With the Curatory Gallery, Ashten McKinney creates an outlet for underrepresented artists in Waynesville – Blue Ridge Public Radio | Candle Made Easy

If you’re looking for paintings of wooded mountain landscapes, the Teresa Pennington Gallery in Waynesville is one of the area’s tried and true destinations. A few blocks away, Ashten McKinney is on a mission to take care of other interests.

“People need something different that’s nice to look at, that’s not mountains that surround us,” said Ashten McKinney, owner and current main exhibitor at the Curatory Gallery. They created the space to empower underrepresented and marginalized creatives.

“I’m not trying to bring Asheville to Waynesville. I don’t live in Asheville for any particular reason. I like it here,” McKinney said. “It’s not the sleepy town it was. But there are things that I think are missing that the community wants to see.”

It’s a quiet, sunny weekday morning in Waynesville, and McKinney is leading the gallery. The tour can’t help but be short. This used to be an Aflac insurance office – a tiny lobby, a back office and a short hallway in between. But McKinney’s large, eclectic paintings enliven the space with a poignancy and urgency not easily found in this city of 10,000.

“If I had more mugs and a little more elaborate styles, little gift art, I could make a lot more money than I make,” they told Story, as opposed to something beautiful on a wall.”

As a young adult in suburban Dallas, McKinney made money as an herbalist and massage therapist and for a time owned a wine shop that grew into an art gallery. Identifying more as an events producer than a gallery owner, they admitted they had little career focus 11 years ago, when they and a partner moved from Texas to Asheville and started a family. They settled in Waynesville five years ago.

McKinney didn’t formally study art, but in recent years they’ve incorporated issues of gender identity into their artwork. Many of McKinney’s paintings are rich in colorful, textured metaphors of grasping and climbing, abandoning one existence and discovering another.

Some of Ashten McKinney’s artworks hang in the Curatory Gallery.

“There are one, two, three, four, five pictures of this wall behind me – this is my coming out series,” they said, pointing to paintings hanging next to each other. “In that sequence, it kind of tells a story of that journey.”

McKinney opened the Curatory a few blocks away in spring 2021, subletting the basement of a garden shop and functioning as a nighttime gallery. Not every neighbor was thrilled, and after McKinney hosted a drag show there in June, they said the landlord asked Curatory to leave.

“I went to this wine bar next to me actually just to do another drag show because I kinda wanted to push some buttons. And as I walked past, I noticed that Aflac was undressed. I thought, ‘Oh, there’s a place. I need space,” McKinney recalled. “All my stuff was in a U-Haul. When I saw the space, I was like, ‘Okay, change direction.’ I tore up all the carpets, painted all the walls, changed the lights and unloaded the truck.”

McKinney aimed for monthly exhibitions in the current space, but realized that the layout was not optimal for receptions. The last was in February, and McKinney is hoping to move into another room next door. To make ends meet they work random gigs and only keep the gallery open on Friday nights.

“It’s my job, but I’m still trying to figure out how to become an artist because most of the time I’ve been focused on events and selling other people’s work,” they said. “And I think for years, that kind of devalued my own work. I’m still trying to figure out how to sell my own work.

Meanwhile, others are confirming McKinney’s vision. They tell an anecdote of a queer woman who asked her mother to visit the gallery. The women had been estranged for five years, and McKinney said the gallery was their gateway to reunion. Also, Morgan Beryl of the Haywood County Arts Council asked McKinney to curate an exhibition about queer-identifying artists in the area at the council’s Downtown Gallery last June.

The next event planned at the Curatory Gallery is an art auction on November 20 to fund art supplies for western North Carolina schools and a high school residence.

“I hardly know what else to do and it always comes back to it. Any time I’ve had to step away from art, it’s a great loss,” McKinney said. “I like my job, I like doing my job. and if I don’t do it, I don’t like it that much.”

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