After high school, I moved downstate to attend music school. I lived for a number of years in Greensboro and then Winston-Salem. While a resident of these two cities I fully enjoyed the wide range of cultural perks urban life brings. Museums, dance performances, poetry readings, concerts in the park, opera, independent films and musicals — on any given weekend, the only choice was what to choose.
I initially felt bereft of high culture and haute couture when I returned to Western North Carolina. There was fantastic bluegrass, of course, which I adore; and clogging, which I love to watch. Many of the nation’s greatest basket makers, potters and craftspeople are here, too.
As for the rest, I accepted leaving those experiences behind as the price one pays for living in the Southern Appalachians. No more great classical music. No more pretty boys warbling happily together in university glee clubs. And no more funky, odd performance art to discover in strange little out-of-the-way places where one could enjoy that fantastic combination of good drink and dinner, coupled with entertainment.
I was, of course, wrong, as you might already have discovered. It requires some detective work to find the performers — and sometimes quite a bit of driving to get to them — but we are truly blessed in this region: not only with great natural beauty, but also with a vast reservoir of creative and talented people.
Last weekend, a friend and I ate dinner at Mad Batter restaurant in Cullowhee. Jeannette Evans, the owner, sets up fun dinner-and-event nights, and this one — both food-wise and entertainment-wise — was truly special. I couldn’t have found anything I’d have enjoyed better, anywhere, not even in a great big city.
Kjelsty Hanson and her husband, Glenn Kastrinos, who together make up Whimzik, put together a unique mask-and-music performance. The word “unique” is often overused, but in this case, I mean it: I’ve never heard or seen anything quite like Whimzik.
Glenn teaches recreational therapy at Western Carolina University. He played guitar and flute, plus sang (not all at the same time, I hasten to add, he’s not a one-man band). Kjelsty (think “chelsty,” I do) played a bhodran Celtic drum, moving her hand inside — sort of like a French horn player does — to change tones. Additionally, Kjelsty danced to Glenn’s music, wearing a variety of masks and costumes she’s made. I was most struck by her animal masks. Quick, birdlike movements accompanied her bird masks; slow, pensive movements were paired with turtle masks. The effects were unusual, beautiful and captivating.
Another mesmerized audience member, Chris Blake, an English professor at WCU who sat at the next table enjoying an evening out with his wife, asked the couple to talk about the origins of their art. And make no bones about it — Kjelsty and Glenn are creating a living, fluid art form.
Kjelsty explained she had seen and been influenced by the theatrical European ensemble Mummenschanz when she was a little girl. The memory of the group, and its use of costumes and masks to create a dialogue with the audience, stuck.
Fast forward to adulthood: Kjelsty studied indigenous art in Costa Rica, she majored in ceramic sculpture, she attended an art camp in Sitka, Alaska, and learned to make theatrical masks from mask artist Beverly Mann.
She met and married Glenn. They lived together in New Zealand for four years, performing at folk festivals together. Glenn’s mother was a classical pianist; he was trained to play classical guitar. Glenn later became entranced by ragtime guitar, and he ventured to Ireland in the 1970s, learning Irish flute and whistles while there. Glenn also started competing in — and winning — Irish music competitions.
Put Kjelsty and Glenn together and all of their varied musical and art experiences and you get … Dorian, their young son. You also get Whimzik.
Look for an opportunity to see these two perform. I promise it will be a wonderful, unusual experience. And I suspect they’ll serve as a reminder to you, as they did me, to keep on the watch in WNC for those opportunities to enjoy fantastic art, dance and music. Because those artists, dancers and musicians are indeed here, waiting to entertain and enthrall us all. And sometimes they come in one tidy package, as is the case with Whimzik.