December 16, 2010

In 1997, “Carolina Sales Co.” closed its doors for the last time. A mainstay of downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, the thrift store owned by Joe and Sylvia Gray had opened in 1939 as “The Surplus Store,” stocking used furniture. After WWII, the Grays began to buy up army surplus materials. So they changed the name to Carolina Sales, added a catalog order business, and began reselling tents, canteens, blankets, and related items to Boy Scout troops and hospitals. After Joe died in 1955, Sylvia tapped into the textile industry that flourished in North Carolina at the time, buying up end bolts and ribbons of every pattern and color. In later years, she also collected clothes, toys, books, and housewares.

The thrift store occupied the street level of two adjacent three-story buildings. For a time, the second floor was a boarding house. There is evidence that it also served as the meeting place for the local chapter of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF), a fraternal organization engaged in civic and philanthropic efforts. The top floor housed the Grays and their three children. The family eventually moved to a house nearby. Over time, the vacated rooms filled with Sylvia’s continued purchases. When she died in 1997, all three floors were a jumble of items of every material, shape, and size.

The store as it was discovered in 2003 (courtesy of Elsewhere Collaborative, Greensboro, NC)


Original proprietress Sylvia Gray proudly stands outside of her thrift store (courtesy of Elsewhere Collaborative, Greensboro, NC)


Not knowing quite what to do with the store’s contents, the family shut the doors. Occasionally, one of Sylvia’s grandchildren, George Scheer, would stop by. In 2003, he brought two fellow graduates from the University of Pennsylvania, Stephanie Sherman and Josh Boyette, down for a visit. With their meager needs and utopian ideals, they saw the store as a world of possibilities rather than an overwhelming challenge. When they decided to move to Greensboro, they invited two other friends from the University of Michigan, Josh Fox and Matt Merfert, to join them.


The store as it was discovered in 2003 (courtesy of Elsewhere Collaborative, Greensboro, NC)


The group took up residence in the building and began to slowly carve out spaces amongst the stuff. A corner in the front window was designated the Natural History Museum—a nod to the Museum of Jurassic Technology—and displayed anything that related to the history of the space: old ledgers, scraps of paper with Sylvia’s handwriting and copies of the old mail-order catalogs. Many of the books were stacked in a separate area that became the library. Bolts of fabric were hung on the wall, helping to delineate a small seating area populated by an old couch and chairs.


Elsewhere CollaborativeLibrary, Living Museum, 2009 (photo: Mario Galluci)


Greensborian Allen Davis decided to join them in their quest and a community of sorts began to form under the name “Elsewhere.” Scheer and Sherman took the lead as co-directors of the collaborative space. Later that year, they filed for status as a non-profit. By 2004, word had spread and the artists’ collective received its first “resident” for a two-week stay. They instituted an official residency program in 2005 and while some of the founders left, new visitors came. As local high school and college students often wandered in, Elsewhere established an internship program for them.

It was an organic type of growth. While Scheer and Sherman had a clear idea of the atmosphere they wanted to create and the interactions they wished to foster, the evolution of the programs and structure took a responsive rather than predetermined course. Rules that were established early on still remain today. Nothing leaves the building. Artists must complete a project during the residency but nothing can be considered permanent. Each work can be added to, changed, and possibly even destroyed if a good reason exists.


Ernesto Gomez, Ed’s Thriller Angel, 2009, furniture and wood (courtesy of the artist and Elsewhere Collaborative, Greensboro, NC; photo: Blake Mason)

For the first year, Elsewhere participants focused their energy on sifting through and organizing the Thrift Store space. In time, people began to venture upstairs, constantly discovering new architectural cavities and materials. The space was a treasure trove for artists across disciplines. While Scheer and Sherman were at U Penn, the two took part in Collaborative Fiction, a performative group initiated to bring writers into a community, which encouraged participants to create their own persona and collectively build a common plot. Thus, Elsewhere has included visual artists, art educators, writers, and performance artists from the start.

As Elsewhere’s program expanded, so has the type of projects that it welcomes. Some residents make collections within Sylvia’s collection, gathering and organizing the materials contained in the physical space—it’s not by chance that Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations and Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things are on the suggested reading list for prospective residents. For example, Joseph Mougel, a visual artist who also served in the Marines, was drawn to the army surplus material. He gathered everything he could find and took it into a third-floor room where tents draped from the ceiling and trunks, blankets, and canteens stacked up the walls now form an immersive installation. Angela Zammarelli became fascinated with Sylvia’s collection of ribbons. She dedicated a second-story room to these remnants, covering the floor with sacks of the fragments and decorating the walls and ceiling with random strands. Performance artist Laurencio Ruiz needed to make costumes for a puppet show so part of his project was to sort and organize the clothing on double-hanging racks.

left: Molly LoweCome into your Body, 2009, performance-installation: costumes, fabric, ribbon; Molly Lowe (in red) leads a group of museum visitors on a journey through her re-imagination of the museum as a human body. The group is pictured here lounging in the digestive system (courtesy of the artist and Elsewhere Collaborative, Greensboro, NC; photo: Blake Mason)
right: Brian HitselbergerGoodbye to All That, 2008, textile (courtesy of the artist and Elsewhere Collaborative, Greensboro, NC; photo: Shalin Scupham)


Other works respond to the architecture of the building itself. Wendy Deschene discovered an old M.C. Escher print featuring figures that seem to walk up and down stairways to nowhere. She transposed the drawing into a three-dimensional space, re-drawing the extremely complicated composition along the three walls of a staircase in such a way as to trigger the sense that we have actually entered the drawing. Ron Longsdorf was interested in the orifices he found throughout the buildings: empty light sockets and pipes that lead into rooms but have no apparent function—the building has no heating or cooling, which is why the residency program and museum shut down for the winter. He responded by filling one opening with many yards of red fabric while simultaneously opening up skylights that had been covered for many years.


Agustina Woodgate uses an electric sander in one of Elsewhere’s rooms, while Ian Montgomery, staff, looks on


As the physical space became more defined and the artists’ projects began to build up, Elsewhere decided to formalize its opening hours and to promote itself to the public as a modern-day Cabinet of Wonder and a living museum. A Reception Desk is set up near what serves as the Museum’s front entrance. Here, the Thrift Store’s original cash register and brochures on the toy-decorated counter provide an air of authenticity. Carved out of a central space, the Press Office is decorated with “Man of the Year” back issues of Life Magazine pulled from a stack upstairs. Elsewhere also plans to turn a small space under a stairwell into a technology lab in order to produce and exhibit audio and video work.

To accommodate artists working in a more performative manner, Elsewhere stages a public event every Friday night during the season. These include film and video screenings or performances by the visiting artists. Toni Subira turned one Friday night into a karaoke competition where participants had to sing in Spanish. Dancers Florence Peake and Sally Dean conducted a two-and-a-half-hour dance performance in the building’s front window around objects selected by blindfolded participants. Once a month, Elsewhere residents and staff hostCITY!, a group performance in which they all take part.


Jeff Thompson + Angeles CossioUntitled, 2009, glass shard sound performance (courtesy of the artists and Elsewhere Collaborative, Greensboro, NC; photo: Blake Mason)


This monthly event has become an important link between the organization and the community. Two important and not unrelated historical specificities make Greensboro receptive to Elsewhere’s creative endeavors. First, the city is characterized by an appreciation for the arts, which was spurred, in a large degree, by wealth created by the prosperity of local textile mills throughout much of the twentieth century. Cone Mills Corporation, owned by members of the Cone family of Baltimore, was one of the largest. Sisters Claribel and Etta Cone were noted collectors whose generous donation forms the core of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s modernist collection. Etta also supported the arts in Greensboro, most notably through her bequest of numerous Matisse lithographs and bronzes that added to the substantial collection of Modern and Contemporary art at the Weatherspoon Art Museum on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

The second factor is the economic development of downtown Greensboro. After the depression, real estate was affordable enough that the Grays were able to purchase the buildings on Lower Elm Street. Throughout the post-WWII manufacturing boom, the city grew. However, just as manufacturing was about to cross the railroad tracks into their neighborhood, it began to be outsourced to Asia, halting growth. As such, the beautiful old buildings, which in many revitalized cities have been turned into chic shopping areas, have remained untouched and thus affordable for the fledgling arts group.

Elsewhere strives to insert itself into this interesting history. CITY! embodies that effort, with each staff member and resident assuming a persona for the evening. There is usually a banker, who doles out the local currency of buttons based on one’s good deeds, and an immigration officer who welcomes visitors and somewhat directs traffic. Press agents walk around, encouraging participants to reveal their stories. Beyond these recurring elements, each performance varies based on what participants, who have free access to all clothing and props, can create. So far, CITY! has welcomed the proprietors of a tea emporium, a travel agent who sends a couple on a vacation on a toy boat, and an exterminator ferreting out an opossum.

The ephemeral nature of the performances and the ever-evolving physical space mean that it is crucial for residents to understand the history of Elsewhere. Unlike residency programs like MacDowell or Skowhegan, where a new crop of artists and instructors come in to clean empty studios each year, Elsewhere is more like a slow conveyor belt that started with Sylvia’s thrift store. Residents jump on at random intervals throughout the season, adding their mark to the space without taking anything away.

To help with this understanding and the success of residents’ projects, Scheer and Sherman instated a few core elements to the residency program. Soon after their arrival, participants give an Art Talk to introduce their work to fellow residents and the community. They are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the place first, and to wait at least three days before they begin the space’s transformation, which must be discussed with Elsewhere’s directors. They are also asked to design and execute a project that will help improve the working environment of Elsewhere. Past projects have included building a vertical garden, sewing pillows or installing a new cabinet in the bathroom.

The ephemeral nature of the projects also means that documentation plays a crucial role. When artists arrive, they get their own personal blog and are encouraged to post daily entries. Photographs and video footage are shot frequently in order to document physical alterations to the architecture, the development of individual projects, and actions that take place in the space. In addition, each artist is asked to leave behind an Artist’s Box, usually housed in one of the Thrift Store suitcases, that includes any notes, drawings, photographs, or random objects that pertain to their residency project. While the suitcases can only be accessed by visitors on-site, the other documentation is available on the organization’s recently revamped website.


Elsewherians meet at IDEA, an internal brainstorming session and discussion of the collaborative’s directions


At its core, Elsewhere is a site for social interaction. In the past few years, it has expanded its programs into the community. With the South Elm Alliance (SEA), a neighborhood network of businesses and residents, the group has staged piano performances, welcomed passersby to join it in a meal at a Bistro it set up outside the building, and presented a collaborative screen-printing project. Alumni of Elsewhere—humorously known as ETC (Elsewhere Tenured Collaborators)—also participate in public projects under the organization’s banner. One group of alumni created work for Messages, an exhibition shown in the lobby of the Community Foundation building in downtown Greensboro. For the local Earth Day Festival, two past participants represented the organization with their Polymorphic Plastic Parade. Another group participated in Art Shanties, a performative residency project that takes place on a frozen lake in Minnesota each winter.

The projects’ diversity and their ability to reach a broad public have captured the attention of local and national granting agencies. In the last two years, Elsewhere has received major grants from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

While this support has been beneficial to the organization, it also required Elsewhere to make structural changes. The North Carolina Arts Council grant meant that some artists would now receive funding for travel and materials, shifting the well-established egalitarian nature of the residency program. The Warhol grant will allow artists to professionally document their residency work, which will necessitate more staff and redirect more resident-time to documentation rather than production. The NEA grant signaled the most radical change, requiring artists to develop their proposal before they ever set foot in Sylvia’s store, rather than in response to the space.

Kara Dunne waits for a freight train to pass in downtown Greensboro during her day-long performance, 55 Frock Walk. Kara chose 55 dresses from the collection and wore each one on a walk around downtown, finishing the day with just under 40 miles travelled.


Surprisingly, these changes feel like a natural progression for this no-longer fledgling organization. The growth of the organization has followed a trajectory parallel to the evolution of the space. As the jumble of objects that was left behind by Sylvia becomes categorized, organized, and relocated within the building, the once-small group of friends has developed into an artist collective that is now moving its ideas of social interaction beyond the store and into the community. Both have undergone an amazing transformation since that day in 2003 when three friends decided to explore Sylvia’s treasure trove. That journey is clearly not over yet.