At 10 p.m. on a Friday in March, in a converted downtown Raleigh warehouse, Matthew Sherman is mingling with local artists and running soundboards. He wears a black T-shirt imprinted with a woman in a giant afro. At 28, Sherman--who could pass for younger--has already devoted six years of his life to nourishing Raleigh's art community with events ranging from spoken word showcases to all out throw-downs dedicated to house music. Sherman, like many, is aware of Raleigh's undercurrent of creative energy and to him, it is obvious that Raleigh and the Triangle are ready for a force that might solidify an artsy reputation for an area so young in its hipness, but already ripe with the perfect ingredients.
When he was 21 and still a student at East Carolina University, Sherman decided that Triangle artists needed an outlet for their budding creativity. In his eyes, they needed an entity through which they could showcase their respective talents in a nurturing environment, while surrounded by people with similar talents and goals. In 1997, Sherman's brainchild, The ExtraSensory Group (formerly Creative Concepts) was born. "I started thinking about what separates us from other booking agencies," Sherman says, explaining the name change as an objective of the group to cater to all the senses, be it through sound, visual stimulation, or even the sweet smell of incense obvious at many of the group's events. Along with the efforts of his partner Tracey Evora, 31, who was once a spectator at Sherman's events, ExtraSensory has become a cross between an event promoter and an artist management group, still doing most of its work in Raleigh.
"We try to educate, preserve and cultivate the arts," Sherman says. He cites the unofficial company motto: "We know what's really on your mind."
Since figuring out what's on people's minds, ESG has organized events for artists and organizations alike. Although they do not advertise in traditional media, their connections have paid off in various ways: They have arranged events for N.C. Central University, N.C. State University--where they coordinated talent for the Ushari Jazz Poetry Showcase--and created jazz and poetry suites at Dynasty5's First Friday events. They've also provided stage entertainment for Durham's Centerfest. In the summer of '97, The Cypher--a smorgasbord of artiness, including spoken word, music, visual arts and handmade crafts--became the first of the group's re-occurring events. To date, The Cypher has been ExtraSensory's most recognizable name, and it has gained them a steady increase of attention and prominence in the area.
"We've been nomadic as far as not having a home venue," Sherman said back in March, explaining The Cypher's previous stints in hair salons, galleries and a two-year foray in Expressions, another venue in downtown Raleigh. At that point, ESG was moving into a 7,000-square-foot converted warehouse in downtown Raleigh, in a playground that Sherman and Evora dubbed "Myooseum." The multipurpose space was divided into three main areas: a visual arts gallery, a performance space, and a lounge area with an interactive mural, sofas, papasan chairs and Chinese lampshades strewn about. A separate performance area featured large white parachutes acting as screens and black soundboards hanging from the rafters to provide a more acoustically pleasing stage area.
But soon after, due to fire codes more strictly enforced after club fires in Chicago and Rhode Island, The Cypher once again found itself homeless. Then in May, Raleigh's Retail Bar became the new home of The Cypher and the group, which had started collaborating with other organizations--including Glamoore Productions, DeepSecret Records and RED--began throwing parties around the area, most notably House Warming, a night dedicated to house music.
shirlette ammons, a frequent spoken-word performer at The Cypher, who is now moving into music, has been one of the ExtraSensory faithful since early in the group's young life.
"They hosted poetry readings, among the first I ever attended," ammons says. She describes ESG's events as invaluable to artists, and likens them to "the creative throb that makes both artists and art lovers feel as if they are an integral member of the community we collectively build. They encourage me to get up and get involved."
Among the other artists listed on the group's talent roster are well-known acts like N.E.R.D, Sankofa, the Mark Wells Trio and YahZarah, a former background singer for Erykah Badu. Most recently, ExtraSensory has held events featuring Tortured Soul, a band based out of New York, and Angela Johnson, an up-and-coming soul artist.
Although the group offers a certain amount of representation, it does not have exclusive control over any of the artists and none are held to a permanent contract. In addition to hands-on involvement at the events, Evora negotiates booking contracts between the group, artists and venues, and the ExtraSensory Group collects a small percentage from the pairings.
With the cautious success that the group has achieved and its urge to grow, it is curious to judge the overall effect it will have on a small and traditional area like the Triangle.
Sherman is hopeful: he expects that within a year, ExtraSensory will become a household name.
"[Groups] kind of skip over us from D.C. to Atlanta," he reflects." I want to try to make this a dot on their map. There was a time when Raleigh was voted number one for artists [to live in]. Organizations have come and gone, but I think we're on an upswing--there's a nice creative energy here."
And though he has had several opportunities to move from Raleigh, Sherman feels tied to the city and his belief that it deserves more recognition.
"Raleigh is what Atlanta was at one time, and what Charlotte used to be," he says. "I want to help create what's to come for this area."
The next Cypher will be held Friday, Sept. 5, in conjuction with 23 Hours at Bickett Gallery, Raleigh. Featured performers are: shirlette ammons, Howard Craft, Thomasi McDonald and Langston Fuze. Doors open at 7 p.m., show starts at 8. Free. Visit www.23hours.org.