A Yew Tree takes root in Greensboro

by Amy Kingsley

From the street, Yew Tree Gallery looks just like the bank it used to be – a long gray plane broken by four fluted columns.

Inside, it’s a different story, with sunbeams percolating through a cloudy skylight and catching paintings hung on low partition walls. It’s got soft carpet, high ceilings and an untouched tea service sitting at the back alongside Solo cups and ice.

Downtown Greensboro’s CJ Kern Building’s transformation began in December with Ambleside Gallery’s Jackson Mayshark. He had an idea for the space two doors down from Ambleside, and he’d already taken out a lease. Now he just needed some collaborators.

He called Frances Baker, the central regional director of the Watercolor Society of North Carolina. She put out a call to area watercolorists, and received a flood of responses in return. One day in December, more than a dozen artists gathered at Ambleside.

“The more we talked and the more we kicked around ideas,” Baker says, “the more we decided we wanted to do a co-op.”

Before Mayshark and company officially inaugurated Yew Tree, the Kern Building functioned as an annex of Ambleside. Works by Guan Weixing hung there before its takeover by local artists.

Because the space was already available, and the artists already marshaled, the preparations for Yew Tree happened in pretty short order. The founding artists worked out a rotating schedule that would allow them to keep the doors open five days a week by staffing the gallery with members.

By the way, “cooperative” in this case doesn’t mean “non-profit.” All the artists pay rent on their wall space and also work a set number of hours a week. Administrative duties also cycle through the artists.

Twenty artists currently belong to Yew Tree. Membership privileges are limited to hanging your work on the walls; the building does not have any studio space.

The Yew Tree artists built up several cubbies out of open space and covered the new walls with paintings by Chuck McLachlan, Jo Leeds, Maggie Fickett, Sterling Edwards and Sally Lambrecht.

Lambrecht’s pieces fill a middle cubicle. They’re watercolor spectrum studies, cool-hued renditions of buildings at dusk.

The Yew Tree Gallery isn’t exclusively devoted to watercolor. Sterling Edwards’ landscapes incorporate acrylics and watercolor pencil. Judy Glazier paints acrylic beachscapes.

Alexis Lavine paints watercolors and joined Yew Tree during the earliest part of its inception.

“[Mayshark] was already showing Mr. Guan’s paintings there,” Lavine says. “And I saw that it would work very well as a gallery.”

Lavine has lived in Greensboro since 2002 and teaches weekly watercolor classes at her home. She and her sister owned and operated Two Sisters Gallery until it closed in 2006.

Ambleside and Yew Tree focus on different geographical areas. Ambleside shows works from nationally- and internationally-renowned painters, but Yew Tree confines itself to work produced in-state. Artists from as far away as Durham and Hendersonville make the trek into downtown Greensboro to fill and staff the gallery.

Their ranks include a retired building contractor, a university dean, an accountant, and painters both professional and aspiring. The members of Yew Tree established a jury to judge the work of potential members; if it doesn’t pass muster, membership will not be extended.

The jury is currently considering work by four or five applicants. The gallery has enough space for three new artists.

“The jury process is definitely there to keep a level of quality that we want to maintain,” Baker says.

McLachlan, who’s shown around Greensboro for years, is a juror, as is Lambrecht, an artist whose work was recently featured in the publication Watercolor Magic. The Yew Tree joins an assortment of other galleries on an artistically booming block of Elm Street. The gallery has been operating quietly for the last month, but plans to officially open its doors to the public in early May.

“We have been doing pretty well for a place that has not had a grand opening,” Baker says. “Some days we’ve had half a dozen or a dozen visitors.”

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