Joseph Wilkerson recasts his artistic ambitions at a new space in Greensboro.

by Joanna Rutter

Two days before ArtSpace Uptown’s grand opening and companion publication ArtBoss Magazine’s release on April 1, Joseph Wilkerson had been busy hanging pieces along wall mounts in the gallery’s warehouse space at 825 Huffman Street in Greensboro. R&B music played from the speaker system, ladders leaned against empty spots on the walls, and the smell of fresh paint lingered in the air. 

It’s not the first time Wilkerson has fixed up a new space in Gate City’s Uptown neighborhood. Wilkerson, a serial entrepreneur who describes himself as an “art boss,” launched this new venture on April 1 after years of experimenting with other locations and ideas such as Uptown ArtWorks, Prime Noir Gallery, Uptown magazine, and the Onyx Art Bar. ArtSpace Uptown very well may be the one that sticks.

“I took the long way around to get to here,” Wilkerson said on March 30 as he stood in ArtSpace. “I have some twist and turns in my story.”

Brooklyn bred and Greensboro grown, Wilkerson’s immutable drive to create is evident; he speaks of starting businesses like other people speak about picking out which shoes to wear, with the cheerful energy of one unafraid to fail. He guesses he may have picked this drive up genetically from his entrepreneurial father, but he might just naturally have restlessness — the currency of most creative people — in spades.

That didn’t necessarily serve him well back in his days as an architectural engineering student at NC A&T University in the early ’90s, where Wilkerson said he felt “sabotaged” by the invention of the Sony Playstation and unfortunate distraction of a work-study placement in the student game room.

“I feel like [now] I’m kinda making up for what I didn’t do in college,” he said.

When he wasn’t shooting pool or working at UPS, he was working with a T-shirt company called Urban Literature he started with some friends. On a trip to Texas to vend at a Bob Marley festival, a festivalgoer asked him if they sold books. The thought hadn’t occurred to him.

“We didn’t sell a single shirt, but I came back with the larger perspective that there was more to this,” he said.

Wilkerson said the realization set him on a path over the next few years hosting film festivals, starting a handful of magazines and publishing several works. Eventually his bubbling entrepreneurialism spread to reflecting on his own college experience, and creating the kind of arts space he would’ve liked to have had access to back then.

At Uptown Artworks, he was able to realize that idea, but soon encountered some problems. Beyond simple issues like controlling the unpredictable HVAC, Wilkerson saw a divide between two distinct types of art coming into the space: a traditional “old-school fine arts” approach, and the style of younger urban artists, which he gravitates toward.

“I call it #DopeArt,” Wilkerson said, invoking social media-ready lingo.

At the new gallery at ArtSpace Uptown, the divide is intentionally remedied in the new space. The walls are covered in mostly colorful portraiture of icons such as Kendrick Lamar, including some of Wilkerson’s own collages, along with representative art like a pair of basketball shoes textured with microscopic newspaper scraps.

Wilkerson’s work with Uptown Artworks was abruptly brought to a standstill in 2014, though, when his young daughter passed away unexpectedly. At the time, he couldn’t maintain the gallery while dealing with his loss.

Now, with ArtSpace Uptown and ArtBoss Magazine, his vision continues to extends further, beyond simply what will go on the wall, and into creating a community and space for people who wouldn’t naturally gravitate toward nightlife. He mentioned Boston’s House of Jazz moving to Uptown as one of the first signs of other joining him in that vision.

“The community that doesn’t go to clubs are typically artists,” he said. “They’ll go, because they want to socialize. They want to have a place to hang out, too, around other artists.”

Wilkerson’s vision for his new space and publication looks beyond creating space — his real goal is making his neighborhood a viable community. The first step? Calling it by the name Wilkerson gave it back in the mid-2000s: Uptown.

“It never had a brand,” Wilkerson said. “It was ‘the black side of town.’ You say, ‘I’m over by A&T.’”

Wilkerson turns his architectural engineer’s eye to urban planning flaws in funneling all incoming traffic and business to downtown.

“Downtown is a default,” he said. “It’s not designed to function the way [the city’s] trying to make it function. Sidewalks are your make-or-break with a downtown. It’s too narrow. It wasn’t designed to be a place to hang out.”

Well, ArtSpace is. Its roomy interior and ample curb space will make events like paint battles, producer-on-producer beat battles, film festivals, a comic book convention and an interactive fashion show possible. Wilkerson’s even got a hip-hop play in the works.

Perhaps the diversity of ArtSpace’s upcoming offerings, paired with the passion of its owner, will be the impetus of community revitalization Wilkerson hopes for.

“My heart is on this side of town,” he said. “I believe eventually we will transform this side of Greensboro and create the types of destinations that are not currently available in the city.”

Pick up the first issue of ArtBoss Magazine at coffee shops such as Urban Grinders and Common Grounds in Greensboro; check out the lineup of beat battles and art shows coming to ArtSpace Uptown on Facebook or visit in-person at 825 Huffman St. (GSO).

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