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Loom in Essence 

The historic Chatham Label Mill in Pittsboro is transformed into the setting for one of the best visual arts shows of the year

The UNC-Chapel Hill art students and faculty who put together Loom are really on to something, which they demonstrated at the opening reception of their show in Pittsboro last Saturday.

Works by over 25 participating artists were exhibited at the unlikely location of the old Chatham Label Mill, which is undergoing renovation. Isolated on a lonely stretch of N.C. 15-501, the 34,000-square-foot mill was the surprisingly perfect setting for one of the best shows of the year, but you were sure to drive past it at least once if you arrived after sundown. The only clue to what was going on inside the huge brick building was the procession of cars tentatively making its way up to the area, brake lights going on and off, taking the hint from the lucky ones pulling into the long gravel driveway leading up to the mill. After making the turn, the driveway gave way to a packed parking lot, from which you could see Bynum artist Erik Niemi's video installation projected from inside against a translucent sheet in front of a large window.

Once they finally found it, visitors entered the exhibition space confidently while nodding to the small circle of smokers out front. Inside, a table in the foyer presented time cards where guests were instructed to write their names and phone numbers and "clock in," after which they entered a cavernous corridor running from right to left. Artists and enthusiasts sipped wine around the cheese-and-crackers tables on the left of the entrance; newcomers, however, bumped shoulders rather than rubbing elbows with the show's participants, as they gawked at the overwhelming scope of the exhibit housed in what used to be the world's largest label mill. Relieved to have even found the exhibit, now they had to navigate their way around it. If the tunnel-like corridor wasn't enough, it seemed to be a mere entryway for at least three more galleries.

Most of the crowd trickling in began their lap around the vast space by turning left. This seems to have been the intention of the organizers, Jeffrey Waites, Angela Salamanca and Lauren Adams, as the first pieces in that direction served as homage to the former function of the building. The first thing visitors saw was a large loom, the only one that remained after the mill was shut down and gutted. To the right of the loom stood tables found in the mill, upon which were placed found objects and tools, spaced neatly apart but unceremoniously, speaking for themselves. Immediately, the exhibit saluted the previous inhabitants--organic and inanimate--with this respectful display of the essentially functional, coincidentally aesthetic essence of the place.

Further on, installations lined both sides of the great hallway, lit by naked bulbs suspended from the ceiling and the occasional string of white Christmas lights. Chapel Hill artist Beth Sale stood by her piece, an array of white glowing pants lying on the floor. A small child ran into her space, who was quickly reprimanded by his parents. "It's OK, it's OK," encouraged Sale, who engaged photographers and idlers in conversation around her space.

Diagonally across from Sale was a piece by UNC-Chapel Hill art professor elin slavick, who had arranged label schematics from the mill into an array of found-object art. While Sale's piece hinted at the promise of a new artistic community, slavick honored the work that came before that of this loosely bound collective.

In the next room, people knelt on red felt around a crack in the ground, where one of UNC art professor Kimowan McLain's better works resided. Inside the crack lay an understated narrative of "little events" (McLain's words) that seemed to be one of the most popular works in Loom. Using one of his favorite devices--arranging dead insects--the artist had used debris and insects that he found inside the crack to display moths gathered around a dead black wasp. Using clippings from a copy of America's Best Poetry that he had found in the building, McLain punctuated each mini-happening with a line of poetry.

Across from McLain's excavation piece, Chief Curator Jeffrey Waites' "Ascension" was hovering in mid-air. The spaces between the rungs of two ladders--one hung flat like a table and one hung a little higher, horizontally--were adorned with rubbings on paper, with the rungs on the ladders serving as frames for each piece of paper. The rubbings had been done to pick up oil impressions from the mill's floor. Larger, abstract rubbings were also placed in front of the windows to create a stained-glass effect. Waites' work serves as another example of Loom's artists' attempts to capture the incidentals of their building, transforming scuff marks from the legs of large machinery, for instance, into visual representatives of the energy of synthesis--new, young artists renovating a workers' factory. The artists in this exhibition have also pulled this off without the slightest hint of condescension, fancying their blue-collar predecessors kindred spirits.

At the opposite end of the main corridor were two more rooms, for a total of four galleries. The opening consisted entirely of brand-new work by over two dozen young area artists, almost all of them incorporating found objects from the mill. The artists began their pieces by visiting the loom a few months ago and getting a feel for the space. Some then took objects from the mill back to their studios, while others set up shop right there, working to "honor the spirit of the place," in the words of Waites. While the concept of the project overall treads close to the territory of folk art, it doesn't quite go there, due in part to the youthful spirit of the endeavor and its participants. Turning from Huong Ngo's web-like piece in the first gallery on the right, Waites ran into a nearly invisible thread in the aisle, one of many that Ngo--who was recently artist-in-residence at Raleigh's Artspace--had been rigging throughout the building during the opening.

"She's been spreading these around," said Waites. "And that's got to do with what we're trying to do here. This idea of weaving a new artistic community." EndBlock

Loom's final showing on Saturday, Dec. 15 from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. will include a community potluck closing from 4-8 p.m. A spring exhibit at the mill is in the planning stages. Call 542-9183 for details.

  • Pittsboro's Chatham Label Mill is the setting for one of the best visual arts shows of the year.

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