Keeping up with Erik Beerbower
On the first Thursday in November Jim Peterson straddles a chair in his pottery studio at the Lyndon Street Artworks and thoughtfully strums a banjo balanced on his gut.
Erik Beerbower, the 34-year-old Buffalo, NY native who owns and operates the collective breezes past him, taking long strides down the hallway towards the gallery space, walking past painting studios, woodworking shops, metalwork smithies, all cordoned off by chain-link gates and most of them padlocked for the night.
‘“I get down here at 6:15 every morning,’” Beerbower says, ‘“and one of the things I do is walk and see what everybody’s working on. Talk about inspiring’… to see these works of art come together.’”
He’s come a long way since he made his sculpture in a small space in back of Thiggy’s Pizza on Elm Street ‘— Beerbower’s studio is the largest in the converted warehouse on Lyndon Street that two years ago he turned into the city’s most industrious factory for fine art.
‘“People left me alone [at Thiggy’s],’” he says, ‘“but nobody knew where I was.’”
These days people know where to find him, but most have a hard time keeping up.
He’s moving down the concrete hallway fast enough to generate a breeze, past the blue sofas in the common space and through a doorway to the gallery where his artists show their wares.
‘“We recently hit the 45-artist mark,’” Beerbower says. ‘“It’s pretty incredible when you think about it.’”
It is pretty incredible: 45 artists and artisans plying their trade under one roof in an industrial section of downtown Greensboro that was once falling to ruin. Now, Beerbower says, these rough concrete structures and pebble-strewn streets should be called the ‘“creative district.’”
It’s still early on this First Thursday, the night when the Greensboro galleries collectively give art fans a reason to venture out of their houses, and the showplace at Lyndon Street overflows with works from all mediums: shelves filled with pottery; oils and acrylics on the walls; a wrought-iron, high-backed chair; a tabletop made from a metal sunflower. By the front door a large bronze salamander holds a curved pose, a mosquito frozen near its tongue, a collaborative effort by Beerbower and one of his stars, Brian Hibbard. The consensus among those in the know is that Hibbard will be hugely famous one day soon. These same people are in agreement about Beerbower ‘— he is, quite literally, a mover in the Greensboro art scene.
He shows a space in the gallery open to anyone who wants to put on a show and has enough work to do so. Tonight the room belongs to a UNCG student, Sarah M. Flickinger, and she’s filled the walls with her photographs, drawings and paintings.
Beerbower sits still for just a second to admire the goods and then he’s out the door.
‘“Let’s do what I’ve always wanted to do,’” he says. ‘“Let’s go around [to the galleries] and drink everybody else’s liquor ‘— they’re always drinking mine.’”
And out he goes into the night, the streets in the industrial district quiet and painted by yellow streetlamps overhead.
‘“Let’s walk,’” he says.
Beerbower’s River is the smallest body of water in town, a series of concrete channels that swivel on universal vises, ushering a steady trickle of water down to a collecting pond some 18 feet below. He marches past the river, located in the alley adjacent to the Next Door Tavern, in which he used to have a stake, and the pizza joint that was once Thiggy’s, another of his past business concerns. A little farther down the block is the restaurant known as 223 South Elm, where he designed and built the trellises and the sign. Across the thoroughfare at the Ellis Stone building hangs a plaque he forged in his studio at Lyndon Street. At Triad Stage, a piece he hung today adorns the column in the center of the lobby like a collar, a copper and metal piece he calls ‘“Applause.’” He did some reconstruction on the brickwork at the Grissom building; he built the fountain in Chakras Spa and also the mirrors in the salon. His wife painted the mural in the alley next door.
Beerbower’s fingerprints are all over this portion of Elm Street.
‘“I’m injecting this town with creativity, baby,’” he shouts to the night. Then he turns serious: ‘“Art is a visual symbol of a city’s vibrancy.’”
He has a strong sense of civic responsibility. Beerbower serves or has served on no fewer than 10 committees, task forces, boards and commissions, including the Greensboro Beautiful Public Gardens Committee, the Public Art Master Plan committee for the United Arts Council and the design committee for Center City Park. He serves on the board of directors for the Greenhill Center for North Carolina Art and recently was named one of the area’s ‘“40 Leaders Under 40’” in a survey sponsored by Jefferson Pilot and the Triad Business Journal.
He’s not just a mover; he’s a shaker. And he’s just now rebounding from his municipal duties, after a fact-finding trip to Greenville, SC with Action Greensboro to study their downtown development, to concentrate on the thing he does so well.
‘“It took me two years to get back in the swing of making art,’” he says.
His latest efforts are on display tonight at the Green Bean, a quick trip down Elm for the long-legged artist with the perpetual weekend beard. The name of the installment is ‘“Bound,’” with all of the pieces containing an element of constriction.
‘“I did all of these pieces in two weeks,’” he says. ‘“It’s [about] what you do within constraints and how you get out of them.’”
‘“Inner Strength’” is a large fiberglass disc painted blue with waves of copper and steel. Five pounds of cut nails are embedded into the disc itself. ‘“Emerging’” features rough gravel suspended in fiberglass resin. ‘“Rise with Each New Day’” features aluminum welded onto copper and, according to Beerbower, symbolizes the necessity to do just that.
‘“You gotta get up, no matter how things are going,’” he says.
‘“Be careful’… we’re going over the tracks.’”
A touch of humor comes across with the statement, an allusion to the perception among some that the Arts and Antiques District on South Elm is on the ‘wrong’ side of the railroad tracks.
A train makes a noisy crossing, so he veers his gait under the trestle and emerges nearly on the doorstep of Two Art Chicks. Inside, after admiring an exhibit of brushed steel clouds with inspirational sayings on them, he takes a seat on the stage by the window with gallery owner Judi Kastner as the last of the art folk walk out the doors and her catering people break down their beer and wine stations.
They exchange familiarities and gossip about the Greensboro art scene and then the talk turns to real estate, to business, to the labored maturation of the city and the role that art will play in that process.
‘“We’re art catalysts,’” Kastner says. ‘“’”I just know that we’re getting people psyched about art.’”
A sign near the mouth of Lewis Street reads, ‘“Street Ends.’”
‘“I might have to get my can of spray paint and make it say, ‘Street Begins,”” Beerbower says.
This is one of five pedestrian shortcuts he’s mapped to the warehouse that will hold his latest project, the Flying Anvil, billed as what will be the largest music club in downtown Greensboro, big enough to rival the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro or Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem and ostensibly putting us on the same playing field with these cities, musically speaking.
It’s a joint venture with Pete Schroth of the Green Bean and Andrew Dudek of Gate City Noise, in case you hadn’t heard, and Beerbower is clearly excited by the challenge.
‘“I like to define spaces,’” he says.
He finds the breakers under light cast by a cell phone and when he trips them a raw, dusty space is revealed, a table in the center holding a set of blueprints. A rusty hot water heater lies randomly on the floor.
And then he’s all over the room, conducting a tour of the club that has yet to be. The box office will be over here by the street entrance. The stage will go in a separate room off the main space and these white lines on the floor demarcate the proposed space for the bathrooms. Dudek will move his business to a suite of rooms off the main floor. A cluster of cells near the theoretical stage will house the green room. To the rear of the building, a semi-octagonal outdoor space bounded by cinderblocks will serve as an outdoor patio. And upstairs, in rooms with walls covered by devastated wood paneling with traces of sky blue peeking from beneath, the guys plan to rent practice space for local bands.
Out on the street again basking in the halogen glow Beerbower regards his surroundings.
‘“This [neighborhood] is Five Points,’” he says, the section of the city where all the rail lines converge. ‘“[It’s] a point of destination that was closed off for a long time.’” He surveys the land.
‘“This is now an artery.’”
And he’s off again, setting a rapid pace in the moonless night.
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.