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Brian and Gail McCarthy receive leadership award

Oct 04, 2023 08:26AM ● By WNC Business

ASHEVILLE - Brian and Gail McCarthy, the founders of Highwater Clays and Odyssey Center for Ceramic Arts, will be awarded for their service to the local arts community with the John Cram Arts Leadership Award, nicknamed the “Crammy.” The award will be presented at the annual State of the Arts Brunch, happening October 30 at The Orange Peel.

The McCarthys, who moved to Asheville in 1979, began their business blending clays in an artists’ cooperative studio on the Swannanoa River. Today, Highwater Clays is housed in a 40,000 square foot space at 600 Riverside Drive in the River Arts District. Odyssey Center for Ceramic Arts (Odyssey ClayWorks), an educational program of Highwater Clays, currently operates a ceramics school and art gallery on Clingman Avenue in the heart of the RAD. The McCarthys also started the River Arts District’s Studio Stroll.

Highwater Clays is recognized nationally for its high-quality wet clays, processed onsite, as well as glazes and underglazes, tools, and equipment. “We continue to support clay and clay artists to the best of our ability,” said Gail, “and we’re very proud of the fact that our reputation for serving the clay community with quality products continues.”

Odyssey ClayWorks, currently under the direction of Gabriel Kline, introduces students to the diversity of ceramic traditions and strives to make ceramic arts accessible for all. The Center offers professional development for K-12 teachers, a free therapeutic program for veterans, a residency for early-career ceramic artists, mentorship for high school students, and children’s programming.

Both spaces have been incubators for artists, both those early in their profession and those new to Asheville. “We hired a lot of people who wanted to move to Asheville who would work at Highwater Clays for a little while and get started,” said Brian. “We also started a resident artists program that began to draw people from all over the country. Some settled here and are extraordinary artists. They came here because of Odyssey – because there was a place for them here.”

The McCarthys’ work “was instrumental in the creation of the River District Artists,” said Julie Ann Bell, President of River Arts District Artists, Inc.

In 1995, the City of Asheville formally recognized this area as the River Arts District. In 2013, River District Artists became a non-profit member organization, River Arts District Artists, Inc. “As an organization, RADA recognizes that our current 300 members stand on the shoulders of leaders like Gail and Brian McCarthy,” Bell said. “The McCarthys moved into this area with a vision for supporting artists and the arts. They nurtured this vision, organized and supported the initial Studio Strolls, and built a strong framework for artist-run leadership in the River Arts District, which is still in action today.

“We are grateful for the leadership of the McCarthys and the path they set for artists to co-create an equitable and diverse environment that supports the artists and the creators who produce, display, and sell art in the River Arts District,” Bell said.

The award’s name honors local entrepreneur and philanthropist John Cram. Cram, who passed away in 2020, founded Blue Spiral 1, The Fine Arts Theatre, and Bellagio! Art to Wear. He was also a supporter of Asheville and the arts, opening his gallery at a time when much of downtown was shuttered. In alignment with Cram’s passion and legacy, award recipients have contributed significantly to the arts in Buncombe County.

“I could not think of a more fitting way to honor and acknowledge the creative leaders in our community than with an award that celebrates the attributes, values and dedication that John Cram possessed,” said Michael Manes, Gallery Director and co-owner of Blue Spiral 1. “This award means that the vision, potential, and hope that John saw in Asheville forty plus years ago continues with next generation leaders. Following John’s passing in 2020, myself and ArtsAVL Executive Director Katie Cornell conceived this annual award to honor him and his contributions. John possessed a unique ability to identify a need, take chances, and make dreams a reality. He was a leader in our community and valued the relationships he cultivated with various organizations, civic, environmental, and art sector leaders.”

This year’s recipients “embody all of these same characteristics,” Manes said. “Brian & Gail McCarthy came to Asheville not long after John with the same sentiments for the area and a unique vision. They saw an opportunity for the creative process to be harnessed, grown, and shared with not only Asheville, but beyond. These two dedicated individuals, like John, saw a need, took a chance, and worked tirelessly to continue to nurture and grow that dream into one of the most successful clay businesses and ceramic educational centers in North America, Highwater Clays, and Odyssey Center for the Ceramic Arts. It is for these attributes and dedication that Brian and Gail are most deserving of this award.”

The McCarthys will receive a plaque and select an arts-based nonprofit organization or community project to receive an ArtsAVL grant of $1,000.

Last year’s award went to John Ellis, longtime arts advocate, local arts pioneer, and former executive director of the Diana Wortham Theatre, now the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts.

Learn more and reserve your seat for the State of the Arts Brunch at

Source: ArtsAVL