Studio 503 democratizes art spaces

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Megan Lagueruela demonstrates weaving techniques on her loom at Studio 503. Often, she isn't sure what she's making until the piece starts to take form. (photo by Lauren Barber)

Stick-thin septuagenarians — oversized oculars perched on the bridge of the nose — and giggling little girls, red wine splashing around plastic cups just above their heads, wove through the least homogenous crowd in Greensboro at Studio 503 on Aug. 16.

The 22,000 square-foot renovated industrial property is situated five blocks away from Elm Street in downtown and offers affordable workspaces for artists, a permanent photography studio to document their work and communal areas like an outdoor courtyard and conference space.

Last Thursday, the 15 residents and other Greensboro artists revealed an exhibition titled Oculus GSO featuring their latest work and created spur-of-the-moment pieces as chatter with eventgoers rose up and up to the high ceilings and the evening’s DJ released a steady stream of bass that reverberated against concrete floors and masonry walls.

Megan Lagueruela’s shared space lies straight back from the studio’s main entrance, where tonight a nearly 6-foot metallic bull comprised of materials as nonsensical as golf clubs, saws and crowbars, stands proudly. Fiber is her medium and eco-consciousness is her brand. She lives up to her promise of hand-making sustainable textiles from materials like bamboo, or purchasing threads with no plastics or oils, ensuring that her creations — everything from clothing to pillows — are biodegradable. She’s thoughtful when it comes to dyes, as well.

“You often have to use heavy metals to stick [dyes] to the fabric, which then goes into your water runoff,” she says. “So I use some natural dyes that are colorfast without using metals and then also low-impact synthetic dyes that are safe for the water.”

Throughout the evening, she demonstrates weaving methods, at one point handing over the reins to a girl who quickly took to raising and lowering the loom’s five wooden pedals, not unlike those on a piano. There is a unique physicality to weaving. Even the most complicated patterns beget a soothing rhythm. Seated with pedals in position, Lagueruela propels a wooden device with two pointed ends holding a bobbin of weft thread called a shuttle from right to left within a matrix of tensions-wrought warp threads, shifts the pedals, goes again. Often, she isn’t sure what she’s making until the piece starts to take form. She says it’s easier to know what it isn’t; a foot-wide piece won’t end up as an area rug, for instance.

Learn more at studio503gso.com and visit at 503 E. Washington Street (GSO).

Sunny Gravely, a painter and muralist, works a little differently. She recognizes artmaking as a therapeutic practice and comes to her canvas with a mission in mind.

Following Sandra Bland’s jail cell death in 2015, Gravely found herself contemplating everyday martyrs as she grieved. Two dark-skinned angelic beings tower above planet Earth cradling Bland’s limp figure in their hands among whirlwinds of plum and lavender swirls. Gravely, who is also one of the founders of the Artist Bloc on Gate City Boulevard, tends to draw on contemporary social and political issues in pieces like “Saved,” which reflects her perspectives on immigration, fear and the American dream. As with most of her work, this piece also reflects elements of spirituality. Winged angels reach downward to souls drowning in sickly, chartreuse waters just in front of a busy cityscape.

Local illustrator, sculptor and ceramicist Michael Messer doesn’t rent at Studio 503. He spends most of his creative hours at Forge, a non-profit community makerspace in Greensboro where he forages scrap wood from furniture-makers. A number of his polished, abstract wooden sculptures hang on a wall but “Descendants of Cain,” his pen-and-ink illustration, stole the spotlight.

In the foreground of a swollen crimson sun, an abstracted Cain carries an anvil and bars of gold, clutching wheat grains in a bloodied palm.

That Lagueruela is creating in an affordable space, that Gravely is exhibiting and connecting others in the community to the Artist Bloc, and that Messer is flourishing as an artist are all due in part to access to resources in large, communal artistic spaces. Renovations like these are an unsurprising development in an old textile town with a burgeoning arts scene, but also alongside the momentous surge of grassroots social and political movements reflecting a shift in popular values. So it’s not new, but creatives and supporters appear to be revising classic concepts of what an arts space is, prioritizing access and democratizing space.

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