Featured photo: Elese Élysées creates free art for the masses. (courtesy photo)

Early evenings, as the streetlights pop on down Trade and Liberty Streets, you can make your way through the Art Park in downtown Winston-Salem, past the Millennium Center and down 5th Street in a vague easterly direction that opens into the brightly lit bustle of Innovation Quarter. You can mosey around Krankies and Fair Witness, eventually making your way up 4th and circling back around. And during these sojourns, especially on Fridays, you might find a brightly decorated print the size of a postcard taped to the back of a street sign, propped on a window ledge or left on a bar patio. There’s no angle, nothing being sold. A note encourages the finder to abscond with it — “Free Art.”

Elese Élysées and her partner come downtown each Friday to socialize and leave her pieces in locations where the unassuming wanderer can encounter her work and adopt it if they wish. Élysées moved here in August of 2021 after living in Athens, GA, for several years.

“The arts scene just seemed dormant,” she says. “I understand most of that was due to COVID, but I wanted to contribute.”

Elese Élysées comes downtown each Friday to leave her pieces in locations where the unassuming wanderer can encounter her work and adopt it if they wish. (courtesy photo)

Moving anywhere, especially during the height of the pandemic is daunting. So, Élysées did what any entrepreneurial artist would do — adapt to show their work without a vector.

“The free art drops allowed me to get my art out there when many people were hesitant to go out,” she says. “Anyone, even if they weren’t the type of person that would typically seek out art to buy, could stumble onto a surprise piece of art to take home.”

The “Free Art Movement” isn’t the brainchild of Élysées, but like many artists around the globe, she’s an acolyte. A chapter in Atlanta has existed since at least 2010, and similar movements can be found across the country. These scavenger hunts prove popular in the various cities they’re introduced in. Small, pocket-sized pieces of take-home art are a way for local artists to distribute work in an Easter egg fashion and gain fans that otherwise wouldn’t encounter it. Winston-Salem is not new to this form of small art either. There were times when small pieces of free art were distributed by local artists and a stroll through downtown will reveal a multitude of large murals and displays. In fact, it can claim to be a pioneer. Clark Whittington’s “Art-O-Mat,” the refurbished cigarette-now-turned-art vending machines allow artists to put their art in a wooden box the size of a cigarette pack to sell. Art-O-Mat machines can now be found as far away as Australia. It’s about bringing art to the people.

Élysées pieces showcase a variety of styles and mediums. One week’s free art could contain a series of old video game cartridges with brightly colored paint splattered into a kaleidoscope of shapes and whorls. Another might display a collection of grainy photographs of flowers, arranged as a layered collage surrounded by a framed background of pastels. One particular style that Élysées uses is a double or triple exposed series of photographs that catch multiple angles of a place or theme. The whimsical nature of her work is varied yet remains solely hers, as with most artists. All are small enough to leave in inconspicuous places on a Friday night.

Small, pocket-sized pieces of take-home art are a way for local artists to distribute work in an Easter egg fashion and gain fans that otherwise wouldn’t encounter it. (courtesy photo)

Asked about her process, Élysées explains that it’s a way to practice her work before moving onto bigger pieces.

“It starts when I have new medium to try out or a new idea I’d like to explore,” she says. “I create small pieces knowing I’ll give them away as a way to practice and refine ideas. Each Friday, I select two to five pieces and package them with a tag that explains it’s a Free Art Friday drop.”

It’s an easy way to promote her work on the fly, she says.

“I take a picture of the drop and share it on my Instagram in case friends and followers want to search for them, but mainly they are found by people who just stumble onto them,” she says.  

And in the city of “Arts and Innovation,” it’s a welcome return to the motto bestowed upon Winston-Salem.

Elese Élysées’ work can be found in various public spots in downtown Winston-Salem on most Friday nights. Follow her on Instagram at @elese.elysees  for more info. 

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