‘Art connects us:’ Darlene J. McClinton continues cultivating creativity through The Artist Bloc
“It was a vision that I had long before I moved back to Greensboro,” said The Artist Bloc’s co-owner Darlene J. McClinton. “At the age of 27, I prayed every single day, ‘God please birth in me a vision of success,’ and that is kind of when The Artist Bloc was born.”
The Artist Bloc, located at 1020 W. Gate City Blvd., celebrated five years this past August as Greensboro’s hub for creatives, by creatives. McClinton said that The Artist Bloc is an arts venue that showcases “emerging artists’ artworks” while multitasking as a coffee shop, full bar and small art supply shop.
McClinton, a mural artist, and her business partners filmmaker Watricia “Trish” Shuler and painter Sunny Gravely all met at North Carolina A&T State University and decided to fulfill a need they saw in the Greensboro community. McClinton said that need was for a place where artists, young and old, could gather, express themselves and show their work in a safe environment. McClinton now works as a visual art instructor at A&T, but she said she met Shuler as an undergrad, and that Gravely was, at the time, her instructor at A&T. They opened The Artist Bloc in August 2014, and it has since thrived in the small shopping center space next to the campus of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
McClinton said her initial intentions for The Artist Bloc was for it to be an art supply store that would also host special events. She said her business partner loved coffee, so she wanted it to have coffee, “But right now, we are really known as an arts venue, that is where we generate the most of our buzz.”
McClinton said the shop sees about 100 artists or more a week, and their artwork includes visual and performing arts.
“We infuse all the arts here,” she said, “It’s theatre, poetry, comedy, dance, live music, hip-hop, open mics, independent film festivals, showcases– anything you could think of creatively, we do.”
McClinton said The Artist Bloc sees a diverse population, comprised of both N.C. A&T and UNCG students, as well as all different kinds of people ages 21 to 40.
“I think the arts are what makes this place intergenerational,” she said. “We’ve been able to do a cross-market where the different generations can blend together because art connects us; it really does. It connects everybody together.”
She said that The Artist Bloc is not just a place for artists; it is for everyone who loves art. Even though the business is for-profit, McClinton said this venture was started with the community in mind.
An example of a community-focused aspect of The Artist Bloc is the TAB Arts Center Nonprofit. McClinton said TAB has two programs. One of these programs is for Alzheimer’s patients, who come to The Artist Bloc for art therapy. The other program is the All Arts Summer Camp for kids that she and her business partners are trying to implement in Guilford County Schools.
“One of the reasons why I love that program is because my godson was in the All Arts Camp this past summer, and he kind of gets in trouble at school, and when you get in trouble at school, they equate it with intelligence,” McClinton said. “He was in that program, and he acted and was able to remember his lines, to perform, he was excited about going to the camp.”
TAB raises money through fundraisers held throughout the year, with the next one being a Paint and Poetry Brunch on Dec. 8.
“I love it, I tell people this all the time, being the owner of a brick-and-mortar is challenging, it is very difficult,” McClinton said of co-owning The Artist Bloc. “The rewarding part of it is, people call it home and a hub for artists.”
McClinton said she is “an artist first, a teacher second and an entrepreneur third.” She has nine public art murals in Greensboro (some are located on the campus of Bennett College, the International Civil Rights Museum, the pedestrian tunnel in the Aycock Historic District, Warnersville Recreation Center and the Greensboro Science Center), and she said she specializes in murals (indoors and outdoors) as well as small-scale portraits.
McClinton describes her art style as comprised of vivid colors and shapes.
“If you look at a body of work I created for galleries and stuff, it is images that have figures in it, and that is broken down into simple forms, abstract and geometric shapes, and then I use bright and vivid colors.”
As an artist, she said she uses colors to depict the moods she is in or what depicts the mood of the world around her.
“Most of all, the colors I put in my work I am consciously choosing them to represent or symbolize how the community is feeling or how I am feeling,” she said. “[Some] of the colors you’ll see in my work, in all of my paintings, is the colors yellow, cream or gold. I use those colors because it represents the light from within.”
She said yellow and gold symbolizes happiness and excitement, and she wants people to feel good when they look at her art.
“I don’t want anybody sad or depressed or down, just happy with good vibes,” she said.
But what if she is feeling sad, depressed, or down? I asked her.
“I am not going to paint it in on any public art,” she said with a laugh.
McClinton was originally born in New York but grew up in Greensboro and went to college at A&T to study art. After graduating, she moved to Washington D.C. to get her Master’s degree from Howard University. McClinton continues to teach at A&T and said next semester would mark her 10th year teaching there. She got her start as a middle school art teacher, but teaching wasn’t what she had originally planned to do with her Master’s degree. She said she wanted to be an international artist, but things didn’t go as planned.
In late 2007 and into 2008, McClinton became homeless.
“It is an interesting story,” she said, “I went to grad school, then said, ‘I’m great, I am 25, and I have a Master’s degree, so I am going to move to New York City and not tell my family.’ I quit both of my jobs, sold my car, and had $5,000 to live in New York City, and nobody knew.”
She went on to pursue her dream of being an international artist, but she said after three months living in the Big Apple, she was homeless and living out of her car. She said she would wake up when the sun rose, and go to sleep when it set. She was out in the heat, and she was there in the winter. She would wash up at McDonald’s and sit and read or sketch in the library to pass the time. She said she would spend a week at a hotel, and then rent a room in Washington Heights where three other families lived paying $700 a month. She said she was taking temporary jobs left and right, and she was on a food budget of $5 a day.
“My skin was changing from not being able to get that thorough wash,” she recounted. “It was when the recession had just hit. What I learned was, no one knows you have a degree; you are not walking around Greensboro or wherever and have ‘degree’ on your forehead. They are treating you the same way they are treating everyone else. When I was homeless, that is what I had to realize.”
She said she was angry at first, and then sad and hurt, but it was “a good journey for me to go through, it was very humbling, and it made me become for the people.”
“How can you help the people if you don’t live among the people?” she asked. “And really know what the people are going through. That is what has grounded me in this whole new process of life.”
She went to New York City to chase her dream, as many hopeful young adults do. She wanted to be the next Basquiat, the next Keith Haring, but she realized, “It just wasn’t reality, I had to move up there with a job because that was my first time understanding what income means,” she admitted. “I am originally from New York, so I thought I would move back home, but I didn’t tell my family I was there because I wanted to make it- I wanted to tell my family that I was here and I was making it…Eventually, when it got hard, I had to tell my mom what was happening.”
After New York City didn’t work out, McClinton said she drove all the way to Atlanta, still sleeping in her car. After a while, she decided to go back and retrace her steps.
“I had a job in D.C. called Our Future, which was a mentoring program,” she explained. “I called them and said, ‘If I move back to D.C., can I get my job back?’ She said, ‘Yes, you can have your job back, and since you were such a good worker, we’ll pay you more money.’ When I told her I was homeless, she said, ‘I’ve been homeless before, so I am going to advance you three checks, and I am going to buy you a bed.’”
Shortly after that, she became a teacher.
“I feel like I was chasing money and chasing my dream as an international artist, and if I moved to New York and broke into that industry, it would happen,” she said. “But we sometimes are listening to music that can influence our thoughts, I tell my students all the time, and start believing what you hear and not really having a full plan thought out.”
McClinton said she experienced a “spiritual awakening to live a life of service” while she was homeless.
“During the awakening, a voice- a spiritual voice- said I was going to be a teacher and that I was going to teach at North Carolina A&T State University,” she said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen anytime soon. So, I was a middle school art teacher and did a great job there, within that year, one of my professors from A&T loved me as a student, told me that there was a position open at A&T State University.”
It was kismet. McClinton moved back to Greensboro to start her new job at A&T in 2010 with the mindset of giving back to her alma mater as well as the Greensboro art community.
“Because I am from this community, and I have good relationships with people from a child all the way up, I felt like it was easier to start a business here,” she said. “I knew that my family, friends and community would support me here.”
McClinton said that she listened to the community for four years, and they were all asking for a place like The Artist Bloc.
“They wanted a place where they could get a Love Jones-vibe. They wanted a place where they could hear poetry and snap their fingers. They wanted a place where they can hang out,” she said. “We were able to answer a request from the community; I would say a prayer in a sense, a longing that the community really wanted a place like this.”
One way that McClinton shows her appreciation to the art community is the annual Bloc Awards, which will be held on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020.
“Because of my homeless journey and background, and being in Greensboro and owning an arts venue and seeing so much diverse talent, we can’t pay everybody- we pay a lot of artists- but what we can do is tell you thank you and appreciate you,” she said.
McClinton explained that The Artist Bloc Awards brings Hollywood to Greensboro, meaning up-and-coming talent is invited to come perform while recognizing the diverse talents winning a Bloc Award in the Triad.
“No longer do we have to drop what we are doing and move to New York City, move to California, no, this platform will bring the right kind of exposure to us,” she said. “What separates artists here from mainstream artists is exposure.” She said that The Bloc Awards are for all types of arts, and is even for artists who work behind the scenes.
“This award show is to honor those types of artists, and we will continue to change the categories,” she said. “The goal is to grow the build The Bloc Awards to be as large as the Essence Festival held in New Orleans. When I say I want to bring Hollywood here, I want to bring it here to us.”
Looking to the future, McClinton said The Artist Bloc plans to keep growing, expanding, and of course, giving back to the community.
“I would tell artists that you can make a living from art,” she said. “I think artists are discouraged from becoming a performing or visual artist. I think a lot of times people think they aren’t going to make a living with art, but I don’t think that is true. I think you just have to work a little bit harder than others.”
Katie Murawski is the editor of YES! Weekly. She is from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in film studies from Appalachian State University in 2017.
Coming up on Nov. 22 is McClinton’s last event of the year, Creative Infusions Unplugged. She said this is the first time she’s doing an unplugged session and first time with an all-women lineup. From 9 p.m. until 1 a.m., McClinton said the event would be streamed live, and each artist will tell their story followed by whatever art performance or piece they want to showcase. The Artist Bloc’s hours vary, to learn more information, and to stay up to date on events, follow The Artist Bloc on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or visit the website.