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From intern to director, Lex Turnbull is determined to keep Asheville's Revolve a thriving community arts space

Lex Turnbull image.png
Matt Peiken | BPR News
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Lex Turnbull earned their MFA from Western Carolina University. An adviser there steered Turnbull toward an internship with Revolve.

Lex Turnbull was fresh out of college when the founding director of Revolve, Colby Caldwell, asked to meet. The conversation wasn’t entirely a surprise.

Turnbull interned at Revolve and felt so strongly about the contemporary art center, they stayed on as a volunteer. Caldwell had let it be known he was looking for a successor.

“He got real serious and was like ‘Do you think you’d be interested in taking over the director position of Revolve?’ it wasn’t even said that simply, and I was just about to jump out of my seat,” Turnbull recalled. “And I was like ‘Yes! Yes!’ Yes, I will do it, I am ready, I am so excited. I’ve already started a Google doc with all the things I would want to do there.’”

That was about a year ago. Now, at age 29 and still gathering the legs of their career, Turnbull expresses a mix of optimism and realism about breathing new life into the only arts center of its kind in Asheville.

“I had heard hearsay about ‘Oh, Revolve might not be able to stick around anymore,’ and I was like ‘No, Asheville needs this. Western North Carolina needs this,” Turnbull said. “Since I am just one person, it was very important for me to quickly, after my first three months of cramming events and having so much going on, this isn’t sustainable, and if it’s not sustainable for me, it’s not going to be productive for the community.”

Revolve opened six years ago in the RAMP Studios, in the River Arts District, on the largesse of Derek Dominy and Denise Carbonell. They gave the center more than $100,000 over its first two years. Revolve hosts visual arts exhibitions, performance art installations and esoteric music performances—a programming mix unseen anywhere else in this region.

Revenue has always been challenging. A monthly sustainers’ program helps pay the modest rent but, even before the pandemic, paying audiences rarely numbered more than a few dozen for any given event and were sometimes in the single digits. Meanwhile, Caldwell became a manager with Citizen Vinyl shortly after it opened, in 2020, and he also wanted to spend more time on his own art.

“Part of what consumed me initially was taking over and getting control of the bank account and looking at it and saying ‘I’m sorry, what? There’s no money in here,’” Turnbull said. “I can’t be responsible for paying rent. I’m trying to pay my own rent.”

Turnbull has leaned more into visual art exhibitions and local artist residencies while scaling back Revolve’s performance calendar. Turnbull also wants the center to host ticketed film screenings and more events such as the recent Asheville Zine Fest.

Turnbull is producing a zine as part of an LGBTQ group exhibition titled “This Skin I’m In: A Visual Narrative of Self,” opening July 2 at Revolve. A closing reception for the exhibition is July 16, and it will double as a fundraiser for Hood Huggers and the YMI Cultural Center.

“When Colby was the director, he was doing it on his own and wearing way too many hats and doing way too many things,” Turnbull said “One of my first orders of business when I took over is I need to figure out who’s on my team here to help me stay on track and organize things.”

Turnbull grew up in Ft. Myers, Fla. Their father was a boat captain and avid model railroader who would invite his children to help create elaborate scenes along the tracks. Turnbull said school and art became early outlets from a challenging upbringing. But even through graduate school, they looked to teach art rather than build a career as an artist.

“It was hyper-personal, very steeped in my own trauma, and I think a big part of that was I wasn't going to therapy. That was my way of seeking a way to process a lot of the things I was trying to deal with,” Turnbull said. “That might also be part of the reason I never expected to do art as my career because it was this more sacred thing.

As Revolve’s director, Turnbull said building the local community is both a programming and fundraising focus. They said small grants are starting to come in. At the same time, Turnbull is starting a teaching career through printmaking and zine-making courses at Warren Wilson College. Both are the roots of Turnbull’s own artistic process. Turnbull also makes and sells a variety of housewares and works parttime as a nanny.

“As long as the rent can get paid, then we’ll figure it out as we go,” Turnbull said. “There is so much potential, and even though I don’t have the answers right now, I’m quite committed to seeing this through and doing what I can while I’m here.”

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.