Sometimes they leave for love. Sometimes they leave for opportunity. Sometimes they leave because they want better restaurants, better dating prospects, a better music scene. And sometimes they just hit the road, without saying why.
But by and large, for myriad reasons, a lot of talented people in our area seem to be just passing through.
Think about it. If you’ve spent more than a few years in the Triad, you can undoubtedly rattle off a quick list of good people who headed out for bigger and better deals, never to return. John Coltrane, who left High Point for Philadelphia as a teenager and never returned, was one of them. Ken Jeong grew up in Greensboro before moving to California for roles in “Community” and The Hangover film franchise. Ben Folds hasn’t performed in his hometown of Winston-Salem in decades.
But most of the people who walk away don’t have recognizable names or go on to superstardom, though some surely do. They are our artists and teachers, our organizers and idealists. The one trait they share is that for a time they were here, and then they were not.
All of our subjects in this week’s cover story agree that the Triad was a great place for them while they were here. Our cities nurtured careers, saw families grow and provided the setting for plans that eventually led elsewhere.
We were lucky to have had them. We would have been luckier still had they chosen to stay.
Doug Bohr and Julianna Foster, artists and industry professionals
by Eric Ginsburg
Despite growing up near Guilford College, on Greensboro’s west side, Julianna Foster wasn’t familiar with Winston-Salem until after she moved away and returned. When the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art offered her husband Doug Bohr a position as associate curator, the couple decided to leave Asheville and make Winston-Salem their home.
It was 1996, and downtown was barely showing the first signs of resurgence. Foster and Bohr moved into an apartment on the corner of Sixth and Trade streets, the nerve center of what is now the Arts District, and Bohr built Foster a darkroom in the space so she could practice her craft.
After commuting to UNCG and finishing a design degree there, Foster started teaching at various levels, including at Wake Forest University. She had also worked with the Sawtooth Center’s outreach program, and the experiences helped her realize teaching was a vocation she wanted to pursue. That’s when she began thinking about leaving the area, knowing she’d need to obtain a graduate degree and that local options were limited.
Bohr, who received an MFA from UNCG while living in Greensboro before heading to Asheville, considers the job at SECCA his “first real, professional gig.” As a grad student, he gained some experience working with the Weatherspoon Art Museum on the UNCG campus, and developed an initial relationship with SECCA well before working there.
Winston-Salem is where Bohr says he cut his teeth, so to speak, and the same is true for Foster. When Bohr was offered a position with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, the decision to leave was purely professional. Foster saw an opportunity to further her education, eventually obtaining an MFA in book art and printmaking from the University of the Arts, where after seven years of teaching as an adjunct she was recently offered a full-time position.
More than anything, they both miss the wonderful and talented people who not only became their friends during their six years in the Camel City but who also inspired them artistically.
“I owe a debt to a lot of the people,” Bohr said, speaking from a moving train bound for Washington, DC. “One thing I’ve really come to appreciate about Winston-Salem is that it was a very tight-knit, supportive group of people that were ambitious about their own careers as well as the broader city. We have found something akin to that in Philadelphia on a much larger scale. I’ve come to appreciate that collaborative, entrepreneurial spirit that we saw in Winston-Salem and were part of in Winston-Salem, too.”
“When I first moved to Winston, I didn’t really know what it was like to be a participant in a community,” she said. “I didn’t pursue that in my earlier life, so when I got to Winston and I met these really great people who were making some innovative art and performances and music and who were really motivated, it pushed me and challenged me in a lot of ways to want to do that.”
Bohr and Foster helped found the SEED Gallery, an art collective that still exists even in their absence. After they moved in 2002, Foster worked with a similar group called Vox Populi. And their experiences with community engagement in their downtown Winston-Salem community helped lay the groundwork for civic participation in their South Philly neighborhood.
Bohr, who is now the director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s Philadelphia Program, and Foster each said they’ve at least entertained the idea of moving back to North Carolina, though there would need to be a pretty significant opportunity to uproot their family that now includes two children, Foster added. But their fondness for Winston-Salem in particular is apparent.
“Doug and I both have a really soft spot for Winston,” Foster said. “We miss it on a lot of levels. I think we made the right decision coming up to Philadelphia, but there are so many wonderful people that we miss. I see what people doing and they are so motivated. I think it’s a place that just sort of nurtures that. It’s obvious that it’s a place to be. It’s not that we were unsatisfied but it was almost like, ‘What else do we want to do?’”