Friday, March 14, 2014
By Christopher George, produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
From the outside, the steeply sloped roofline and large, ornate windows would make it easy for anyone to guess at the original purpose of the large red brick structure at 578 West Main Street. Originally housing a Baptist church, this 20,000-square-foot building planted on a small hill just west of downtown Spartanburg serves today as home to nearly three dozen working artists at the West Main Artists Co-op—without a doubt one of the most unique destinations for local art in Spartanburg County.
My visit is on the third Thursday of the month, the night when Spartanburg holds its monthly Artwalk, a 5 to 8 p.m. citywide gallery event meant to encourage locals and visitors alike to get out and take a stroll. (Normally, the co-op is only open to the public Thursdays and Fridays 3 to 6 p.m., and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) .
On this particular night, I circle the co-op parking lot in search of an open space. Inside, the hallways and small gallery rooms that once served as Sunday school classrooms are buzzing with people.
Art receptions at West Main feature a different pair of the co-op’s member artists getting a chance to have their work highlighted each month. Tonight the crowd is there to see the work of Stuart J. Galloway, with a fresh collection of his digital art prints, and jewelry maker Lois Ann Hesser, with some of her newest creations.
From the gallery rooms, I follow the sound of a curious, pulsing beat until eventually wandering into the old church sanctuary, a space West Main appropriately calls The Venue. Inside, a Converse College student, Sarah McAndrew provides a musical backdrop for the Artwalk crowd, performing a set of down-tempo electronic fusion songs under the name One Track Mind.
Surprises like that seemed to appear around every corner of the winding hallways and stairways of the co-op, where I find painting, photography, mixed media, and ceramics. Each open studio door provides a peek inside the creative world of a different artist, and as I wander around West Main’s lower level, I find what might be the best surprise of all.
In a large open room in the basement, surrounded by machines that might look more at home in a 19th century factory than in a funky artists’ co-op, Bill Wheatley runs a what the folks at West Main call The Printery, a letterpress shop. I cautiously open the door, and am immediately welcomed inside by Wheatley, always anxious to evangelize on behalf of a craft that hasn’t fundamentally changed since Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable type printing to Europe in the 15th century.
To say Wheatley is passionate about letterpress printing is an understatement of industrial proportions. Anyone who walks into The Printery with even the slightest hint of interest in these heavy steel contraptions gets the grand tour, and Wheatley is a fount of knowledge on the tedious and archaic world of hand-setting type and printing. He proudly shows off West Main’s collection of metal and wooden typefaces, explaining what each one is for and how it interacts with each of the presses.
It’s tough to argue with the results. The example cards Wheatley shows off are beautifully detailed, with an organic look and feel to the words that you just don’t see using modern printing techniques. By the time we leave The Printery, I’ve decided to take one of the classes Wheatley teaches to beginners interested in learning his craft, having unexpectedly become fascinated with the letterpress process.
The unexpected is everywhere you turn at West Main. The variety of artists and styles is dizzying, but the camaraderie among those artists is the real treat here. This co-op is a space created for artists, but much more than that, it is a space created by artists.
Still, it’s far from the only place worth giving a visit during the monthly Artwalk. Galleries and artist spaces all over the city open their doors for the event, and while hitting every one of the dozen or so stops on the list might not be possible in one night, there’s more than enough to keep even the most enthusiastic art lover occupied. On this night, down on Morgan Square, Growler Haus, the local craft beer bar, is hosting an exhibition of paintings by the late Johnnie Lee Gray, a nationally known Spartanburg outsider artist who often painted scenes of rural life in the county. And local arts organization Hub-Bub has an exhibit of art created by five years of artists who have participated in its Artists-in-Residence program.
Either of those would’ve made a fine addition to my night out, but when I finally stop admiring the art at West Main long enough to check the time, it’s clear I’m going to have to catch those later. This month’s Artwalk is almost over, and next month can’t get here fast enough.
Christopher George, Produced in cooperation with the HubCity Writers Project.
Christopher George is a freelance writer and Spartanburg native. He enjoys watching baseball, drinking too much coffee, and hanging out with his wife, Manda Hughson.