Showing the World How Big Asheville Can Be

Miles and Bernadette Bender aim to keep elevating the local scene. Their gallery includes the work of art star Hunt Slonem, whose iconic bunny-head images are seen behind the couple. Photos by Colby Rabon

Back in the early millennium, Miles Bender was a successful entrepreneur and his wife Bernadette was working in international corporate business. The couple was living near Washington, DC, they were about to become empty nesters, and both had admittedly grown weary of the frenetic rhythm of big-city life. They were avid art collectors who owned a gallery in Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Maryland.

By 2005, though, they were settled in Asheville — drawn, says Bernadette, by the community’s “slower-paced, friendly atmosphere, and [a need] to focus on our love of the visual arts.” Soon after arriving, they opened Bender Gallery on Haywood Street, later moving to South Lexington Avenue and eventually to their current space at 29 Biltmore Ave. — what Miles refers to as “our dream location.”

The black-and-white ash-on-panel works are by installation artist Tom Pazderka. Sculptures at left and middle are by William Morris. Glass piece at right is by Mark Peiser, a pioneer of the local art-glass scene.

“When we first moved [here], we were impressed with the presence of glass art in the area,” says Bernadette. “That, coupled with the recent closing of a Biltmore Village gallery focusing on glass, led us in the direction of glass sculpture.” (Their personal collection leans toward painting, a medium that also enjoys a strong presence in the gallery.)

Success followed quickly. “We were Asheville’s first gallery to consistently exhibit at international art fairs,” says Miles. “Our clients are from all around the world. The reputation we have built has helped us succeed at drawing not just national but international clients to Asheville to view our exhibitions and acquire our artists’ work. Raising the awareness of Asheville as an arts destination has always been a factor in our actions and outreach.”

Left to right: 1) Gateway, a blown-glass work by Philip Baldwin & Monica Guggisberg; 2) Distant Dreams #2, by Leah Wingfield and Steve Clements; 3) Glass works by William Morris (left) and Karsten Oaks (right).

Prior to extending invitations to prospective exhibitors, Bernadette and Miles do extensive research. A major factor, they say, is whether an artist’s work complements works by the gallery’s other artists. “Also, we prefer artists that are looking to the future in the evolution of their body of work and career,” says Bernadette. She notes that most of the Bender Gallery artists have already achieved recognition in their areas of specialty.

While the majority of the artists are national and international, the gallery does represent several regional artists, notably glass icon Mark Peiser of Penland, as well as painters Onicas Gaddis, Linda Gritta, and Moni Hill, all from the Asheville area.

Photo by Colby Rabon

“We are a fine-art gallery in a region with a focus on materials-based craft,” says Bernadette. “We keep our scope specialized with a laser focus and therefore have in-depth knowledge of each of our artists and their work. We have been able to represent some very important artists such as rising-star figurative painter Zoey Frank, who just sold out a New York show, and internationally renowned artist Hunt Slonem.” (Slonem is a Warhol-influenced art star whose unmistakable iterations of rabbit heads are included in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and others.)

As with any business, challenges arise that help entrepreneurs form a distinctive reputation. In Bender Gallery’s case, it might be the lengths to which the owners sometimes go to serve a client’s needs. Bernadette talks about a woman who had purchased a large number of pieces for her new condo in Portland, Oregon.

Photo by Colby Rabon

“She was a widow who was worried about finding someone in her new location to help her with the artwork,” says Bernadette. The Benders arranged for a private truck to deliver the pieces from Asheville, and then they flew to Portland to personally install the work. “Miles even flew back a month later to install one more purchase she made while we were in Portland,” says Bernadette.

Through September, the gallery is focusing on the elegant optical crystal sculptures of Seattle-based artist Karsten Oaks. And opening October 2 will be Harpies, Hybrids and Hidden Worlds, a solo show for Columbus, Ohio, artist Laine Bachman.

The Benders may have initially been drawn to the Asheville area because of its relaxed vibe, but Miles is quick to point out, “Our life is anything but slow-paced now.”

Bender Gallery, 29 Biltmore Ave., Asheville. Hours are 10am-6pm Monday through Saturday, 12-5pm on Sunday. For more information, call 828-505-8341 or see bendergallery.com.

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