—Article by Brian Howe
Behind an inconspicuous door at 506A West Franklin Street, stairs rise through a cool cinderblock tunnel. At the top, past the green room of the music venue Local 506, a door-lined hallway bulges with the artist-run studios and project spaces that make up Attic 506. True to its name, it’s an eclectic, ad hoc jumble of life. For two and a half years and counting, it’s held the line for a certain kind of urban art experience in a city where it had grown scarce.
On one side of the hall is the tidy space shared by Orvokki and Jerstin Crosby, where a tall window throws daylight over trapezoidal walls. It’s halved between Orvokki’s The Concern Newsstand and Jerstin’s studio, where he’s working on some geometric wall sculptures. One door down is the studio of Lindsay Metivier, who will soon open a new gallery called Peel.
On the other side of the hall, the words “My Room” are picked out in neon above one door, while “Slug Space” is inked on a flickering fluorescent above the other. These are the spaces of Amanda Barr and Conner Calhoun. My Room, with its white walls and overhead spots, is the most gallery-like space—“big-city slick, compared to Conner’s downtown Chelsea gallery,” Amanda says with a laugh. Currently, Jon Copes’s exhibit We Can Help Each Other Be Brave, which documents last year’s Black Lives Matter protests in Raleigh, spills through both spaces, with a 35mm film in Slug Space and portraits ringing My Room.
On a monitor at the end of the corridor, where Jerstin curates his video series, Acid Rain, purple hands assemble bones on a pink grid. The hall turns onto the roof, a grungy grotto of vibrant graffiti and HVAC apparatus, walled on two sides and overlooking Franklin Street from another. Here, filmmaker George Jenne—the director of Lump in Raleigh, which is deeply interwoven with Attic 506—offers his Mystery Meat Films screenings during each 2nd Friday ArtWalk, springing obscure cult films and smart little pamphlets on viewers who sit atop big pink cubes.
It was Amanda, also the owner of Bowbarr, who first rented the space from Wendy Mann and Sammy Martin, and then assembled the group, which shifted a bit before forming the current constellation of artists. In short order, they began having 2nd Friday open studios and ongoing exhibits. My Room’s first show was by Conner and founding Lump director Bill Thelen. In recent months, both of them have started helping Amanda curate the space, which George secured an Orange County Arts Commission grant to keep running.
Orvokki and Jerstin, who are married, both grew up in North Carolina. When they joined Attic 506, they had been away for years and wanted to reconnect with Chapel Hill. Orvokki, who has a master’s degree in arts administration, has worked in galleries from Pittsburgh to Helsinki, but The Concern Newsstand is a storefront for printed matter—a curated mix of zines, art books, comics, and magazines that are hard to find in the area. Browsing might turn up anything from poetry to a Sun Ra biography. Orvokki also publishes an annual magazine of art and writing called The Concern, and is planning an exhibit when the third issue launches sometime early this year.
“My focus is kind of getting your head outside of the box, which is what art is all about,” she says. “I’ve always liked the fact that printed material is tangible, affordable art that you can have. Chapel Hill has such a history of bookstores that just kind of vanished over the years.”
Jerstin, now primarily a sculptor, has been curating Acid Rain since 2008. It began as a cable access show that brought gallery-style art video to the TV medium. “The concept has always been very tunnel vision: one artist, one video, on a loop,” he says. Acid Rain has assumed many forms—screenings, tours, artist downloads—but Attic 506 is its first brick-and-mortar home. The current piece is by Lydia McCarthy, who will curate the next several videos, continuing the organic process that has sustained the project for so long.
Slug Space is the newest addition. Jon Copes’s exhibit is only the second, following Lethal Vision, a group show featuring Gudiya, KHX05, Lex Antoncich, and Monica Axelrod. “For me, the exhibit was about being allowed to be angry,” Conner says. “Having this rage as a queer person, especially this past year, and being loud, because we’re told, time and time again, be quiet.”
Formerly the projects coordinator at Lump, Conner came to Attic 506 to help with My Room, but conversations in the queer community soon inspired Slug Space. “A lot of queer spaces are owned and managed by straight white men, so I decided to put my foot down and say, this is by and for queer people, exclusively,” says Conner, who also saw a need to untether queer space from alcohol sales. “There needs to be more of those spaces, and more queer people in decision-making roles.”
Conner is cultivating a relaxed, flexible setting. Artists are chosen in dialogue with the queer community; exhibits run for a leisurely two months, and may be edited along the way. “What I want Slug to be is a space for queer people to be able to express themselves creatively, to be celebrated, and to have control of their own narrative,” Conner says. “I want this to be a fun thing that isn’t overwhelming everyone involved and to have productive discourse.”
When Attic 506 began, the flagging of art space in Chapel Hill and Carrboro was evident enough that, once they had it, they felt they almost had to share it. “We realized there wasn’t anything like this at the time in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, a public place where you could visit artist studios, which you see in other cities,” Orvokki says.
“When we came back, there was nothing,” Jerstin says. “It was LIGHT Art + Design, and that’s it. We joked that there was an art walk with nowhere to walk to. There’s a lack of affordable space here. There was no huge industrial warehouse area that people forgot about for 30 years, so you really have to be creative, and we were so fortunate for Amanda to get an ear on this place.”
Because of COVID-19, Attic 506 closed for the spring and summer, but they’ve been having socially distanced 2nd Fridays since September (though that’s sadly on hold this month because of Covid surges), and small groups of masked people are admitted during other open hours, which you can watch for on Instagram. But when the miasma clears—with the addition of Slug Space and the new energy behind My Room, the prospective return of Light and Oneoneone, and newcomers like The Dig In, BASEMENT, and Peel entering the scene—Chapel Hill and Carrboro art walkers will really have something to walk about.