At 311 Gallery, Friday night in Raleigh

Although I’ve spent three years in Raleigh, I’d yet to hit downtown for a First Friday. But this month, it was time. My editor asked for a report on the monthly art celebration, and I was more than happy to grab a notepad and some friends and spend a night on the town.

My friends and I paired our most chic outfits with our highest heels for First Friday earlier this month, eager to fit in with the Raleigh art set. We sipped white wine and nodded along with the artists, trying to understand the explanations behind their artwork while techno music played from hidden speakers in the galleries.

The Mahler, located on Fayetteville Street, was a refuge from the artisan stands hawking their wares just outside. With soft spotlights illuminating each painting that lined the walls of the long gallery, The Mahler carried the elegance of the artists that its walls contained. Friday marked the opening of its new exhibit, “Celebrated Artists: Students of Marvin Saltzman,” where each artist displayed was at one time a student or protégé of the UNC-Chapel Hill legend.

“If you look around, no piece of artwork is the same,” said Rory Parnell, co-owner of The Mahler. “It really shows how Marvin allows each artist to find his voice.”

The pieces shown in the gallery ranged from political cartoons to boldly colored woodcuts. Tom Guiton, a painter who studied under Saltzman in the late 1970s, displayed a frieze with an array of Navaho and western religious symbolism. When asked about his artwork, he enthusiastically pointed out the hidden menorah, the circular and squared head shapes of the Navaho and the Jesus fish.

“Any painting can take your eyes dancing, but it has to be a good dance partner,” he told us.

Of course, Marvin Saltzman himself took that as a cue to enter the conversation, gesturing around the gallery and proclaiming his pride for the wide array of artists. “I’m proud of all these people, they’re all making beautiful work.”

He let the praise sit for a moment before he narrowed his eyes and said, “I’m interested in them, not the critics, not how important they are. They make good work, that’s what matters.”

Afterward, we made our way to the 311 West Martin Street Galleries and Studios. The gallery was showing detour, a collection of work by the graduate students of East Carolina University’s School of Art and Design. Right upon entering the gallery, we were confronted by a sort of Degas’ ballerinas wearing gas masks painting done by Jonathan R. Peedin, entitled “Aluminum Dance.”

The rest of the gallery, a labyrinth of paintings and sculptures on battered wooden floors, continued with the same strategy of taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar. Keon Pettiway, a student in graphic design (and alumnus of N.C. State) said that the school of art and design encouraged him to explore new routes of expression, evident by his own graphic design artwork.

“ECU taught me not to create my entrée without even knowing what the ingredients are,” he said. “It allowed me to take my love of graphic design and turn it into pure artwork, where my computer code is my artists’ hand.”

Pettiway took this concept and created his own version of artwork, turning Picasso’s concept of cubism on its head by transforming a Picasso into cubes using computer code.

Our last stop of the night was Designbox, a beautiful combination workspace, art gallery and design shop. Of all three galleries, this featured the most work that was both accessible and affordable.

Attendees of last fall’s fashionSPARK will be pleased to see designers AHPeele and DRC ApeParel on display once again, with their clothes for sale to the public rather than marching down the catwalk in downtown Raleigh.

Designbox’s textile-based show, In Print, also features Gretchen Morrissey, known for handcrafted surface designs. Though the clothes were unique, most impressive were Morrissey’s lacquered boxes painted with quirky octopi (that an art-seeking marine biologist proclaimed anatomically correct) and beautifully dyed cloths (that were, heartbreakingly, not for sale). Her painted boxes were like windows into the bottom of the ocean, with only the most vivid colors and intricate brushstrokes used, and it’s only due to my student budget that I don’t own my own perfectly painted octopus today.