Social studies, drawn to life

Alex Alford has been surreptitiously sketching people in Black Mountain and Asheville for years.

The Black Mountain Center for the Arts presents "Social Studies: Drawn to Life," an exhibit that features the work of artist and illustrator Alex Alford, through Nov. 22.

The show, in the Upper Gallery, is free and open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. There will be an artist’s reception from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 20.

            Alford has been surreptitiously sketching people in Black Mountain and Asheville for years, sitting in cafes and coffee shops or standing off to the side in hopes of not to be noticed. “I began keeping a visual journal of my travels in 2008, when my son and I visited Italy,” he said. “Now it’s second nature; I’m more likely to forget my wallet than my sketch book.” He sketches, in pen, in 15- to 60-second bursts, trying to capture the essence of a scene rather than dwelling on specific details.

Alford has been immersed in art since childhood, showing promise from an early age and encouraged by his mentors. He attended Ringling School of Art and Design, in Florida, and Michigan State University, but he says it is his travels that most influence his work. He has built an enormous and diverse body of work across a wide range of media, from large murals and monumental public sculpture to commercial illustration. Alford was a graphic designer for 20 years, then a software developer for another 20 years. But “drawing something that matters,” he said, is what has compelled him to fill a dozen sketchbooks.

            For this show, his first in 35 years, Alford has spent the past three months expanding the ideas from his sketches to a grand scale, sometimes adding color, sometimes using charcoal and pastel to infuse the work with a high level of detail.

“The sketchbook is a shorthand for what I have seen,” he said. “The lines in my sketches are like grooves in a record. I look at them and all the memories - the smells, the crowd sounds, the light quality, the glistening sweat on a person’s brow - come rushing back to me. It’s like a key to my memories.”

The Upper Gallery will display more than 40 of Alford’s works. The exhibition is sponsored by The Dripolator Coffeehouse, where additional drawings will be on display for the duration of the show. The Black Mountain Center for the Arts is at 225 W. State St. For more, call 669-0930 or visit