“To create one’s own world in any of the arts takes courage.”
When sketching out the lines and angles of those who make a difference in a community, it is important to recognize their courage to innovate. Milicent Greason is a stalwart artistic maven who has thrown a splash of color on the city of Winston-salem for the last 25 years. Many may remember her as an artistic pioneer as the owner of Urban Artware downtown. She ran in, and illuminated, the creative circles here in the City of the Arts.
Tell me about your young life as an artist. Where did it begin for you?
I was always a creative weird kid in a good way. My mom always let me pick out decorations for my room, what clothing I loved to wear. As a young kid, I would attend summer art camp at Reynolda House and I remember doing a lot of activities sponsored through the Arts Council. I took advantage of a lot of art classes as a youngster. In my early 20s, Urban Artware was this hip art gallery downtown and I started working for them. Working there was my entry into that neighborhood that became the epicenter of art. At some point, the owners asked me if I wanted to buy the business. This was the late ‘90s and I said “Yes!” I adored what the arts district had become and could sense the magic beginning to emerge in our city. There was creative “glitter” in the air.
What is the best way to get young burgeoning artists the support they need?
There needs to be a continued connection between people in the community and the Arts Council. When I was deep into the arts scene, I started to poll people about what they thought the Arts Council does to foster the arts here, and most people had no idea. Any artistic activity in any city goes through phases of highs and lows, but the through-line is that there might be a perceived “elitism” to art, but we wanted to bring it to more people. A lot of people, young and old, are afraid of art. If you like something, it’s something significant to you. My gallery at Urban Artware was about accessibility. Customers would sheepishly sometimes say, “I don’t know much about art….and….” I remember this one woman looking at a painting who was in tears. She turned to thank me for setting her at ease to just see the art in front of her without any barriers or judgment about her love for it. Art is not just for the rich or intellectual; it is for everyone.
Why should people care about art?
Math is an understandably respected and revered subject. But what about art? It is a valid form of feeding one’s soul. It’s a unique animal and it is different, but necessary. Listen, I owned my gallery when 9/11 happened; it was actually a strong year for the gallery in terms of sales. There was something communal about that time when everyone seemed to recognize that coming together was vital. I painted my driveway during the pandemic. I did it as an outdoor activity that people could pass by and see; something for people to connect over. I wish I had had a camera positioned out there around the clock just to see people walking by to look at it. It is cliché to say, but art is uplifting.
What did you envision the City of the Arts here could become? What was your motivation for even trying to foster something special here?
I was involved in a lot of ways. There are so many “bubbles of coolness” here between the various universities, venues, galleries, boutiques, restaurants…. But I have always hoped the “bubbles” were more connected and I could see in my mind that connection as leading to something amazing. I pictured a huge cultural “net” to enfold all different populations and the effect would be this intertwined community. I always wanted to create something where art wasn’t about pretension, but inclusion.
What can people do to ensure that the art scene doesn’t wither?
It takes some more young people with fresh ideas, vision, and plenty of energy. I am an old lady and have been there, done that. I always had this fantasy of having an art bus to take people on tours of galleries downtown, at the universities and other places where you could just take in art. It would be a great way to take people to art and get them excited about it. Even more exposure for schools in economically challenged areas to art would be amazing. I remember we used to run summer art programs where kids would get to exhibit their art like a real live art show. It made a difference seeing these kids’ faces who probably never dreamed that anything of theirs would be showcased and exhibited.
Who would you nominate as a woman of prominence who inspired/s you?
Cary Clifford who is the owner of Camino Bakery. I have been friends with her forever. I have always had immense respect for her and the passion she pours into anything she does. She is a superstar goddess!