Subterranean goodbyes

by Brian Clarey

In the subterranean gallery anchoring the corner of 6th and Trade streets in downtown Winston- Salem’s Arts District, Millicent Gleason-Spivak busies herself behind the counter she’s tended since 1990 for one last time. After more than 20 years doing business at Urban Artware in the City of the Arts, 12 of them under Gleason-Spivak’s ownership, Winston- Salem’s most authentic gallery is closing its doors.

Tonight, First Friday, she will sell whatever she can of the scant collection left in the place. Whatever she can’t sell she’ll give away. The rest, she says, is going to the dump.

The Art-O-Mat refurnished cigarette machine is gone, as is most of Patrick Harris’ pop art, as are many of her own whimsical creations and the clutter that gave the place its creative street cred. This is what’s left.

In one corner leans a short, artificial Christmas tree bereft of ornamentation save for a few loose strands of tinsel. A passel of electrical cords lay wound and wrapped on the floor along the wall, which once bore works from a who’s-who of the city’s fine artists but now are nearly bare save for a few large canvases and whatnot shelves.

It won’t be long now. A couple of guys come down through the door.

“Are we here to say goodbye?” one asks.

Gleason-Spivak gives them the news.

“I gave retirement to myself for my birthday,” she explains. “But it was sort of a combination platter. I was working a lot [of other jobs] so I could afford to keep this place open. And when I untangled all the spaghetti mess in my brain, all the tangles led here.

The place, she says, is out of date in a district that has seen its share of galleries come and go, in an economy that leaves little in people’s pockets for discretionary spending, an arts market that includes competition from Etsy and eBay.

“I’ve been devoted to the arts scene, helping to make it work,” she says now. “No one can say I haven’t tried.”

Even as the artists come, one by one, to clear out their works, artifacts from her tenure on the corner of 6th and Trade remain: paintings, sculpture, jewelry, folk art, hats, postcards, found-object masterpieces.

Here sits a Day of the Dead skull fashioned from plaster bandages, festooned with colored swirls and curlicues. There hangs a silhouette of a naked woman holding a machine gun and a sword, red stars placed strategically over her vital areas. A table made from tree limbs and a thick slice of the trunk. An alarm clock filled with tiny, plastic baby dolls. A Barbie with a tramp stamp.

The calls come in and she says her goodbyes. And there are customers, a few of them, anyway, picking through what’s left at this former hub of the arts scene in a city that prides itself on it — at least, that’s the official story.

Meanwhile, everything must go. A couple looks at tin-framed mirrors on the wall. The owner of a nearby music club stands shocked before the paintings of Peter Spivak, Millicent’s husband.

The two guys are appraising a small, hand-held mirror. She tells them it’s made form repurposed airplane parts by an artist named Chuck Russell. “That glass is from the airplane window,” she says. “You can’t break it.”

They’ll take it, along with a ceramic mask in earthen tones.

“How much?” one of them wants to know “Give me 50 bucks for both,” she says. “That’s not a way to make money,” he says.

She sighs, exasperated. It’s a song she’s heard before.

“Just take it,” she says. “Get it out the door. It helps me. It’s awesome.”

Tonight is First Friday. If the mild weather holds, perhaps the crowds will come. Perhaps they’ll be in a mood to snap up the detritus of Gleason-Spivak’s fancy, one that sapped all of her creative energy even as it carried her through the last two decades.

“I’ve been doing this 20 years,” she says.

“No one can say I haven’t worked hard. I feel like it’s someone else’s turn now. Maybe some young people will step up.”

Now, in the gallery, Vicki Moore inquires about the mannequin standing fluorescent in the corner. Gleason-Spivak is uncertain, says it may or may not be for sale.

Moore recently cashed in her own downtown chips, selling her bar the Silver Moon Saloon last year and closing Elliot’s Revue just a few weeks ago.

“I’ve done 12 years and I’ve had enough,” she says.

Now she and Gleason-Spivak stand like sister warriors after a particularly harrowing battle. They make lunch plans. They hug. They look for silver linings. Maybe, they say, they’ll see each other more often now.

“This might be the best present I could give the city,” the artist says. “Now they have to live up to the ‘City of the Arts’ challenge.”