It’s a rainy morning in the depths of the River Arts District (RAD). Inside the cozy artisan studios and large warehouses are hundreds of creative minds milling about: painters, sculptors, glass blowers, metalsmiths, and beyond.
With a stream of vehicles splashing through large puddles near the roundabout, acclaimed abstract painter Mark Bettis sits in his studio pondering his next creation. The gallery is a living, breathing studio where Bettis is constantly at work turning a large blank canvas into something completely his own.
“There are traditional painters that follow the rules. I don’t follow the rules. I’m always thinking, always getting lost in the zone of creativity,” Bettis said. “This is a working art studio. People come in, look at the paintings, watch me paint, ask me questions, maybe purchase something.”
Originally from Chicago, Bettis spent most of his formative years in Florida, bouncing between marketing, advertising, and design gigs for large firms. Although Bettis visited Asheville in the 1980s on a road trip and liked the vibe of the city, it wasn’t until about 2008 when he put down roots in Western North Carolina.
“I came here to check it out and bought a house. I was tired of the heat in Florida and wanted to be in the mountains,” Bettis said. “I love the creative aspect of Asheville. This place has always been a beehive of creativity. I like the freedom here to do whatever I want. This city is so welcoming to artists and supportive of whatever it is they want to create.”
Bettis comes from an artistic family of musicians and painters. He always enjoyed painting and made sure to make time to do it as he got older. While working for a marketing company in Asheville, he decided to rent a small wall space in WEDGE Studios and put up a handful of paintings.
“It was just four paintings, just to see if they would sell. And they all did,” Bettis smiled. “Things started selling, then the marketing company got bought out. So, I felt it was time to pursue a career as a painter. Taking that jump to be an artist was a scary moment, but it was so great, because I now am really doing what I love. It was the best move I ever made.”
Soon, a large studio space became available. Bettis jumped on the opportunity to take over a space he still calls home for his works. Each day he creates, all while interacting with locals and visitors who want to know more about his artistic process.
“I work organically. I paint as I go—I see where the brush goes and I go that way, toward where all these different styles emerge,” Bettis said. “I’m appeasing myself, versus a business when you’re doing exactly what the client wants.”
Bettis’ studio is surrounded by dozens of other studios, which is the signature of what makes the River Arts District so rare of a place to wander and explore.
“What makes the RAD so special is that we’re working art studios, instead of going to a gallery, where you don’t know who the artist is and you just see a name on the painting,” Bettis said. “Here, you meet the artist, talk to them, and see what they do in real time.”
“One thing I like about this town is that there’s a lot of entrepreneurs—artists or small businesses—who take charge and make their dreams a reality. Anything goes here.”