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No way out but up 

Follow the black asphalt road

A dead end is the silent stare between bankrupt lovers, an exhausted idea or the 12-foot wall at the end of the road. A good place to sit and pout. A better place to climb.

Cullman Avenue is a dead end road off 36th Street, over the tracks from the North Davidson Arts District. NoDa is Charlotte's bohemian West Village, our once renegade, now adored, black sheep sibling. Cullman Avenue is the black sheep's spawn.

The street ends at elevated train tracks perched on a 10-foot berm of kudzu. No way out but up. Up for Cullman Avenue is the ArtHouse Center for Creative Expression and the Big Toe Gallery, two art galleries run by and for artists. Along with breathing new life into a cultural bog, these two are taking a stab at redefining the patriarchal role of the established gallery system.

Jim McCurry started ArtHouse. McCurry built six studios and two galleries for the creation and display of works by local artists. He wanted a space which "grew organically from the interactions of the place and the people involved." McCurry is a facilitator and an enabler, a fervent advocate for these artists and a true believer in this little oasis at the end of Cullman Avenue. He's been called -- "Build it and they will come." They came.

This confederacy of six artists looks like an accidental experiment in diversity -- the work and the artists are cultures and histories and ages apart. But it's not the state sponsored, quota driven, slump-shouldered, "Gosh momma, do we havta," force fed brew of diversity. This union converged naturally.

The work is abstract, realistic, impressionistic, cartoonish, memory driven, concrete, ethereal, diaphanous as a spider's web and iron hard. The artists come from Texas, Africa, New York, Kansas and even Charlotte. Some have formal training in art, some have been spared. They are travelers and homebodies, day jobbers and full timers, young and not so young. They share individually a dedication to their work and collectively they share a desire to show it.

T'afo Feimster has escaped his day job to discover his life's work. He is a multi-talented visual art vortex, apparently afraid of no medium. His assemblies of built up wood sculptures rise from the concrete floor narrow and statuesque. Each of his five wooden totems is composed of hundreds of turned, ripped, sawn, sanded and routed chunks of wood. His freestanding assemblies are testaments to his ability to wrestle elegance from plywood, tree branches and cast offs from the shop floor.

Nellie Ashford paints scenes from a once lived and forever remembered life filled with hardship, joy, determination and optimism. Her paintings of groups of black children playing with dolls in the yard, kids grid-sitting in the classroom and man and child riding in a horse-drawn cart were not gleaned from last night's TV miniseries, but culled from a life lived hard and remembered well. She paints with one end of the brush stuck firmly in her sentimental heart. Ms. Ashford's studio is an extension of the ambience of the ArtHouse Gallery -- it is genuine, inviting and unapologetically unslick.

Patrick and Sean Glover share both a space adjacent the main gallery and success in the commercial and decorative art worlds. The brothers Glover hold the highest art school pedigrees of the bunch -- Patrick attended Cooper Union in NYC and Sean studied illustration at Ringling School of Art and Design in Florida. Both exercise control and humor in their art of illusion, and both are too young to have become knockoffs of themselves. With paintings which arc the distance between haunting and giddy, they have each avoided "art world" exile too often suffered by successful commercial artists.

Holly Spruck is a natural painter. She paints with careful abandon. Her best piece depicts a driver's view of a car dash traversed by raccoons leaping across the windshield. The mural sized painting (6'x16') is composed of 27 discrete painted-on panels, giving the impression of an oversized tile mosaic. Her smaller pieces employ her trademark maze of jagged outlines describing faces and distorted bodies, and like her "coons crossing the center line" painting, the smaller paintings emanate a goofy interior joy.

The Reverend Diane Flournoy paints Bible scenes, often with a black Jesus, which illustrate imagined scenes from the holy land. She has a talent for vivid portraits, a penchant for the theatrical and, Praise the Lord, a sense of humor. In one large painting, a man stands in the distance behind Jesus, who is holding court on a hillside. The man stands out on an interstate highway in front of the sea of Galilee, holding a sign: "Hoboken or Bust -- I love Jesus." The Rev is assistant pastor at Walls Memorial African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church.

Sunya Folayan is a licensed clinical therapist who provides therapeutic initiatives to kids and grownups affected by violence. She is a fabric artist and prints patterns and free form organic images on linen. Her studio is as light filled and airy as her work.

Rob Wimer is the guest artist invited to show with the collective this month -- his work is featured in the front gallery. Wimer is a painter and a colorist. The man knows how to make a graphic impact with line and pigment. He joins large rectangular planes of polished color with calligraphic loops of black line. His paintings are juicy and slick and well proportioned and just not individuated enough for my taste. I can't see the man behind the gloss.

The Big Toe Studio is a few doors down from ArtHouse. Big Toe is a small gallery and bigger studio run by blacksmith Theron Ross. In the gallery are paintings by Robert Langford and ironwork sculptures by Ross.

Langford is a self-taught painter from Texas who has flown the corporate coop to pursue the path he feels he was born to take. After studying business at Baylor, he moved to Houston, where his calling began bellowing.

In his paintings, Langford employs a rough geometry. There are implicit images of figure and landscape buried deep beneath layers of built up, worked over surfaces. Browns, blacks and whites dominate his canvases. His many surface shields of paint temper the visceral grip of his gesture -- his initial spontaneous guts and grit gesture hides behind translucent scraped surfaces. His smallest paintings, "Almost Instant" and "Sweet Action," stop where the larger works begin -- they are raw and ballsy and without aesthetic sentiment.

Theron Ross has been a long time favorite of mine. I've known of him forever in Charlotte time -- seven years. Ross fuses familiar organic three-dimensional shapes -- rectangles, elongated cones and air-borne lines -- with the toughness of iron. He tames the rough material to establish the unlikely marriage of lightness and ascension with the inherent recalcitrance and durability of the hard medium. The counter-intuitive result is rough magic and the lyrical iron begs to be touched.

All these artists are under represented, for good reasons, bad reasons and no reason at all. I have followed suit for lack of column space; I have under represented these artists -- they deserve more ink. Help balance the scales and see for yourself. It's not every day a dead end bog becomes a cultural destination.

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