Artist Beka Butts envisions High Point’s historical Washington Street district as a thriving hub for the arts; her next project is an animal-themed mural that will be visible from 512 Collective. (Photo Credit: Joanna Rutter)
by Joanna Rutter

While most people might walk down the Washington Street district in High Point and see only dilapidated Victorian houses and a few longstanding small businesses, artist Beka Butts sees beyond those buildings into Washington Street’s future as a cultural district breathing life into the often-overlooked third city in the Triad.

As can be imagined, her wish list for making that happen is rather long. But she has a new wall to start with. 

On a warm March afternoon outside of 512 E. Washington Drive, home to her artists’ group 512 Collective, Butts sipped coffee while surveying a large but otherwise unremarkable brown wall facing west, immediately visible after turning onto Washington Street from Centennial Street. Butts was given free rein over the wall by its owner, and she’s collaborating with Korinna Sergent, a Greensboro artist (also a sales representative for Triad City Beat) to create something eye-catching. Their current idea for the wall involves combining the motifs of a fox and octopus to represent North Carolina’s mountains and sea.

It all jives with Butts’ passion for making art part of everyday life for High Point residents.

“If there’s a really awesome mural that you see on that walk or that drive to work, it becomes part of your visual language,” she said.

Butts’ lifestyle can only be described as ceaseless. Earlier that day, Butts eagerly talked about the 512 Collective in a Greensboro Mural Project meeting at the People’s Perk and volunteered to assist with community murals. A few minutes afterward outside, she discussed logistics with Sargent before heading out to pick up supplies for their mural.

Butts pours a large amount of her energy into the 512 Collective here on Washington Street, a teaching gallery and studio she runs with fellow artists Tammy McDowell and Jessie Rae Perkins.

Over a year ago, the group was settling into its permanent home, a reclaimed crack house bought and renovated by the Hayden-Harman Foundation for the collective. The foundation’s partnership, mainly provided via “proud papa” Patrick Harman, has been essential in allowing the group to pursue their vision unhindered.

“He trusts us as artists, which is the biggest gift one can be given,” Butts said.

Since 2014, the 512 Collective has continued to lay that groundwork by offering classes, hosting events and providing gallery space. More classes are slated for April, and Fourth Fridays will start up in June. The monthly event features vendors and live music, much like First Fridays in Greensboro and Winston-Salem.

The duplex’s many rooms and the things within them touch on Hogwarts levels of bizarrity, including a welded horse sculpture, a book on erotic art, a wall-sized painting of a punk-inspired fairy, two closet shrines, and a delightfully terrifying installation in a bathroom featuring a life-size mannequin wearing a wedding dress and a Dia de los Muertos-style mask in the tub.

Visitors are welcome, and the space is open for any artists, not just members, to bring projects to work on in the studio.

Butts said there’s no shortage of local talent joining the collective’s vision.

“Artists are coming out of the woodwork,” Butts said. “We meet them constantly, but they’re not doing work here. Nobody’s been fostering it for them. They just never felt like they had a community before.”

From the back porch of 512, Butts pointed out the humongous furniture showrooms of downtown High Point such as the International Home Furnishings Center looming over the cars whizzing past on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The showrooms remain empty for most of the year like a “movie set” of a city. Butts dreams of someday repurposing warehouses around the fringes of the central business district as maker spaces or galleries.

“It’s the prettiest little ghost town you ever saw,” Butts said.

According to Butts and many others, the reason that dream may take a while to be realized is High Point’s inability to think beyond the annual furniture market.

“Back in the ‘60s, it was ‘Mad Men,’ schmoozing and boozing … I think the Market is much more fragile [now] than anyone wants to admit.”

That perceived fragility isn’t so much cause for alarm for Butts as it is an opportunity to build something more lasting: a vibrant arts scene.

“I fear for when the market falls, [but] we’ll have the groundwork for when it does,” she said.

Though she’s certainly invested in the welfare of High Point, Butts can’t help but have a larger focus since she works and lives in Greensboro. To have a conversation with her about the local arts scene is to easily win a game of Triad Cultural Bingo.

“If it’s just one person screaming at the sky about needing more art in Greensboro, High Point or Winston, nothing’s ever going to happen,” Butts said.

“That would be our biggest advantage, if we could treat the Triad as a metropolis,” she added.

Zooming back into the small stretch of Washington Street: Butts strolled down the block with obvious pride, greeting neighbors, pointing out each dream mural spot and voicing her longing for old Victorian houses perfect for artist residences and gallery space.

“I have no qualms about saying [this] will be the arts district in 10 years,” she said.

In order for that to happen, though, Butts says Washington Street would need to see more big-city changes like keeping spots like Becky’s and Mary’s (arguably the most legendary and beloved soul food restaurant in High Point) open past 5 p.m.

“I want people in my peer group to see this as living in a cool, old historic neighborhood, like Westerwood,” Butts said. “I want to look at this block and say I was part of this shift.”

As she surveyed the blank wall destined for her upcoming mural, it was almost as if she was speaking the coming change into existence.

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