to emphasize the color of his skin. Soon, the use of blue grew to represent the presence of deep emotions — perhaps trauma, fear or uncertainty — that lie beneath the surface of people’s lives while they present a calm face to the world. In an online interview with Artsuite, William shared the unifying theme of the series: “My question through those paintings is: What would it look like if that trauma or adversity was shown on the skin? Would it invite people to be kinder to each other?”

On the day I finally met William in person inside the Nasher Gallery, Mallory, our daughters and I arrived half an hour early. While Mallory unpacked her camera gear and set off to scout the museum for places to set up, our daughters and I wandered through the exhibits with scores of other masked patrons. When we found the exhibit featuring William’s paintings, we paused and stood in front of them. The nine paintings are all closely cropped portraits of Black men in rows of three with a self-portrait of William sitting at the center. Each of the men is looking in a different direction, some of them seeming to stare right into the viewer’s eyes. Strips of blue color their faces in various places: across the eyes like a blindfold, over the nose like a mask, or covering the mouth like a gag.

William arrived, and we all introduced ourselves to one another. I’d been following his Instagram for several months — which I will later describe to him as being “delightfully weird” — and I didn’t know what to expect from an artist who is wildly experimental and playful while still remaining earnest and sincere. The dichotomy a viewer might find in William’s work also seems present in his personality; he is formal but warm, thoughtful but quick to smile. He told us he had just returned home on a flight from Chicago after spending the weekend at a family wedding with his fiancée and their newborn daughter. We joked that he looked rested and photogenic for a man who’d spent the morning lugging bags, baby and a car seat through airport terminals. His face softened for a moment at the mention of his being a new father, and then he and Mallory got to work.

Meanwhile, our 7- and 5-year-old daughters were feeling inspired after seeing the art in the museum. I tore pages loose from my notebook and fished pencils from my bag, and we found seats in the café and ordered snacks. I must have been feeling inspired myself because, like them, I began doodling on a blank page. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the faces of the men I’d just seen in William’s paintings, that strip of blue still hovering on the edges of my vision. When I thought of deoxygenated skin I thought of the videos I’d seen of Eric Garner and George Floyd, recalled their panicked voices saying, “I can’t breathe.” I looked down at my hands, one holding a pencil and the other resting on the table, the blue veins rolling atop the backs of my palms, not because my skin was deoxygenated or because I was experiencing latent trauma, but because my skin is pale and the blue veins were visible because the blood inside them was moving freely.

After we left the museum, we followed William across the Duke campus to the studio where he teaches a painting class to undergraduates, which is just one of the courses he teaches at several nearby universities. Inside the classroom, one of his students was behind an easel, working on a project from his class. He greeted her warmly by name, and then I watched him return to his work on a portrait of a man named Larry Reni Thomas, a Wilmington native known as Dr. Jazz because of his extensive knowledge of the music’s history. The two men met when William was working on Initiative 1897.

I asked William what interests him about painting people he meets. He lifted his brush from the canvas and considered my question, his eyes settling just above the top of his easel.

“For a long time, my art had been contained within an academic context,” he said, a reference to his Master of Fine Arts degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and his teaching in the undergraduate classroom. “In the portrait work, it’s important that the people that I invite (to be painted) don’t always belong to that same environment, so I’m having conversations with people who don’t necessarily have the same ties to UNC or Duke. I meet someone at the bus station and we strike up a conversation, and that’s a person I’m making a painting of. I feel like I start learning more about this area, or where I’m at, via those conversations. That’s how I’ve chosen to break away from a strictly academic environment.”

I ask him if he specifically looks for subjects outside of academic settings, and he admitted that he does, but that he’s also interested in introducing people to art who do not always think of themselves as being individuals who appreciate it.

“Sometimes I make visits to places with people because of the location. The Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill is right on Columbia and Franklin, and buses run all around that area. So if I was talking to somebody and having a conversation about art, there have been times — if they have the time — I’ll say, ‘Let’s take this conversation to the museum.’ Since I’ve identified museums and galleries as places I love to be as an artist and as a consumer of art, a lover of art, I don’t necessarily expect people to share that same interest, but if you tell me that you are not interested in art but you have not been inside a gallery, I question that and I challenge it and say, ‘Then let’s go check it out.’

“I have relatives, friends, people I’ve met who feel like they don’t have a direct connection to art, and I disagree right away because I’m thinking, if you dress yourself in the morning or if you like a certain model of car or if you like a certain movie, these are visual experiences where you are making choices about the visual world that suggests that you have some interest in aesthetics even if you don’t identify as an artist or a person who likes art. You can treat the museum that way, where you intuitively defer to your own tastes and go in there and judge whether or not you like whatever you see or are disinterested or feel moved by it based on your own experiences and not whatever education you have.”

When William considers how hesitant many people are to engage with art, he views his casual discussions with strangers as an opportunity that might lead them to a museum visit or to their portrait being painted: “It’s really of interest to me to engage in conversations where I try to demystify or deconstruct wherever that idea comes from.”

William is also interested in deconstructing the role art played in his own life, especially during his childhood. There could be no better representation of this than the bright pink concrete block that rested on the floor nearby. I’d already seen the block on his website, and I knew it had been painted to match a wall William’s mother had painted in the apartment where he’d grown up with his sisters in the Altgeld Garden housing project on Chicago’s South Side. He bent down and picked up the block at his feet.

“I extracted a single cinderblock as a way to represent that memory,” he said. “It became a way to carry that experience forward as a part of my narrative. How much of her decision to paint that wall influenced my decision to become an artist? This domestic alteration, how did it have an impact on the way I see the world?”

I asked him about the differences between being affected by the burden of memory and affected by the physical burden of lugging around a 40-pound block of cement.

“I did that unconsciously,” he says, referring to the burden of memory, “and now I’m doing it consciously. I’m choosing to carry this weight with me.” He smiles. “There’s never any good reason to carry a cinderblock around with you, but there might also not be a very good reason to take any traumatic or negative moments that I experienced as a child to have that affect me in the present, but nevertheless, for better or worse, the things we experience through our lives are carried with us. I’m definitely carrying home with me.”

I thought of his newborn daughter, a baby born in the Triangle, far from William’s Midwestern roots. What role would her father’s art play in her own conception of art’s role in her life? How would she carry her childhood with her?

He smiled at the questions, and then he rested the block in his lap as if it were a newborn.

“I hope she recognizes art as a normal, central fixture of her life, whether she is personally creating things or paying attention to the world around her. I hope she recognizes that it’s something valuable and precious.

“I hope she has an interest in exploring and discovery. I hope she gets to know Durham and North Carolina in a way that’s really intimate. I want her to carry with her how rich the world can be wherever she is as long as she’s paying attention.”

If William’s daughter follows the example of her father — an artist who is constantly paying attention to his surroundings with an idea toward capturing the richness of a place and the people who inhabit it — I’ll bet she’ll learn to do just that.  PS

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

The Creators of N.C.

The Lost Treasure of Home

Jonas Pate and his runaway hit Outer Banks

By Wiley Cash

While there is plenty of mystery in the breakout Netflix smash hit Outer Banks — everything from a father lost at sea to a legendary treasure — the mystery that director and co-creator Jonas Pate seems most intent on exploring is the age-old mystery of what divides people along class lines. It worked for Shakespeare with his Montagues and Capulets, and 370 or so years later it worked again for Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s Jets and Sharks. Pate’s rival groups are similarly aged, sun-kissed teenagers living and partying along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where a group of working class kids known as the “Pogues” continually find themselves marginalized and dismissed by the “Kooks,” who are the children of wealthy residents and seasonal tourists. Fists and hearts certainly fly, but despite the show’s use of cliffhangers and action-packed sequences, at its core Outer Banks investigates the emotional and experiential threads that pull some of us together across class lines while invisible barriers push others of us apart.

According to Pate, the divide between the haves and the have nots is “the oldest story in the world. It cuts across everything,” which he believes explains the show’s broad appeal.

Broad indeed. In the late spring of 2020, just as the people of the world were settling into the pandemic and the realization that they did not want to see or hear another word about Tiger King and Joe Exotic, Outer Banks debuted in mid-April and quickly became one of Netflix’s most watched shows of the year. The following summer, the show’s second season hit No. 1 on the Nielsen report. The success seemed immediate, and the show’s slick production quality made it all appear as easy and relaxed as a day on the water, but Jonas Pate and his twin brother, Josh, with whom he created Outer Banks along with Shannon Burke, had spent their whole lives preparing for this moment.

The Pate brothers grew up in Raeford, North Carolina, where their father served as a judge and their grandfather owned a local pharmacy. “It was amazing,” Jonas says. “It was like Mayberry. I’d ride my bike to the pharmacy and get a Cherry Coke and a slaw dog, and then I’d visit my dad at the courthouse. My stepmom was head of parks and recreation, so I’d go over there and help ref T-ball games.”

We are sitting on the second-story porch of the home he shares with his wife, Jennifer, and their two teenage children in Wilmington, just across the water from Wrightsville Beach. The January morning is unseasonably warm and sunny, and Jonas is dressed as if he just stepped off the set of Outer Banks, not as its director but as one of its stars. (How handsome is Jonas Pate? A few days later, our 5-year-old daughter will walk past Mallory’s computer while she is editing photos of Jonas. She will stop in her tracks and ask, “Who is that?”)

Jonas’ surfer appeal is not surprising considering that while he primarily grew up in Raeford and attended high school there, he spent his summers with his mother along the barrier islands near Charleston. “Outer Banks is an amalgam of different high school environments and things that we went through,” he says. “It helped create the mythical environment of Outer Banks where we kind of knew what it was like to live feral in a small town with haves and have-nots. Kiawah and James Island were like that. It was poor kids and rich kids, and they would get into fights. And Raeford is still very rural.”

Rural, yes, but Jonas and Josh still found plenty to keep them busy. If they were not exploring the marshes and waterways off the coast of Charleston, then they were shooting homemade movies back in Raeford, where they made films of Robin Hood and Hercules and edited them by using two VHS machines. He laughs at the memory of it. “The cuts were terrible and fuzzy,” he says, “and all the special effects and sound were awful.” But he admits that something felt and still feels magical about it. He had always loved film, especially those by Steven Spielberg and Frank Capra, saying that he has “always been drawn to filmmakers who are a little sweeter and have a little more heart.”

After college, the brothers found that they still had the desire to make films, but they did not know how to break into the industry. “We didn’t know anyone in the film business,” he says. “We didn’t know anything.”

The brothers moved to New York and worked to immerse themselves in the city’s film culture. While interning at the Angelika Film Center, Josh met Peter Glatzer, who was a fundraiser for the Independent Feature Project. They talked about screenwriting, and the Pate brothers soon had a script that Glatzer was interested in producing. Their first film, The Grave, was shot in eastern North Carolina, and while it did not receive a theatrical release and went straight to video after premiering on HBO, the Pate brothers had their collective foot in the door. In 1997, they made another North Carolina-shot film with Glatzer, The Deceiver, that starred Tim Roth and Renée Zellweger, and it found a larger audience after debuting at the Venice Film Festival and being distributed by MGM. The brothers headed for Los Angeles.

Once there, Jonas found himself “taking jobs just to pay the bills” and “getting further and further away from what I actually wanted to do.” One bright spot of his time in LA was meeting his wife, Jennifer, who also worked in the industry as a casting agent. Not long after they met, Jennifer started her own agency, and Jonas went to her for assistance in casting his first television show, Good vs. Evil, in 1999. From there he went on to direct and produce a number of television shows, including the NBC shows Deception and Prime Suspect and ABC’s Blood and Oil. In 2005, the Pate brothers partnered again and returned to North Carolina, where they filmed a single season of the television show Surface, which they co-created. After having kids, Jonas and Jennifer decided to move back to North Carolina in time for their son and daughter to attend high school. Jonas suddenly found himself on the other side of the country from the industry he had devoted his life to for the past 20 years.

But then something magical happened. Jonas understood two things: First, he needed to create something that could be shot on the coast so he could stay close to home. Second, he would draw from his own experiences to make it real. “When I pulled from my own life instead of the movies I’d seen, it all came together,” he says. “You get to the universal by being super specific.”

One big challenge that Jonas and his team encountered was casting the show’s young stars. “We auditioned maybe 500 or 600 kids, and we really had to try to find kids who’d been outside and lived in the outdoors.” Not surprisingly, given the Pate brothers’ personal ties to the show’s geography, nearly every star they cast was from the South, except for one who hailed from Alaska. “Growing up outside, being around boats,” Jonas says, “it’s hard to fake that stuff, and it’s hard to make it look real if it’s not.”

I turn off the recorder and Mallory packs up her photography gear, and we say our goodbyes to Jonas. He is leaving soon for another production set. We share a number of mutual friends in Wilmington with him and Jennifer, and we talk about getting together for dinner once he returns.

Mallory and I are alone in the driveway when I realize that I have locked the keys in our car. To say that I was embarrassed — and, let’s be honest, panicked — would be an understatement. Mallory pulled out her phone and began searching for a locksmith. I have a flip phone, so I just stood there, weighing the two most logical options: breaking the window with one of Jonas’ landscaping rocks or just leaving the car and walking home, denying it was ever ours.

I cannot help thinking that if I were John B., the star of Outer Banks and leader of the Pogues, played by Chase Stokes, I would sneak into a neighbor’s garage and hotwire their car, drive home, procure a backup set of keys, and return for Mallory while passing under the investigating deputy’s nose. Or, if I were Topper, the leader of the Kooks, played by Austin North, I would bang on Jonas’ door and use his phone to call my father’s car service. But I am neither of these characters. I’m just me, so I apologize again to Mallory, and we wait for the locksmith together.  PS

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

The Creators of N.C.

Red Clay and Jewels

Jaki Shelton Green captures the beauty and cruelty of humanity

By Wiley Cash    Photographs by Mallory Cash

To read the work of North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green is to know exactly where her inspiration comes from; it comes from the red clay of Orange County, North Carolina, where a little girl leaves footprints in the dirt as she follows her grandmother down to the water’s edge, fishing pole in hand; it comes from the silence of held breath as parents hide their children beneath the pews of a darkened church while the Ku Klux Klan encircles the building; it comes from the peace and grandeur of a community-owned cemetery on a warm winter day when the past, present and future stretch out on a continuum that can be seen and felt. You can open almost any page in Jaki’s numerous collections of poetry and plant your feet firmly on that same red clay, witness the suffocating fear of racial terror, and feel the healing energy of the dead as they gather around you.

I’ve known Jaki for years, mostly as a fellow writer at various festivals across the state. I’ve also hosted her for my own literary events when I needed the kind of in-person power that only a writer like Jaki can bring. To witness her read her poetry is akin to witnessing a god touching down on Earth to opine on the beauty and brutality of humanity. But I had never visited Jaki’s home, nor had I ever joined her on her native soil in Orange County.

When my family and I pulled into the driveway of the neatly kept ranch home where Jaki lives with her husband, Abdul, she immediately opened the door to her writing room and welcomed us with a wide smile. Inside, morning light poured through the windows on the east side of the room. In the center sat a long table where Jaki’s laptop was open as if she’d just paused in her work. Books were stacked throughout the room, not as if they were being stored, but as if they were being read, the reader having taken a break here to pick up another volume there. Art adorned the space: paintings, framed jewelry, sculpture, photographs.

I smiled as my eyes took in the room.

“Jaki, this is exactly where I thought you’d live,” I said.

“You should’ve seen it when I bought it,” she said. “I think it had been condemned, but this was the house I wanted. My family begged me not to buy it.”

It was nearly impossible to believe that this place so clearly suffused with peaceful, creative energy had ever been absent of life, but perhaps that speaks to the regenerative power of Jaki’s spirit.

“Years ago, I bought this house just before Thanksgiving,” she said, “and then I got to work on it. By the holidays I was ready to host our family Christmas party.”

Jaki took a seat at her writing table while my wife, Mallory, unpacked her photography gear. I followed my daughters into the living room, where Abdul set down a small cradle full of handmade dolls for our daughters to play with. He and Jaki have a 3-year-old granddaughter, and they are used to having small children underfoot. Later, as Abdul prepared breakfast for Jaki’s 105-year-old mother, who lives with the couple, he patiently listened as my first-grader shared with him the moment-by-moment intricacies of her school day while my kindergartner crawled on the kitchen floor, answering only to the name “Princess Kitty.”

“How did you and Jaki meet?” I asked him.

He smiled. “I was working in a furniture store, and Jaki came in. It didn’t seem like anyone else was interested in helping her, so I asked her what she was looking for. She said, ‘I don’t need help, brother. I know how to look for furniture.’”

He finally got Jaki to share that she was in the market for a fainting couch, and that only made him more interested in her. “I found out she was a poet,” he said, “and I went to the bookstore and bought some of her books, and then . . . ” He smiled and shrugged as if nothing more needed to be said.

Throughout the house, framed photographs of family members lined the walls, some of them recent pictures of grandchildren, others weathered black and white portrayals of family members who have been gone for decades. Jaki’s voice drifted into the living room, and I could hear that she was talking about her daughter Imani, who passed away from cancer in 2009 at the age of 38. I never met Imani, and I only know her through Jaki’s heartrending poem “I Want to Undie You,” but as I looked at the photographs throughout the house, I wondered if I was seeing photos of Imani at the same moment her mother was evoking her name. Jaki, as if sensing my search, called to me from her writing room.

“Do you want to go out to our family’s cemetery where Imani is buried?” Jaki asked.

“Of course,” I said, sensing that we were being invited into a sacred space. “Will it be OK if I ask you some questions out there?”

“That’s probably the best place for it,” she said.

We left Abdul behind to serve breakfast to his mother-in-law, and Jaki climbed into the passenger’s seat while Mallory squeezed between the girls and their car seats in the back. Jaki turned and looked at them. “So, you girls like jewels?” They nodded, and she opened her hand and dropped gorgeous, polished rocks into theirs.

The private cemetery where Jaki’s ancestors and other community members are buried sits just a mile or so up the road. Forests bordered the cleared land on both sides, and across the gravel road a crane stacked felled trees in a lumber yard, the low rumble of its engine edging through the air.

Jaki and I sat down on a bench that had been placed by Imani’s headstone by Jaki’s two surviving children. Jaki looked at the markers around her, the names on them so familiar that she didn’t even have to read them to know who rests there.

“I will never forget standing out here when my father was being buried, and my mom looked at Sherman (Jaki’s first husband) and me and said, ‘It’s all right, because y’all are going to have a baby next year.’ And we did.”

Jaki grew up in a close-knit community called Efland less than 7 miles away, where two A.M.E. churches anchored the community. Her family members were active at Gaines Chapel A.M.E., and it was there that Jaki was first encouraged to write by her grandmother, even though she wanted to be a scientist or an oceanographer.

“I was fascinated by the stories around me,” Jaki said, “especially what was happening on Sunday morning. As a child I would sit there and make up stories about people, and my grandmother gave me little notebooks to write in. I was very nosy, but I’ve come to understand that writers should be nosy. We should be nosy about everything.”

According to Jaki, she was not only nosy about the people in her congregation, she was nosy about the world around her, constantly asking questions like, “Where does the rain really come from?” and, “What makes dark dark?” You can see the questions in her poetry. In “I Wanted to Ask the Trees,” about the trauma of lynching in Black communities, she writes:

I wanted to ask the trees. do you remember. were you there. did you shudder. did your skin cry out against the skin of my great uncle’s skin.

“I want to tell stories of the South that are being erased and forgotten while reminding people that what’s nostalgic for some Southern writers is absolutely terror for others,” Jaki said. “White people talk about hound dogs in one context, but when we think about hound dogs we think about full moons and lynchings. When people talk about coon dogs, the coon was us.”

When I asked Jaki why she left the South as a young person, she made clear how complicated her exodus was for her and her family. She was kicked out of public school in Orange County for organizing and participating in a walkout after Black students demanded equity during school desegregation. Before readmitting her, the board of education insisted that she sign an affidavit promising that she would not participate in or encourage any acts of civil disobedience. Her parents, themselves active in political and social issues, saw the board’s demand as an infringement on their daughter’s rights. She was readmitted, but being branded a troublemaker made life harder than she deserved.

After being offered an academic scholarship to a Quaker boarding school called George School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Jaki headed north. For the first time in her life she was living outside the South and away from her family, surrounded by young people from all over the world, from different backgrounds and classes. “It took me leaving to really look back and see the entire landscape,” she said.

Although she’d written poetry from an early age, leaving home and encountering the work of Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni made clear to Jaki the urgency of putting herself and her people on the page. Though away from home, she understood that life continued on in rural Orange County, the cycles of birth and death and political upheaval and cultural change never ceasing.

“If we don’t tell ourselves who we are, then someone else will tell us who we are,” she said.

Jaki and her first husband returned to the South after starting a family because they wanted their three young children to know their great-grandparents, to experience their wisdom and love, to know the place that had forged the lives of their ancestors.

Sitting in the cemetery where so many of those ancestors and Jaki’s daughter have been laid to rest, Jaki is clear-eyed about the journey that saw her exiled from public school in Orange County to visiting public schools across the state as North Carolina’s first Black Poet Laureate.

“There’s nothing magical about how I’ve arrived at this place,” she said. “It’s called working hard. It’s called having determination about what you want, and really knowing who you are.”

The little girl who wanted to be an oceanographer became a writer instead, still asking questions about the world around her, still investigating it, continuing to draft poetic reports on the place she has always called home, the landscape where inspiration takes root and ideas are born, nurtured, and recorded.

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

The Creators of N.C.

Salt of the Earth

Building a business together

By Wiley Cash    Photographs by Mallory Cash

The interior of the building is warm and smells like the ocean. The walls and ceiling are constructed of white corrugated plastic sheets, all of them glowing beneath the bright noonday sun. Nets hang from the ceiling above tables that hold large wooden trays, their bottoms lined with thick, restaurant-grade plastic.

Jason Zombron looks down into one of the trays of white crystals that seem to have arranged themselves in haphazard patterns. If you stare long enough, it appears that the ocean is in each tray, dozens of tides frozen in time, doing their best to return to their previous form. After all, just a few days ago, this salt was floating somewhere in the Atlantic, but now it has made its way here to a piece of land in Burgaw, North Carolina, where Jason and his wife, Jeanette Philips, own and operate Sea Love Sea Salt.

Jason picks up a small shovel and scoops up a load of crystals, which have hardened into countless geometric shapes, from squares to pyramids. Jeanette stands nearby. “I never get tired of this,” she says, her voice quiet as if she’s whispering a prayer. “Every time I witness it happen, it takes my breath away. It sits here with the sun and the heat until it’s ready to be harvested. We’re not doing anything to make this happen.”

While heat and evaporation are the final steps in creating salt, Jeanette and Jason actually do a lot to make it happen before it gets to that point. The venture begins in Wrightsville Beach, where, in a process and at a location that Jason and Jeanette are wisely hesitant to disclose, water is extracted from the ocean and pumped into a 275-gallon tank on the back of a trailer. From there, the water is transported to rural Burgaw and the 3-acre farm that Jason and Jeanette own. The water is then pumped from the trailer to a second tank, where gravity takes over and the real work begins. Jason and Jeanette fill tray after tray with water, kinking the hose to stop the flow while arranging the full trays on tables throughout the salt house. The trays will sit in the heat however long it takes for the water to evaporate, leaving nothing but the salt behind.

The labor can be taxing, and that’s before the harvesting and the blending of salt with other ingredients even begins, but Jeanette and Jason delight in the work. After all, the chance to spend as much time together as possible is what led them to step into the business of making salt.

“Whatever business we set out on, it had to get us together,” Jason says. “That was the most important thing.”

“It feels great because we’re passionate about this,” Jeanette adds. “And it’s the first time we’ve gotten to do something creative together.”

The two met on a blind date in Asheville. At the time, Jeanette was working in public health, and Jason was in sales for an outdoor provisions company. They both traveled a lot, and they wanted to spend more time together. Jeanette’s sister lived in Seattle, and so the young couple set their wagons west. They made a life in the Northwest, forging successful careers and raising two young children, and they soon realized that they were both interested in food, the growing of it, the preparing of it, and, of course, the eating of it. They also began experimenting with various ways of using different kinds of salts in their cooking.

While they loved living in the Northwest, they began to feel hemmed in by their careers and schedules and missed the sense of community they’d felt in the South. Jeanette was born and raised in Decatur, Georgia, and Jason just outside of Washington, D.C.

“We wanted to live close to the water,” Jason says. When they moved to Wilmington a couple of years ago, they began to look for a shared business opportunity they could devote themselves to. They learned that Amanda Jacobs, the founder of Sea Love Sea Salt, was looking to sell her growing business. When they met with Amanda, Jeanette brought along a salt recipe she had developed back in Seattle. While there were other suitors who wanted to purchase the business, “No one else brought Amanda a salt,” Jeanette says.

Since purchasing the company, Jeanette and Jason have worked to develop new salts to add to a lineup that already includes citrus, Sriracha, rosemary, dill pickle and others. Two flavors they brought with them from their experiences in Seattle are herb and fennel, and they regularly test various salts at local farmers   markets in Wilmington, tracking the responses of their customers. They also have a thriving connection with numerous local restaurants and breweries, most of whom pride themselves on sourcing local products, as do Jason and Jeanette. Almost all their salts are flavored with North Carolina-grown produce. 

Aside from developing new salts, Jeanette and Jason are planning to develop the land where the business sits. While it contains the salt house and a warehouse, they are building a hoop house to double their capacity — important during the winter, when the time it takes for water to evaporate goes from 10 days in the summer to as long as three weeks in the colder months, when days are shorter. They are planning to host farm-to-table meals featuring local chefs and artists, and are thinking of other creative ways to invite the community to this wooded, quiet piece of land.

Jason pours scoops of salt into fine mesh bags that he hangs from the ceiling, salt that could have begun on the other side of the world, now suspended from the rafters in rural North Carolina.

“People come here for the ocean,” he says. “This is giving them the chance to taste it.” PS

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

The Creators of N.C.

Cultivating Community

Caroline Stephenson steps out from behind the camera

By Wiley Cash    Photographs by Mallory Cash

According to filmmaker Caroline Stephenson, “It’s all about storytelling.” She should know. She was born and raised in rural Murfreesboro, North Carolina, where she grew up surrounded by stories and storytellers. Despite the rich culture around her, as a young person, Stephenson believed that real art could only be found outside Hertford County. Her father, a retired professor and writer, and her late mother, an architectural historian, regularly traveled with the family to places like Norfolk, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and metropolitan New York, where they would visit museums and view films in art house theatres.

“That made a big impression,” says Stephenson, especially the films. “I wanted to do that.”

The restlessness that Stephenson felt as a coming-of-age artist in rural eastern North Carolina manifested itself not only in her desire to create, but also in an all-too-familiar angst-driven urge to leave home. Like so many young people who think opportunity and adventure are waiting somewhere else, Stephenson says that she “couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

First, she spent two years at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh, and then two years at Boston University before transferring to Columbia College Chicago, where she received her Bachelor of Arts in film. Soon, she was living in Los Angeles, beginning a career that would carry her to places like Prague, Vienna, Athens and Budapest, working as an assistant director on sets for films and television shows like Empire, House and, currently, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

After marrying fellow filmmaker Jochen Kunstler and having two children, Stephenson felt a call to home. She and her young family moved back to Murfreesboro in 2010, where Stephenson came to terms with Hertford County’s rich cultural heritage as well as its incredible challenges. The county is 60 percent Black, and historical inequities in everything from education to home ownership serve to compound a poverty rate of 22 percent, much higher than the state average. The county’s struggles have also resulted in a dogged spirit of determination that immediately inspired Stephenson and her family to dedicate themselves to supporting the community.

“I’m driven by the incredible people where I’m from,” Stephenson says. “They created beauty, and above all they persevered and were proud.”

To tell the stories of the people of her region, Stephenson stepped behind the camera and relied on the talents that had taken her around the world. She made documentary films about Rosenwald Schools, which educated rural Black children during segregation, as well as a documentary about women who work in chicken processing plants in eastern North Carolina. Other documentaries and screenplays are in the works, all of them highlighting challenges that have either been overcome or are still being faced. 

Like any successful director looking for the best angles and working to make a production as seamless as possible, Stephenson is most comfortable being off camera, outside the glare of the lights.

“I like to be behind the scenes,” she says. “I want other people to shine.”

She also wants to make connections between the people and the organizations of Hertford County so they can support one another. In 2016, Stephenson opened Cultivator, an independent bookstore that quickly became a community hub. “We also sold local art and pottery, screened movies, held meetings and educational workshops,” she says. The store was the only bookstore within an hour’s drive in any direction but, as is the case with so many independent bookstores, it was tough to make ends meet. The pandemic made the venture even more difficult, and Cultivator closed its doors in April 2020, but the books — most of which were either donated or left behind after Stephenson’s mother, a voracious reader and book collector, passed away in 2014 — remained.

Stephenson quickly realized that not having a storefront did not have to stop the work of Cultivator, and so she converted her minivan into a bookmobile. “It’s just a folding table, personal protective equipment, and boxes and boxes of free books,” she says. “But we now serve more people than we served with the bookstore.”

The Cultivator bookmobile regularly sets up in front of libraries, grocery stores, big box stores and churches. Sitting behind a table in the parking lot of Murfreesboro United Methodist Church one chilly night in late October, a volunteer named Christina is handing out books at the church-sponsored monthly bilingual dinner. Young children, many of them Spanish speakers, tote armfuls of children’s books, some written in Spanish. When Stephenson’s name comes up, Christina, who has been a volunteer for 10 years, pauses.

“Caroline is who inspired me to get involved in the community,” she says. “She does for others.”

Andrew Brown owns a family farm with his daughter, Sharonda, and has partnered with Cultivator to address food insecurity in the community. Sharonda is the evening’s featured speaker. The family has also been the subject of one of Stephenson’s documentaries.

“Caroline got things going when she came back home,” Brown says. “You need someone like her to bring people together.”

Inside the church’s fellowship hall, tostadas and accompanying fixings are being placed on long serving tables as a line of hungry diners forms. A woman named Alejandra announces that dinner is ready. Pastor Jason Villegas greets everyone, moving quickly between English and Spanish.

“I met Alejandra at an ESL (English as Second Language) class at Cultivator,” Pastor Villegas says. When Alejandra joined Villegas’ congregation, she encouraged him to preach in Spanish to reach more people in the community. The community dinners began not long after.

When Pastor Villegas says the blessing, he prays first in English, then translates it to Spanish.

“Thank you that we have connection and unity here,” he says. He keeps his eyes closed, but he lifts his hands as if gesturing toward the people around him. “And thank you to Caroline Stephenson for bringing so many of us together.”

Of course, Stephenson is not there to hear this prayer or witness her community’s gratitude. She is overseas on a film set, operating where she is most comfortable, behind the scenes. PS

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

The Creators of N.C.

Rising STARworks

Art from the Ground Up

By Wiley Cash    Photographs by Mallory Cash

The town of Star is the artistic center of North Carolina. I mean that — literally — in that Star is the geographic center of the state. And I also mean it figuratively, as the town is home to STARworks, where artists from  around the world have been working in fire arts like glass blowing and ceramics since 2005.

“We love to set stuff on fire around here,” says STARworks executive director Nancy Gottovi, who, in a single decade, led the transformation of an abandoned hosiery mill into a destination for artists from around the globe.

In 1993, a nonprofit called Central Park NC formed when leaders from six Central Carolina rural counties came together with a common vision of creating a sustainable economy. The group formed an initiative to focus on art as a way to capitalize on the natural and cultural assets of the rural spaces located between the urban centers of Charlotte and the Research Triangle. That was when Nancy Gottovi began asking herself questions about what a working artist truly requires.

“They need to have a really good space to work with good equipment,” Gottovi says. “They also need a community of other artists to feed off of. And they need a way to make a living.”

In 2005, Gottovi and Central Park NC found a space — nearly 200,000 square feet of space, to be exact — when they accepted the donation of a former hosiery mill in Star that had been abandoned in 2001, leaving more than 1,000 local residents unemployed.

Enter STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise.

In the early days, the organization was grossly understaffed and overwhelmed by the nearly four acres of aging factory it had inherited, but Gottovi soon realized that in order for the fledgling organization to survive, the building itself had to start generating income.

“Our biggest asset is this amazing space,” she says. “We needed to get the best artists we could find and then set them loose in the building.”

The artists Gottovi invited set about creating glass pumpkins as one of the first ventures to raise capital to sustain the organization. Suffice it to say that it worked, and that Gottovi proudly witnessed the former factory evolve into an artistic and cultural center where artists gathered and forged both creations and community. Now, over a decade later, glassblowers at STARworks regularly create and sell as many as 3,000 glass pumpkins each fall. And each holiday season, they make and sell thousands of Christmas ornaments.

The economic model at STARworks could be described as self-sustaining. The organization offers paid internships to glass artists, who earn hundreds of hours of experience in a field that is often cost-prohibitive to those just starting out and who might not be able to afford their own studios and equipment. In turn, the interns work to create the pumpkins and ornaments that are sold each year while also having the time, space and materials to pursue their own projects. The interns also gain valuable experience as mentees while working side-by-side with professional artists from around the world who come to STARworks as residency recipients and visiting artists. An onsite gallery provides space to showcase and sell individual artists’ work.

While interns and established artists come from around the world, visitors are just as likely to discover a group of local students dabbling in glassblowing and ceramics.

Some of the students who continually benefit from their experiences at STARworks are the young men from nearby Eckerd Connects, a juvenile justice program for youth ages 13–17. Gottovi continually finds the young men from Eckerd to be the most interesting and curious young people she has encountered in her years at STARworks. According to Gottovi, working with fire and glass is a little dangerous, but these young people are comfortable navigating a certain amount of pressure in their lives, and glassblowing in particular teaches them how to work in a team and rely on other people to create a piece of art. It is an affecting experience for many of the young men, born out by the fact that several returned to STARworks as formal apprentices. 

STARworks is not just creating space for artists. It is also sourcing the medium from which art is made. Recognizing the region’s long history of both brick-making in central North Carolina and pottery in nearby areas such as Sea Grove, Gottovi saw an opportunity to take advantage of the organic materials surrounding them. While spending time in Japan after graduate school, Gottovi met a Japanese potter who had a degree in ceramic material engineering, and years later she invited him to come to Star to start a clay business. He took her up on the invitation, and now STARworks is selling the best clay in North America, one of the only manufacturers creating potter’s clay from indigenous sources. The program is both a financial and educational boon. While selling clay to potters and sculptors all around the world, interns at STARworks have the opportunity to learn about the process of finding, digging and making quality clay, which Gottovi compares to “eating artisan baked bread if you’ve only ever eaten white.”

One of the most consistent challenges that STARworks has faced is where to house its artists. “Housing is the biggest challenge in a small community of only 800 people,” Gottovi says. But, just as she has done since the early days in the abandoned mill, Gottovi is finding solutions. The organization takes out year-long leases for artists in rental homes in the area, and an old boiler building on the property is being considered for future renovation for onsite housing.

One cannot help but think about Gottovi’s early consideration of what artists need: space, community, support. Whether in the studio, in the local community or in the earth itself, all the ingredients are here, and STARworks is right in the middle of it all. PS

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

The Creators of N.C.

Time Capsule in Jazz

Whether you know him as Dr. Martinez or Marty Most, you know The Big Easy is alive in his heart and his photos

By Wiley Cash    Photographs by Mallory Cash

Nestled in a patch of pine woods just south of Wilmington, Dr. Maurice Martinez, New Orleans’ first beat poet, is sitting in a favorite chair in his sunlight-flooded living room. At his feet are several crates of black-and-white photographs, carefully encased in plastic sleeves. He bends down to pick up an image, staring at it for a moment before gesturing toward the subject — a Black man in a suit playing a soprano saxophone. The man’s eyes are closed in concentration.

“John Coltrane was the most serious musician I’ve ever met,” says Martinez. He looks back down at the photograph with such intensity it’s as if he’s traveling back in time, peeling back the years and the stories that led him from a childhood in New Orleans to the halls of American academia by way of a barnstorming concert tour across Brazil. Photograph in hand, Martinez’s mind and memory are focused on the string of shows Coltrane played when he came to New Orleans in 1963. Martinez and his camera were there to capture it. He presented a composite of several of the photos he took to the jazz musician. “When he saw it, he got warm and opened up,” Martinez says. “He could see that I was serious about music, too.”

Maurice Martinez has been serious about many things over the course of his life — music, education, social justice, documentary filmmaking, plus Creole heritage and history — but jazz and photography have been lifelong staples. His two passions have recently come together in A Time Capsule in Jazz, an exhibit on display at the Genesis Block Gallery in downtown Wilmington until October 20.

Martinez was a college student at Xavier University in Louisiana when he first began to take photography seriously. His early steps were tentative, but experimental.

“It was a little black box, and it only had one speed on the shutter,” he says. “But it also had a way that you could do a time exposure by disengaging the automatic shutter.”

And so he did just that, then put the camera on the desk.

“It came out like a Rembrandt.”

He soon moved on to Instamatics and 35mm cameras, experimenting with various lenses before graduating to better and more advanced equipment. After starting a wedding photography business with a buddy, he soon learned that the best photographs came at what he calls “the peak moment of joy,” such as when the newlyweds are seated in the limousine and the wedding and all its fuss is behind them. Only then do you see the couple relax, he says.

Martinez saw that those moments of joy were also evident in the jazz musicians who brought their soulful music to New Orleans in the 1960s. Music had always been a passion for Martinez, and his parents recognized his talent when he was young. A local university offered a junior school of music, so Martinez began piano classes there when he was 9 years old with his buddy Ellis Marsalis. Martinez would eventually step away from the piano and pick up the bass, purchasing what was reportedly the first electric bass played in New Orleans. Along with his photography business, he founded a jazz quartet that played gigs for fraternities at Tulane.

When he finished college at Xavier, one of his professors encouraged him to apply to graduate school at the University of Michigan. While segregation ensured that state universities in Louisiana were closed to people of color, $750 grants were available to Black students who sought degrees outside the state. But by the time Martinez had been granted admission to Michigan, the December deadline to apply for the Louisiana grant had passed. His father, who had made a career as a master bricklayer and stonemason, reached out to one of his wealthy patrons, and the $750 needed to enroll at Michigan was secured. Martinez packed up his camera and headed north, bringing his love for jazz with him.

At Michigan, he found himself as the music curator for a creative arts festival, and while many of the students wanted to invite The Who and other rock’n’roll bands, Martinez invited Miles Davis.

After finishing his M.A. in education at Michigan, Martinez returned to New Orleans and followed in the footsteps of his mother by teaching math in the local public schools for six years. His mother taught in the local schools before opening a private school that first catered to Creole children and educated some of the city’s most exceptional Black citizens, including Wynton Marsalis, a former mayor and a former chief of police.

But Martinez felt himself floundering after returning home. People encouraged him to leave the city and make a name for himself, so he returned to the University of Michigan for a doctorate in education. It was there, while studying Portuguese, that he discovered a Ford Foundation grant that was sending students on internships in Latin America. After landing a grant, he lived in Brazil for two years, studying the ways in which tradition and modernity affect life in urban and rural cities. He was also taking photographs and playing jazz. Along with another American and three Brazilians, he formed a quintet called Grupo Calmalma de Jazz Livre, and they went on to play a 14-city tour sponsored by the U.S. Embassy.

It was after returning to Michigan to complete his Ph.D. that Martinez met Marjorie, the woman who would become his wife of 48 years. After graduating, the couple moved to New York City, where Martinez spent 24 years teaching in the education department at Hunter College, taking students and professors into some of the city’s most challenging schools in order to gain a clear perspective on the profession that he was preparing students to pursue.

The experience was fraught with issues of race, class and caste, but coming-of-age in New Orleans assured that he was familiar navigating that terrain.

By the early ’90s, Martinez had grown weary of life in New York, and when he was invited to join the faculty in the UNC-Wilmington’s Watson College of Education as a visiting professor, he jumped at the chance. He joined the full-time faculty the following year, spending 20 years as a professor in the Department of Instructional Technology, Foundations and Secondary Education.

But no matter where he has lived, New Orleans has always been alive in his heart. After all, he is known as Marty Most, Jazz Poet and credited as the first person to put the words “The Big Easy” in print:

Have you ever been to an old time jazz man’s funeral in my hometown?

Put on your imagination, baby, and come on down

To an old time jazz man’s funeral in my hometown.

It’s called the Big Easy, way, way down.

What’s the biggest difference he sees between Wilmington and the Big Easy?

“Wilmington was settled by the British,” he says. “So we have the Azalea Festival. But things would be different if it had been settled by the French.” He leans forward, a smile playing across his face, a light twinkling in his eye. “Because then we’d have Mardi Gras.”  PS

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, was released last month.  

The Creators of N.C.

Moving On Up

History is brewing again in downtown Asheville

By Wiley and Mallory Cash

In 1994, Oscar Wong began brewing beer in the basement of Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria in downtown Asheville. Wong, the son of Chinese immigrants, grew up in Jamaica and moved to the states to study civil engineering at the University Notre Dame. After forging a successful career in nuclear engineering, he would later create an innovative nuclear waste disposal company and then go on to found Highland Brewing Company, Asheville’s oldest independent brewery. As the first legal brewery in Western North Carolina following the repeal of prohibition, you can imagine its allure. Still, it took Wong eight years to break even. Why? Because he was determined to produce a high-quality product on a consistent basis. He invested in his vision. While that superior quality persists, little else remains from those early days in the basement.

In 2011, Wong’s daughter, Leah Wong Ashburn, officially joined the team at Highland Brewery. More than a decade earlier, Ashburn had applied for a position with her father’s company after graduating with a degree in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill, but her father turned down her application. He wanted her to find her own way, he told her. And so she did.

Years later, after Ashburn built a thriving career in sales and marketing with a yearbook publisher in Charlotte, her father actually recruited her for a position at Highland, but in the intervening years, the tables had turned: He could no longer afford her.

But blood is thicker than water, and, apparently, so is beer.

“Other things became more important and the brewery was one of those more important things,” Ashburn said in a 2018 interview with Business North Carolina. “It was about being part of the community. You can’t put a value on that.”

Leah Wong Ashburn is now Highland’s president and CEO, and her tenure has marked an era of rapid change, both for the company and the city of Asheville. In 2011, Highland opened a tasting room at their mountaintop manufacturing facility in east Asheville, which has now grown to 70,000 square feet and offers complimentary tours of their onsite brewery, a lively taproom with ample seating, a performance stage, a rooftop garden bar and an indoor event space. According to Brock Ashburn, Leah’s husband and the company’s vice president, “We built the taproom to accommodate the throngs of people who were showing up, part of an ever-increasing interested public who wanted to drink our beer where it was made.”

Over the past decade, a lot of people have — as Brock Ashburn puts it — “shown up” in Asheville, and the city is now an international destination for foodies, beer connoisseurs and outdoor enthusiasts. “There’s always been a soul and a spirit in Asheville,” Leah says, “and Highland got to join up with other people who believed in the potential for Asheville. Great beer is a complement to great food and quality of life.”

Community and regional pride are more than just branding tools; Highland is a company whose culture is built on stewardship and community responsibility, tenets made apparent in their practices of reducing or reusing waste, partnering with local nonprofits and embracing solar power. The company also collaborates with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, naming seasonal beers after unique regional landscapes. Ashburn has always made clear that she intends to keep the company concentrated on regional endeavors and has no plans to ship beer across the country, choosing instead to focus the company’s efforts within the confines of the Southeast. This comes as no surprise for a brewery that has spent two and a half decades fostering a regional brand in a region that has quickly gained international attention. 

Today, Leah and Brock are sitting at the brewery’s new downtown taproom in the old S&W Building, a quintessential example of Asheville’s stunning 1920s Art-Deco architecture. Late morning sunlight pours through tall windows that look out on Pritchard Park, illuminating the gold-plated fixtures and ceiling tiles, the two-story marble columns and tiled floors in a glowing aura that sweeps visitors back into the roaring ’20s. You can almost sense what Asheville must have been like a century ago, when it was first known as a destination for Hollywood stars, politicians and titans of industry. Highland anchors the new S&W Market’s downstairs dining area with a taproom, along with several local restaurants that provide counter service. Upstairs, on the mezzanine level, Highland has opened a full bar and tasting room with ample space for guests to relax over a pint.

One can only imagine what it must mean to Leah for Highland to return to downtown, where it all started from such humble beginnings over a quarter century ago.

“As a second-generation owner, I was encouraged to make the brewery my own,” she says. “That did not feel safe to me at first because of the long history of Highland, but my father’s sentiment was honest, and he’s let us create our own vision.” That meant changing the beer portfolio and re-envisioning the brand. She says it also meant improving the property: “We started as a manufacturing company, but Brock’s an engineer and a builder, and I’m a marketer,” Leah says. Combining all of those interests and backgrounds led to a complementary hospitality component. “It appeals to tourists because it highlights some of the great things about Asheville in one location.”

Outside, people are waiting for the S&W Market’s doors to be unlocked for the day’s business. A line of tourists and downtown office workers in business attire snakes down the sidewalk. Leah and Brock look out the window and pause for a moment, perhaps recalling the throngs of beer enthusiasts who showed up the minute the first taproom opened at Highland’s manufacturing site a decade earlier.

“This is an opportunity to tell our story downtown and also attract people to come out to East Asheville to visit our brewery,” Brock says. “It’s a great opportunity to get our brand out there and let people know where this all started.”

From a downtown basement to a mountaintop in East Asheville to the second floor of one of the city’s most iconic downtown buildings, Highland has come a long way. But whether it’s the quality of the beer or the family name, some things never change.   PS

Wiley Cash is the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, will be released this month. Mallory Cash is an editorial and portrait photographer.