By April Dudash
Some call Winston-Salem's downtown art district the SoHo of North Carolina.
If so, the pulse is at Sixth and Trade streets, an intersection of free thinkers, rockers, belly dancers and metal sculptors. Farmers once set up shop here, selling their crops at thriving tobacco warehouses and riffing that old-time string music. More than a century later, the thread of free expression on Trade Street remains the same as a haven for North Carolina artists. The old feed and hardware stores have been transformed into vibrant art galleries, shops and restaurants.
The district took shape in 1998, when artists and shop owners began to collaborate.
Kathi Gauldin, president of the Downtown Art District Association, found her way to the Fiber Co. on Trade Street in the early 1990s.
About 50 weavers sell their wares at the shop with work space for six. On a recent afternoon, Gauldin was in the middle of a scarf, working with yarn she had dyed herself, creating an intricate pattern of indigo, brown and green.
She motioned to the piles of scraps on the floor. "We came here to weave. We didn't come here to clean."
Down the street, carved Buddhas line the walls of Kindred Spirits. Owner Arci Edwards once sold brass at Cooks Flea Market, but when she noticed the Hindu deity Shiva painted on the side of a building in the art district, Trade Street seemed meant to be.
And when Edwards had to relocate along Trade, the city helped her find another place to call home.
"We realized we just weren't done here," she said. "Customers showed up and helped us move."
On first Fridays, the art district holds evening gallery hops, when storefronts stay open late and the streets are blocked off to let the artists take full reign. Belly dancers shimmy down sidewalks. Chalk artists dust the pavement.
Piedmont Craftsmen is one of the storefronts that offers demonstrations, from pottery and flower arranging to wet felting and glassblowing.
"That's to bring the community into the gallery and show them it isn't a hoity-toity type of place," said employee Wendy Barber, who also sells handcrafted voodoo dolls across the street at Fiber Co.
When the guild started, it represented only Piedmont artists. But that has grown to 12 Southeastern states, and 21 new members have joined this year for a total of 375.
The gallery is crammed with items, from Tesla steampunk earrings made by a woman living in Hot Springs to inlay furniture crafted by a man in Greensboro.
All of this gallery crawling works up an appetite. A few places came to mind: Breakfast of Course, which offers brunch around the clock; the District Roof Top Bar and Grille, a swanky little stop that has the best spinach and blue crab dip (or so we heard); and Sweet Potatoes, which packs in a crowd for its Southern comfort food.
The intimate, square dining room at Sweet Potatoes scoots foodies right up to the bar or tabletops on a packed-out restaurant floor. Chef Stephanie Tyson grew up watching her grandmother cook, and she brings that cast-iron pan philosophy to her menu. Dishes range from drunken pork chops to barbecued duck for dinner with sides of shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes with okra. For lunch, devour a juicy pork chop club drizzled in peach and onion marmalade, clumped with a side of, what else? Sweet potato fries.
After a hearty meal, resume your own gallery hop with a stop at Artworks Gallery, a home for unique exhibits such as "Going Postal," where artists make collages out of old stamps or piece together an explosion of junk mail hovering out of a mailbox.
"Isn't America Great? Everyone is so Concerned about my Well-Being!" Don Green writes next to the swirl of envelopes.
In The B-String guitar shop, yellow Epiphones to cream Fenders hang on the walls, the glow of star paper lamps reflecting off their sheen. Tim Webb, who works at B-String, collected vintage music gear growing up, including "50s tweed" Fenders and Japanese reissues.
Wandering blues players and traveling bands frequent the Art District, he said.
"It's a neat scene; you have everything from punk to bluegrass."
Tiny music venues speckle the district, from Ziggy's to The Garage. Neon posters litter the sides of the buildings, boasting of upcoming concerts.
The music eclecticism matches some of the shops up here. Take the Bubbling Well Bead and Tea Bar, for example. It's part bead store, part tai chi school, part tea pitstop.
Tai chi instructor Briana Wright, 24, has lived in Winston-Salem all her life. She said the art district answered a calling 10 years ago, and she now considers it a safe haven within the city.
Now, residents, especially during the spring and summer months, will take to the streets to see the talents of local artists take shape.
"It's a hidey hole," Wright said of the art district. "You can just come in and relax here."