Featured photo: Part of the ‘Black Cowboys’ series by C. Stephen Hurst

One in four American cowboys was Black.

That’s according to reporting by Smithsonian Magazine, but due to the patterns of historical racism, much of the narratives and experiences of those who ranched and rode rodeos have been lost to time.

But in one corner of the ninth floor at the Liberty Plaza building in downtown Winston-Salem, photographer C. Stephen Hurst works to resurrect that buried history in black and white.

A young man sits atop a horse in the middle of a body of water while the slight edges of a building, maybe a house, frame the right side. In the background, geometric cellphone towers ground the shot in the modern era. Is the land flooded? Whose land? Why is it flooded? Or has the duo ventured voluntarily into the body of water?

It’s a shot that’s instantly American — the hat, the boots, the patterned blanket under the saddle, the lush deciduous trees in the background — and yet, as part of the new show Alternative Americana, it’s a piece that exists on the periphery of the American psyche.

“It’s art that I consider to be indicative of the American experience but also an outsider on the fringes of that experience,” says curator Zach McCraw as he walks through the space.

Alternative Americana, which opened in mid August, is the newest show in Culture’s 14,000 square-foot space, the entirety of the ninth floor, where the organization hosts exhibits and rents out studio space to about 20 artists.

From PS211 to The Wherehouse to Culture

McCraw has been a part of Winston-Salem’s art scene for more than two decades.

Originally, he was part of the underground culture which had roots in a space called PS211, now known as Krankies. In the late nineties and early 2000s, McCraw had a studio there where he and other artists spent their time hanging out, making art and playing music. A few years later, McCraw moved out west to Colorado and found other DIY, punk art spaces which were notably young, eclectic, active and artsy — the kind of place that PS211 and eventually, the Werehouse, became known for. By the time McCraw returned to Winston-Salem around 2010, the old PS211 space had become known as Krankies, and a few years afterwards, the building was remodeled into the coffee shop many are familiar with today.

But McCraw longed for that kind of collective arts space that he had come to associate with Winston-Salem and the communities he encountered during his time out west.

Between 2014-21, McCraw lamented the fact that the city had seemed to lose a bit of its punk-art charm, although some like Haydee Thompson, who took the Werehouse and created the West Salem Art Hotel, were continuing the tradition.

A portrait of Zach McCraw (photo by Alphonso Abbott Jr.)

“It felt like to me… for that stretch of a few years the art scene in Winston-Salem kind of dwindled in a few ways,” McCraw says.

So in 2022, McCraw set his sights on a new space to try to revive some of the past.

Walking around downtown Winston-Salem, those who pass the Liberty Building might notice Thai Harmony, which sits on the first floor, but few would think that McCraw’s vision of an underground art space existed within its shiny, corporate-looking walls. For starters, it’s high up, nine stories above ground. Even McCraw understands how different the physical space is compared to past projects of which he’s been a part.

“It’s definitely like an odd concept,” he says. “I think we’re still finding our footing. I definitely would have never guessed it beforehand but in talking with the building manager, I was looking at the space, and looking at the ninth floor that we are on, and the floor is set up with each individual office space, which makes sense that they could be individual art spaces.”

In June 2022, the first artists began to move in. Now, Culture rents out space to about 20 artists out of its 30 studios.

The organization was even awarded the 2023 Community and Arts Impact Award by the Winston-Salem Arts Council.

And while the space might look different, McCraw says the kind of art that people are making and the shows they’re putting on speak to the countercultural tradition of eclectic art in Winston-Salem. 

‘No rules, no direction’

Around the corner from the elevators, a reaper looks out past the viewer, his shining, silvery cloak cascading down his back. His small hand peeks out of his sleeve to reveal its grip on a large scythe, the blade perfectly crescent, framing his gaunt profile.

“Reaper,” was made by Jerry Wayne Ellis sometime in the 1970s during his time in prison. 

It’s rendered beautifully on glass using foil and acrylic. Despite being two-dimensional, Ellis’ careful use of the two media creates aspects of the piece that appear to float towards the reader, like a painting in relief.

“Reaper (1970s)” by Jerry Wayne Ellise in the ‘Alternative Americana’ show at Culture (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

“So it’s foil, but it’s also layered,” explains McCraw. “What he did was take paint and pour it over glass, and he let that harden so it was kind of floppy. And he cut it out like stencils, so all of this pieced together. And somebody was telling me that’s the way, back in the ’70s, they did decals on motorcycles, because he was a biker. So this is like an old-school biker technique.”

Nearby, another piece by Ellis hangs on the wall. A larger piece that McCraw has labeled “Bros,” in which a bundle of five skulls and crossbones marked with lightning bolts float in the center of a black background in front of a winged Harley Davidson logo. 

Once inside the exhibit, McCraw points out pieces by local artists like photographer Owens Daniels and CK Thompson. Kevin Miller’s sculptures of wood and rolled paper sit on pedestals draped in the American flag. The heads Miller has created act as vases for elaborate dreads that pour out of the temple or a wavy afro that reaches out towards the sky.

Nearby, a video piece of TikTok compilations with political commentary plays on repeat. In the corners of the ceilings, little, black security cameras point down at visitors.

“It’s a commentary on surveillance,” McCraw says about his contribution. “They give you a strange, uneasy feeling in some type of way. Security cameras are supposed to make you feel secure, but the only security that you get is the person who is watching the cameras.”

A few yards away, a piece McCraw found at a Goodwill hangs on the wall. Titled by McCraw as “Punks,” two figures clad in yellow, orange and red dance against a rust background as black music notes float around their bodies. A signature in the bottom right corner denotes that the painting was probably made in 1988 by one Juan Juarez.

“Punks (1988)” by Juan Juarez in the ‘Alternative Americana’ show at Culture (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

It’s obvious, given its unknown provenance and origin, that it’s not the kind of piece you’d see in SECCA or Reynolda House, the city’s established arts venues. But at Culture, it’s exactly the kind of thing McCraw is hoping to highlight.

“We’re not outside funded by any organization,” he says. “We have the freedom to do whatever we want to do.”

Part of curating that kind of counterculture community is hosting regular events for artists and the public. So far, they’ve been hosting monthly meetups and collage nights. In the future McCraw hopes to have spoken-word poetry workshops. It’s based on the notion that the space doesn’t have to be any one thing; it’s changing and growing based on the needs and wants of the community.

“Back in the day, those spaces and that time, which is now 15 plus years ago, it felt very no rules, no direction,” McCraw says. “It was just getting together and making things happen. I still like to retain just the sense of being a very free and open expressive, vibrant, relevant space.”

In addition to spaces like Culture, McCraw points to initiatives like the DOSE Artist Collective that are taking up the same mission of championing underground art.

“The Arts Council has really invested more time into young artists,” he says. “They’re doing a  lot of really exciting things.”

As for the future of Culture, McCraw hopes that more artists fill the floor and rent out studios to get back to that collective art-making community like that of PS211 and the Werehouse.

“It feels like an old DIY arts space,” he says. “I’m trying to make it feel like an authentic space where artists can come and feel at home and feel like they have a space that’s their own as well.”

Culture is located on the ninth floor of the Liberty Plaza Building at 102 W 3rd St. Alternative Americana will be on display through November. To visit the show or learn about studio rental and events, contact Zach McCraw at [email protected]. For a closer look at the happenings at Culture, follow @culturews on Instagram. 

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