Alex Irvine: The Man of Many Mosiacs

The Asheville art scene has developed exponentially over the past few years and with that development comes the artists that make it so substantial. Alex Irvine is one of many with artwork displayed all over Asheville. Irvine grew up in southern Maryland and lived in a farmhouse that was built in the 1700s. Irvine said working with his hands came naturally because of his home life.
“Both my parents were pretty handy,” Irvine said. “My mom learned how to replace the clutch in her car when she was a teenager so if anything around the house broke, she could fix it. Plus I had access to skill saws and band saws so it was no big deal to build stuff.”
Irvine said his dad went to art school at Maryland Institute College of Art, but his military stint altered his future career choices after the war.
“He was a photographer for a newspaper and then had some kids, and got a job at a print shop for a while, and was a control manager for 30 years,” Irvine said. “In hindsight I think he felt like a wage slave and hated his job, but it paid the bills. I think his military experience kinda derailed his artistic trajectory.”
Irvine eventually moved to the suburbs with his mom and went to college at Maryland Institute College of Art to study crafts with a concentration in ceramics. After college, Irvine moved to Asheville in 2008, where he applied for a ceramics residency.
“I had never even heard of Asheville before, but one of my friends in college was moving here so I came down and checked it out. My first residency was the Odyssey Center for Ceramic Arts; it’s called Odyssey Clayworks now,” Irvine said. “That particular job has gotten me so many other jobs.”
Irvine has many works around Asheville including the mural in front of Odyssey Clayworks in the River Arts District, as well as a mosaic on the Aloft parking garage and a piece at Hall Fletcher Elementary. The project at the elementary school has had a lasting impact on the future of the school.
“This project was a direct result of what a beautification project or a mural project can do to make a community change,” Brent Skidmore, assistant professor of art at UNC Asheville, said. “Working with Alex means you are standing in the presence of someone who understands the power of change as it relates to community art projects.”
Irvine said he has always been drawn to clay and ceramic work after taking his first ceramics class in 10th grade.
“I love clay,” Irvine said. “It seems crazy to me now because I was just as aimless as any other teenager, but I am shocked that I had the focus and decisiveness to go to college for ceramics, and it’s something I’ve kept doing. I really just felt head over heels with ceramics.”
Irvine said what draws him to ceramics is the technical and creative aspect of working with clay.
“Ceramics is cool shit. I just really like that it is incredible technical material and there is a lot of science behind it as far as glaze chemistry and firing it, and it’s really satisfying, because it requires the engineering or logical side of your brain, and it’s an incredible expressive material,” Irvine said. “It seems incredibly potent material, those two sides of the brain can be in isolation from each other.”
Irvine said there is more labor involved with ceramics than other art mediums.
“Painting seems more directively expressive but with ceramics there is a process,” Irvine said. “Ten percent of the time I get to be creative while the rest is going through on process like drying the work, firing it, glazing it and in my case, the install. There is a lot of labor.”
Irvine said some his artistic inspiration comes from staying involved with some adolescent hobbies.
“ I guess my inspiration comes from skateboarding. They can feel like separate worlds, but sometimes I get to tie them together. It’s not often though,” Irvine said. “Concrete is actually really similar to clay, the composition is similar; you have aggregate and grog in clay, plus you can sculpt concrete and smooth it out for making skateboard ramps and stuff.”
Irvine talks about some of the transitions he has made in his art career and said his passion for building skateboard ramps started at a young age.
“Less and less do I make any kind of pottery; I’m more focused on sculpture and tile and I like building stuff, and it started out as building a simple quarter pipe or box,” Irvine said. “When I went to college, one of my glass blowing teachers helped some other dudes build the first half pipe I had ever built at FDR skatepark, which is a DIY skatepark in South Philly.”
Irvine talked about what it meant to him to build ramps.
“I like making stuff, and when you can make something to have fun with and not necessarily for a living or a necessity, you’re just making some shit you can ride a toy on, as an adult, and the absurdity of that is awesome.”
Irvine said building ramps has kept him involved with skating throughout the years.
“Building ramps can be challenging technically, but I like that kind of challenge,” Irvine said. “Building stuff has been kind of an alternative avenue to maintaining an involvement with the skate community. I probably would have quit skating years ago if I hadn’t go into building stuff.”
Along with other contributors, Irvine pioneered building the DIY Foundation Skatepark in the River Arts District.
“This project is where I really got to know Alex as the person I know him as today,” Matt West, UNCA art lecturer, said. “When you work with someone who is a hard worker, it makes work easier and his excitable energy really transfers onto everyone else.”
West helped bend some of the metal tubing to make ramp building possible. Irvine said the skate park had small beginnings among the community.
“There was a lot of people involved with this; it started probably sixor seven years ago now,” Irvine said. “My friend built a tiny quarter pipe and I cast the coping for it and it was just like a dinky little skate spot where you wouldn’t get hassled.”
Initially, Irvine did not have permission to build on the property where many others had begun to put up ramps.
“People generally don’t like when you roll up on their property and pour concrete,” Irvine said. “It started out with some wooden ramps that people would bring, but wood rots. But then we started building some concrete stuff.”
Irvine said he kicked off his work with the skate park after an art exhibit at Push Skateshop downtown.
“ I had this art show at Push and it wasn’t even my idea, but I was going to make some ceramics for this art show and I ran out of time,” Irvine said. “I thought about building a wooden ramp but didn’t have the money to buy the wood. So I went to the skateshop with hat in hand and was about to bow out of this art show.”
Irvine said a friend at the skatepark suggested he build a rebar sculpture that could double as a legitimate ramp at the skate park.
“Rebar is pretty cheap and you basically sketch out an idea and all the real work happens after the art show when you have the money you need for it,” Irvine said. “It really was the perfect solution at the time, so we just set a date after the show and had a truck show up to the park and start pouring concrete.”
Irvine said this effort to expand the park got many people in the community excited about the project, but the buzz had to be kept to a minimum.
“My whole philosophy was to throw down as hard as we could and make it too big to fail; it was sort of a balancing act because we were doing this without permission,” Irvine said. “At the time it was basically you don’t talk about the spot. It is a good thing for the community, but we could have gotten in a lot of trouble for it.”
Irvine said one challenge was to not draw too much attention, but enough to make progress in the community.
“We didn’t want to bring more attention to what we were doing. We were balancing not putting ourselves out there too much and pouring as much fucking concrete as we possibly can,” Irvine said. “We wanted to make it such a big staple of the community so that if there was ever any talk of tearing it down, that there would be an outcry to save it.”
Over the past couple of years, Irvine said six concrete trucks have shown up to the park for new additions. On May 21, there will be a benefit hosted at the park where food and beer sales, as well as donations, will go to finalizing the financial logistics of of a legitimate skatepark.
“It’s a very organic grass-roots kind of thing,” Irvine said. What we have in Asheville is doing really good as a second-generation DIY skate park.
Over the years Irvine has worked on many other projects. Since 2007, Irvine has designed ceramic tiles that honor United States veterans. His designs highlight the controversial protest movement of soldiers returning their earned medals back to the government.
“I mail commemorative GI resistance tiles to veterans and ask them what it means to them to return a medal,” Irvine said. “ In a lot of ways to me, that’s what I’m most invested in as far as time I’ve been making them. I don’t make any money off it, but I think it’s gives some kind of meaning or purpose to what I’m doing.”
Irvine said he likes the feedback and personal letters he receives from veterans in response to his tiles and the meaning it gives to his work.
“I like doing the public art because it’s accessible to everyone, but I generally don’t hear or see how people experience the work, but with the tile project, it’s a very personal correspondence,” Irvine said. “It’s pretty deep content and part of the value is giving both the object and the recognition to the veterans. It seems like from the letters I have gotten back, and them telling me about their experience, it’s one of the few times I’m really making something and feel really good about it. It’s creating connections between people and answering hard questions for society.”
Irvine said as a developing artist, he has to start focusing on the aspect of running his own business.
“I just turned 30 and am really transitioning into an adult, and now to be more successful financially, I have to figure out how to run my business successfully,” Irvine said. I did not worry about how much money I was going to make with each job, but it seems the better a project is for the world, the less money you are going to make.”
Irvine recently moved into a new shop and said he plans to be in Asheville for the next few years.
“For what I do, I need a shop, and I have invested a lot into the infrastructure and setting it up, because I took a raw space in a warehouse and converted it to a functioning ceramics facility,” Irvine said. “I’m not leaving that spot for the next three to five years and it definitely makes the bookkeeping more simple being stationary.”