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The Story Behind EPIC | A Gathering of Concrete Artisans

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I opened Mandala Studio in the early 2000's in the River Arts District (RAD) of Asheville NC. The home to our shop was a building called The Wedge, the brain child of the late and great John Roy Payne. John's vision was unparalleled, and his pursuit to create a place where art could live and be created was unrelenting. What was happening there, before the breweries and bourgeoisie of RAD, was a grand social experiment. There was an electricity in the air, a grand anticipation, and an incredible collection of talent in numerous mediums of expression. The ground was fertile for creativity, and collaboration was the standard. It was during this time, in that place, that I cut my teeth as an artisan, a professional, and an adult.

Mandala was an ongoing experiment, an exploration in craft with a medium that was mostly undiscovered at the time. It was a time of self discovery- you were just as likely to find the shop deep in a competitive match of parking lot frisbee golf with the neighbors, as you were to find us covered in concrete. We played games, and we made concrete that pushed the envelope. We succeeded and we failed. We had children, our business grew, and things were changing at an electric pace. It was a great time in my life.

I often reflect on those years while eating Bibimbap from El Kimchi on the dock in front of the boutique salon where my shop once churned. What I know is that the most important aspect of my time there was in the casual time spent with artisans in their shops, seeing how they worked, how they interacted with the tools of their trade, listening to their stories, and waxing on about the creative process. These moments changed my life- not only did I learn the proper way to use tools of the trade from master wood workers, and welders, and sculptors, I also learned how to think about my craft, which has changed me as a craftsman, a businessman, a father, and a person.

During this period of collaboration, the world of artisan concrete had no parallel. There was not a place to see how concrete craftsmen approached their trade, how they faced the challenges that this infinitely challenging material presents to all who engage. There were trade shows and gatherings, but those events lacked. I learned how to play 3 card poker at the World of Concrete in Vegas from one of the most successful and talented concrete artisans on the planet, which is a great metaphor- Rather than having a chance in our idle time to interface and explore the material we worked with, and ultimately reap the rewards from such an exchange, I learned how to lose money at an alarming rate (a lesson I thought concrete taught well enough).

I longed to have a chance to collaborate with other concrete artisans in the same way I had collaborated with my fellow craftsmen in the early years of my business. Eventually I joined forces with the team at BlueConcrete (later to become home to Buddy Rhodes), which presented the opportunity to create an event where this collaboration could exist. In the fall of 2011, artisans came from around the planet to gather at our shop just outside Atlanta Ga for an event we hoped would be EPIC. That first gathering showed us that this time together was special, that there really was something magical that happened when all of this talent showed up in one place. Since then, EPIC has taken on a life of its own.

So what is EPIC? It is not so simple to explain. It is an experiment in collaboration. It is a chance for concrete artisans to engage each other, as well as the medium of concrete. It is a chance to learn. It is a chance to share meals and drinks together. It is an opportunity to see the nuance of how successful artisans approach their trade and their business. It is a place to ask questions and share stories. It is a chance for a bit of friendly competition. And all that only scratches the surface, it is epic.

So here we are, embarking on our 5th annual EPIC. Following each year we say "How are we going to top that next year?" And each year it takes on a new life, a new scale, and higher quality. The stage is set for this year, and we are as excited as we have ever been. We have scores of artisans from around the world who have booked their flights, and many more will come. We have an itinerary that is a response to our previous events, taking what has proven valuable and working to improve the opportunity. All of this in an aim to create an environment where artisans can grow into their own unique version of success.

In October we will gather again. When we do, we will be honoring a great tradition that has been happening among makers throughout history. We will be sharing something more than just craft, we will be exploring life together. We look forward to meeting you all there.

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