In downtown Greensboro, in the middle of city blocks filled with antique stores, the storefronts of 606 and 608 S. Elm St. kind of stand out. The windows are full of what at first glance looks like carefully arranged trash.
One window exhibits rows of canning jars packed with thriftstore paraphernalia--mismatched buttons, rolls of thread and multicolored beads--on a small, white bookcase. Above the bookcase hang three different framings of the same painting. Rows upon rows of strategically placed overturned puzzle pieces lay in formation on the floor, ready to connect.
This is Elsewhere, the evolution of a collection spanning almost 60 years. The space was owned by Sylvia Gray, who opened shop in 1939. Gray first focused on furniture and army surplus, but then shifted to an all-purpose thrift store. Over time, slowly amassing objects became more important to her than selling them. There was a massive amount of stuff, and a portion of it still remains undiscovered.
When Gray died in 1997, the place lay dormant until George Scheer, her grandson, reopened it as a non-commercial museum-like arts space. The two buildings combined make a huge arts arena.
Every inch of the 12,000-square-foot wonderland is covered with shelves full of fabric, vintage fast food toys, suitcases and stacks of board games. A huge pile of dolls in different stages of dress and undress, some missing arms and legs, takes up space near heaps of books. In the music room, a piano's guts hang on the wall, and a bass rests on the floor.
The upper two stories house studios for visiting artists and space for installations. Wallpaper peels from the walls and, in some places, the bare floorboards are uprooted. Exploring these rooms in various states of disrepair is like playing hide and seek in a very old house. Each room is full of surprises. The toy room holds dozens of Playschool buses and action figures. One room is literally full of army clothing.
Nearly the entire space functions as one big installation piece, and almost every object is part of the project. "Everywhere is a small-scale installation," says Scheer's co-curator, Stephanie Sherman. "You realize how many perfect fits there are among things not meant for perfect fits."
Elsewhere gives artists a new way to experience their discipline. Interest about the space is generated (as far away as the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston) via the Internet, calls for entries in local publications, and word-of-mouth. When looking for new faces, Scheer and Sherman seek candidates who are appreciative of the playful creative process transpiring at Elsewhere. Interested people apply to work as interns or come as resident artists. This year's summer session is already full, with 10 artists coming from all over the country, including a return visit from Jane Irwin of Vancouver (www.janeirwin.com).
There is one major rule concerning art made at Elsewhere: It can't leave the building. Scheer also severely limits materials artists bring to the space, asking artists to instead use anything they find in the building for their projects. The point is to leave it there. "Most artists are really just looking for documentation," Sherman says. "It's hard to take an installation with you."
Though there are guidelines for artists, there are no rules for viewing the place, which Scheer describes as kind of a "public park." Most things can be touched. Scheer doesn't think guided tours are the way to experience the space, saying that it's best experienced by showing yourself around.
Some people hear about the space from friends, while others simply drift in off the street, according to Scheer. "You're shopping and you suddenly stumble upon a place that won't sell you anything."
If you're visiting Elsewhere from out of town, it's advised to call just to make sure someone's around to let you in. For more information and pictures of the building, visit www.elsewhereelsewhere.org or call (336) 549-5555.