By Jessica Isaacs
Whether you’re a native, a newcomer or a guest to the High Country, you probably enjoy traveling the area and catching the breathtaking views from atop the Blue Ridge Mountains of northwest North Carolina.
Few things rival the beauty you capture when you see the world from up here, but what if you could see it from 100 different perspectives?
At Alta Vista Gallery, local business owner Maria Hyde lets you do just that.
Housed in a charming, historic brick farmhouse in Valle Crucis with a front porch lined with purple rocking chairs, the gallery displays hundreds of paintings and other artwork. Featuring more than 100 artists in all media, Alta Vista specializes in mountain landscapes.
Hyde and her husband, Lee, first opened the gallery 25 years ago and have been connecting locals and visitors alike with high quality art ever since. Now, as they celebrate Alta Vista’s longstanding tradition, they’re reflecting on their journey.
The Hydes both grew up in Concord, North Carolina. After graduating from Appalachian State University, Maria left the quiet comforts of mountain life behind her and joined the working world in the bustling city of Charlotte.
“I went to school here at Appalachian and I didn’t really ever want to leave,” she said.
With an English degree in tow, she pursued a career that would encompass writing, media, public relations and sales, all while dreaming of moving back to the High Country.
“During the course of our careers, it was very stressful, so we would come up here, like everyone does, to enjoy the beauty and de-stress. I could feel the stress just falling off of me as I drove up the mountain,” she said. “Eventually, you get to the point where you want to have that feeling all of the time. We already had a condo in Foscoe and were here literally every weekend, but, like I said, it just wasn’t enough to be weekenders.
“The challenge in coming back was that there weren’t many opportunities for employment, and I thought, how do you do that? And then it donned on me that to be an entrepreneur was one of the ways you could get to live up here.”
With their sights set on a comfortable life in the mountains, the Hydes began exploring options for opening their own art gallery in the High Country.
THIS OLD HOUSE
While still living in the Charlotte area and spending weekends at their place in Foscoe, they often traveled back and forth in search of the right spot for their new business.
The gallery first opened in 1990 and moved between locations in Foscoe and Valle Crucis in the first few years of its existence.
Believe it or not, the gorgeous old farmhouse that’s now home to Alta Vista, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, wasn’t the Hydes’ first choice in real estate.
“The realtor had asked us to look at this house, but we drove past it for two years and refused to look at it. It’s kind of funny, in a way,” Hyde said.
Thanks to a typo on the initial listing, they were under the impression that the historic brick house would be much too small for the gallery they envisioned.
“We drove all the way up here from Charlotte one day and the realtor had nothing lined up to show us, so we finally just said, ‘drive us to the one in Valle Crucis.’ That’s really the only reason we finally agreed to look at it,” Hyde said. “Someone had incorrectly listed the square footage, so we felt it would be too small for what we needed to do for the business.”
When they set foot through the front door of the old house, however, they were pleasantly surprised to find ample space for their dream gallery.
“We finally saw it and we got to physically lay eyes on it. Then we saw the upstairs and it just kind of blossomed into plenty of space,” she said. “Maybe it was meant to be.”
They purchased the home as gallery space in 1995, but had a lot of work to do before it could be opened for business. The historic property was falling apart, so they completely gutted it and began the process of total renovation.
They finished the main floor first, allowing them to open that level as gallery space while work was still being done upstairs.
“It was beautiful paintings and smooth jazz downstairs, but then you’d hear power saws and equipment noises and contractor boots moving around,” Hyde said with a laugh. “They were still actively renovating, so it was quite noisy. But then came all of the painting and the finishing touches and we finally got the upstairs open. It’s been a journey.”
As they worked to turn the old home into a working gallery, Hyde was also working to build relationships with local artists so she could line the walls of Alta Vista with their creations.
“Finding artists was a journey, also. I started out with Will Moses, the great grandson of Grandma Moses, and maybe one or two local watercolorists,” she said. “It took some work to find the right ones that fit our mix.”
Today, after a quarter of a century of successful business, the gallery boasts more than 100 artists, many of them local to the mountains of North Carolina. In light of such a significant achievement, Hyde said she’s doing what she does every year when the anniversary rolls around.
“When you hit a milestone, it does make you think — how did I survive? How did this happen?” she said. “You reflect on what’s been working well and what hasn’t worked quite so well, whether it’s a certain style, your marketing or another piece of the plan. You survive by analyzing what’s working and what’s not.”
In addition to the hard work that comes with running your own business, Hyde said the key to success is always good customer service.
“My customers who come in often become my friends. We go out to dinner with them and we know their children and we know their dogs,” she said. “That’s a huge component — building rapport and nurturing your customer service and doing the right thing by taking care of them. It might be treating them with respect while they’re in the gallery or it might be sending them a birthday card.”
Hyde believes the gallery’s ability to reach this milestone speaks volumes about the quality of the artists who are featured at Alta Vista.
“This is a big deal in any small business, but especially in the art industry,” she said. “To survive 25 years means that you have good art, and people are obviously buying it if you’ve been around that long.”
So how are they observing this momentous occasion? With monthly receptions and a nonstop birthday celebration, of course.
“We just keep celebrating every month. People keep coming in and saying ‘happy birthday’ or ‘happy anniversary’ and we just have a party when we’re doing our artist receptions,” Hyde said. “We have cake and I get out the little candles that say ‘25’ and we fire it up. To be technical, the actual birthday is in October, but who cares? We’re celebrating all year.”
Join the Alta Vista family for the next celebration at an artist’s reception for realist painter Bob Francisco on Aug. 22.
To learn more about the gallery, view artwork that’s currently on display or see a schedule of upcoming receptions, visit Alta Vista online.
Photos from Alta Vista Gallery by Ken Ketchie: