Downtown Greensboro is only this flooded with people a few times a year, during Christmas and the Fourth of July, but no other night offered the same cultural experience as First Friday last week.
In addition to NC A&T University’s Homecoming, more than 600 art academics with the Southeastern College Art Conference bussed in from the Koury Convention Center for a world famous art experience.
Art in Odd Places, a conglomeration of concentrated, socially minded public art, is a project that’s existed for nine years and spans the globe. Events with this year’s theme — number — were held in three cities: New York City, Sydney, Australia and most recently, Greensboro. The event, scheduled during First Friday last week and the following day, littered downtown with 35 projects bringing together arts faculty and students from local colleges as well as out-of-state artists with a wild array of formats and topics.
For Xandra Eden, bringing Art in Odd Places to downtown was whole new beast.
As the exhibitions curator at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, most of the art she works with remains confined to a particular realm. Even though the museum is free, the event proved to be far more public.
“We’ll probably have the highest population of artists, curators and art historians to populate Elm Street ever,” she said.
Despite the plethora of projects and a guiding map, searching out pieces felt like a treasure hunt as visitors perused a disparate array of performances, installations, sound, handouts and interactive pieces. Many avoided an in-your-face approach, and others remained elusive and mobile.
Many of the artists hail from North Carolina, but a few traveled from Minneapolis, New York City and Ohio to participate, choosing their own locations mostly along South Elm Street. Some projects invited participation, like the large “Hopscotch Hustle” piece on the ground near the tracks crossing Elm, or Stacy Bloom Rexrode’s “Tag! You’re It!” floral yarn web on the corner of Washington Street.
Rexrode, an MFA student at UNCG, asked students and passersby to affix tags to her large reddish web that climbed a vine on the wall. She started with several tags with statistics related to women’s health and rights and asked people to share their thoughts or stories. The amount of participation exceeded her expectations she said, as two more people began filling out tags at an adjacent table.
Other projects adorned walls too, including Susan Harbage- Page’s large chalk drawing on the side of Just Be, while artists like Christopher Cassidy’s projected images on sidewalks and empty storefronts.
Some delved into Greensboro’s history, like Tyler Starr’s eerie drawings of vehicles associated with the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, including a Morningside Homes resident’s Gremlin-x.
An outgrowth of Ed Woodham’s work with the Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta almost 20 years ago, he reconstituted the project in New York City after 9/11 as a way to “stir up stagnant air” and engage people about the constriction of civil liberties.
Woodham wouldn’t refer to Art in Odd Places as “occupying” public space, but rather “enlivening” it. He emphasized that people don’t always feel welcome in galleries or theaters because they can feel like elitist spaces, so this is a way to bring art to the people.
“Public space is our last vestige of democratic gathering space,” Woodham said. “It’s where people can gather regardless of their social economic standings, their race, their sexual persuasion.”
It’s also a tenet of Art in Odd Places to reach out to people gently, waking them up with a “kind and gentle nudge” instead of a horn in the air, Woodham said. If any of the pieces embodied that mission, it was Terry Hardy’s piece “10,0000 Flowers for Willie Grimes.”
Hardy commemorated Grimes, an NC A&T University student killed under mysterious circumstances during the 1969 A&T/Dudley Revolt, with a long, rectangular pattern of flowers.
The arrangement, following a “traditional asymmetrical African quilt pattern,” sloped down a grassy triangle along Martin Luther King Drive. Vibrant flowers gathered from discarded graveyard offerings over 10 months radiated even in the dark of First Friday, a compelling but unobtrusive reminder of Grimes.
The project is designed to be fleeting, but with a lasting impact.
Here’s hoping people carry its legacy of public art forward.