The Chapel Hill-Carrboro border, one block east of where Franklin Street melds into Main Street, is home to a concentration of creative energy. There, along a narrow corridor above the Local 506 music club, one can find a coalition of intimate contemporary art spaces known as Attic 506. The first space is marked by a glowing neon sign that reads My Room.
“When you have a show, you can say, ‘My art is in My Room,’” explains Amanda Barr, who turned her nine-by-twelve foot sculpture studio into a gallery, which hosts a wide variety of experimental art shows. (Disclosure: I am professionally involved with My Room.) Next door, Slug, created by Conner Calhoun, stakes its claim as a project space exclusively by and for queer artists. Then, at the end of the hall, a high-definition TV hangs against a black wall; this is Acid Rain, a digital venue that shows conceptual videos curated by Jerstin Crosby. Crosby also rents a studio space in the Attic, which he shares with his wife, Orvokki Crosby, and her project, The Concern Newsstand, an inspiring inventory of category-defying art books, zines, and printed material.
In the last room on the hall is Drawing Room, which Bill Thelen opened less than two weeks ago. Part-exhibition space, part-residency, it’s dedicated exclusively to drawing.
“I think there’s this disconnect between artists and institutions,” Thelen says. “They’re run by people from the outside that don’t know how to deal with artists, or how to help artists. I look at Drawing Room as having the potential to be an amazing institution.”
It’s a lofty sentiment, but one that should be taken seriously considering Thelen’s longstanding success with Lump Gallery, the artist-run Raleigh exhibition space that he created in 1996. For 25 years, the gallery, which is dedicated to showing conceptual art by underrepresented artists, has been a mainstay of the Raleigh arts scene. Until now, Orange County hasn’t had a space quite like that.
The Attic is just one of a number of recent efforts by restless artists in Chapel Hill and Carrboro who long for proper studios and places to show conceptually driven work. Portions of the space are backed by modest grants from the Orange County Arts Commission, but the majority of its members foot the bill personally. A noticeable lack of institutional support for artists’ individual practices, compounded by the scarcity of affordable commercial real estate, inspired the founders to snatch up these awkward spots and transform them into avant-garde spaces. These spaces can be visited en masse every second Friday of the month, during an informal evening art crawl.
From the roof deck behind Attic 506, you can spot a ramshackle building at 102 South Merritt Mill Road. Its sign reads, CIGARS, advertising the unlikely combination of cigar shop and art exhibition space created by Ginger Wagg and Chapel Hill poet laureate CJ Suitt. Wagg, a performance artist, makes rigorously site-specific work, and the pair plans to host a wide variety of projects that extend out of the store, into the parking lot, and beyond.
“Chapel Hill and Carrboro need more arts spaces, projects, and dialogue that stem from residents and community members, not just larger organizations and institutions,” the two wrote in an email to the INDY. It’s a crystalline mission, though the programming itself is still, by design, unfocused. Wagg and Suitt seem comfortable biding their time and waiting for the right idea to galvanize in the moment. The space, which opened last summer, is as of yet unnamed.
From there, it’s a straight shot up Main Street to a storefront on West Rosemary that is home to Peel, a digital photography lab and art gallery founded by the photographer Lindsay Metivier, which will open its lab on March 5 and host its first exhibition in April. Peel’s newly renovated interior strikes a contrast with the daring attitude that its scrappier contemporaries exude. Inside, though, there’s a comforting sense of abundance: Peel comprises a boutique space for original art objects, a gallery, and an impressive suite of photo scanners and printers. This multi-purpose set-up is key to Metivier’s vision, which involves what she calls “creative cross-pollination.”
“The idea has always been to offer space for exhibition, production, events and retail, under one roof,” Metivier says.
While these spaces are as varied as the artists who run them, they’re bonded by a common drive: They’re all creating conditions vital to the survival of artists, and they’re not waiting for outside help.
“I think you always have to take the reins,” Thelen says. Orvokki echoes that spirit of self-determination as she explains the genesis of The Concern Newsstand.
“I just saw something missing there,” she says. “Having grown up in Chapel Hill, there’s a history of amazing bookstores here, and they just went away. They just evaporated.”
In two adjacent towns that tout a vibrant creative culture, this go-it-alone approach seems like it should be unnecessary. So far, though, their efforts seem to be working. People are showing up, even as the pandemic limits capacity and creates uncertainty in the exhibition schedule. This success is due, in part, to artists being forced to manifest substance from nothing.
For Amanda Barr, the drive for My Room goes back to her father, who experienced extreme isolation as an artist and was never able to bring people together like Barr has.
“My dad died alone as a janitor,” she says. “He painted in his house and he died of a heart attack, with the paint still wet on his palette. He never did what I did, the community-building, reaching out and connecting with people—and trying desperately.”
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