Lee Adams: still confused about the Gunn Family Christmas

by Lee Adams

Bizarre. Strange. Outlandish. Abstract. Intangible.

This is the only way I know to describe what I saw Friday night when I showed up at 606 South Elm to watch the Gunn Family Christmas Pageant.

A press release I received earlier in the week tempted me to ‘“Come enjoy Elm Street’s most acclaimed Christmas pageant yet! Drive on by, pedal past, or stroll up for a Gunn Family Christmas Pageant. Come see the only family in America that’s getting along just fine with only one wall and a floor! Watch as Ma and Pa Gunn prepare their famed taxidermied Christmas Presents, or drop in yourself to see what Ma Gunn might have in store for you!’”

‘“How neat,’” I thought. ‘“A window-display Christmas play.’”

Upon arriving at the Elsewhere Artist Collective I was astounded at the piles and piles of old toys and objects. I’d been by the window of the Collective before but never inside. Some of the toys are worthless, others are rare antiques ‘— the toys of generations gone by. There are stacks and stacks of books; there are old cameras, typewriters, hats and dresses; there and jars full of buttons. There are glasses and goggles, helmets and rocking horses. Near the front window are glass bottles of insect repellent and a case of old flint and steel lighters in an abalone finish. It’s filled with all the things found in the attic or basement of your great-grandmother’s house multiplied by the hundreds.

It’s an oddly fascinating place. Your eyes discover something new with every glance.

George Scheer claims himself the collaborative director of the space. This is his grandmother Sylvia Gray’s collection of things from the time she opened a store in 1939 selling furniture, Army surplus supplies and catalogue sales until her passing in 1997 when she used the space as a thrift and antique store.

Scheer moved to Greensboro in 2000 from Atlanta and brought Stephanie Sherman, the space’s conceptual director, with him. The two studied together at the University of Pennsylvania where Scheer received a degree in political communications and Sherman a degree in English.

Here, Scheer and Sherman rent the space from Scheer’s family who own the building, and they have turned it into a space for artists, or anyone, to come in and explore these objects that were once a part of someone’s life. Scheer considers the space a museum and has even dedicated part of it as a natural history museum containing articles that were unique to his grandmother. The space is always changing, however, as artists are invited to come in and rearrange the objects as desired.

And rearranged they are. A green soldier wears the head of an old doll with little hair left and a plastic rocking horse has two helmets on, a pair of large, upside-down sunglasses, a plastic cow’s udder on it’s back, a feather duster for a tail and a doll in its mouth. You can move anything you like, but the bottom line: ‘“Nothing’s for sale and nothing leaves,’” Scheer insists.

The store is now filling with friends and acquaintances of Scheer and Sherman and as they arrive the newcomers don themselves in hats, scarves and toys found inside the space. Most of them have titles similar to Sheer’s and Sherman’s. There’s Ross Huff, the Maestro of Manifestations, and J Gamble, the interior landscaper. Sharing orange juice and hot coffee they prepare for the Gunn Family Christmas Pageant. There is no script and the group discusses who will be Pa Gunn, Ma Gunn, brother Gunn and so on. Some of the ‘actors’ have come from as far away as New York while on their Christmas vacations just to participate, like Dan Margulies, the resident psychoanalyst. Dan is a real-life pediatric neuroscientist who works at New York University with children who have ADHD and autism. He has big plans for building an adult-sized baby crib at the collaborative.

Finally it’s time for the pageant. What ensues next is difficult to put into words.

As the ‘actors’ take their places in the storefront window they speak to one another in horribly reproduced southern accents. Ma Gunn holds a toy dog, bastes it with a toy syringe and then serves it up for dinner. The rest of the Gunn family puts the fuzzy stuffing into their mouths and eats it, telling Ma Gunn how wonderful her meal is. The men in the Gunn family bring toy stuffed animals into the window and place them on an ironing board where they use saws, scissors and pruning sheers to decapitate the creatures. Using an industrial stapler they staple the heads to pieces of cloth, or ‘hides’, on the wall. They mount a bear head and place a wig atop it, then a moose head, then the head of Trix the rabbit. They pull out the Styrofoam-ball stuffing and throw it into the air yelling, ‘“Look at the snow!’”

Margulies, the neuroscientist, while wearing a gas mask and a pair of ski goggles, uses a pair of long-handled pruners to cut off a dreadlock from Kat Lee’s head as she keeps it steady on the ironing board. Ariana Reines sits nearby rocking in a chair while holding a toy dress form between her fingers and pretending to smoke it like a cigarette in a long holder.

A few people walk past the window, staring in with puzzled looks on their faces. When I ask one person their thoughts of the ‘play’ the answer I get is too explicit to print.

Mike and Kim Heil stop by while on the way to their car after eating dinner.

‘“It’s hilarious,’” says Kim. She had her daughter with her a couple of weeks ago during another window play. Her daughter was intrigued by it it, she said. Kim went into the store that day for a look around.

‘“It’s the most eclectic collection of stuff you’ve ever seen,’” she says. ‘“I was afraid a rat might run out.’”

Sherman assures her there are no rats inside.

It feels a skotch cult-like,’” Kims says. The last time she saw the window play she says people stopped and asked, ‘“’What’s going on’ and we were like ‘I don’t know how to describe it.””

‘“Does anybody have an acting background,’” Kim asks Sherman.

‘“Uh, I think Ariana might,’” she replies.

Whether you call it art or acting, one thing for sure is that you just can’t take your eyes off of it.