"Most people think of the University of Georgia bookstore as an accessory to inspiration, not a venue for it. But for Asheville artist Matt Tommey, the squat brick building in the shadow of the football stadium changed his life.
One day while shelving books as a part of his college job, he discovered a text on basketmaking techniques. The craft has often been the butt of jokes about the irrelevance of a liberal arts education, but Tommey wasn't thinking about that. He was fascinated by the textures he saw and intrigued by the possibilities of the natural world.
The book described european baskets made from willow, but Tommey noticed the willow looked a lot like kudzu. In Wester North Carolina, the green leafy vine is prevalent, but in Georgia, it's more powerful and pervasive, crushing former industrial complexes, overtaking hillsides miles long and spilling over property lines to the frustration of homeowners.
"It was kind of one of things everybody hated, and you grew up joking about it," Tommey said. "I had never really touched it before that."
Before long, he was harvesting kudzu from the lot adjacent to his apartment and dragging it back to the clean, modern building. His neighbors looked askance, but Tommey persisted. He liked long walks in the kudzu patch and hours of working with his hands, weaving patterns from the pithy runner vines that splayed across the ground.
And he liked a girl, a bookstore colleague.
"She was the only girl that would go harvest kudzu with me, so it was meant to be," he explained.
Today, they're married with a son and Tommey's basket obsession has become a full-time job.
These baskets aren't for storing magazines. They're sculptural works that twist across walls and preside over fireplaces.
I"m trying to blur the lines between what's the work and what's nature," Tommey said. "It's bringing the outdoors inside in a way that's very upscale and elegant."
Tommey started out making traditional, functional baskets, but left that style behind about a decade ago in favor of sculptural forms.
"His use of texture and materials is fantastic," said Russell Gale, manager at Grovewood Gallery, which sells Tommey's work. "What I'm really drawn to are the incredible textures that he gets. He's always pushing his own boundaries. He's starting to use encaustic wax, and he's putting copper into them now."
Tommey has always been interested in natural materials, but when he moved to Asheville in 2009, he found new inspiration in the plants here. Georgia has plenty of kudzu, honeysuckle and mimosa, but bittersweet and mountain laurel were new to him.
His recent work uses mountain laurel branches to frame the woven compositions.
A client once told him: "The branches are like a stage on which the basket can perform." Tommey was thrilled. "I thought, 'Oh, that's beautiful. I'm totally stealing that," he said, laughing. His cheerful moods suit him.
Photo by Maddy Jones. Courtesy of the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Although he creates luxury products designed to catch the eyes of interior designers, he's not aloof. He projects genial good humor, and his clients appreciate his spirit as much as his work.
Julie Obenauer and her husband recently commissioned a piece from Tommey. They visited him several times before they finally committed, but he won them over completely, she explained.
"He's just a really nice guy, too, someone we really enjoy spending time with," she said. "He came out to the house with some different things so we could see what they looked like and how they'd fit into our different spaces."
Site visits are important to Tommey because he's working with a specific natural aesthetic that conveys a sense of place. For some clients, he harvests materials from their land. Recently, a client in Lake Toxaway sent her grandkids into the woods with him to trim vines. When the basket was complete, the whole family felt connected to it.
That connection inspires Tommey. He looks for new ways to inspire delight. He hides bee combs inside baskets so viewers feel a sense of discovery when they peer inside, and he enhances color and texture with wax.
They make me happy when I make them; I want people to be happy and enjoy them," he said."I want them to be approachable."
Tommey loves his studio in Riverview Station because it gives him a chance to observe the way people interact with his work. Most of his business comes from commissions, not walk-in customers, and as the River Arts District changes, it might make sense for him to change locations, he admits. But the plan is to remain where he is for as long as he can.
In addition to his work, his space represents several other artists who create furniture, paintings, fiber art and ceramics.
"When they come in here, I want them to see it in a way that says art, that says home," he said.
Tommey, who ran a small ad agency before he moved to Asheville, is always thinking about the viewers experience, and he shares this priority with other artists when we can. He's written three books about making a living as an artist and the intersection of art and faith, and he travels to speak about art-related topics.
He said he wants to help other artists "break through the starving artist mentality."
"It's not true unless you think it's true," he said. "Asheville's a great town, and if you're passionate about your work, you can make a fabulous living."