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New owners carry on communal spirit at Artmongerz

by Jordan Green

| jordan@yesweekly.com | @JordanGreenYES

Frank Russell was a pioneer when he opened Artmongerz with his signature brilliant-hued metal fish on South Elm Street in 2004. His was one of the first galleries south of the railroad tracks near McGee Street. Back then, the district was known mostly for dusty antique stores and there was an actual fish market at Elm and Lee streets.

Since that time, the number of galleries and restaurants has exploded and a planned University District south of Lee promises to bring more growth.

These days, Russell makes his metal fish in a studio at his barn. Three members of the gallery, Earl Austin, Jerry Cartwright and Walter Fancourt, purchased Artmongerz from Russell in the summer, moving the gallery into a new era.

Russell decided that he wanted to retreat from managing the gallery and focus more on his work. His metallic fish still lurk in the front window, their vivid colors working a siren song on passersby. Austin, Cartwright and Fancourt have no problem with that.

“The more people that look at the fish, the better,” Austin said.

The three concur that Russell’s communal spirit put a stamp on the place. He wasn’t trying to turn a profit, but rather to provide artists with a place to display their work at low overhead. The three new owners take the same approach, charging minimal rent from member artists to cover utilities. They hold mutual respect for one another and like to bounce ideas off each other.

While the new owners are maintaining Artmongerz’ funky, collegial feel, they’re implementing some changes to the space. They’ve taken down walls to allow the gallery to breathe and transformed cloistered studios, described as by Fancourt as “cubicles.”

The new owners plan to paint over a celestial pattern of planets and stars on a black backdrop on a section of flooring along the original hallway. The basement is stuffed end to end with scrap metal that people have donated over the years to Russell. It will go, too, as Russell gets around the retrieving it.

Ironically, Russell is one of the few commissioned artists at the gallery. He’s welcome to keep displaying his work at Artmongerz, Cartwright joked, “until the piranhas get him.”

Each of the six member artists, and especially the three owners occupy a unique artistic niche.

Along with his fine arts work, Austin operates a commercial photography business.

He also plays country and blues music, and accompanies Guilford County bluesman Tim Betts — now based in Charlotte — on Hammond B-3 from time to time. Fittingly, many of Austin’s photographs portray musicians. A wall of the gallery is stuffed with portraits of bluesmen, including Lonnie Brooks, Hubert Sumlin and Elvin Bishop interspersed with totems of Americana, including a carousel and an antique Chevy truck.

Many of Cartwright’s photos suggest homoerotic themes with an insistence on individual dignity and liberation. One entitled “Ebony & Ivory” depicts two bare-chested male subjects nipple to nipple. A descriptor handwritten on the tag accompanying the photo succinctly explains, “Gay rights, individual rights, people rights.”

Fancourt calls his work “a kind of modern folk art.” He started with wooden animal figures and then began to affix them to flat panels.

“Containing the Beast Within” showcases Fancourt’s wicked sense of humor. It shows the face of an agitated man with what appears from a distance to be a cigarette clenched between his lips. Upon closer examination, it’s revealed to be a tiny helicopter.

Baying wolves constitute his eyeballs, while his brows are made of eagles wings and a wriggling snake makes a furrowed brow.

“People are more polarized over Walter’s work,” Earl said.

Fancourt smiled slyly. “The kids like it,” he said. !

WANNA go?

Artmongerz, located at 610 S. Elm St. in Greensboro, is open Wednesday through Saturday from 12:30 to 8 p.m. or by appointment by calling 336.259.5017.

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