Highway 64 is the primary artery connecting Hendersonville to Brevard. It intersects Etowah’s few stoplights, patters past Transylvania County farmland, and finally empties near the mouth of Pisgah National Forest. Before moving to Asheville last summer, interdisciplinary artist Casey Engel drove the highway each Friday to Starfangled Press, a printmaking studio and gallery where she volunteers.
One such Friday, Engel felt a heightened awareness of her surroundings. She noticed moss-blanketed graves and suburban cul-de-sacs and 20th-century bridges. “I passed beautiful churches with stained-glass windows and tons of rows of mailboxes,” says Engel.
The mailboxes finally did it. If not answers, they demanded more questions. “I was consumed by them— by their shape,” she says. “Why is this object an arch? Is it for beauty? For function?”
A meditation on culture and shape, Engel’s Why an Arch? is a series that explores arch-like motifs through printmaking and ceramics. The piece “Barriers,” made of midfire stoneware, features two-dimensional shapes reminiscent of gates and entryways. “Ghosty” arises from an intaglio printmaking technique called “aquatint” that creates a background of tiny, blurred dots. “It’s like the blur of memory,” says Engel, who also references moments from her childhood and young adulthood in Pensacola, Florida.
In her early 20s, Engel studied biology at the University of West Florida, in her hometown. She reached the program’s midpoint before realizing she felt more compelled to draw than to study science. After dropping out, she spent six months working a restaurant gig and sketching during lunch breaks before transferring to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
While specializing in “Printmedia,” a consolidated study of conventional and digital printing approaches, Engel transported some lithographs from a Chicago print shop to one in Greenville, South Carolina.
“My husband and I passed through the area and fell in love,” says Engel. “We pretty impulsively moved to Hendersonville in May 2015, partly because the rent was so inexpensive compared to Chicago and I was so smitten with downtown’s architecture.”
She quickly etched out a place for herself in the local arts scene, stepping on as a Certified Framer at Blue Spiral 1 in Asheville. “I chase dust under glass all day,” Engel says with a laugh. “It’s so awesome.” But on March 21, just weeks into the pandemic, Engel was furloughed. “By April 1, I needed a homework assignment,” she says.
Each day for the month of April, Engel drew something on grid paper. Titled by date, the inherently geometric pieces are simple yet gripping. 4/14/20-7 is just brown, black, and gray Xs punctuated by three columns of white space. Engel explains that the emptiness echoes a building façade on Third Avenue in Hendersonville. 4/11/20 is brown, black, orange, and red gel pen shaded in a quilt-like pattern; she notes that her grandmother crocheted incredible afghans.
But look too closely and it seems as though these pieces, part of the series The Daily Grid, toy with the monotony of a traditional 9-to-5 job — the daily grind. Still, Engel never meant for the series to impart such a weighty message.
“Slow down,” she says. “That’s what I’m saying. Slow down, have fun, and pay attention to the patterns passing by you each day.”
Casey Engel, Asheville. The artist sells work at Horse + Hero (14 Patton Ave., horse-hero.myshopify.com); Odyssey ClayWorks (236 Clingman Ave. Ext., odysseyclayworks.com); and Starfangled Press (36 West Jordan St., Brevard, starfangledpress.com). Engel will be featured in Form to Table, a ceramics invitational at Blue Spiral 1, through Jan. 8, 2021 (38 Biltmore Ave., Asheville, bluespiral1.com). For more information, visit caseyengel.net.