First Friday happenings, and a fond farewell to Mark Gillis

Sadness greeted the Greensboro Arts community in the last week of October. One of our own — a gallery founder, a huge collector of local artisans and a patron of all things cultural — smiled at the end of his journey and moved forward to a kinder, gentler way of life, free of pain. Mark Gillis, 46, passed away almost two years to the day after his diagnosis of a rare type of cancer. Not once did he give up his fight, nor did he crumble to the daily routine of severe pain and medications.

Mark began his collections after gratuation from NC State University, and going to work in the family business, Carpets by Direct, in Greensboro. His collections were various, but intoxicating. A vase from Keith Haring, the pop icon of the late ’80s, furniture imported from Italy, personal effects from the late Marilyn Monroe, a series of celebrity portraits from artist Allison Lefcort, now with Disney International, and most of the entire collection of works from the late Mamie Harmon all became part of his personal inventory that is amazing. He was also a huge fan of local artists, and began collecting commissioned pieces from Brian Hibbard, Hannah Ross, Erick Beerbower and Ernest and Lois Rich. He and his partner and soulmate, Jeff Sartain, designed and built their residence, and continued collecting from the locals including Frank Russell, Charlotte and Erik Strom, Tracey Marshall and others in the Triad.

In 2004, Mark decided to expand his artistic horizons, and proceded with plans to open a new gallery on Battleground, the Upstairs Gallery. I was lucky enough to be chosen as the curator, and our journey began. We decided to showcase the local talent and to randomly feature special showings that would incorporate other artists from North Carolina. We met and fell in love with a painting dog from Wilmington named Netop, and his mom, the artist Jackie Karch. The showing of Netop’s work garnered a lot of press, and even more impressive was the fact that the dog sold more pieces of work than any human artist we represented, a fact that always brought a chuckle from Mark.

Mark was selfless, and did lots of good things for others. He wanted to sponsor a benefit for the SPCA of the Triad, due in part to his love for animals and their well being. The family business always donated scraps and bits of leftover carpets to Greyhound Friends, but he wanted to do more. He brought into town Martha Wash, of “It’s Raining Men” fame, and turned the fundraiser into a weekend-long event that turned out to be a success in all ways except for the poorly-attended concert featuring Wash. But that did not deter Mark — instead he bore the brunt of the entire costs of the event and did not complain. That was just the type of man he was.

In 2007, TUG held a reception and subsequent exhibit in honor all survivors of adversity and adverse situations. Represented were countless people who had survived some of the most overwhelming, debilative and incurable illnesses, accidents and the like. Thirty local artists who either knew a survivor, or were one themselves, participated in the show Miracles: A Celebration of Life. It was an overwhelming success covered by every form of media, and attended by hundreds of people. At the center were two moving pieces of work: a fascinating and compelling creation on wood panels by Brian Hibbard that was breathtakingly beautiful, and the invitation for the reception showpiece by an unknown artist named Virginia Kassay whose own daughter was stricken by autism, and whose works touched an entire city’s hearts. I would consider this show to be the highlight of my career in the arts. It was meant to be in honor of Mark, but it surpassed all my expectations, and he was radiant and in good form that night. Both Hibbard and Kassay were in attendance at the memorial celebration on Saturday… further cementing their pure class and genuine affection for this man in my mind.

I have no words to describe what it means to lose a friend such as he was. It is the most surreal feeling in the world to suddenly have that person gone. My heart goes out to his partner Jeff, and to his parents Catheryn and Carey.

The memorial celebration was just that: a loving, warm and meaningful tribute to a man who just kept beating the odds, lived his life as he wanted to and loved and played with equal abandon. His twinkling eyes, his sharp sense of humor and wit, his develish grin will be missed forever by his friends and loved ones. The last song played at the service was, appropriately, “Imagine.” I could not have phrased it any better: ”You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”

On the First Friday agenda this week, Artmongerz offers new and exciting works from all the residents. Giclee works from William Teiman, newly turned wood bowls and vases from Glenn Mace, the clay wonders of Kim Burroughs, smoldering acrylics from Raphael Rodriguez and the combined talents of all the rest make this one of the most popular venues in Greensboro. Check them out 6-9 p.m. on Friday and see for yourself. Hours and information are available at 336.389.0398.

The Heart of Living Gallery presents the incomparable James McMillan. One of North Carolina’s most renowned artists, McMillan is a professor emeritus of art at both Guilford College and Bennett College, and has had exhibitions from DC to Paris.  The exhibition will showcase more than 50 works of art spanning a 60-year career.  His works can be found in many North Carolina collections including NC Central University Art Museum, the Weatherspoon Art Museum and Guilford College Art Gallery. The exhibition runs through Nov. 29. HOLG is now open from 11-6 Tuesday through Saturday, and is located at 320 S. Elm St. in downtown Greensboro.

Also check out Winter Light Art Gallery at 410 Blandwood Avenue (336.274.7372)  and Lyndon Street Artworks at 205 Lyndon St.( LSA welcomes guest artist Lori Key in the Ström Studio this Friday. Find out her passions, and what makes her tick!

I hope you and yours have a bounteous Thanksgiving, and that you enjoy a day or two of rest, family, friends and food!

Peace to you all….

E-mail Jim Dowell at