Anthropologists are trained to take what appears foreign and help build bridges of understanding, appreciation, and universal commonality. They are also skilled at delving deeper into what is quite familiar at home, to discover new meaning and value that may otherwise go unnoticed — and then celebrate it for the greater good.
After graduating from UNCA with a degree in anthropology in 1998, Western North Carolina native Brandy Bourne helped transform her community in all of those ways.
Bourne is originally from Morganton, and her mountain roots go deep. Her family includes Appalachian ballad singers, and her folks were always busy making and crafting. Now Bourne herself is a resolute advocate for overlooked and emerging artists, an innovative arts-fair organizer, and a successful gallerist. She went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science, and is the director of UNCA’s Ramsey Library.
In a twist of fate, that role inspired Bourne’s own inevitable emergence as an artist. The Williams-Sonoma home-furnishings brand West Elm recently added her art prints to its product line — and some are bestsellers. Bourne got interested in heraldry — the art of creating coats of arms and family crests — when she discovered them as hand-printed plates inside old books in the library she oversees.
“They’re incredible works of art that catch my imagination,” she says. “I had done geometric drawings in the evenings to chill out, and at some point realized that my drawings had melded with the heraldry, like simplified versions of those symbolic works.” Her printing process varies, often involving drawings and digital renderings, but most of her pieces are screenprinted on paper. “I’ve done art since I was a kid, and it was a personal habit.” But her partner, Justin Rabuck, encouraged her to put her work “out there” — so she did, on social media, and the works enjoyed “a strong response.”
After undergraduate school, Bourne worked in Taiwan for three years, and had her own strong response. She fell in love with the street markets there, observing that they were a vital venue for fun social interaction. Plus, they offered an accessible opportunity to start a family business. “I kept thinking we needed something like that here, focused on art, and Justin rented the Grey Eagle for the first Big Crafty show in 2008. I presented it as a coming-out ball for Asheville indie and basement artists, and invited folks who didn’t have a presence in shops, galleries, and museums.”
Bourne expected it to be a one-off event. But the place was mobbed, with a line out the door and wall-to-wall attendees. Immediately afterward, the Asheville Art Museum offered to host, and the event took on a life of its own. Happening twice a year, it fills Harrah’s Cherokee Center-Asheville this season in early December. The event’s vibe is quirky, forward-thinking, and often playful. It’s been voted Best Arts/Crafts Fair by readers of Mountain Xpress every year since its launch, has generated more than $9 million in artist sales, and has inspired many other specialized markets in its wake. That includes the gallery Horse + Hero, an outgrowth of Big Crafty started by Bourne and Rabuck.
“In Asheville, when I was young,” Bourne recalls, “it was pretty easy to get a place to live … it was cheap, and all my roommates were artists of one kind or another, experiencing the warm embrace of this town. Nobody worried about money, just art. That’s harder to come by now, and a lot of creative people have been priced out.
“People used to come here and figure it out. Now you have to have it figured out before you get here — but there are more jobs that didn’t exist on this scale back then, so it’s a double-edged sword.
“But we need to ensure there is still space for the people who make Asheville so special,” adds Bourne. That future includes Ellis, her 12-year-old son with Rabuck, who creates prints and zines on display at his parents’ venues. Horse + Hero styles itself as “NeoAppalachian,” and much of the work at the downtown space references the natural world with an edgy but warmhearted twist (for example Casey Cole’s papier-mâché animal heads or Julie Armbruster’s animated fantasy paintings).
Bourne and Rabuck also curate CODA, a visual-art shop inside record-pressing manufacturer Citizen Vinyl, also located in downtown Asheville.
Considering this empire of sorts, Bourne reflects, “It’s funny the paths life puts you on — it’s not always exactly where you expect to go.
“I used to despair about not having meaningful work. But the work I’m doing now doesn’t feel like work — because I love it, and I love where I’m from. I just hope that my work is nurturing this place, and the folks here that have been so kind to me and have treated me so well.”
The Big Crafty: “Hand to Heart Holiday Art Party” happens Saturday, Dec. 3 and Sunday, Dec. 4, 12-6pm, at Harrah’s Cherokee Center-Asheville (87 Haywood St., downtown, thebigcrafty.com). Bourne’s work can be found at Horse + Hero (14 Patton Ave., horseandhero.com) and at CODA Analog Art + Sound Shop inside Citizen Vinyl (14 O’Henry Ave., citizenvinyl.com). Learn more at brandybourne.com and on Instagram (@_brandybourne_).