Service-Industry Workers Do More Than Make Asheville Run

Painter/printmaker Lisa Nance, left, whose work was the winter display at High Five, and the coffeeshop’s brand director Emily Peele (center) sit down with curator Lydia See. Photo by Morgan Ford

Those who frequent Asheville’s coffee shops are used to latte art: the delicate swirls of hearts and rosettes made by steamed milk on the surface of an espresso drink. At the downtown High Five Coffee location on Rankin Avenue, however, caffeine fanatics can find beauty on the old brick walls as well as in their cups.

The shop features a rotation of artwork chosen by Lydia See, a local independent curator. She points out that while High Five might not carry the cultural cachet of a “white cube” museum or retail gallery, the casual backdrop offers much-needed accessibility for the region’s artists.

“Beverages are a great leveler. Pretty much anybody can step into High Five and feel comfortable there, like it’s a place for them,” See says. “That gives an artist a much wider set of eyes looking at their work than in most gallery settings, and it gives patrons a chance to passively engage with the vibrant arts culture Asheville has to offer.”

Simply Serve, is dedicated to Michael Provard, a painter specializing in Russian Orthodox-style icons. Homeless since 2002, he paints at Trade and Lore every day (Contributions toward helping him secure permanent shelter can be made at Photo by Jennifer Mesk

See’s goal for the space is to feature artists who aren’t currently on wide display elsewhere in the area but are actively producing worthy work. To that end, her current series draws from makers with full-time gigs in the Asheville service industry. Hustlers — Creative Endeavors from the Folks Behind Your Favorite Businesses explores the talent that too often lies hidden in plain sight.

“The barista that serves your coffee every day or the bartender that makes the best Manhattan in town — these people are finding a balance between their creative practice and their profession,” See explains. “They’re finding a way for their studio practice and daily practice at work to coincide in a conversation.”

In fact, the first show for Hustlers involved two employees of High Five itself: Nicola Bajalia and Janine Rissewyck. “They were kind of secret artists, doing work in their free time or at night,” See recalls. “They made this incredible installation out of nylons and sunflower seeds, reminiscent of a lost Eva Hesse series, and it was remarkable to watch the reaction of their colleagues in the coffee industry.”

From April through May, the space will be occupied by Jennifer Mesk and Jonathon Flaum’s Simply Serve. Flaum, the founder of Farm to Home Milk, commissioned Mesk — a professional photographer responsible for the Humans of Asheville Facebook page — to take portraits of the people he regularly encounters on his delivery rounds as a modern milkman.

Charles Lee, owner of American Pig and master of charcuterie. Photo by Jennifer Mesk

Flaum’s prospectus for the exhibit notes how service is itself an art, a way of expressing his philosophy of simplicity. “In keeping it simple, I can serve without distraction. In service without distraction, work simplifies,” he writes. “These two actions magnetize together, and time passes easily — almost effortlessly, despite being in the midst of physical labor.”

It’s a deeply conceptual and meaningful type of creativity, something See also strives to represent in her selections for High Five. Just because the work is at a coffee shop, she says, doesn’t mean it has to fall into the trope of “bad art, good walls” lampooned on Portlandia.

“I think that our audience is surprised and excited by things that are challenging to them. I haven’t found anything that I couldn’t show due to subject matter or materials,” See says. “A lot of ‘non-art’ people tell me that they never would’ve gone out of their way to see artwork like this, but they’re really glad that they did.”

“Simply Serve” will be on display during April and May at High Five Coffee Bar, 13 Rankin Ave., Asheville. For more information, call 828-713-5291 or see

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