For the last 30 years a quiet renaissance resurrecting the lost art of Buon fresco has been unfolding in unassuming buildings dotting the mountains of the Blue Ridge. A rebellious act in to today’s society bent on instant-gratification – a band of artists have dedicated their lives to learning the ancient tradition, apprenticing themselves to a master, and doing work that can only be done painstakingly and with the help of others.
Now, in downtown Asheville, a Fresco is going up across the entire back wall of a sanctuary that itself is inspiring a revolution by returning to the roots of Christianity. Not just offering a hollow ‘All are Welcome’ promise on the sign outside of their door, Haywood Street is striving to create relationships across every social barrier, and the mixture of people serving and being served inside this congregation has earned it the nickname Holy Chaos.
Nearly ten years in the making, the inception and creation of the Fresco, one of the most expensive and labor-intensive art forms known to man, seems willed by Providence.
In the early 2000s Christopher Holt, born in Waynesville, NC and educated at UNC Chapel Hill, found himself back in the mountains. Holt had just returned from a trip through Central and Mexico, painting murals inspired in part by the fresco artist Diego Rivera. Holt reconnected with his Chapel Hill classmate John Dempsey, who was working as an apprentice to the famous fresco painter Ben Long IV, and began taking classes at the Fine Arts League.
Founded in 2001 by Long, The Fine Arts League was rooted in teaching classic techniques, centered around the Renaissance and emphasizing drawing. Holt began to work as an apprentice to Long as well, first for ‘The Muses’ at the City of Morganton Municipal Auditorium, which was completed April 19, 2004.
Since Morganton, Holt has assisted on multiple other Long Frescoes, including works in Crossnore (North Carolina), Charleston (South Carolina), and Lucignano (Italy). The other artists involved in the Haywood Street Fresco, Jill Hooper, John Dempsey III and Caleb Clark, have also assisted on multiple Long Frescoes, as has the youngest member of the team, Anselme Long, who is Long’s youngest son and working as an apprentice on the Haywood Street project.
Holt moved from being a student, to an instructor, to the director of the Fine Arts League.
During this time Caleb Clark and some other students of the Fine Arts League began attending Haywood Street, sitting in the back pew and sketching people attending the services. This culminated in a local gallery show by Mandy Kjellstrom in March 2012 that revealed the ‘Faces of Haywood Street,’ a documentation of lives that go unnoticed. An article in the Mountain Xpress about the show explains that over 20 people a year die in Asheville whom itis difficult or impossible to establish identity.
The Fine Arts League student’s studies of people at Haywood Street, and another personal connection, drew Holt into the sphere of Holy Chaos and laid the framework for the Fresco as if guided by the hands of God.
Playing basketball at Tuscola High School, Holt became good friends with a local pastor’s son. He kept in touch with the family, and when he returned to the mountains that pastor, Dr. Rob Blackburn, was the Senior Pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Asheville. Central United Methodist owns the building that houses Haywood Street Congregation.
In 2011 Holt brought up the idea of painting a fresco on the back wall of the sanctuary. Rev. Brian Combs, the pastor of the Haywood Street Congregation, who had graduated from NC State with a degree in design, immediately held space for the vision.
Planning for a Revolution
But for fresco, vision and execution are years in the making. There are few artists in the world who can paint a true fresco, and doing so requires specialized materials as well as an exorbitant amount of time, literally thousands of hours, not to mention the years/decades of apprenticeship and assisting that goes into learning the craft.
The result would be a luminescent and vivid piece of permanent art. As the idea turned into a plan, the goal of the Haywood Street Fresco became a declaration in pigment and plaster to restore dignity to what society generally deems the least of these.
Choosing a piece of scripture to focus on, Holt easily picked ‘The Beatitudes’ (Matthew 5:2-12) from a list presented by Rev. Combs. He began his composition not with the idea that he would illustrate each verse from the Sermon on the Mount, but would show the giving and receiving that happens inside the community of Haywood Street, and the dignity and divine creation encompassed through the representation of the unhoused or previously unhoused members in the painting.
The project was awarded a $72,500 grant by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority in 2017 and the Fresco team planned to move ahead with the project with this major boost of validity and steam behind them. The BCTDA collects it funds through hotel taxes, and awards grants to projects that would attract more visitors to stay overnight in the area. The fresco provided a promising piece of unique and rare art, art that would attract many visitors and elevate the profile of arts tourism in Asheville, as proven by other Ben Long IV Frescoes. Five Ben Long IV Frescoes are included on The Blue Ridge Heritage Trail, a collection of 70 sites throughout that area that embody the history and culture of the region. These Frescoes attract between 50,000 and 100,000 visitors a year to remote regions of the Blue Ridge mountains.
However, the grant was challenged by The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a non-profit group based out of Wisconsin, who was tipped off anonymously and believed that there was a potential conflict with the Establishment Clause in the US Constitution separating church and state. In 2018 the Board at Haywood street decided not to engage in the legal contest, declining the grant and instead moved forward with plans for private funding.
So a committee was formed and fundraising began. First in the form of private house parties with the artists and committee where the goals were set forth and money was raised. A large community concert, ‘Imagine,’ was organized at the Diana Wortham Theatre featuring Asheville’s finest performing artists. All of the money for the Fresco is being raised in gifts donated strictly for that purpose.
The subjects portrayed in the Fresco are revolutionary. Because of the expense, skill and labor involved in creating a Fresco, the works of art were commissioned by only the most wealthy and powerful in society. They often depicted their benefactors, as well as professional models – people known for their beauty and ability to sit still. But at Haywood Street, 32 portraits were sketched from life of people that may not even have the means to carry identification on them, let alone commission a portrait.
According to Rev. Brian Combs the fresco will offer a visual interpretation of Christianity that is foundational to the organization’s mission and ministry. All of Haywood’s programs work to build relationships between the housed and unhoused.
Painting began June 2019, and will be completed in early Fall 2019.
Visit www.haywoodstreetfresco.org to learn more, and donate to be a part of this