The current exhibition at the Wilkes Art Gallery has generated unprecedented interest and traffic, according to Ashley Barton, the gallery’s executive director.

“The Wandering Path” features the work of three area artists and will continue through July 2. Admission is free at the gallery, located at 913 C St. in North Wilkesboro. The gallery is open Tuesday-Friday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Barton urged everyone to not miss the exhibit. “This is more than an exhibit—it’s an experience,” she explained. “It’s a must-see.”

She said the gallery’s website traffic is up 300% since the exhibit opened on May 22. “We’re getting phone calls from Boone and all over who are wanting to know our hours so they can come see this. Word is traveling and the community needs to know about it.”

In a first for the gallery, a second opening reception for the exhibit will be held on Friday, June 25, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. The public is again invited to attend.

The signature piece of the exhibit is “Old Growth Imagined” by Lowell Hayes, an 85-year-old artist based in Valle Crucis, Watauga County. It took over an hour and a half for the 19-foot-wide work—the largest ever displayed at the gallery—to be installed on May 24.

Hayes has been working on “Old Growth” since 1985 and has never considered it to be complete. In fact, he was adding touches to the triptych after it was hung on May 24.

“(Hayes) forages his pieces, so everything you see most likely came off his land,” Barton explained. “From far away it looks like a painting, but when you get closer you can see the lichens. He paints over so that the colors can be maintained.”

Hayes uses acrylic paint and fastens natural materials from the forest on board to create most of his tactile, three-dimensional pieces.

“The curation of this exhibit was really formulated around Lowell’s pieces,” noted Barton. “He’s a very unique artist and his work speaks for itself. He lives on his family land and created his studio there. You kind of feel like you’re on his homestead looking at some of his work.”

Hayes painted over and added natural elements to his friend Steve Ferguson’s black, depressing piece and retitled it “The Year 2020 FUBAR.” In stark contrast to the colorful forest elements are two grey pandemic face masks, reminding viewers of the challenges that 2020 presented.

“I have continued to go closer into the forest for visuals; nowadays into the nuances of particular patterns and what I think of as the architecture of trees,” reads the placard written by Hayes in the exhibit.

“Someone called them ‘love letters to trees.’ The recent pieces in this exhibit are examples.”

The exhibit also features the work of Raleigh-based Cam Cline and patrick j. richardson, who uses all lower-case letters in his name for stylistic flair. “They complement Lowell’s work very well,” noted Barton.

Cline explains in an exhibit placard that a few years ago, a friend sent her a video that she shot as she ran through a quiet forest. All that could be heard in the video were her footfalls and breath.

“You could see the light and shadows and colors flashing and leaves flying—so much movement. This is what I wish to capture in my paintings. My paintings are intended to be compelling, visceral, provocative and beautiful.”

Cline’s use of vibrant, ultra-saturated warm color is evident in “Forest at Sunset” and “April 1 & April 2.”

A full-time electrical engineer at Appalachian State University, richardson has been a member of the gallery for several years, according to Barton.

“When we booked him he was really working on flowers, and we’ve sold several of his pieces already. His work really is intriguing and makes you think.”

Barton said her favorite richardson piece in the exhibit is “Forgiving Transgressions,” an unfinished oil on canvas that has a trashed McDonalds cup floating amidst an otherwise idyllic scene of water lilies on a pond.

“Making art keeps me sane; things in my mind are released safely into flowing pigments,” writes richardson on an exhibit placard. “Colors and brushstrokes are profound expressions of how much affects my body and mind.”

He continues, “I love the cerebral aspect of making art—more time is usually spent thinking about how to do (or repair) something than actually putting brush to canvas. Remember, ‘Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.’ — Cesar A. Cruz.”

In another of richardson’s provocative pieces, the bloodshot eyes of “Mary, Mother of Jesus” stare up and left to another oil on canvas work called “Crucifixion,” which depicts the spike-pierced foot of Jesus.

In other gallery developments, Barton said staff offices have been relocated in the building, allowing for an expansion of the gift shop from one to three rooms. The work of over 40 artisans who live or lived in Wilkes or an adjoining county are on display.

“With the closing of the Blue Ridge Artisan Center (in Wilkesboro), we had several artists reach out to us asking if we had a place to show their work,” explained Barton. “We wanted to create a place that was always here that would serve that purpose.”

Barton said she is thankful that the gallery board approved the expansion. “It’s been really well received and our sales have gone up since the opening. The artist make 70% of the sales and we make 30%, so that supports the time and energy we put into all of this.”

“The Wandering Path” will leave viewers impressed, assured Barton. “People have been just wowed by it. We’ve never had anything of this scale in the gallery.

“At the opening, several came up to me and said, ‘I’ve never been wowed before at the gallery.’ People are awestruck who walk in, and it kind of takes your breath away.”

The exhibit is sponsored by Linda Absher, Bill Bumgarner, Aileen and Keith Bentley, and Garrin Halsch and Peggy Martin.

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