A high-pitched beep from a cash register punctuates the air. A paper bag is whipped open, emitting a rush and rustle as a bundle of produce fills its body. Notes from a synth flute flow from the speakers overhead as Ace of Base’s “The Sign” begins to play. It’s the symphony of Deep Roots Market on a Saturday afternoon. But in the back corner of the store, a smaller microcosm of sound begins its own performance.
Quick, frantic scrawls emitted from a pastel crayon and the scratchy resistance of a paint-soaked sponge gliding across a blank sheet of paper act as a kind of abstract orchestra, mimicking the nonfigurative art that each utensil creates.
“People will say ‘Oh, just so you know, I can’t draw,’” explains Karen Archia, the founder of Public Art Practice and former owner of the now-closed People’s Perk Coffee Shop in Greensboro. “And I’ve come to learn what that really means. And it means that I can’t accurately or perfectly recreate something that I see, and that’s only one really narrow form of marking and drawing. So, one of my goals is to liberate people from that constraint of ‘I can’t draw.’ If you can sign your name, you can make beautiful marks.”
Archia is a self-taught artist who has been holding space for art-making in public spaces since September 2019. She usually creates work in the seating area at Deep Roots Market and invites others to explore artmaking with her three times a week.
On a recent Saturday, Archia sets up her shopping cart full of art supplies — various paints, empty sour-cream tubs, clear squeezy bottles of Elmer’s glue with the orange twisty tops, large sheets of thick watercolor paper — next to her regular table and gets to work. Today, she uses long pipettes which she dips into black ink to create curving, organic waves on her canvas. She’s joined by three of her friends, some of whom have attended these sessions before.
“It’s probably my third time,” says Lakeisha Williams. “And each time it’s a different experience. It does something different for me. It tends to help me reconnect with art and it helps me feel alive and artistic…. This kind of lets me know that you don’t have to go to school for art to be an artist.”
To guide the practice, Archia shares a few words and phrases as prompts for the group to latch on to: sentimental, nostalgia, layered, least favorite, process of erasure, self-generative.
Williams starts by adding a few drops of gray paint to her blank sheet and smears them with a foam brush. Minutes later, she introduces a range of darker tones to the canvas, gently spreading the pigments together with a palette knife.
Next to her sits Michelle Everette, whose piece contrasts against Williams’ darker portrayal with its bright pops up blue and drops of red.
“I remember when I was in second grade, I used to love drawing and stuff and painting and using my hands really,” Everette recalls. “And then someone told me that a picture of a gorilla I made was ugly and then I stopped. I was like, ‘I’ll never draw again!’”
Everette, who is a poet, says words come more easily to her as an artistic medium than visual art. But she says watching Archia has made her want to get more visually creative. She even purchased one of Archia’s paintings and put it in her living room.
“Every time I see it, I have so many feelings about it,” Everette says. “To me, it’s just like love. It looks like someone who loves life made it. I feel lovely when I look at it. It’s very inspiring. I think that being around Karen is just so inspiring…. And I hope to be inspired here. I’m already inspired.”
And that, for Archia, is the goal of Public Art Practice.
“I just really believe fundamentally that everybody has a creative spirit,” she says. “We just need some time and space and some encouragement.”
LaToya Winslow, a third-time Public Art Practice participant and former People’s Perk patron, opts for the pastels for her piece. Bright marks of orange, red and blue slowly start to fill the paper canvas that she’s taped to the table. She says the occasions have replaced the community aspect that People’s Perk provided for her.
That’s intentional too.
Archia explains that she chooses to create in public spaces, rather than working in an isolated studio or renting out a separate space to create art, to invite others in. Her ultimate goal, Archia says, is to turn Public Art Practice into a nonprofit that encourages art-making in public spaces and inspires other artists to do the same.
“There’s value in making art in plain sight and making art in everyday space because the point is that art is accessible to everyone; art is for everyone; everyone is an artist,” Archia says. “Fundamentally, we all have a creative spirit. And I think making art in an everyday space like this where people are grocery shopping, eating, there’s a diversity of people here, that they see the making, I think it brings a sort of energy to the space as well and it sends the message that art is something that is not rarified and it’s not just in a museum and that art is everywhere and can be made everywhere.”