By Janna Childers
Kellyn Thornburg was 20 years old, hair freshly died platinum blond and chopped off at the nape of her neck, with one very large suitcase stuffed full of thrift store T-shirts and leotards. It was August of 2015, and she was waiting at the Charlotte-Douglass International Airport for a flight to New York City.
Back in May, Thornburg graduated from the UNC School of the Arts with a degree in contemporary dance. After a summer spent bouncing between her college city of Winston-Salem and her rural hometown of Dallas, North Carolina, Thornburg was hungry for change. So, she found an apartment in Harlem and booked her flight.
“I straight up moved to Harlem, and Harlem is a whole different world in and of itself,” Thornburg said. “It was a huge shock at first. But coming from Dallas, North Carolina, there just wasn’t anything out here.”
Thornburg’s story follows a familiar story of young, burgeoning artists, tired of the lack of inspiration in their hometown, flocking to the open arms of a gritty city. And despite musician Patti Smith’s warning to young artists from a 2010 blog post on Vanishing New York — “You have to find the new place because New York City has been taken away from you” — New York has remained the most popular choice, especially for those interested in contemporary art and media. According to the U.S. Census, from 2010 to 2012, the city saw a 40,000-person spike in individuals identifying as artists.
But what happens to the towns these artists leave behind? Is there an art vacuum? Despite the notion that suggests art is dead across America’s small towns and suburbs, the Triangle area of North Carolina offers an alternative. It might not be considered the most exciting and inspiring place for young creatives, but there are certainly a number of locals who take the art world seriously.
Wayne Marcelli is a painter from Myrtle Beach. He has an armful of tattoos, thin-rimmed glasses and gauges in his ears. And despite having roots in North Carolina, he plans to move away after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill’s graduate studio art.
“The department is kind of an incubator, but once you graduate, you go elsewhere unless you’re going to work at the school,” Marcelli said. “Teaching jobs around here are kind of dried up. And at least in the art department here, when they’re hiring new people they generally don’t hire from within the department.”
Aaron Mandel, founder of the Durham-based media company Clarion Content, said he thinks the Triangle, with its economic success, has become a place for yuppies. He describes the “glory days” of the Durham art scene, back in the ’80s and ’90s when it was a city known for high crime rates and low incomes. He draws parallels between gentrification and what he deems to be the success of the art scene in a city.
“Durham was the sort of place where it was possible for artists to find ground-level opportunities and cheap studios. It’s the same story of the Village in New York, or SoHo,” Mandel said. “Now it’s priced artists out. I think if you study the places where art is made, it tends to be more of those edgy places, more of those places where conflict is really present. Because if you’re in safe, comfortable, suburbia, what do you really need art for?”
But Marcelli wanted to clarify that he didn’t fully agree with the idea that art always came from a place a struggle.
“That could be a misconception, because like a good chuck of the celebrity artists, people who show all over New York City and have pages in art forum, they have generally privileged upbringings,” he said. “They’ve been immersed in that world for a long time. I personally agree that turmoil is a really good generator, but I don’t think that’s the case across the board.”
People move for all sorts of reasons, and artists are no different. They may be priced out of their neighborhood downtown or feel that box stores and model homes are no longer inspiring. Or maybe it’s a trend because the marketplace makes it necessary to have a concentration of network and resources for a particular industry. Whatever the reason, in the United States, many artists tend to be pretty mobile people.
Patrick Hitesman puts his students first. He is a busy man — carting his daughter off to middle school, commuting to work every morning from Apex to Durham, teaching high school students how to paint and maintaining a gallery space in Pittsboro. Hitesman has spent 23 years teaching painting, and he’s spent the past four at Durham School of the Arts. But he said it’s common for students to forget that he’s also a working artist in the Triangle art community.
Art education is messy terrain, with wary parents and a persistent drought of federal funding. But art teachers and schools across the state are still finding ways to make it work.
Art educators find a surprising amount of community support, especially in the Triangle. Since 1995, Durham School of the Arts has offered students a choice in one of 10 concentrations, including visual arts, dance and theater. Graduates from the school often pursue degrees across the country. UNC School of the Arts also has programs that train high school and college students for visual and performing arts careers.
Darrell Thompson, who also works at Durham School of the Arts, has been teaching photography at the school for 20 years.
“The thing about education in sort of a broad brushstroke is you want kids to be creative thinkers. And there’s no better way to do that than giving them a simple set of skills, a project they need to accomplish and then turning them loose to go do it,” he said. When you’re talking to parents though, it gets tough, because not all parents who are my age did what I did to get thorough college. They were doctors, they were lawyers, they were mechanics, they are physician’s assistants. To them, without science and math, there is no future.”
Navigating the market
Art teachers aren’t alone in being engines of the art community. There are also a number of people in consulting that work specifically with artists to help them navigate the art market. Heather Allen is one such person. Allen studied art and design as an undergraduate student, but she quickly realized she longed to teach and see people thrive. After earning a graduate degree in business, she started consulting in 2012, focusing on creative small business out of Raleigh — mostly writers and artists who want to sell their work. She’s now mostly consults older business owners who have been in the industry for years and need help managing new media platforms.
“A lot of those [marketing] models that were popular and predictable in the ’90s and the early 2000s now come with sometimes higher costs,” Allen said. “I encourage people to see the opportunities on the internet in a way that allows them to reduce cost and increase visibility.”
Allen is among several consultants for artists in the Raleigh-Durham area, but she works with people in several states. There are also several organizations that serve as resources for artists in the area, including Triangle ArtWorks, The ArtsCenter in Carrboro and the public art offices in Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh.
‘Something really beautiful about the struggle’
Whether you yearn to up and move to the big city or hunker down and try to make it in your hometown, there are inevitable challenges an artist must face. One could simply be choosing a path — do you freelance, teach? Own your own business, go to school?
Thornburg is a little nervous about the next few years. She freelanced in New York City for more than a year — interning for Twyla Tharp, performing at Lincoln Center, picking up gigs in music videos and flash mobs. She recently accepted a position as the regional creative director for Salvation Army. While she’s glad to have a steady income, she said she’s found it difficult to find as much time for dance.
“For this job, I’m sort of hoping it’s a stepping stone for my dance career instead of this just being it, you know,” she said. “Eventually, my goal is to save up enough money to go back to grad school and get my masters in arts management and/or dance and create my own company and be able to create my own work from there.”
In the meantime, she’s enjoying her job and spending time getting to know the greater New York area, often driving hours to visit a site in her designated region. Thornburg says she’s not afraid of the harder times she has faced and might face in the future.
“There’s something really beautiful about the struggle that you face as an artist because it feeds into whatever you’re trying to portray through your movement, or the film that you’re making or the story that you’re writing,” she said.
“I think you just have to go for it and you realize that it’s not as scary as you make it out to be.”
Edited by Danny Nett