The Creators of N.C.

Totally Blawesome

A flower farm where miracles bloom year-round

By Wiley Cash   •   Photographs By Mallory Cash

On a lush four acres of land nestled between Chapel Hill and the Haw River, 24-year-old Raimee Sorensen spends his days growing, harvesting, assembling and delivering stunning bouquets and custom flower arrangements. According to his mother, Rebecca, “He emanates joy.” The oldest of three siblings, Raimee works alongside Rebecca and a small, devoted team of farmers. It’s clear that everyone at Blawesome flower farm is dedicated to two things: delivering high-quality, organically grown flowers to the waiting hands of their customers and ensuring that everyone on the farm has the opportunity to live and work to their full potential, including Raimee, who has a diagnosis of autism and epilepsy.

“When given the opportunity to be amazing and successful,” says Rebecca, “folks with disabilities will rise to meet that challenge. If we are able to provide more opportunities for folks with disabilities to be successful, then I think we would see a moral shift in our communities.”

And farming is certainly challenging. “There are always opportunities to problem solve,” Rebecca says. “It’s very cerebral work.” In the morning, Raimee looks at his check list and gets to work, deciding how much preservative solution to add to which type of flower and what kind of tool is necessary to harvest each variety. “And when he takes his bouquets out into the world, he gets the confirmation of ‘You’re a wonderful farmer, and you grow amazing things,’” Rebecca adds. From season to season, Raimee’s knowledge and confidence have grown, and Rebecca has seen the skills he’s learned on the farm transfer to other areas of his life. For example, when they host tours and workshops on the farm, Raimee is able to share his knowledge about what’s going on in each production zone, and if someone asks a question, it’s Raimee, despite challenges with expressive and receptive language, who often chooses to answer it.

Before starting the farm, the Sorensens homeschooled Raimee for eight years, and during that time, they set up community internships where he could explore a number of opportunities while building varying sets of skills. He particularly excelled at a community farm where he volunteered for four years. He enjoyed being outdoors and working alongside others. Eventually, the Sorensens enrolled Raimee in a charter school specifically geared toward students with disabilities, but when the school abruptly shut down, they realized they needed to find an opportunity for him to achieve his greatest sense of independence. Better yet, they would create one.

Initially, the Sorensens’ decisions were practical. They had a 1/4-acre strip of land alongside their driveway, and based on how Raimee performed in his work at the community farm, they decided to cultivate the small area into a flower garden. After all, he was good at growing things, and he enjoyed connecting with the community. What better way to connect with others than by putting fresh flowers in their hands?

Raimee was not the only Sorensen with a background in farming and a love for flowers. Rebecca grew up in rural northeastern Pennsylvania with a father who was an avid gardener. In high school, she worked at and eventually managed a greenhouse, and later, on the other side of the country, she worked at an organic farm, growing peppers and houseplants in greenhouses in Oregon. She felt confident that she and Raimee could turn this small plot of land beside their house into a successful venture that would allow them to explore their interests and talents.

And then the four-acre lot next door went up for sale. Rebecca and Raimee’s vision for what they could do grew, and the family shifted again.

After purchasing the land, Rebecca applied for a micro-enterprise grant. The initial grant was for $5,000 but after completing the application, she learned that more money was available. She went back to the drawing board, carefully envisioning a project and wrote a proposal that eventually won a $50,000 state grant from the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. The shift had happened. The Sorensens were now owners of land that would become a flower farm, and all they had to do was build it.

Working with a team of land specialists and local farmers, the Sorensens grew intimately familiar with their new land, working to create a plan that was realistic in terms of what they could grow and harvest with their small crew. At the same time, Rebecca, whose background is in social work, was traveling the state, leading workshops on affordable housing for adults with mental illnesses. She met an architect from Elon University whose son had a diagnosis, and he suggested that they work on a project together. He went on to design the barn on the Sorensens’ new property, and he brought out teams of university students to help construct it. He would later design the home where Raimee and a supported-living provider live.

Blawesome was born, and the flower farm that began on a small strip of land beside the family’s driveway grew into a working farm that provides fresh flowers for everything from weddings to businesses, plus events at UNC-Chapel Hill.

But no matter how much the Sorensens had been willing and able to shift over the years, COVID presented an incredible challenge. They lost national contracts with huge corporations. Weddings were cancelled, and the university moved nearly all of its business online. But people still wanted flowers, and Blawesome met that need. Individual orders soared, as did memberships in their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), which provides seasonal flowers year-round to subscribers. “The community just came out and lifted us up in a way we could’ve never anticipated,” Rebecca says. “It was extraordinary.”

That says a lot coming from someone who has seen extraordinary things happen, both in her family and in her community. Raimee took medication for obsessive compulsive disorder for eight years, and then he was able to stop taking it one year after starting the farm. He has epilepsy, but according to Rebecca, he’s had only one seizure in the same time span. “You can pull Raimee’s Medicaid file for the past four years and see that he has not accessed any of the services he used to access since we started the farm, because he’s happier and healthier than he’s ever been,” she says. Both Raimee and the farm are thriving. “A lot of people in his situation don’t get told how special they are,” she adds.

But it is hard work, and the work never stops. “I don’t know if people understand how completely consuming farming is. It’s a lifestyle,” Rebecca says. “I like that for Raimee because it’s every part of his day. There’s not any time when he’s not thinking about it or planning for it or anticipating something, but it’s pretty miraculous to be part of something that is a living, breathing organism. I feel like I’m surrounded by miracles all the time.”  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 year.

His all-time favorite book? Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.

The Creators of N.C.

A Place Like Home

Wilmington’s Seabird restaurant and oyster bar has landed

By Wiley Cash
Photographs By Mallory Cash

Chefs Dean Neff and Lydia Clopton are sitting at a table inside Seabird, their recently opened seafood restaurant and oyster bar in downtown Wilmington. It is midafternoon, and sunlight streams through the high windows along Seabird’s west-facing wall. The hum of breakfast has passed, and the dinner crowd has yet to arrive. Reservations have been fully booked since opening night. In this rare quiet moment, the couple pauses to reflect on what brought them together, what brought them to Wilmington, and what has kept them in the restaurant business since their chance meeting more than a decade ago.

Given their shared history, it should come as no surprise that Neff and Clopton use the word “our” a lot. After all, they share a family, a restaurant and a past. But when the chefs discuss Seabird, it is clear that their use of the word extends beyond their personal and professional relationship to the place they now call home.

“Seabird is a small, community restaurant,” Neff says, “and I hope it’s a place that feels like part of our community.”

Partnerships with local farmers and small-scale fishermen support Seabird’s efforts to be good stewards of the environment, says Neff. The restaurant’s crew is treated like family, and menus vary based on seasonal availability. “Our food is going to develop from our relationships with the people in this community.”

Neff and Clopton’s relationship began 12 years ago in Athens, Georgia, where Neff was the new sous-chef at Hugh Acheson’s now-iconic restaurant, Five and Ten. At the time, Clopton was working toward a biology degree at the University of Georgia. “I was baking a lot at home,” she says, “and my roommate said, ‘You should try doing this professionally.’”

A friend of Clopton’s worked at Five and Ten. Neff remembers the day that Clopton came in for her interview. When owner Hugh Acheson asked if she’d ever baked professionally, Clopton admitted that she hadn’t. But Acheson must have seen something in the eager young baker. Neff remembers him saying, “Great. When can you start?” Neff must have seen something in her too, and, soon, she would see something in him as well. Romance ensued. From Athens, where Neff eventually became executive chef at Five and Ten and worked with Acheson on his first cookbook, the couple ventured to Western North Carolina, where Clopton and Neff both found themselves working with some of the South’s best known chefs and restauranteurs: Neff helped John Fleer open Rhubarb, a farm-to-table restaurant on the square in downtown Asheville. Clopton worked at Asheville’s Chai Pani, known for its innovative Indian street food, and also helped open Katie Button’s Nightbell, a cocktail bar beneath Cúrate, another Button restaurant lauded for its “curative” Spanish cuisine.

Next, Clopton was baking wedding cakes out of the couple’s home while Neff taught in the culinary arts program at Asheville-Buncombe Tech and coached the school’s competition cooking team. “I loved what we were doing, but I knew that the longer we did it the harder it would be to get back into a restaurant,” Neff says.

And that was when Athens returned to their lives in a surprising way.

A man named Jeff Duckworth had long been a regular at Acheson’s Five and Ten. Back when Neff was chef, it wasn’t uncommon for Duckworth to find his way into the kitchen after enjoying a meal. He would always say the same thing to Neff: “We should go open a restaurant somewhere.” Years later, Duckworth tracked Neff and Clopton down in Asheville to let them know he was leaving Athens for Wilmington. He said he was ready to prove how serious he was about partnering with Neff.

Although the couple had never visited Wilmington, it had been on their radar. “Back when we were in Athens, we had a list of places that we were considering moving, and Asheville and Wilmington were on it,” Clopton says. “And it just happened.”

The first time Neff and Clopton drove across the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, the river below and the city nestled on its banks before them, they knew this was where they would make their home, both in the restaurant business and in the community.

The partnership between Duckworth and Neff opened as PinPoint in May of 2015, and Neff immediately understood how important local support would be to the success of any small, community restaurant. “We thought that being downtown would get us a lot of tourists, but the space didn’t lend itself to that. You had to really know about it,” he says. Local support grew, and so did a buzz that carried beyond the city and state. While Neff loved his time at PinPoint, he grew eager to strike out on his own.

“I sold my shares to Jeff in 2019, and I wasn’t sure at that moment what I was going to do,” Neff says. “We’d just found out that Lydia was pregnant, and then I learned that I was on the long list for the James Beard Award for best chef in the Southeast, and it all kind of reinvigorated the idea that I wanted to open our restaurant in the way we wanted to do it.”

In the midst of all these changes, Clopton had opened Love, Lydia, an upscale bakery near downtown, where her offerings, especially her focaccia, made a name for themselves. According to North Carolina-based food and travel writer Jason Frye, “Lydia was willing to step out and take some chances. It wasn’t the typical stuff. She did things like bring sesame seeds to her focaccia, and that and other choices she made showed a full and thorough approach to food.”

Neff hoped that Clopton would be willing to bring that same full and thorough approach to a shared venture. “She’s a details person,” Neff says. “And I knew that if we did this restaurant together then we would spend more time together, and everything — from the front of the house to the back — would be better if she were here.”

It turns out that the couple would be spending a lot of time together. In quick succession, their son was born, the pandemic hit, Clopton closed her bakery, and, finally, in May, Seabird opened to rave reviews.

Neff credits the name of the restaurant with his obsession with maps and aerial views. When thinking of names, he pictured a bird flying over Eastern North Carolina, gazing down upon the expansive landscape from which he and Clopton would draw both ingredients and inspiration. When someone tipped him off to the song “Seabird” by the Alessi Brothers, Neff knew they had chosen the right name, especially when he read the lyrics Lonely seabird, you’ve been away from land too long. Those lines are now featured beneath the restaurant’s marquee at the corner of Front and Market Street in downtown Wilmington.

While both subtle and bold details inform the visual aesthetic at Seabird, clean lines, floor to ceiling windows, and textures varying from natural wood to textiles, create a space that feels durable and robust yet finely appointed. But make no mistake; while the restaurant is gorgeous, the menu is the focus.

Jason Frye cites the smoked catfish and oyster pie as being among his favorites. “It’s a masterclass in subtle flavors,” he says. “The oyster is stewed until tender, and the smoked catfish is done lightly, so the smoke comes in, but it doesn’t overwhelm the creamed collards and celery broth or the potato-flour pastry that sits on top. With every bite, one flavor leads into the next. At the end, you don’t come away from it feeling like you’ve read a collection of short stories. You feel like you’ve read a novel.” And that’s exactly what Neff and Clopton want the food at Seabird to do: tell the story of the community it comes from.

After more than a decade of working solo or for other chefs or alongside business partners, Dean Neff and Lydia Clopton have come home to Seabird, and they’re inviting locals and visitors to join them. Food, stories, family, community: All of the ingredients are here.  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 year.

The Creators of N.C.

Live from The Burrow

Roots duo Chatham Rabbits reinvent the dream

By Wiley Cash
Photographs By Mallory Cash

American roots music is rife with compelling and talented duos — think Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, June Carter and Johnny Cash — but few have been as charmed or charming as Austin and Sarah McCombie of the North Carolina band Chatham Rabbits. The two first met in 2014 at a concert they attended separately, and within a few years they were rattling around the country together in a 1986 Winnebago, headlining concerts of their own. It’s an old story based on an even older dream: start a band with your best friend, sell everything you own, make a living with your music. But for Chatham Rabbits, that dream came true, and the most genuine thing about that dream is the music itself.

In marriage and in music, Austin and Sarah blend their individual histories into a shared musical experience. Years ago, Sarah first took the stage as a member of the South Carolina Broadcasters, a musical trio that harkened back to the bygone days of the Grand Ole Opry and AM radio country classics. Meanwhile, Austin played keyboards and guitar for an electro-pop band called DASH. Given their backgrounds, how would Chatham Rabbits describe their musical marriage?

“We’re not purists,” Austin says.

“And we’re certainly not the hippest,” Sarah adds. “But we’ve been able to belong nowhere and everywhere at the same time,” which is to say that Chatham Rabbits have always been able to create a musical home, both for themselves and for their fans.

The duo’s first album, All I Want From You (2018), was written in Bynum, where Austin and Sarah could sit on the porch of their old mill house and survey the entire village of tightly packed homes, a vantage point that revealed their own ties to the close-knit community. The music — with Sarah on banjo, Austin on guitar, and the two splitting lead vocals and sharing harmonies — reaches out to the listener while reaching back in time in search of stories. Their latest album, last year’s The Yoke is Easy, the Burden is Full, is carried by the same gorgeous melodies, harmonies and delicate instrumentation, but it possesses a more introspective quality, which makes sense considering that the album was written when the couple moved to their 11-acre farm in Siler City. In these songs, the Rabbits use contemplation as incantation, inviting the listener to sit quietly with Austin and Sarah as they reflect on their shared life and their families’ histories. If their debut album was a means of reaching out to connect with a larger community, then their more recent album is a guided, dreamy meditation on turning inward. Whether they’re reaching out or looking in, Chatham Rabbits have always invited listeners to join them.

They’ve recently invited listeners to join them on their farm, too, where a new barn has been repurposed to host outdoor concerts that allow for the requisite 6 feet of social distance between pods of attendees. On a Saturday in early May, Austin and Sarah are both smiling behind masks as they move through the preconcert crowd, catching up with old friends and meeting new fans for the first time. The two are refreshingly approachable, remembering people’s names and asking after their children and families. He’s wearing a navy-blue button down and khaki pants; she’s in a navy-blue dress that once belonged to her great aunt. Although there are speakers hanging from the rafters and a lighting system illuminates the instruments and microphone on stage, there are plenty of reminders that this is still a working farm. Saddles and bridles hang on the wall. Chickens meander through the crowd. In the nearby pasture, a black cow named Petunia rubs her back against an old tree.

“The barn was halfway built when the pandemic hit and all of our shows were being cancelled,” Austin says. “At the time, the barn floors were going to be dirt, and the builders were about to enclose the walls. We asked about pouring a concrete floor, and we learned that it would cost the same amount to pour the floor as it did to put up the walls. We chose the floor.”

That kind of quick decision making has served the band well during the pandemic, which has rocked the music industry, but Chatham Rabbits have found ways to adapt.

“When the pandemic hit, we were about to release a new album, and we spent a week worrying about the world and feeling sorry for ourselves,” Sarah says. “Then we got busy figuring out how to make it work.”

The two used funds from their Patreon crowdfunding platform to buy a Sprinter van and a flatbed trailer. Off they went, playing outdoor shows in neighborhoods across the state and into Virginia and South Carolina in support of the new album that was supposed to have been celebrated in concert halls across the country. “We’ve probably played one hundred shows from the back of that trailer,” Sarah says.

Once the barn was finished and the state’s health restrictions allowed it, they decided to test the waters by holding six live concerts throughout the summer in the space they’ve named The Burrow. The tickets sold out in less than three days. As the state’s coronavirus numbers improved, Chatham Rabbits released more tickets, which sold out in mere minutes.

The resilience and flexibility required by the past year has influenced the song writing for their new album, to be released in coming months. “Many of the songs are reflections of us being at home together for an entire year,” she says. “It’s about our life on the farm, shifting friendships, and the way we had to come to terms with our foundations being rocked.”

As Austin and Sarah take the stage, the air is charged with energy and a giddy sense that something is returning to the world, whether it be live music or summertime or the feel of a cold beverage in your hand and the weight of a sleepy child on your lap.

After welcoming the crowd to the inaugural show at The Burrow, Austin and Sarah open with a song from their first album titled “Come Home.” Attendees take off their masks, settle into their beach chairs, and — for the rest of the evening — do just that.  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 year.

The Creators of N.C.

Found Magic

For Shannon Whitworth, the muse lives and breathes in the mountains of Brevard

By Wiley Cash     Photographs By Mallory Cash

“My art is how I see the world,” says artist and singer/songwriter Shannon Whitworth. “And my music is how I hear it.” Just outside of Brevard, she is walking across the expanse of grass between her barn studio and the renovated farmhouse she shares with her husband, Woody Platt of the Grammy Award-winning Steep Canyon Rangers, and their young son. The late afternoon is rainy and cool. In the distance, mist hangs over the mountains like a gray, gossamer blanket. In other places across the South, spring has begun to reveal itself, but here in the mountains, winter is still hanging on.

Whitworth didn’t always live in the mountains that have become so synonymous with her music and art. She was born into a bustling home with two older brothers in Fairfax, Virginia. By the time she reached high school, her restless nature prompted her to head south to Hilton Head, S.C., where she spent summers with her Grandma Nancy, an Old South dame who owned a ladies’ clothing boutique and lived in a lamplit home where every room had a clock radio playing martini music. The soundtrack to Whitworth’s summers in Hilton Head were comprised of Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and the clink of ice in Grandma Nancy’s cocktail glasses. To the girl who’d been raised in an active household in a busy city, the freedom of Lowcountry life was both mysterious and emboldening. “I went down there playing with Barbie dolls,” Whitworth says, “and I came back home wearing a training bra.”

Like many people who grew up in the 1990s and who would later become artists, Whitworth was an angsty teen who filled her journals with reams of poetry. Her parents had always been music fans, and she grew up listening to James Taylor, Paul Simon, Crosby, Stills & Nash. When her older brother began dating a woman who played the guitar, Whitworth realized she could set the words she’d written to melodies. The woman — who would eventually become her sister-in-law — showed her how to play chords, and by the time Whitworth began college in Boone, she was already skipping class to play music. “I was consumed by it,” she says. And then someone gave her Lucinda Williams’ first album. That’s when she had the vaguest of notions that, just maybe, she could become a musician too.

“I didn’t know a lot of women who were doing this,” she says, and she didn’t know if she could do it either. After a series of moves and adventures took her all over the country, a camping trip to Brevard in 1999 finally convinced her to settle down and give music a try.

“I was moonstruck by Brevard,” she says. She is sitting by the window in her living room, the sun having fallen below the mountains just above the confluence of the headwaters of the French Broad River. Night is creeping across the fields. “It felt like there was a crystal under the Earth that was pulling me here. I always thought I would end up back on the beach somewhere, but this place spoke to me,” Whitworth says. “I knew I would write a lot of songs and paint a lot of paintings here. And if I could do those things, then I knew this was where I needed to be.”

She spent a few months in the offseason living in the old cook’s cabin at Camp Carolina, stuffing envelopes and mailing promotional material for the camp and working on her music. “I must’ve written a hundred songs,” she says, but she was too self-conscious to perform them in front of anyone aside from her brothers and a small circle of musician friends. “And then a friend of mine told me about a dive bar in West Asheville that hosted karaoke,” she says. “The people who came to karaoke were old country people. Nobody knew who I was or even cared. It felt safe.” The first song she ever performed in front an audience? Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

“Dolly Parton was my spirit animal of sorts,” says Whitworth, whose own singing voice is lower and warmer but just as resonant as Parton’s. “I figured that if I could transform myself into someone like that, then I could do anything. It was like putting on body armor.”

Another major influence while Whitworth was finding herself onstage was Dwight Yoakam, especially his album, which features him playing his greatest hits with only an acoustic guitar. Whitworth would play his album and record it on a borrowed four-track while recording herself singing harmony and playing accompanying instruments, like mandolin and banjo. She would then layer in her recorded parts with Yoakam’s music. “It was as close as you could get to being in a band with Dwight Yoakam while also being a total weirdo at the same time,” she says.

The first time Whitworth performed with her guitar in front of a live audience was during a jam night at Jack of the Wood in Asheville. That’s also where she met the other founding members of a bluegrass band that would soon become The Biscuit Burners. Over the next few years, the band would go on to release two acclaimed albums while crossing the country on what seemed like a never-ending tour. But despite all the band’s success, it was their first show that perhaps had the greatest effect on Whitworth’s life. On that night, Woody Platt set up the band’s sound equipment. While it would take a while for friendly exchanges to become flirtations and for flirtations to become love, by 2006, Whitworth and Platt were a couple, and Brevard was their home. After years on the road as a touring musician, Brevard felt like a sanctuary to Whitworth. She left The Biscuit Burners and released a spate of highly-praised solo records, and she soon found herself building her life around two things: her relationships with the people she loved and her art.

“Painting reminds me of how I feel when I sing through a microphone,” Whitworth says. “It’s a way of reporting my feelings, and it’s also a place where I can dig deep into healing. It all used to be a way to work through angst.” Since having a child, Whitworth has shifted to creating art from a source of light. “I’m going to a different place when I work now, and I’m still trying to sort that out. I’m learning to use these new tools that motherhood has given me. Sometimes I don’t have the words or the music, but the colors are always there.”

Over the past year, Whitworth’s paintings have found homes with a stable of interior designers across the South, and her work has been featured in galleries and shipped all over the country to private collections belonging to the likes of Edie Brickell and Paul Simon.

“When I first began painting, all of my art was coastal, but after settling into the land here and having our son, I just started seeing this landscape so clearly, and it’s reflected in my work. I’m living it,” Whitworth says. “People always tease me about believing in magic, but I always tell them, ‘You’ll believe in magic when it finds you.’”

She has risen from her seat at the window, and she is now moving through the house, turning on lamps, their soft light meeting the sound of Patsy Cline’s voice floating from an unseen source somewhere in the kitchen. Whitworth uncorks a bottle of wine and pours a glass.

Whether it’s a lamplit room in Hilton Head, a festival stage on the other side of the country, or a light-filled studio where the dew-damp mountains loom in the distance, Shannon Whitworth has always found magic.

Or perhaps it has always found her.  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 year.

The Creators of N.C.

Every Moment is a Window

Through his art, Richard Wilson bridges the gap between then and now

By Wiley Cash
Photographs By Mallory Cash

Spend some time with visual artist Richard Wilson’s work, and you’ll quickly grasp the role historical connection plays in it.

Take his Shadow Series, for example. In each painting, an African American boy or girl stands in the foreground, the background comprised of images of an African American trailblazer. In one piece, a girl in a leather bomber jacket blocks the sun from her eyes and stares toward the horizon, as if searching for a sign of what’s to come; behind her is an assemblage of newspaper stories and photographs of Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to hold a pilot’s license. Another shows a young boy in oversized boxing gloves gazing up at a speed bag that’s just out of reach; behind him, a newspaper announces that Jack Johnson has defeated James Jeffries to become the 1910 heavyweight champion of the world, the first African American to win the title. Other luminaries such as Arthur Ashe, Serena Williams, Michael Jordan and Barack Obama are featured in the series, each a guiding light for the young dreamer standing “in the shadow.” To the viewer, it’s clear that ancestors and aspiration are powerfully present in Wilson’s artwork.

And if you spend any time with the artist himself, you’ll understand that ancestors and aspiration are powerfully present in his own life.

The oldest of three boys, Wilson was born in Robersonville (Martin County) and moved with his family to Conetoe (pronounced Kuh-nee-tuh), another rural town in Eastern North Carolina, when he was 8. He grew up surrounded by family — siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. They were close-knit.

Today, Wilson is standing in the middle of his art studio in Greenville, N.C., where he and his wife have lived for just over 20 years. The walls around him are festooned with his original works and ribbons from national art shows; the floor cluttered with framed prints and works-in-progress. Wilson, a tall man who looks like a linebacker yet comports himself like a poet, admits that he has nearly outgrown the space that he built himself. On the wall opposite him is a framed original painting titled A Window Into the Past, in which an older African American man with a cane is picking his way across a field to a weathered two-story farmhouse. The man in the painting is Wilson’s uncle. The home, which has since been demolished, once belonged to Wilson’s paternal grandmother, Mary Battle.

“Every weekend we’d go to my grandmother’s house,” Wilson says, gesturing toward the painting. “All the children and grandchildren. That was the highlight of my week. My uncle, who was a sharecropper, would cook on the grill. We’d all play kickball and softball. I can still smell the rain on the dirt, the trees — pears and pecans. It was a beautiful life.” He sighs and his broad shoulders slump forward slightly. “But when my grandmother passed away, we all stopped going back there, and we just lost that connection.”

Although Wilson’s work is nothing if not realistic, each piece contains elements of symbolism that could be lost on the casual viewer. In the painting of Mary Battle’s house, the electrical service entrance — where the home had once been connected to a power line — is frayed and disconnected. That’s exactly how Richard Wilson felt in 2020, a year that saw a pandemic cripple the globe and political and cultural turmoil seize the heart and soul of the nation. Wilson used his art to reconnect with his family, his community and the landscape that once brought him so much joy.

Although he had featured his grandmother’s house in previous works, last year he found himself wanting to paint it again, and this time he wanted to include a family member. He called up his Uncle Bill and asked if he could come take some photographs of him. Uncle Bill happily obliged. It had been a while since they’d seen each other.

“We started talking about old times,” Wilson says, “and he started posing for me, and I started taking pictures of him. We had a great time.” But Wilson wanted to keep their reunion a secret. “I told him, ‘Don’t tell your children I’m doing this painting,’” says Wilson. “I wanted to put it on Facebook to see if they recognized the house and recognized that their father was in the painting.”

Imagine Wilson’s delight when, after posting the finished painting online, Uncle Bill’s youngest daughter wrote this: Hey, cuz, I really like this piece. It reminds me of back in the day, and the man in the picture reminds me of my pops.

Comments from other cousins followed, each expressing tender sentiments.

“And then they started buying prints,” Wilson says, supporting him at a time when art shows had been canceled due to COVID. “It brought us all back together.”

Wilson’s maternal grandmother, Francis Wilson Knight, lovingly known to everyone — family or otherwise — as Grandma Pigaboot, also bequeathed him a legacy that highlighted the importance of family, faith, land and self-reliance — all of which Wilson has made use of throughout his path to becoming a fulltime artist against incredible odds.

“My grandmother took us around and made sure that she introduced us to all of our family members,” Wilson says. “She was adamant about that, about knowing who your people are.” He stops speaking and smiles as if a memory is playing through his mind. “She also taught us how to be entrepreneurs. We used to turn in Coke bottles and get cash for them, and then we’d turn around and buy candy and sell it. Or we’d make Kool-Aid and turn it into freeze cups, and then we’d sell those.” She also taught Wilson and his siblings and cousins how to make use of the land by taking them fishing and teaching them how to sew gardens. And she instilled the importance of faith in their lives by ensuring that they accompanied her to church.

Richard Wilson has won countless awards for his art, which has been featured in television shows and films, showcased in public and private collections and purchased by the likes of the late Hank Aaron and Gladys Knight. Those early lessons from his grandmother have allowed him to turn a childhood spark of inspiration into the passionate flame that fuels his work. His Shadows Series makes that clear.

But Richard Wilson acknowledges that not everyone is as lucky to have had the family and influences he’s had. Yet that’s the great thing about forging a connection with people you love.

“If you didn’t have it then,” he says, “you can start it now.”

One could say the same about living your dream.  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 year.

The Creators of N.C.

Welcome Home

How Amarra Ghani became a guiding light for those in need

By Wiley Cash   *   Photographs by Mallory Cash

Amarra Ghani has continually found herself in two roles that are surprisingly in concert with one another: caregiver and outsider. These two roles go hand-in-hand more than one would think. Often, outsiders come from a perspective that allows them to assess the needs of others with fresh eyes, and caregivers tend to take on singular roles that set them apart.

“I’ve always felt different,” Ghani, the founder of Welcome Home in Charlotte, says. “The color of my skin, my name.” After 9/11, these feelings intensified for Ghani, a practicing Muslim whose parents are Pakistani immigrants. “I felt super-ostracized,” she says, despite growing up in ethnically and culturally diverse cities in New York and New Jersey. “People would say hurtful things to me because of what I looked like or how I grew up.” Ghani’s feelings of being an outsider intensified when her family moved to Charlotte halfway through her senior year of high school. Feeling alone, Ghani, began to lean on her faith. “I was isolated from everyone,” she says. “I fell in love with Islam because it was comforting for me. I was praying more. I was reading the Koran and I felt like God was my only friend.”

After high school, Ghani attended community college in Charlotte before transferring to the University of North Carolina-Asheville, where she founded the Muslim Student Association in hopes that other practicing Muslims would not feel as alone as she once had. “That’s where I found my voice,” she says. After college, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and later as a production assistant at NPR. Ghani was living out her career dreams, but was called home to Charlotte in 2016 after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She became her mother’s caregiver.

She didn’t stop there.

While throwing a “friendsgiving” celebration that year, Ghani encouraged her friends to bring warm winter clothes that she could donate to people in need. She learned that a friend’s mother — a native of Afghanistan who’d been living in Charlotte for 40 years — was gathering clothes for local refugees. When Ghani took her friendsgiving haul to the woman’s house, she asked her what else local refugees needed. She was surprised to learn that most of them needed the basic necessities like utensils, towels and bedding. She told her that she would put out a call on social media, which she had regularly used to make connections during her work in D.C. The response was overwhelming; soon, her parents’ garage was full of donated materials, from used clothing to brand new items to gift certificates. “Once I started, it just kept growing,” she says. When the pool of donors and volunteers swelled from 30 people to over 250, Ghani realized that she needed a better platform, so she set up a WhatsApp group called “Welcome Home.” This seemed like an appropriate name for a group dedicated to welcoming refugees as they bridge the gap between the struggles in their old lives and the challenges of the new.   

While working full-time with Wells Fargo, Ghani set about turning Welcome Home into a functioning organization, complete with a board of directors. Once things became official, the first phase of the organization’s work was to meet the basic needs of the refugee community by furnishing apartments, for example, or taking people on grocery store visits and other errands where assistance was needed. The second phase of operations focused on sustainability, and the organization forged ahead with programs in English language education and services that pair refugees with translators who can accompany them on doctor visits and other appointments where language may be a barrier.

Ghani knows these difficulties firsthand. “English is my second language because my parents would not talk to me in English,” she says. “As the child of immigrants, there’s a time when you become your parents’ parent. I was 11 when I started helping my dad with forms or going to the doctor with them or going to parent-teacher conferences to translate.” What a difference an organization like Welcome Home would have made in the life of her family: “I wish someone had guided my parents,” she says. “My dad could’ve had less pressure on him.” And how were they to know such resources existed? “When you’re someone who doesn’t speak the language and you’ve just arrived and don’t know the community around you, you need someone to guide you. That is what drives me.”

Welcome Home started out with 21 families, and they all eventually graduated from the program, no longer in need of assistance. “We have families who come here and who don’t know English or how to drive and perhaps have a fourth grade education,” Ghani says. Not only are they learning how to survive in a world that feels so foreign, she continues, but they are learning how to thrive. “We have three families who have been able to purchase houses in the last year,” she says. They were able to raise money to cover the rent for another family where the wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Earlier this year, we learned that this family was able to buy a house as well.”

But Ghani also recognizes the hesitancy many people have about seeking help, which is why Welcome Home plays such an important role in the lives of refugees from places like Syria, Afghanistan and Myanmar. While many refugee organizations are missionary in nature, Welcome Home is not. Still, Ghani cannot deny the comfort families find in working with an organization largely comprised of people who share the refugees’ religious faith, culture and worldview. “It makes a difference in small ways and big ways,” she says. “For example, during Thanksgiving, our families know that we can provide Halal turkeys. That establishes a level of trust.” Now, perhaps more than ever, trust is paramount as refugees settle into a new community during the coronavirus pandemic.

As the virus takes its toll in communities across the state, Welcome Home finds itself back in their first phase, meeting the basic needs of their families. “It’s all about necessities and fundraising to cover bills,” Ghani says. It’s also about keeping families safe from the virus itself. In mid-February, Welcome Home partnered with the city of Charlotte and the Mecklenburg Department of Health Services to provide vaccinations. “They reached out to us because of the skepticism of the vaccine in refugee and immigrant communities. We’re bridging that gap and bringing familiarity to the process of getting vaccinated,” Ghani says.

Through it all, Ghani, who last month was awarded UNC-Asheville’s Francine Delany Award for Service to the Community, maintains that she is driven by her faith, as well as by the memories she has of being an outsider and her most recent calling to care for those in need. “What did I do to deserve the life that I have?” she asks. “Nothing. I was just born into this family and this faith and this atmosphere. Others aren’t so lucky.” When she works with refugee families, assisting them with everything from getting clothes to learning English, she can’t help seeing a bit of herself in their struggle. “I know where they’re coming from,” she says, “I’ve been in that place.” No matter the place where members of Charlotte’s refugee community find themselves, Amarra Ghani wants to make certain they get home.  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 year.

The Creators of N.C.

A Walk in the Woods

In writing and in life, Belle Boggs explores a sense of place and belonging

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

As they do most days, especially since the coronavirus pandemic began, writer Belle Boggs and her 7-year-old daughter, Bea, are walking through the woods near their home in Pittsboro to the banks of the Eno River. Boggs, whose most recent novel, The Gulf (2019), tells the humorous yet complicated story of a struggling writer and teacher, is a teacher herself. Her inclination to educate is evident as she pauses now and then to point out varieties of mushrooms, species of birds and the best places to ford the various creeks that criss-cross the landscape on the way to the river.

While Boggs is clearly not in the classroom at North Carolina State University, where she has taught Creative Writing since 2014, the classroom never seems very far from her mind. The names and stories of her students — both past and present — find their way into conversation easily, as does her interest in the broader implications of education in rural North Carolina, especially Alamance County, where she is at work on a book-length study of the public schools there.

Boggs and her husband, Richard, settled in North Carolina after a stint in New York City, where Boggs taught first grade in Brooklyn while simultaneously earning an education degree from Pace University. Before that, she lived in California, where she earned an M.F.A. from UC Irvine. She knew she wanted to come back to the South, and she and her husband chose North Carolina because they had friends here from his years as an undergraduate in Chapel Hill. But there was something else that brought her back: the sense of place and the benefits and challenges that come along with it. “I’m interested in the challenge of being an artist when you’re from the South,” she says.

But while Belle Boggs has lived in North Carolina since 2005, one of the greatest challenges she faced was that of focusing her literary eye on her adopted state. “It took a long time for me to identify as a North Carolinian because I’d always identified as someone from a very particular place in Virginia,” she says. Her first book, the story collection Mattaponi Queen (2010), is set on the Mattaponi River in the tidewater region of Boggs’ youth and reflects her deep appreciation for place, which must have rung true to native Virginians as the book won the Library of Virginia Literary Award. It was also a finalist for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, proving that the most powerful regional writing often resonates far outside the region of its birth.

Although Tidewater Virginia certainly informed Boggs’ earlier writing, rural Chatham County is clearly full of marvels for her, and she talks about them with an infectious sense of wonder. Across the river, she points to the spot where eagles are nesting in an impossibly tall tree; in the summer, she says that the waters of the Eno are often low enough that one can sit in a beach chair midstream and read a book; and she follows a path to an oak tree with a hole in its trunk that is large enough for young Bea to climb inside of and nearly disappear. But, for Belle Boggs, life outside of the woods is approached with these same investigatory powers. Along with the environment, other themes that have long held her interest — specifically race, class, education and motherhood — are rendered with the same precise detail that she uses to describe the world that she chronicles on these daily walks.

The issues of race, class, education and motherhood — instead of competing — have found a way of intertwining in Boggs’ recent work, especially once she became a mother. Her 2016 essay collection, The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Motherhood, and Medicine, chronicles her use of in vitro fertilization after years of confronting the possibility of being childless. And while IVF led to the birth to her daughter, Bea, followed a few years later with the surprise birth of her daughter, Harriet, the process was not without its financial burdens. “As I was waiting for the medication for my IVF cycle, which is like $3,000, our well failed,” she says, “and we had to drill a new one. Both of those things were big stretches for us to pay for, and there was so much uncertainty behind them both. They became a natural metaphor for one another.” This radical honesty, both the struggle to conceive a life and the struggle to keep her own afloat, is the kind of honesty that readers appreciate in Boggs’ writing, something which she finds surprising. “I think in general I’m a pretty reserved writer,” she says, “and I try to let the facts and the details speak for what I’m describing.”

Never were the facts and details more important to undergirding the radical honesty of an experience than when Boggs recently published an essay about her and Bea and a group of people being pepper-sprayed during a peaceful march to the polls in Graham, on the last day of early voting. Boggs had taken her daughter to the march to give her an education in democracy, but what she got instead was a lesson in power: who has it, who does not and how it is used. These same issues of power are what led her to undertake her current project on public education in Alamance County, especially as it pertains to race, class and the issues of regional segregation. It is clear that Boggs’ time some years ago in the first grade classroom fuels both her current work and her deep emotional connection to primary education. “I’m lucky to be teaching in a program like the one at N.C. State,” she says. “But sometimes I feel guilty that I’m not still a first grade teacher, because I think that may be some of the most good you can do in the world.”

But while Boggs teaches undergraduates and graduate students, she has found a way to keep one foot in primary education. Over the course of the pandemic, she and Bea created a Zoom-based writing club for children in kindergarten through second grade, and, perhaps following Boggs’ lead, several of her graduate students have begun working on writing projects with school-age children.

The day is ending. The woods are growing dark. Boggs and her daughter walk back uphill away from the river toward home, where 3-year-old Harriet and Boggs’ husband are waiting. Bea walks ahead of her mother on a trail toward the house, but Boggs stops, calls her daughter back. Boggs has spotted a mushroom, and while she cannot remember the name of it, she believes her daughter may know. The two of them kneel on the forest floor to get a better look. The light is fading, but there is still enough light to see, and there is still so much to learn.  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 year.

The Creators of N.C.

Bottling the Past

In Robeson County, where the grapes grow sweet, a Lumbee-owned winery thrives

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

Two legends persist in North Carolina, both of which have spread like twining vines from Roanoke Island westward across the state. One legend is about grapes, the other is about the Lost Colony, and both converge in Robeson County.

First, the legend of grapes: It is believed that when British explorers sent by Sir Walter Raleigh arrived on Roanoke Island in 1584, they were greeted by the sweet aroma of muscadine grapes hanging ripe on the vines. Centuries later, the “Mother Vine,” which is believed to be the oldest known grapevine in the United States at 400 years old, is still thriving on the Outer Banks, roughly two feet thick at its base and covering nearly a half-acre.

The second legend is the legend of the Lost Colony. Most North Carolinians know that Raleigh’s 1587 expedition, led by John White, disappeared while White was making a return trip to England for supplies. Three years later, when White came back to the colony, he discovered that nothing had been left behind aside from the word CROATOAN, which was etched into a gate, and the letters CRO that had been carved into a tree. What happened to these British colonists? Among the many theories, one is that the settlers moved inland and befriended Native American tribes, eventually intermarrying and joining the vast network of Native people who had been living in the region for centuries before White settlers arrived. Many believe that descendants of the Lost Colony moved as far inland as present day Robeson County, eventually calling themselves Lumbee in honor of the Lumber (or Lumbee) River. Perhaps that would explain why the Lumbee Indians, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River with a population of over 70,000, have always spoken English as their common language.

Not so, writes Malinda Maynor Lowery, associate professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill, who is herself a Lumbee Indian who was born in Robeson County. In her book, The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle, Lowery writes, “The Lumbees are descendants of the dozens of tribes in that territory, as well as of free European and enslaved African settlers who lived in what became their core homeland.”

According to Lowery, the Lumbee’s use of English as their common language is not due to their being founded by the members of the Lost Colony, but was more a matter of convenience as a mixture of tribal communities began to coalesce in the area after migrating to escape disease, warfare and slavery. Native people have lived in what is now Robeson County for 13,000 years, long before Sir Walter Raleigh had his earliest notions of empire.

If the Lost Colony cannot explain the existence of the Lumbee Indians in Robeson County, it probably cannot explain the westward expansion of the muscadine grape either. According to the North Carolina Muscadine Grape Association, “in the early 1800s, North Carolina was a national leader in wine production and in 1840 was the nation’s top wine producer, with an industry built entirely on muscadine grapes.” There are currently 200 licensed wineries in North Carolina, generating $375 million each year in wages and $89 million in state taxes.

One of the 200 licensed wineries is Locklear Vineyard and Winery in Maxton, N.C. For the past 15 years, Charlie Locklear and his two sons, Charlie Jr. and Daryl, proud members of the Lumbee tribe, have been growing muscadine grapes and making a plethora of wines on the land that has belonged to the family for generations. The elder Charlie, who was born in 1942 and grew up farming tobacco, corn, cotton and “a little bit of hay” with his family, started making wine as a hobby. “I just loved to do it,” he says on one bright day in early fall, only a few weeks after the vines have been harvested.

The operation is tightly run, primarily by family and close family friends, with everything from the growing to the harvesting to the bottling happening on the Locklears’ property, where an old barn has been converted into a winery that features a tasting room and retail space. Outside, the land stretches for miles. Charlie, whose likeness appears on all of Locklear Winery’s bottles, remembers a time when the family was no less tied to the land, but simply had more land to tie themselves to. His great-grandfather owned 3,000 acres, and his grandfather came to own and farm roughly 300. “If you’re not farming the big way now, you just can’t make it,” Charlie says, referring to the boom and bust of the agribusiness cycle that often finds farmers relying on huge yields to pay down debts for machinery and land. Now, the Locklears own 70 acres of land, considerably less than in the past, but the land is put to good use, much of it comprised of the vineyard where two variations of muscadine grapes — Noble and Carlos — are grown. The Noble muscadine is red, the wine sweet yet crisp. The Carlos is a white grape, resulting in wine with a sweeter, smoother finish.

“I like to experiment with different ways to make wine,” Charlie says. “If you make a good product that tastes good, people are going to buy it.” And people have bought it, and word of the sweet wine from Robeson County continues to spread. While their sales are highest in the local market, Locklear wines are sold throughout Eastern North Carolina, across the Piedmont and into the western part of the state. The winery now employs more people than ever before.

Robeson County can be a conservative place, and one has to wonder what the locals thought when Charlie Locklear decided to turn his wine-making hobby into a family business. “Most people embraced it,” he says. “Probably 90 percent of them. You’re never going to get 100 percent on nothing.” But folks will go easy on a local boy, especially when the family name is nearly as old as the land itself. Along with other surnames — Oxendine, Chavis, Dial, Lowery or Lowry or Lowrie among them — Locklears have a long history in the region, and Charlie has the roots to prove it.

“I was born here,” he says, “and in 1948 we went straight across the road and built a house. And when I got married in 1964, we remodeled this house, which was my grandfather’s house, and we’ve been here ever since.”

Locklear is a prominent name, he continues, and there are a lot of them.

“Our ancestors were here, and we were people with high education and businesses. We’re just continuing to promote the family tree, businesswise.”

And what does it mean to Charlie Locklear to work this land and create a family business from it?

“Well, I hope it’s an encouragement to Lumbees,” he says. “And I hope it’s an encouragement to Whites and Blacks too: If you want to achieve something, you can achieve it. Don’t let other people tell you what to do. It’s like target practice: If you shoot at it long enough, you’ll hit it.”

After centuries of his people being on this land, it’s clear that Charlie’s aim is pretty good. PS

Wiley Cash and his photographer wife, Mallory, live in Wilmington, N.C. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

The Creators of N.C.

Art in Service

Rosalia Torres-Weiner’s flowers blossom

By Wiley Cash   •   Photographs by Mallory Cash

People begin arriving at 2 p.m. sharp on a Saturday afternoon at the Compare Foods Supermarket on Sharon Amity in east Charlotte: elderly men and women, families with small children, single mothers with babies on their hips — each of them carrying a distinctly different painting of bold, colorful flowers on 8×10 canvases. A few people appear uncertain, others seem excited to discover the source of the mystery that has brought them together. A message on the back of each painting has instructed them to arrive at this location on this day and at this time.

Over the past several days, the paintings — a hundred of them, in fact — have been found scattered around the Queen City on park benches, at bus stops, and inside laundromats, places that one does not expect to find works of art, especially art of this caliber. The artist, Charlotte’s Rosalia Torres-Weiner, is waiting for them, sitting on a folding chair outside her boldly painted art truck. The art truck is a repurposed delivery truck that, before the pandemic, Torres-Weiner used to deliver art supplies and arts education to Charlotte’s underserved Latinx communities. Today, those communities are coming to her.

Some people arrive speaking Spanish, others English, but Torres-Weiner, who was born and raised in Mexico City, moves effortlessly between the two languages, greeting everyone with a warm smile that cannot be denied, even by the mask she wears due to the continued rise in coronavirus cases in North Carolina, where Charlotte’s Latinx population has been particularly affected.

Over the summer, Charlotte’s WBTV reported that Hispanic people make up about 10 percent of North Carolina’s population, but they comprised roughly 46 percent of the state’s coronavirus cases. According to Atrium Health, 25 percent of Hispanics who were tested were positive for COVID-19, while testing for other groups returned positive rates at only 9.5 percent. Torres-Weiner, a self-described “artivist” whose work is fueled by service to her community, felt called to respond to the devastating effects of the COVID crisis.

“All my work comes from the community, and while I obeyed the orders to stay home, I realized that I needed to do something,” she says. She soon found herself asking: “What can I do to produce art and help the Latino community?”

This question led to an idea, and the idea eventually grew into action. Torres-Weiner’s husband, Ben Weiner, who works in technology, has grown accustomed to his wife coming up with these kinds of ideas, ideas that put her art to work in service of the community. He lovingly refers to these moments of inspiration, which he envisions as tiny black beans that grow into something larger, as frijolitos, and he has dubbed his wife’s visionary projects as “Frijolito, Inc.” As usual — and as her husband probably predicted — Torres-Weiner’s ideas on how to confront COVID grew.

One day, while bouncing ideas off a friend who is also part of Charlotte’s Latinx community, Torres-Weiner decided that she would find a way to distribute sanitization supplies to underserved communities. Her friend told her that was a great idea, but what people really needed was food. Mothers and fathers were dying of COVID, leaving behind spouses and children who needed support. Yes, they needed supplies to protect their bodies, but they also needed food, especially children, who were going to bed hungry, their physical pain compounded by the emotional pain of losing a parent to the coronavirus.

Pain and beauty: Torres-Weiner was motivated by one and desperate to spread the other, and she recalled a quote from the impressionist painter Claude Monet, “I must have flowers, always, and always.” She knew how to spread beauty, and she decided to paint a hundred 8×10 canvases with bold, colorful flowers. But she knew she needed help finding a way to address the pain people were feeling. Frijolito, Inc. sprang into action.

Although she has made a living as a professional artist, Torres-Weiner went to college for business administration. “My sister became a lawyer, my other sister became a doctor, so when I told my mother I wanted to be an artist, there was not a choice,” she says. But sometimes mothers know best, and Torres-Weiner admits that her business background has provided the tools she needed to find funding and partnerships for her art projects. For her latest, she reached out to Google Fiber. With their support, Torres-Weiner was able to ensure that for each painting she painted, its new owner would have access to a gift bag containing hand sanitizer, masks, soap, and other items. Also, each bag would contain a $50 gift card to Compare Foods Supermarket.

As is often the case when Torres-Weiner executes a plan, her husband is on-site today. Each time someone arrives with their newfound art in hand, Torres-Weiner checks the number on the back of the painting and calls it out to her husband, who is inside the art truck, where the gifts bags are waiting. Out of the 100 paintings Torres-Weiner distributed across Charlotte, 89 find their way back to their creator, and although the new owners get to keep the paintings, many of them cannot believe their good fortune. Surely there is a catch, some of them ask. Others try to return their paintings, certain that such beautiful art cannot have been passed on to them for free.

If you ask Torres-Weiner why she feels compelled to use her art to support her community, she will respond by telling you that this is a community that has always supported her from the moment she and her husband arrived in Charlotte from Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. “I remember when we moved here,” she says, “and we saw a church on almost every corner of the city, and we saw everyone playing baseball and taking their kids to activities, and my husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘This is our city. This place is going to embrace us.’ And it did. We’ve been here 26 years.”

But others in the city were not as convinced as Torres-Weiner that Charlotte was the place for her and her art. “When I started painting my colorful art, someone said, ‘You need to move to Santa Fe or San Francisco.’ I’m glad I didn’t listen.” Another time, while she was working on a mural in Washington, D.C., she told someone that she was ready to return home. They asked if she was heading back to Mexico. “No,” she said. “I’m going back to Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s my home.”

But home changes, and artists adapt, and Torres-Weiner has adapted, easily blending her Mexican cultural heritage into her work as a Mexican-American artivist living in Charlotte. By way of example, she references cuisine and how foodways can merge cultures and bring people together.

A few years ago, while standing in line at a walk-up Mexican restaurant that had long been a secret kept within the Latinx community, Torres-Weiner noticed the diversity of people waiting with her, and she struck up a conversation with a Black man who was standing behind her. He saw the paint on her clothes, and he asked if she was a painter. She said she was. As a matter of fact, she had painted the nearby mural of the Lady of Guadalupe on Central Avenue. The man told her the neighborhood had once housed primarily Black families, and before that White Charlotteans had made it their home. Now, the neighborhood was home primarily to members of the Latinx community, and Torres-Weiner explained that she was painting the mural to welcome them to Charlotte. While they waited for their lunch, Torres-Weiner and the man continued to talk about old landmarks, how communities change, how they maintain their hospitality, how they can welcome anyone who is looking for a home.

Rosalia Torres-Weiner’s career has taken her all over the world, and her work has been featured in major museum collections and ended up on the cover of a United States history textbook. But no matter where she goes or where her work is showcased, Charlotte remains home. “Last year, I was selected to represent North Carolina as a Mexican artist when an event was organized in Mexico City that invited one artist from each state in America to represent the arts,” she says. “And when they chose me as North Carolina’s artist, I was so proud.”

The day’s event has ended. The confused and curious people who arrived with a gorgeous painting in one hand are leaving with a bag full of groceries and COVID supplies in the other.

No one is more pleased than Torres-Weiner. It is obvious that her day of service has regenerated her, guaranteeing that she will soon find another way to put her art into action to serve her community. What else can an artivist do but create and serve? “It’s my food, it’s my air,” she says. “It is my Christmas.” PS

Wiley Cash and his photographer wife, Mallory, live in Wilmington, N.C. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

The Creators

Man of the Earth

According to acclaimed plantsman Tony Avent, the universe has plans for you — and your garden

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

For someone who has spent much of his life hunched over the earth, his fingers threading through soil, rocks and roots, Triangle plantsman and nursery proprietor Tony Avent spends an awful lot of time talking about invisible energy and the unseen hand of the universe. Listen closely and you will hear him say things like: The universe has plans for you, and you can’t fight them; The plants tell me where they want to go; and The energy of the world speaks to us all.

This kind of talk may sound hokey until you visit Avent’s Juniper Level Garden in Raleigh, a place so magical and mysterious that it is not hard to believe that a divine force once struck this ground and caused all manner of flora and fauna to spring forth. But, in reality, that is not what happened. The truth is less supernatural and much more natural. Avent’s 28-acre garden was once a sprawling tobacco field, and when he set out to tame this land 30 years ago he did so with nothing but a shovel and a suspicion that something otherworldly could happen here. He was right.

Avent’s Juniper Level Garden and the on-site Plant Delights Nursery, where the garden’s specimens are grown and propagated, have become the nation’s standard bearer for garden horticulture. Avent has forged a career as a well-known and charismatic spokesperson for a movement dedicated to growing and developing gardens instead of simply planting them. His formal career began after graduating from NC State University with a degree in horticultural science before working his way toward the position of landscape director at the North Carolina Fairgrounds. Soon, he found himself on plant expeditions across the United States and in countries like South Africa, Mexico, China, Croatia, and Thailand. Along the way, he has given nearly 1,000 lectures, published dozens and dozens of articles, been featured in national media, and appeared on television alongside Martha Stewart on channels like HGTV and NBC.

With all that travel and so much glitz and glamour, what has kept Avent’s hands dirtied by his native soil in Raleigh? Perhaps it is the fact that the region’s climate and geography are so amenable to his work.

“This garden can grow the best diversity of plants anywhere in the country outside the Pacific Northwest,” Avent says. He is standing on a pathway in the middle of the garden on an early afternoon in February. Spring may be a few weeks away, but the garden feels surprisingly dramatic and alive. “We designed the garden so that something is always blooming, always green, always living,” he says. “The garden is always in transition. It’s always changing.”

The we he mentions refers to himself and Michelle, his first wife and high school sweetheart, who passed away in 2012 after a long battle with cancer. The two of them had known one another since they were children, and their families had been in the area for centuries. As a matter of fact, one of Avent’s ancestors began operating the ferry that crossed the Cape Fear River in 1775, thus the name of Raleigh’s Avent Ferry Road. Avent and his late wife purchased the house that is now used for the garden’s offices in 1988, along with 2 acres of surrounding land. They had hoped for peace and tranquillity, but that was not quite what they found.

“When we first moved here, nobody in this part of the county knew what a muffler was,” Avent says. To counteract the noise from the road in front of their home, Avent spent his evenings after dinner digging out a place for a huge grotto with a waterfall, an area of the garden so elegant and alive with plant life that it appears to have been here forever. The sound of falling water does not just shut out the noise of traffic; it shuts out the noise of the world. Perhaps that makes it easier for Avent to listen to what the universe is telling him.

Michelle’s death had him reeling, but, according to Avent, “sometimes the universe has other plans.” His late wife had urged him to remarry after her passing, so nearly two years after her death, Avent found his way to online dating, where he eventually began chatting with a local woman. She turned out to be much more local than he could have ever imagined. He and his current wife, Anita, have known one another since they were in Sunday school as children. Her grandfather worked a farm only a few miles away from Avent’s garden enterprise. Even their parents had known each other for decades.

It is also the tutelage, tragic death, and legacy of Avent’s mentor J.C. Raulston that keep him tied to this place. Raulston was an acclaimed horticulturist and the first director of the North Carolina Arboreteum. Avent was one of Raulston’s students at NC State, and he studied Raulston and his work closely.

“Working with him was the first time I had somebody who thought like I did,” he says. Avent designed Juniper Level Gardens as an homage to Raulston’s arboretum, and the two gardens seem to be in conversation with one another. Although Raulston perished in an automobile accident in 1996, to Avent, he never seems out of reach. “I can feel his energy in his garden at the arboretum,” Avent says. “And I can feel it here. It made sense for me to stay here.”

The roots of this world traveler and plant adventurer run too deep to be moved, or transplanted.

None of this really seems to surprise Avent. He possessed a passion for plants from a very early age, and his life’s first major disappointment set him on a course that would find him nurturing a single plot of land into something steady and permanent.

Avent was fascinated with plants and greenhouses as a young child, and in his early teens, he begged his father to take him to visit what he believed was the premiere garden in the world: Wayside Gardens in Greenwood, South Carolina. He was certain of the garden’s beauty because he had been receiving their mail-order catalog and would spend hours studying it. But when he and his father arrived after their journey south, Avent found nothing but a brick warehouse to which plants were shipped and from where they would be shipped again once they were sold.

“I was so devastated,” he says, “and I remember thinking, When I grow up I will build a place that no one is ever disappointed in when they come visit.

With the recent announcement that Avent and his wife have gifted Juniper Level Gardens to NC State University, Avent has assured that not only will people never be disappointed in his garden, he has assured that they will be able to visit it in perpetuity, a plan that perhaps the universe saw coming. That is important to Avent because he wants the energy of this place to be felt by others.

“I get energy from everything out here,” he says. “I never wear gloves, and now it has been discovered that the electrical energy in the soil is touching you, you’re feeling it. This energy can’t be created, and it can’t be destroyed. It’s always going to be here.”

No matter where he goes, the universe has decided that Tony Avent will always be here too.  PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.