On a recent sweltering evening I finished a glass of Shiraz at Raleigh's Tir na nOg and walked next door to a century-old Edward Hopper storefront just a few blocks down Blount Street from the Governor's Mansion. A poster in the plate glass window read, "Trace Gallery: open since the 1900s." Inside the high-ceilinged, labyrinthine gallery, artists, art lovers and the merely curious stood before wall-to-wall art of every description, two- and three-dimensional, executed in radically different media and using almost every material known to humanity: wood, cloth, rubber, metals, paper, chemicals, glass, plastic and so on. A thin young man stood in the center of the front room, coaxing gentle, ethereal strains from an electric guitar. In the center of the gallery stood a table loaded with finger food, and in the back an industrial-size floor fan struggled to push the heavy air around. This was First Friday, downtown Raleigh's monthly celebration of local art.
Set between the food and the fan was a humanoid metal sculpture welded from found objects: a shovel head, horseshoe collarbones, harvester blade clavicles, four cow vertebrae, propeller hips, and a pitchfork loincloth. Passing it, I stepped into the small bar where beverages are exchanged for a donation, and met the mastermind behind this marvelous train wreck, Joey Howard. Born and bred in Raleigh, Howard is a sweet-natured young man with a ready smile, a linebacker's build, a bushy head of dark curly hair, the requisite goatee and piercing artist's eyes. Towering over the bar like a humble Hercules, he is obviously proud of his multidimensional monster. "I started Trace Gallery about two years ago around the corner from where we are now," he says, "and we've been in this location since last September. It started out as a place to market my own work--I had had some successes placing mainstream pieces in local galleries, but I wanted a way to present more experimental work, the thing I most enjoy doing but may be too radical for the established art spaces. And it just grew from there."
While we spoke, local rockabilly band, the Straight 8's, cranked up in the front room. More and more people strolled through, laughing, talking, musing. The crowd was as mixed as the artists' media. A buzz-cut young woman, one shoulder ablaze with a fiery dragon tattoo, munched a baby carrot as she stood before Lance Vaughn's comic-bookish vertical cityscape in which a suicidal businessman falls face first from the skyscrapers above, plunging out of the canvas and into the room. His cheeks flutter as the tears are whipped from his wide-open eyes. The woman laughed as she read the title aloud: "2 More Seconds." Two middle-aged, freshly scrubbed and coiffed yuppies pushed a stroller with a tiny, sleeping newborn nestled inside. In the corner by the front window, a little girl fussed as she played "Frogger" on a vintage Atari set. Turning to her father, she whined, "I just hate it every time I die."
Howard is one of hundreds of Triangle artists who have experienced firsthand the devastation of the Fetzer administration's chokehold on government funding for the arts. Rather than go back to the day job, or move to a more generous political climate, many area artists have banded together in a loosely knit grassroots effort to make sure the arts flourish despite public financial support. "Everyone working this show is a volunteer," says Howard, from Amanda, the tall, preternaturally redheaded hostess, to the soulful guitarist. "It's a true community effort, and that's what Trace is all about. We're open to any and all artists, regardless of pedigree," he adds. "I know how hard it can be to get started, and I want Trace to be a place where artists, who might not otherwise get a chance, can find a home and an audience for their work."
Howard's egalitarian approach makes for a mixed showing. Many of the pieces on display are of questionable quality at best, yet for every miss there are plenty of truly striking hits. A good example of the latter is Shonna Greenwell's color action photos, a series of close-ups of amateur wrestlers grappling in pools of sweat and even blood. One of her titles tells it all: "Leaping from the top rope, Christian York performs a frog splash on Harrison with Joey Matthews in the background, 1999." Stephen Pace has hung peaceful city- and beachscapes around the corner from Tricia Saul's disturbing studies of pierced, tattooed and chained transvestites. For a touch of the surreal, Kitty Miller has added sensuous black and white dream images of nudes marked by microscopic attention to setting and lighting, while Charles Lewis' time lapse photos show circus wheels spinning like flying saucers against the night sky.
Trace also houses Glitter Music, a cracker box of a store chock full of an eclectic mix of new and used, local and nationally released CDs, audiocassettes, LPs, and videos. A wide range of musical instruments and equipment is also available. Howard rents studio space elsewhere in the solid old building and opens his doors to poetry slams, Atari conventions, and evenings of performance art (witness the recent gathering of the Centre for Transgressive Behaviors), so that Trace has become more a community cultural center than the one-trick pony of most art spaces. Yet Howard insists that the art take center stage, rather than slip into the background as in so many cafes and coffeehouses. On the bar was a flier announcing an upcoming Trace Benefit Show, "to help pay the bills," he says.
I asked Howard to show me his own work, and he led me to one of the back rooms, where pen and ink drawings on the insides of torn-open cigarette packs, set in backless frames, captured recent moments in local musical history: "Sonvolt, 10-16-97, The Cat's Cradle," "Sleepy La Beef, The Brewery," and "two dollar pistols w/the major, 1-3-98, Spittle Fest, The Brewery." All along one wall hung huge circles of painted wood, dollops of silicone, or fired Carolina red mud, each with a circular window in the center, lenses behind which I saw lighted nests holding a stone or some other natural object.
While the band rocked out on "Hot Rod Queen," Howard spoke of his art education at Western Carolina and a stint on fellowship at Yale, and how he has striven to break free from the constraints of such classical training. "I reached a point where I wanted to do something fresh, something less passive. I wanted to involve the viewer in the art process--that's why my sketches are of actual moments at live shows, and why the circles have peepholes and are meant to be touched for a more sensual experience, to activate more senses than just the eyes." Howard sees art as a communal thing, and First Fridays were started to provide an opportunity for the community to come together and celebrate their commitment to artistic expression. "The first Friday of every month we hang a fresh show, provide music and refreshments," he says. "And, as you can see, the people come."
We walked back up to the front to catch the last of the band's set, and, to the left of the stage, one determined artist was replacing the voltage regulator on his installment while his girlfriend critiqued his work, a kind of shadow box with bars of electrical energy arcing up between two nodes against a silver-specked black background. Someone quipped, "Van Gogh Meets Frankenstein's Monster," and I thought what an apt metaphor for this place.
When the music stopped, I shook Howard's big hand and said, "One more thing before I go. Where'd you get the name?" He gave me that smile again. "Well, local artists have hit on hard times these days, and I didn't know how long the gallery would last. But however long it survived, I wanted to leave behind at least a trace." I thanked him for his hospitality and stepped back outside into the oppressive heat that had done nothing to stifle the bustling night scene of downtown Raleigh. And all the way home, whenever I closed my eyes, I could still see arcs of energy leaping up between those two nodes, traces of light in the hot summer night.