“A lot of street art is a product of the industrial revolution,” Chris Oh said while sharing an early-after- noon meal at Biscuitville with his cohorts from the Primary Flight art group. “It sprung up in New York and Philadelphia in these areas where you had a lot of factories and railroads. We stopped manufacturing and we’ve decommissioned a lot of the railroads, so you had a lot of these industrial structures that became modern-day ruins. They were like blank canvasses. But there were still people there. So the natural instinct is to turn it into something beautiful.”
That scenario is currently playing out in the southwest corner of downtown Greensboro, where the decline of manufacturing has left an underdeveloped rim of decommissioned factories and warehouses along a railroad spur down to one run per week and a new section of the Downtown Greenway takes shape.
Oh is in Greensboro for the next couple of weeks with fellow artists Raquel Raney and Typo, accompanied by documentarian Peter Vahan, to paint murals on seven massive concrete columns supporting the Freeman Mill Road overpass over Spring Garden Street.
The $20,000 budget for the project is funded through the Downtown Greenway, an enterprise managed by the nonprofit Action Greensboro. The Downtown Greenway received a $15,000 grant for the project from the NC Arts Council.
Primary Flight came into being as a group of friends who took to the streets with paint during Art Basel Miami Beach, self-described as “the most prestigious art show in the Americas.”
“It was what was available to graffiti artists because of budgets and credibility,” Raney said. “We were breaking stereotypes about graffiti.
“It’s like thinking of Miami as a gallery space,” she added. “The graffiti artists are in charge of it.”
Every year the mural project has grown, with coordinators mapping spaces ripe for beautification and hundreds of artists fanning out to perform the work.
The greenway mural is Primary Flight’s first project outside of Miami, but the group plans visit Havana, Cuba, Typo said.
Oh researched Greensboro’s history to develop a concept for the Freeman Mill Road overpass mural. While the city’s association with the civil rights movement and the Civil War might be the most obvious historical touchstones, Oh said he was interested in the fact that architect Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school, designed a building in Greensboro after fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Gropius designed the Container Corporation of America building on East Market Street, which was built in 1944 to manufacture boxes for use in shipping textiles, Vicks VapoRub and blue jeans, Preservation Greensboro Executive Director Benjamin Briggs said .
Taking the Bahaus maxim of “less is more,” Oh said he also wanted to incorporate the ideas of urban camouflage, in which parking garages are designed to look like buildings so they become more attractive, and dazzle camouflage, in which warships in World War I were painted in abstract cubist designs to confound enemy fighters.
The Greensboro project will utilize abstract triangles with many vibrant colors. The murals are meant to be eye catching, but not distracting to passing drivers on Spring Garden Street.
A new section of the greenway running from West Lee Street to Spring Garden Street opens on May 6 with a celebration that will include the dedication of new benches and a free performance by the Laurelyn Dossett Band. On Primary Flight’s first day of work the crew found a telescopic boom, a vehicle that extends a basket from a giant arm, rented by Action Greensboro with the keys in the ignition. Oh maneuvered it onto the tracks of the railroad to get a sense of how the crew would access the columns undergirding the south side of the overpass. When he learned that the line was still active, he retreated.
Barbara Peck, a freelance art consultant who is acting as liaison between the Downtown Greenway and Primary Flight, was soon on the phone with a representative of the railroad. She confirmed that the track would be free for the next three days and that the train runs only once a week.
It turns out that Greensboro’s industrial era is not quite finished.