Asheville-based Andrea Clark has made it her life’s mission to keep the memory of her grandfather James Vester Miller alive. Miller was considered a master brick mason. His legacy lives on in the remaining buildings that stand and function throughout the Appalachian city but also in the walking trail Clark established. Her cousin Ali Rivera assists in the endeavor. Their fathers were brothers and Miller was Rivera’s great-grandfather. James Vester Miller was born enslaved and went on to become a remarkable sought-after stonemason and builder in Western North Carolina. Four of his sons followed in his footsteps. While not stonemasons, his descendants are also keeping his memory alive through crafting. Rivera is a metalsmith and Clark is a chair caner. Rivera’s admiration for Clark often translates to the enthusiasm she feels about Clark’s artisanship.
Chair caning is still practiced by a few Black artisans but overall it is a dying art, which makes Andrea Clark’s caning practice even more special and serendipitous. At one time, the photographer and filmmaker showcased her ware in the YMI Cultural Center in Asheville, the very building her grandfather James Vester Miller built. Cousin Ali Rivera said Clark was taught the craft by an Italian artisan in the 1970s and continues to practice chair caning for a few clients in Asheville. [Photos courtesy: Angel Rivera and Andrea Clark]
Metalsmith Ali J. Rivera furthers the family legacy of working with their hands to craft sterling silver jewelry often paired with gems, found objects from nature like sea glass and a few non-traditional items such as electrical wire. Her late brother was also a metalsmith. Without question during the time their great-grandfather Miller lived and worked, most metalsmiths were men. Today, there are more women metalsmiths but women-of-color metalsmiths and artists are rarer.
Photo credit: AJR Metals (The ring is Sterling Silver with Found Blue Sea Glass Ring)
As the owner of AJR Metals, Rivera informs her collections on personal interests like heritage and ancestry, travel, art and music. She opened her studio during the pandemic though she’d been a metalsmith for years. Her hand-crafted jewelry can be purchased from her studio’s online shop.
James Vester Miller would be proud of his descendants as they forge their own paths and demonstrate a legacy of creativity and artistic ability.