For an art show early in his career, Holden McCurry made a two-foot-tall clay structure, topped it with clasped hands, and titled it “Prayer Tower.” It was an image that stayed with him.
Some months later, he and fellow artist Ed Byers were working in their studio. “Without really thinking, I picked up four arched window cutouts and stuck them together and made a two-inch tower,” says McCurry. He ended up making three towers that day, two of which sold quickly. “We were surprised, and thought there must be something about the miniature sculptures that people like.”
Today, the artists have become nationally known for their prayer towers. Yet the pieces continually evolve. Over the years, Byers and McCurry have refined their designs, adding new drawings and sculptural elements and applying gold leaf. “The symbols at the top of the towers represent nature and positivity,” explains McCurry. They began including small slips of blank paper inside the towers to encourage people to write their own hopes and prayers.
Both men grew up in Alabama — McCurry in Opelika and Byers 200 miles north in Huntsville — and both graduated from Auburn University. McCurry made his choice based on the school’s architecture program, a field he’d been interested in most of his life. “I never studied ceramics in college, but grew up around the medium … my mother hand built and painted clay sculptures and taught ceramics locally.” He adds, “I made my share of leaf-pressed bowls as a child.” Byers earned a degree in international business with an emphasis in Spanish. But he, too, grew up in a creative home. “My mother is a painter [and is] still painting in her eighties,” he reveals.
They met in 1997 at McCurry’s house during a neighborhood tour of homes. Although their bond deepened and they discovered a shared love for working with clay, any artistic collaboration was still a few years off. Meanwhile, they focused on individual artistic goals, both pursuing post-graduate studies in ceramics at Penland School of Crafts.
McCurry recalls attending a wholesale/retail art show in Baltimore in the summer of 2003 while Ed stayed home to close on their new house. Returning home, he enlisted Byers’ help in fulfilling a stack of orders that resulted from the show.
“I asked him if he would like to join in a partnership full time. He said ‘yes’ and the rest is history — 16 years and counting.”
Byers explains their collaborative process: “I start the hand-building process [and] then Holden further refines the design with various details and additions. After the clay is fired, I take each sculpture and hand paint it with glazes or oxides and fire again. Any gold leafing is done last.”
Mixed-media works of wood, clay, wire, and encaustic comprise the bulk of their additional output. Some pieces combine two-and three-dimensional elements — for example, a blue frieze adorned with a trio of hanging willow leaves. Others are small, atmospheric paintings (“Galisteo Visitor, Foggy Morning in Chartres).
But no collaboration goes smoothly all the time. “We have had to learn to coordinate with each other,” says McCurry. “Usually this involves carefully listening to each other’s ideas … we have grown as artists through collaboration.”
They derive inspiration for their sculptures, which also include friendship houses and totems, from Spanish and Italian architecture. Sometimes, the colors and decorative elements are reminiscent of Scandinavian folk art. But to accomplish their signature flair — that woodsy rusticity — they don’t even have to leave home.
North Asheville’s scenic Beaverdam Community, says McCurry, “is truly like living in a National Park.”
Byers McCurry Studio & Gallery, 21 Woodbury Road, North Asheville. Studio visits are welcome: call ahead at 505-490-7193. The pair’s work is for sale in Asheville at Grovewood Gallery (101 Grovewood Road, grovewood.com); the Southern Highland Craft Guild’s Folk Art Gallery (Milepost 382, Blue Ridge Parkway) and Biltmore Village Gallery (26 Lodge St.), southernhighlandguild.org; and in Saluda at Heartwood Contemporary Crafts Gallery (21 E. Main St., heartwoodsaluda.com). For more information, see byersmccurrystudio.com.