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NOT FOR SALE

by Amy Kingsley

Sylvia Gray had a shop that sold everything. Schoolbooks. Hats. Handbags. Board games. Dresses. Skirts. Shoes. Toys. Teddy bears. Suits. Radios. Records. Cameras. Pianos. Hammers. Clocks. Lamps. Desks. Chairs. Super bounce balls. Bookends. Linens. Buttons. Models. Backpacks. Denim. Guitars. Globes. Maps. Luggage. Saucers. Glasses. Ice skates. Rackets. Golf clubs. Tables. Tape decks. Recliners. Posters. Cross stitch. Footstools. Typewriters. Bottles. Puzzles. Baskets. Televisions. Wheelchairs. Etc.

She spent 58 years filling the storefronts at 606 and 608 S. Elm St. with practically everything peddle-able. Her general store became, in turns, a clothing place, an army surplus outlet, an antique shop and eventually a rummage store.

When Gray died in 1997, she left behind a Frankenstein’s monster of an inventory — enough stuff to fill two three-story shops floor-to-ceiling with the retail remains of the last half-century. Depending on your perspective, her legacy amounted to either a junkyard or a treasure trove, and for six years after her death it was padlocked, and the place went into hibernation, with clothes bundled like sleeping bears behind the darkened windows.

George Scheer called the place GG’s store, for Grandma Gray’s, when he was growing up in Atlanta. When he and his partner Stephanie Sherman inherited the space in 2003, they looked past the mess and the treasure and saw an idea. The old Carolina Upholstery & Fabric, also known as Carolina Sales and the Surplus Store, became something else entirely. It became Elsewhere.

It’s an art project, installation, idea factory, playground, studio and living museum. There aren’t a lot of rules, but there are at least two: Nothing comes in and nothing goes out.

Because Elsewhere has everything but sells nothing. It’s an idea in various stages of realization, and sometimes it just holds materials until the right hands come along.

Alain Guerra, one half of the artistic duo Guerra de la Paz, works the ends of a gingham shirt into the rope grid he and his partner have stretched across the 608 ceiling the day before. It’s the fourth day of a two-week residency that pits the Miami-based artists against a big portion of Gray’s clothing collection.

Two halogen lights tilted toward the piece heat the dust-choked air around Guerra. His other half, Neraldo de la Paz, comes in from a cigarette and cell phone break.

“Okay,” he says into the phone. “Yeah. I’m gonna release my honey from ceiling duty now.”

After two years of negotiation, Guerra de la Paz have come to Greensboro for a two-week residency at Elsewhere that will produce the space’s first commissioned piece, a work made entirely out of old clothes — the artists’ medium of choice. Scheer and Sherman pitched the idea when Guerra de la Paz showed work at SECCA in 2006. The day after the opening, the pair came to Greensboro to get a look at the space. A collaboration between the used-clothes artists and Elsewhere took root.

Then life interceded, gumming up schedules and delaying the project until this summer, when the pair carved time out a hectic schedule for the project. The Elsewhere staff sorted clothes for a month before their arrival, and when they got in, the artists sorted them again.

They are starting with the lightest pieces, weaving them together like the braids of a rug and working outward into lights, pastels, brights, mediums and darks.

“We’re figuring it out as we go along,” Guerra says. “We preset nothing. The space and materials dictate the piece; they’re the boss and we’re really just the vehicle for that.”

This isn’t usually the case with them. Guerra de la Paz happened onto fabric through a quirk of geography. Their Miami neighborhood happened to include several stores that specialized in Pepe, used clothing resold in Caribbean countries like Haiti.

The clothes that didn’t make it onto boats bound to the islands ended up in Dumpsters, where they absorbed elements like rain and sun. Guerra de la Paz, who painted before they discovered clothes, noticed the colors, which were brighter by a mile than the ones they scraped off palettes.

They weren’t the first to discover the Pepe Dumpsters. The neighborhood prostitutes assembled outfits out of the high-end labels that snuck past intake. Guerra de la Paz made like the prostitutes and began collecting the bits of clothing that caught their eye. Small piles of clothing began collecting on the floor of their painting studio.

A dealer friend visiting the studio encouraged them to pursue something with clothes, then he lined up an installation on the fa’ade of Miami’s African Heritage Cultural Arts Center. The artists installed a wire frame to the building to which they pinned hundreds of clothes, creating a landscape out of castoffs measuring some 60 feet by 30. The piece stayed up for four months, through wind and rain, and came down right before a tornado crashed down on the city.

De la Paz loved the way the piece interacted with its environment, swaying in a soft wind and dimming in the rain.

“It was kind of like when you see a stray plastic bag floating in the air,” he says. “You can’t keep your eyes off it. It’s just magical.”

The piece led to more, including “Tribute,” a striated mountain of clothes that evolved over four years from a 6-foot pile to one twice that size, “Oasis,” an installation forest made out of clothes and “Sunt Omnes Unum,” a daisy chain of colored figures inspired by elaborate armor suits from Turkey’s Royal Palace of Sultans.

For their previous pieces, the artists bought clothes secondhand, took them from the trash or occasionally purchased them off eBay. As long as the clothes didn’t come off the rack, they were acceptable. This is the first time the artists haven’t handpicked the components of a piece.

“It’s the most unplanned piece we’ve ever done,” de la Paz says, “which is exciting. When we came, we knew we were accepting certain givens.”

Those givens include Elsewhere’s edict against adding or removing items from the space.

The first night, the artists and Elsewhere staff stripped the fluorescents off the ceiling and Guerra de la Paz put in the brackets that would hold their piece in place. The ceiling had been chosen as the site of their work because of its out-of-the-way nature, which removed the art from the fiddling hands of visiting artists.

Stephanie Sherman snaps pictures of each item before it vanishes into the piece. It’s part of an effort to compile an online archive of Elsewhere, to document each of the thousands of items in the vast space.

“I love some of the tags,” Sherman says, grabbing the collar of a dress.

“I love the back of the tags,” Guerra says, flipping the piece over in his hands before tossing onto the pile of things slated for installation.

Sherman filches a beige, WAC-inspired number from the pipeline, and then a strappy number from the pile. Her collection eventually includes several shirts she set aside for Scheer.

“That’s how we lose most of our clothes!” De la Paz says.

Not that he’s worried. There are hundreds more where these came from, gathering dust in the upstairs portion of the building. De La Paz is on top of the 12-foot ladder, reinforcing the web that frames the outline of the piece.

When Scheer first brought Sherman to his grandmother’s old store, he encouraged her to take what she wanted. Sherman, who possesses a personal fashion deeply informed by the thrift store aesthetic, was overwhelmed. Every piece was unique and an absolute outlier of any major modern fashion trend.

“Everything was so outrageous,” she says, “I didn’t know where to begin.”

In its earliest stages, the pale core of the work resembles a tiny thunderhead taking shape over the unfinished hardwoods. It’s a small cluster of tightly knotted shirts and skirts, patterned and pale, and it hardly looks like clothes at all. It’s clear the hands of painters are involved, dabbing the clothes up on the lines like leaves on a canvas. De la Paz backs down the ladder, leans over, drags a finger across his scalp and releases a wet curtain of sweat.

“There’s a lot of history up here,” de la Paz says. “Think about all the people who the clothes, and George’s grandmother. That’s what I love about old clothes — the energy that comes off them.”

A place like this inspires interdisciplinary collaboration like the kind on display Wednesday night during a discussion of the rag trade. The panel features an expert on Jewish merchants in the South, a documentary filmmaker who made a film about Pepe, Guerra de la Paz and a Duke University art instructor.

“Finding clothes is an archeological dig of sorts,” Guerra says.

“You see trends,” de la Paz adds. “You see where people are coming from. Every piece of clothing is a time capsule.”

Whenever a color comes into fashion, it becomes harder for them to find. The seasons dictate their work as surely as designers.

Guerra de la Paz have themselves smartened up for the occasion, donning pearl button shirts and clean pants. When you evaluate clothes primarily as an artistic medium, your wardrobe suffers, they say. They’ve spent the bulk of their workdays in sleeveless T-shirts and ripped jeans.

After the event, Elsewhere interns and staffers set out big bottles of wine, collectible McDonald’s glasses and appetizers. Then they sit down to dinner at two long tables set with plates, pasta, salad and bread.

The diners take their alcohol in cups decorated with Miss Piggy, Kermit and Snoopy. They eat off uncoordinated dishes with salvaged silverware. An intern reads the menu to rousing applause. Pedro Lasch, the Duke instructor, says the dinner itself could be an art piece.

The art piece above has stretched into pastels, and track lights have been put in along the edges to help the artists see and illuminate the center.

Friday night finds Elsewhere humming with activity. Resident photographer Shalin Scupham stands his camera on a tripod and fiddles with the patterned backdrops hanging from curtain rods.

The collaborative came up with an innovative way to combine the dual endeavors of fundraising and archiving. All the clothes slated for ceiling installation have been hung on rolling racks for the public’s modeling enjoyment. If the subject wants a glossy version of Scupham’s handiwork, they can have one for $25.

A throng of A&T students just back from vacation consumes an hour of his time. When they finish, they chuck the clothes into garbage bags.

In the display window of 606, Scheer and Sherman conduct a conversation of sorts with Guerra de la Paz behind a scrim of newspaper. It broadcasts onto the sidewalk outside via mounted speakers. Underneath and in-between the speakers sits a guitarist strumming away, oblivious to the ridiculous patter behind him. The night will end late, after the scheduled close, with beer and cigarette smog in the alley.

Both Guerra and de la Paz talk about Cuba, how they both came to the United States at six years old, after their families fled their homeland. De La Paz arrived first, on a direct flight to Miami. The man sent to arrest his father owed him a favor, and returned it by giving the family the chance to escape Fidel Castro’s Cuba. He grew up in Chicago, which is where he met Guerra, at a bar called Berlin.

Guerra’s family came to America from Cuba via Madrid, where they flew on a propeller plane from Havana. It was the last flight to leave the country.

“It was really rough,” Guerra says. “People were throwing up, and the cabin pressure was fluctuating.”

Guerra de la Paz has another story about the genesis of its fabric work. Guerra once pointed a Haitian boy who did odd jobs around the studio to a piece of fabric entwined in concertina wire and asked, “Is it art?”

The boy said no.

When Guerra snapped a picture of the fabric and repeated the question, and this time the boy said yes. That lead to a series of photographs titled “Barbed.”

“A lot of people associated that piece with the struggle for freedom,” de la Paz says. “Some people thought of the Iron Curtain or concentration camps. It’s just about man’s struggle throughout history with freedom.”

Guerra moved to Miami first, and de la Paz followed three months later. They share everything — studio, cell phone, car, bed and name. They are as collective in life as they are in art.

The power goes out at 2 p.m. on a rainy Tuesday, leaving the artists of Elsewhere a diamond of dishwater light to illuminate their tasks. The piece — which now has the name “Six Thai Trannies in Heaven,” — is the centerpiece of tomorrow’s sneak peek.

Guerra is barely visible on top of a ladder, where he hangs the darker clothes in their places around the edge of the work.

“I’m afraid to go up on a ladder in the dark,” de la Paz says.

“Well… you know me,” Guerra says.

“I know you.”

“Danger is my middle name.”

As time passes, Elsewhere’s staff scatters on shopping trips or other tasks. And eventually Guerra gives up too and decamps with de la Paz and another artist, Alex Wolkowicz, on an exploration of South Elm Street.

The power returns in a roar of box fans at exactly 5:42 p.m., near dinnertime. The staffers make up the lost time overnight and worked until 1 a.m. getting the space ready for the members-only event.

“Six Thai Trannies in Heaven” is finished. The piece starts tight in the center, and as it moves out, it sweeps floorward in a fringe of dark clothes, like an inverse vortex.

“What happened is that we ran out of clothes, essentially,” Guerra says.

Two barkeeps tip sangria out of water coolers and fish beers out of ice chests.

It’s the same thing they serve two days hence at the official opening, an open-to-the-public event that caters to the younger crowd. The spirit of Guerra de la Paz’s project moves Elsewhere’s residents to dress in primary colors. They parade around in outfits that missed out on being raftered until the DJ kicks it into high gear.

Guerra de la Paz don’t show up until around 11 p.m., and they are not dressed in bright outfits like the rest of the regulars. Someone has pushed together three footstools under the center of “Six Thai Trannies in Heaven,” and the partygoers are taking turns lying beneath the piece. More than 200 of them will pass through before the end of the night.

The next day, a sign hangs above the red-checked kitchen table updating Elsewhere’s residents on the status of their beer tabs. Guerra de la Paz sits out front, nursing a hangover. Tomorrow, bright and early, they fly back to Miami, where a commission from the public library awaits.

“We’re in slo-mo right now,” de la Paz says.

And so is the rest of the staff. But next week brings more work, more events and more art.

“I love the pace,” Scheer says. “If I wasn’t going this fast, I’d probably be dead. Or at least bored.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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