Inside a North Carolina Thrift Shop Turned Edgy Living Museum
We came to Greensboro, North Carolina to attend an art exhibition in a former thrift store. We discovered a poetic intersection of art and travel.
The scene behind the white plastic tarp is grim. The room is dimly lit. A dozen framed pictures of human faces hang from a wire lattice. Others simply rest on the floor. The room’s objects—all symbolic of mourning and all deliberately placed—pay tribute to the faces behind the frames.
Broken, decades-old televisions lay abandoned, surrounded by shards of glass. Bottles of half-consumed Hennessy & Gin stand in the corner. Surrounding a vase of flowers, a semicircle of empty glass cylinders that once housed votive candles. The candles have burned, but the colorful imprints of religious imagery remain.
Graffiti covers the walls, painting the room with a mixture of red, blue and black names, numbers and gang signs. Children’s shoes lie on the ground. Near them, a teddy bear. A pair of adult sneakers dangles from above, tied at the laces.
The centerpiece: the lower half of a mannequin—waist down to mid-thigh—hanging from the ceiling.
This street vigil of East Baltimore is raw and powerful.
The caveat: it exists inside a museum.
In Greensboro, North Carolina.
Since the Woolworth’s sit-ins of 1960, Greensboro has been home to milestones of change and social progress. Recently, the city has become a destination for contemporary creativity.
We came to Greensboro to attend a group exhibition presented by a cohort of artist residents whose blend of style and performance provoked laughter one minute and tears the next. Their work offered insights into a network we knew little about, and through them, we discovered a poetic intersection that is worth revisiting: the nexus of art and travel.
Their backgrounds are diverse: a street photographer from East Baltimore; a pair of anti-establishment puppeteers from Puerto Rico; a multi-faceted artist-writer-activist from Charlotte; a Mexican-American transfeminist performance artist and University Professor. In October 2018, this cross-section of creative forces found common ground by spending a month living and working together at Elsewhere: a museum and artist residency set in a three-floor, former thrift store. It’s a place known for pushing the boundaries of experimentation to their limits. All who enter: prepare to leave your comfort zone.
While the concept of live-in artist residencies isn’t new, the Elsewhere formula is truly unique. Resident artists are forced to depart from their traditional chosen media and, instead, utilize the museum’s existing collection of things to create their work. Their common canvas: the museum itself—a 150-year-old building that’s been updated with facilities that support creative efforts (wood and textile workshop; media lab; storefront theater) and also make it livable (garden; public kitchen). How the artists impact and influence each other inside this alternative environment is a fascinating element of the Elsewhere experiment.
Elsewhere exists in a constant state of metamorphosis, as artists collect and connect old objects, then integrate their new creations into the space. This ever-changing dynamic—built upon a seemingly-endless foundation of things—was made possible by a story that goes back more than 80 years.
In 1937, Sylvia and Joe Gray started a furniture business in downtown Greensboro. Within a few years, they were shipping surplus army supplies to Boy Scout troops and hospitals around the country. Joe passed away unexpectedly in 1955 and Sylvia ran the shop for the next four decades. As her interests evolved over time, so too did the contents of the shop. The unsold army equipment moved to storage on the third floor while dishes, housewares, books, clothing and toys took their place in the lower retail space.
Sylvia Gray was revered throughout Greensboro as an idiosyncratic thrift shop owner who operated on her own terms. She’d make up prices on the spot, at times refusing service to would-be patrons based on mood. “If she liked you it’d be cheap, if she didn’t like you she wouldn’t sell to you,” recalls her grandson George Scheer, co-founder and Executive Director of Elsewhere.
By the late 90’s, Sylvia had accumulated an astonishing inventory of antiques, artifacts and trinketry; a seemingly-disorganized personal and historical archive that, in fact, offered striking insight into her tastes and her perceptions of value. She worked in the store until the day before she died. When that day came in 1997, many in Greensboro wondered what would become of the three-story warehouse.
In 2003, George Scheer embarked on a mission to revitalize his grandmother’s legacy. For two years, with the help of his partner Stephanie Sherman and some friends, George excavated and converted the dust-covered disorder of Sylvia’s thrift store into the beginnings of a contemporary art museum. They called it Elsewhere. Their thesis: “Could Sylvia’s collection become a thinking playground?”
Visitors to the museum are encouraged to touch and interact with everything inside. Walk through the doors and channel your inner child. Throw bouncy balls into a nook full of musical instruments, then watch and listen for the outcome. Grab a book from the library and read it inside of a giant teepee. Enjoy a board game from the 1950’s or play with a Bart Simpson doll from the early 1990’s (one of the “newest” items in the store). Or simply, sit and dream.
In much the same way that the museum invites curiosity and imagination, Elsewhere also challenges the way people perceive value. Even the admission policy—a “suggested entry fee” of $5—ensures the doors remain open for those that can’t afford to pay. In Sylvia’s thrift store, prices were merely a guideline. In modern-day Elsewhere, prices don’t exist. The cardinal rule of Elsewhere: “nothing in; nothing out; nothing’s for sale.”
“In a capitalist society, a store where nothing is for sale is the ultimate contradiction,” George explains. “Money is only one form of exchange. By simply saying ‘we’re not going to sell anything but we’re going to treasure everything,’ we’ve created an alternative economy.”
In Elsewhere’s alternative economy, value is created vis-à-vis the transformation of objects into art and by the human emotional response evoked within the space. This approach has garnered attention from the international art community and has helped put Greensboro on the map as a destination for traveling artists.
Since 2005, more than 500 artists from across the world have come to Greensboro to gradually transform Sylvia Gray’s collection of artifacts into art. Currently, residencies are available during five annual sessions, each with up to seven residents at a time. Each program culminates with an opening exhibition—a public event where the artists present their work to the museum’s curators and the community.
We attended the exhibition for Southern Constellations (SoCo)—a residency program featuring artists from the American South. During the event, we witnessed this small cohort of individual artists connect to form a greater whole.
This constellation concept ultimately clicked for us—most unexpectedly—during a puppet show.
Twins Pablo and Efrain Del Hierro are the originators and founding members of Poncili Creación—a Puerto Rican art collective known for pushing boundaries with a self-described anarcho-punk vibe centered around “Poncili”—an imaginary concept meaning “chaotic tranquility.”
Since dropping out of university, the Del Hierro brothers have embraced an alternative lifestyle. In 2012, they began performing puppet shows on the streets of San Juan as a creative means to earn money. They gained a following and gradually added new group members. Over time, their performances evolved to include live music, dance, video and an expanded array of hand-crafted objects. The brothers have performed worldwide, and artist residency programs like SoCo provide them with ongoing opportunities to travel and connect with like-minded creatives.
With help from resident cohorts Shan Wallace and Jessica Moss, Pablo and Efrain deliver a 15-minute performance ripe with socioeconomic commentary; a combination of modern art, puppetry and theater, simultaneously serious and playful. Each prop and costume element is a relic of Sylvia Gray’s thrift store, creatively utilized.
Shan and Jessica enter the stage wearing elaborate, handmade helmets, from the tops of which protrude plastic fishing rods. A plastic loaf of bread hangs from the end of Shan’s fishing rod. A graduation cap hangs from Jessica’s. Both items dangle just barely beyond the reach of the artists’ outstretched hands.
While speaking with the brothers after the performance, Efrain comments on the intended message: “The eternal bread-seeker…the eternal debt-payer...who’s wearing these helmets? Today, it was two black women. What if it’s a black kid? What if it’s a 60-year-old white guy? These things change meaning constantly, and it’s individuality that gives the change to that meaning.”
Much of the brothers’ work is fueled by resistance to their personal academic experiences in Puerto Rico. As a collective, Poncili rejects educational systems and corporate structures where the concepts of value and worth are tied to money and the skills taught in school aren’t always transferrable to the workforce. Through their network of traveling artists, the brothers have found ways to impact communities well beyond their home country. Most recently, one of their largest creations to date was used in protest during New York City’s Puerto Rican Day Parade. They expressed similar plans for Greensboro:
“This project is about how we can create things that continue to help after we‘re gone,” Efrain explains. “Since we’ve been here, we’ve been in touch with local activists and trained people who will use these objects in the future, for protests or parades in the area. It’s super cool that we were able to plant that seed.”
One floor up from the political puppetry of Puerto Rico, we experienced the powerful street vigil of East Baltimore, product of photographer, visual artist and freedom-fighter SHAN Wallace. For the past three years, SHAN has driven a grassroots campaign focused on accessibility within urban communities. Her primary medium: distributing photographs to spread awareness of the human condition within those neighborhoods. She’s traveled around the USA, to Cuba and to South Africa.
“During my first trip to Cuba, I took about 500 images with me and just handed them out to people as I walked the streets.” She adds, “I also photographed the people there, and when I went back the second time, I found those people and gave them copies.” On her chosen medium—photography—SHAN explains, “It’s a way to communicate; a way to educate; and it’s also a way to get past a language barrier.”
SHAN is unmistakably a product of her environment, and she’s found a way to communicate effectively outside of it. During her time at Elsewhere, she applied her natural ability to connect people and connect with people, demonstrating what can happen when an environment becomes the product of an artist.
For weeks, SHAN rummaged through the museum, collecting objects reflective of what one might find at a street vigil, whether on a corner in Baltimore or other urban communities across the USA. Her installation—titled THE BANSHEE UNDE[RAGE]—gives visitors access to a familiar place for connection and mourning. The faces behind the picture frames are all victims of violence and addiction, many of whom the artist knew personally.
“This is my way of embedding my trauma and my memories into this space…the way I mourn and the way my community mourns…It’s not meant to be pretty. It’s not meant to last. Everything was very intentional…I wanted to paint a gritty esthetic of how these neighborhoods really look…to use the walls as a narrative to express how we feel.”
Through the intersection of art and travel, personal loss experienced in Baltimore is given a permanent place for remembrance 350 miles south in Greensboro, and it too will impact the local community long after she’s gone.
Greensboro is rarely seen as a travel destination. Yet through the crossroads of travel and art, Elsewhere has been able to alter that perception. The downtown-thrift-store-turned-contemporary-art-museum helps position Greensboro as a place of connection for the niche community of traveling artists, and a point of interest for the broader community of art enthusiasts.
The nexus of art and travel is one where language barriers don’t exist; where universal understanding becomes possible through alternative and highly differentiated forms of expression.
When a black and white photo taken in Baltimore brings a smile to the face of a child in Cuba, the worlds of art and travel intersect, beautifully.
And when political puppets inspired by struggles in San Juan get used during a protest in Greensboro, those worlds will again collide, thanks to a constellation that connected inside a living museum.