Cleaster Cotton captures Asheville’s DNA in her art

The artist's mixed-media works highlight the complicated history and ancestral voices in her chosen home of Asheville, North Carolina.

For many in both the art world and the South, Cleaster Cotton is a familiar name. Known for her beautiful and eclectic artwork, Cotton remains an artist to watch, but her story, art, and spiritual connectivity go far deeper than what meets the eye. Cotton’s multimedia artworks are portals for ancestors and unheard beings of the Black American diaspora, bringing awareness to the history of segregation in her chosen home of Asheville, North Carolina, and other areas of the United States. 

Cleaster Cotton
Artist Cleaster Cotton speaks on Black Migration Through American Education at TEDxUNCAsheville Screenshot: YouTube/TedXTalks

Taking a look at Asheville, N.C. today, some residents might admit elements of its segregated past are still evident in the city’s culture, but for many of the city’s Black residents, it has given them a reason to love, rewrite and repair their communities for the better for future generations. Cleaster Cotton does this through her art. Born in Brooklyn to Black American Southern parents, Cotton’s connection to her roots bleeds through her craft. Realizing she loved art at a tender age, she also understood it was not only a way for her to express herself, but to channel ancestral stories and messages.

Using traditional textiles, fabrics, and materials, Cotton described herself to the Asheville Citizen-Times “as a primitive artist drawing from her ancestors’ DNA.” She conveys their messages through abstract paintings, drawings, graphic designs, photography, collages, poetry, book and documentary projects, photogenic imagery, and mixed media narrative. Her “in your face” paintings incorporate materials such as tar paper, which symbolizes enslavement and the humiliation and marginalization of people of color. 

For Asheville specifically, where Cotton has been a resident for over a decade, she feels drawn to tell its stories. As she told the Citizen-Times, “I feel as if I was brought here to be a part of the solution of the reality of what is going on with Asheville’s Black [and] white situation” which her art reflects. She’s been commissioned to create various art projects throughout the city, including a mural for a 67-unit condominium on South Market Street’s The Block, its African-American business district.

Named “Going to Market,” the mural features 11 Cubist figures fabricated from steel, symbolizing and honoring the neighborhood’s former residents while alluding to a shameful past history when blacks were taken to market as slaves.

Source: Citizen-Times

Also a keynote speaker and a master teaching artist at Asheville City Schools, Cotton is the inventor of the teaching method and global initiative ALNUGE (Alphabets, Numbers, Geometrics) Codes, “a visual language known as modern-day hieroglyphics” designed to strengthen and make math literacy enjoyable through creativity. 

To view, commission, and purchase Cotton’s work, visit her website, where you will find an immersive escape into her offerings spanning wall art, home decor, tech apparel, and more.

Noel Cymone Walker

Noel Cymone Walker is an NYC-based writer specializing in beauty, fashion, music, travel, and cultural anthropology. She has written and produced visuals for several notable publications such as The Recording Academy/ The Grammys, The Fader, Billboard, OkayPlayer, Marie Claire, Glamour, Allure, Essence, Ebony, and more.

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