The steps lead up from Krankies, a winding stairwell painted a patterned bright red with floral-detailed handrails. Along the walls hang Liz Simmons’ simultaneously charming and haunting mixed-media artwork: collages of animal bones, dried up wasps’ nests and toy figurines.
It didn’t always look like this.
More than two decades ago, a group of young musicians looking for practice space away from noise ordinances enforced in Winston-Salem’s suburbs found a home in an abandoned meat-packing building erected in 1912. It turned from a squat into a genuine cultural outpost in a once neglected corner of downtown, cycling through a period when it was known as PS 211, adding Krankies coffeeshop in 2003 and keeping the Wherehouse moniker for art exhibits, shows and, now, the Wherehouse Art Hotel, the coolest AirBNB in Winston-Salem.
Current owner Haydee Thompson was part of the original Wherehouse scene while attending the UNC School of the Arts, returned after a stint in New York City left her disillusioned about collaborating with other artists, and stayed. Now she curates an experience as much as the space itself.
The Gallery Room changes most dramatically as an art installation that is functional as a living space. This month, artist Zach McCraw transformed the Gallery Room and screened his short art film “Beyond” on March 1, when two dozen or so people gathered to visit and sip sangria, some visiting for the first time, others who’d previously lived in the space. Thompson hosts these “art parties” the first Thursday of every month, inviting the public to explore the Wherehouse’s high-ceilinged rooms, ever-rotating artwork and live theatrical performances.
That evening, guests stood around the gaudily made-up bed or sat on the white floor, eye level with faux-flower arrangements that contained oddities like a haphazardly placed, ruby-red kitten-heeled shoe. Large sheets of golden foil draped from the ceiling like clouds as — amid this organized chaos — McCraw’s trippy video projected onto a blank wall with a crisp rectangular outline. In it, a man visible from the chest up danced with his arms at the beginning of an emotional visual and audio journey. Dissonant waves of sounds accompanied hands that seem to search desperately as myriad colors splash across the footage, eventually giving way to confident, exulted movements from the man whose facial features became clear once again as the suggestion of a warm sunrise enveloped him, intimating a spiritual revelation, a new beginning.
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The smell of cigarette smoke oozing from an onlooker’s jacket wafted through the intimate crowd minutes later. A single aquamarine standing lamp shone from the corner of the otherwise dark Nite Gallery as a child’s voice stammered, “You can do anything,” leading into “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” Barefoot in a long black dress, Ash Williams knelt to gather a white pillowcase, placing it over their head to reveal large holes, and crept behind Amanda Medina, also in a black floor-length dress, who gathered most of her long hair into a high, loose bun and strapped on an electric guitar above patent-leather boots. The pillowcase now around her neck like an infinity scarf, Williams, armed with white string, fastened the tail to Medina and began winding the string around her performance partner’s body while dancing to Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Williams threw the ball of string at a man in the audience, chased it and continued encircling and ensnaring Medina as she silently strummed at the guitar in a trance-like state. Williams moved their fingers nimbly to match the occasional twinkling of high-pitched piano notes and tugged on the string last tied to Medina’s hair to the beat of the song, pulling the guitarist backwards as she appeared to finish a solo on a grand stage on her knees with triumphant bravado. Then she found a 10-inch knife, cut away string around the guitar and laid it down, yawning. Williams took the knife, covered Medina’s head in a pillowcase and an alarm goes off, beeping in synchrony with a white flashing light inside the pillowcase.
“Thank you, that was my dream,” Medina said matter-of-factly.
“The Wherehouse itself has meant so much to people over this huge span of time,” Thompson said. “There’s a whole generation of people who had life-changing experiences here and grew up here. This is a little bit of a museum of what it used to be; it’s fresh and new but it still holds the spirit of what was really special about it I hope.”
The event skirted pretension, too, likely to do with Thompson’s ability to curate an experience comfortable enough to unfold organically and encourage authentic interaction with the space, different people and new ideas through thought-provoking art.
Over time and through Thompson’s guidance, Wherehouse continues to reveal and reinforce the power of intentional community by expanding who is included in that definition.
“It used to be so exclusive… but what was cool about the other night was opening it up without being commercialized about it,” Thompson said. “Keeping that discovery a personal secret — now it’s yours and your experience you can tell your friends about. I like that people have to research where it is and be brave enough to walk up those stairs. That’s part of the magic.”