Monday, March 30, 2009


Occasionally, some old friend who is retired in Palo Alto or Ann Arbor asks me how I stand to live in such a small community as Asheville. They understand the appeal of Blue Ridge Mountains scenery, but assume that we have no culture. A generalization such as “this is the Paris of the South” does not satisfy them. The impressive cultural credentials of other people who have chosen Western North Carolina as their retirement home do not convince them. They think we are all misguided. So I try to erode their skepticism by a continual drizzle of small reports on activities here.

I could cite Saturday, March 21, 2009 as an example of the cultural richness of our area. In the morning, I went to a meeting of the Asheville Area Piano Forum in Weaverville. In the evening, I drove 75 minutes “down the hill” to Greenville, SC for a Masterworks concert of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra.

The Asheville Area Piano Forum is similar to the piano teachers’ associations that other communities have, except the Asheville group accepts serious amateur pianists in addition to the professionals and educators. Fred Flaxman, host of the syndicated public radio program Compact Discoveries, presented the March 21 program. He discussed lesser-known composers, illustrating their music not with recordings (as he does on his program) but with live performances by various members of the Forum. Among the selections were Alexander Scriabin’s Etude in C# minor (Opus 2#1) played by Polly Feitzinger and Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand (Opus 9) played by Deborah Belcher.

Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1872-1915) was a Russian pianist and composer whose compositions went through three distinct phases in his short life. His early style (Opus 1 through 29) was inspired by Chopin. He then moved to unusual harmonies and textures, ending in a period of atonal composition that presaged Arnold Schönberg.

Influenced by theosophy, mysticism and Russian Symbolism, he imagined an ultimate composition that was to include dance, aromas, light shows and music, integrated through his color circle (see illustration). The work was envisioned as being one week in length, to take place with the Himalayan Mountains as a backdrop. It was never written.

After a period of neglect, his music in recent decades has appeared frequently in piano recitals. His major works for orchestra are also still in the repertoire, although seldom scheduled.

The Greenville Symphony Orchestra is the only symphony orchestra in the region that regularly mounts a generous string section (over fifty) in a large hall with good acoustics (the Peace Center Concert Hall). Edvard Tchivzhel is music director. This fine Russian conductor, touring the United States with the State Russian Symphony Orchestra in 1991, defected with the help of friends in Greenville. He considers this community to be his American home. Since taking over the orchestra in 1999, he has built a fine ensemble. He frequently schedules sprawling romantic works. On March 21, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade was coupled with Alexander Scriabin’s Symphony #2 in C minor, Opus 29. For many of us, it was the first hearing of a significant but little-known symphony from Scriabin’s early romantic period.

How many other places in America could you start and end a Saturday with Alexander Scriabin?
© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #426
March 30, 2009

Friday, March 27, 2009


The mountains of Western North Carolina have been home to Patricia Wellborn for twenty years now. They provide a constant source of peace, strength and inspiration to this Henderson County artist. But she paints her landscapes not only from her local experience. In 2006, she studied with Steve Almone on Monhegan Island, Maine and painted New England scenes. Every year she visits New Mexico, and reports “I find the sharp contrast between the clear, stark beauty of the Southwest and the soft hazy colors of the Blue Ridge very exciting.”

Although she claims that it is a challenge to represent on paper the varying illuminations of different regions, the resulting body of work demonstrates that she has the eye to do so. Consider three recent juried exhibitions in our area.

• In 2007, at the 62nd Juried Exhibition of the Watercolor Society of North Carolina, her “Runoff” won the St. Cuthbert’s Mill Award. The work showed an understanding of Southwestern light, dry and stark.
• In 2008, when the Western Carolina Branch of the League of American Pen Women asked me to judge their exhibit of member’s visual art, my first choice was her “Surf at Monhegan,” a work so evocative of the Maine coast that I swore I could hear the crashing water.
• Also in 2008, the Friends of Carl Sandburg at Connemara joined Hendersonville’s Wickwire Gallery in sponsoring “Connemara Visions” judged by William Jameson of Charleston, South Carolina and Saluda, North Carolina. His “Best of Show” award went to Wellborn for “Shed at Connemara,” an eye-catching depiction of light and shadow that was unquestionably representative of the Southern Appalachian region.

Wellborn majored in Studio Art at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and continued her
studies with Carrie Burns Brown, Patricia Cole-Ferullo and Harry Thompson. Her first solo exhibit was in 1994. She won “Best of Show” at the Transylvania County Art League in 1993 and 1996, and at the Art League of Henderson County in 2000. The North Carolina Arts Council gave her a Regional Artist Grant in 1998 for a painting trip to a Benedictine Abbey (the Christ in the Desert Monastery) near Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Between 2000 and 2005, she sold real estate and did very little painting. Then she kicked over the traces and spent the summer painting in New Mexico. When she returned to North Carolina, she once again painted landscapes full-time. In 2006, First Congregational Church in Hendersonville provided an opportunity for us to see landscapes created during the first ten months after she returned to full-time painting.

Some of her best work qualifies as mixed media since she often adds acrylic accents and sometimes combines other elements such as handmade paper or “found” paper. “I like the play of transparent watercolor against the opaque acrylic,” she says. Occasionally, one sees the influence of Pat Cole-Ferullo in the underlying esthetic, the drive to extract the heart of an outdoor scene and represent it semi-abstractly. But the technique and the specific details of the vision are distinctly Pat Wellborn.

Over the past seven years, my newspaper columns commented favorably on many of her paintings. In 2002, I reported that Patricia Wellborn’s Forest Floor “is a lovely representation of ferns, where the power of acrylics is used to accent the watercolor painting with pleasing bright color highlights. She uses acrylics judiciously to good effect, often in conjunction with other paints. Her Rapids shows a good eye for the appearance of rocks as water flows over them apace.”

I commented in 2006, “a group of
collage or mixed media paintings entitled Petroglyph Series incorporates numerous icons such as the mischievous flute player Kokopelli painted in acrylic. I liked especially Petroglyph Cliff and the collage entitled New Mexico Doorways.” About her 1998 paintings near Abiquiu, NM (Georgia O’Keefe’s winter home), I reported Wellborn was musing that people err in thinking that O’Keefe invented bizarre colors. “She painted what she saw,” Wellborn said, and in that tradition her colors from New Mexico are also sun-drenched and gaudy.

Patricia Wellborn primarily paints in her studio, working from sketches and color studies done on location. The underlying theme of all her paintings, as well as her major source of inspiration, is her love of nature. She exhibits at the Asheville Gallery of Art at 16 College St. in Asheville, North Carolina and at the Conn-Artist Gallery at 611 Greenville Highway in Hendersonville.

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #425 
March 27, 2009 


For more than eight years, my Arts Spectrum column appeared each Sunday in the Times-News of Hendersonville, NC. Devotees are used to turning to page three of the Lifestyle section to read commentary on the creative and performing arts in Western North Carolina. For budgetary reasons, the newspaper will discontinue publishing my column as of the end of March. It is time to make a transition that is inevitable; Arts Spectrum has moved to the web at

Newspapers are in trouble because of revolutionary changes in the modes of information distribution. The
Rocky Mountain News and the Arizona Citizen have shut down. The Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune are bankrupt. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the daily Christian Science Monitor are now available only on-line. It is rumored that McClatchy will close the Sacramento Bee, the Fresno Bee and the Miami Herald if purchasers are not found. The Washington Post is restructuring due to declining revenue. The New York Times recently raised cash by selling part of its new 2007 building in Manhattan, and in addition sold a $250M stake in the company to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim HelĂș in order to reduce debt.

In a blog entitled “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” Clay Shirky comments: “When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution...Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” Shirky continues: “For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues.” (

Recognizing that the communication changes that began forty years ago are accelerating, and are as dramatic as the changes caused by the invention of movable type by Gutenberg in 1450 and the introduction of the octavo book by Aldus Manutius in 1501,
Arts Spectrum will now become a very small example of those “special cases” to which Shirky alludes. Arts Spectrum will appear online and will rely on sponsorship instead of newspaper advertising revenue to continue its mission to Western North Carolina.

There are advantages to being digital:
• Illustrations can accompany commentary on visual art.
• Columns can expand beyond 560 words when needed.
• Publication frequency may become more than once a week.

There are also disadvantages:
• So long as it is a blog, there will be no supervising editor.
• Financial sponsorship must be arranged.

Discussions are underway to find a web home for
Arts Spectrum where it might enjoy both editing and a not-for-profit umbrella organization so that sponsorship and contributions would be tax-deductible. Historically, Arts Spectrum has concentrated on Henderson, Transylvania and Polk counties, but coverage of Asheville and Buncombe County is likely to increase in the future if sponsors favor those important arts destinations.

Four hundred and twenty-three
Arts Spectrum columns were published over ninety-nine months in the Times-News. One-third of these covered visual arts and fine crafts, another one-third covered music, and the rest covered literature, drama and film. That balance is likely to continue because in my mind the “spectrum of the arts” is broad, and Western North Carolina contains remarkable examples of every part of that spectrum.

Writing in the
Columbia Journalism Review (Jan/Feb 2009), David Hadju observed that arts criticism in nearly all American newspapers has become lighter in tone, progressively more commercial, and shorter in length. I give my previous employers credit on two out of three of those trends. I was never pressured to lighten my tone. Only once was a change requested to avoid offending an advertiser (a motion picture theater chain). However, a new layout that gave the Times-News a fresher look required more white space and my column’s word count shrunk by 20%.

Hadju quotes Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of
The New Republic as saying “Criticism has always been a mixture of opinion and as the Web sites and the blogs have proliferated, we have entered a nightmare of opinion-making...(which)...has been responsible for a collapse of the distinction between opinion and judgment.”

For the nonce, while I am an unedited blogger, I shall try to guard against the sins of shallow opinion. For the longer term, I seek to become part of a digital world of responsible arts criticism. I welcome your continued or new patronage. 

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #424
March 27, 2009