When Kati Duncan-Cunningham, a New York attorney, wandered into an art exhibit at Unleashed Arts Center in June, she felt a kinship to the arts community in Winston-Salem. That experience led her to invite several Winston-Salem artists to exhibit their work in Brooklyn beginning Nov. 5.
Duncan-Cunningham was here on business when she met Donell Williams at his art exhibit.“I was impressed by his art,” she said. “He was from Brooklyn. We started talking. The first four people I met in Winston-Salem were from New York.”
During subsequent work-related trips, she learned that the Reynolds Building was the model for the Empire State Building, and she met other artists.“It kept happening, these connections,” she said. “It was the beginning of me being pretty amazed by what I’ve seen since then, which is an incredibly vibrant arts community.”
Winston-Salem reminded her of her hometown in Wisconsin, and the openness of the art scene impressed her. She moved to New York after law school and met Steve Cannon, founder of A Gathering of the Tribes artist organization in the lower east side, which publishes an art and literary magazine by the same name.
“They provided a space for emerging artists,” said Duncan-Cunningham, who is also a writer. “Steve introduced me to Toni Morrison (a prize-winning novelist) and June Jordan (a poet, playwright, and essayist known for her commitment to human rights). I was nobody. He had no reason to introduce me to them. It was with such a generosity of spirit. When I saw that — and that to me was reminiscent of groups I’d been involved with in Wisconsin — I thought, ‘I want to do what I can to maintain this wherever I go.’”
Ice cream and art
In 2011, Duncan-Cunningham and her husband, Ron Cunningham, founded Brooklyn Bell, a purveyor of craft foods. At their ice cream shop, Brooklyn Bell’s The Local, they sell their hand-crafted, all-natural ice cream, other treats, and coffee. It’s just a short walk from the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Their “Honey It’s Thyme” ice-cream recipe was published in the August issue of Ebony magazine.
“You would not normally put art and ice cream together,” Duncan-Cunningham said. “I’m not going to have space and not have art. I was inspired by the spirit of A Gathering of the Tribes as well as different groups I’d been involved in over the years, so we decided to use the space also to grow a community.”
In fall 2014 they started holding art shows at the ice-cream shop and featured the first exhibition of art by Hawa Diallo, a refugee from West Africa. Oprah Winfrey’s “O” magazine highlighted Diallo’s story in February.
Duncan-Cunningham’s fascination with the Winston-Salem arts scene led her to invite a group of local artists to exhibit at the ice-cream shop. The artists making the trip to Brooklyn are Williams, Marianne DiNapoli-Mylet, Jennifer O’Kelly and Amy Jordan Kincaid, who range in age from 23 to 62.
“We have a lot of museum goers who come by,” and Duncan-Cunningham said it provides artists with visibility. “It’s nice to know we’re helping to provide that space.”
A common thread
Williams was born in Brooklyn, and his father was a graffiti artist. He moved — “against my will” — with his mother to Winston-Salem when he was about 10. “I loved riding the train to see fresh stuff. I thought I was moving out of the mecca of art.”
He met DiNapoli-Mylet at Wiley Middle School. She was substitute teaching for an art teacher who was on maternity leave.
“Here I am, I didn’t really believe in artists, in doing art,” and making a living, he said. “I met Marianne. She told me about what she does. She hired me to do a mural that summer. I was 13. I’d never been paid for a single thing. I grew up in art here.
“There’s this cool string that’s being pulled between these two cities. It just goes to how humanity is so alive here, people with very different minds, but the same views. We need to work together. I love this town for its diversity. It’s a mix up of everybody who should be here.”
Although she had been Williams’ teacher and mentor for many years, DiNapoli-Mylet said in an email that they had never exhibited together, and she’s looking forward to this opportunity. She’s painted numerous murals in Winston-Salem, which have often included community participation. Her studio work is figurative and focused on musical genres.
“I am always interested in showing my work in new places — to elicit a response, and exhibiting with other artists affords me a new perspective on my work in a group setting,” she said. “I feel that I have been representing Winston-Salem throughout my mural career — telling stories of neighborhoods and the people who live here. But I am anxious to bring my studio work to New York to see if I can garner a response and possibly look for other venues to show the work.”
O’Kelly, a founding member of Delurk Gallery and its business manager, will be taking several of her paintings and drawings to New York. She grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, yet she knew about the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art when she applied to graduate school at UNC School of the Arts. After an internship in Knoxville, Tenn., she and her husband decided to live in Winston-Salem.
“Winston-Salem has everything Fort Worth has,” O’Kelly said. “It’s small. I felt I could actually be a decider here. The arts district was just starting here. I want to celebrate the artists in Winston-Salem. We have a lot of artists here who don’t have a market here. They showed their work in other cities. Because our population is smaller, there’s fewer art buyers. We want Winston-Salem to be a destination city for art buyers of all kinds.”
Kincaid is coordinator of drawing, painting, fiber and wellness through the arts for Sawtooth School for Visual Art. Painting is the mainstay of her work, and she does mixed media, printmaking and installation work, too.
She had painted her son’s portrait that he put on the back of his business card, and her son’s photography was on exhibit at Camino Bakery when Duncan-Cunningham stopped by. Duncan-Cunningham noticed the business card.
“I just felt encouraged she saw my work and wanted to show it,” Kincaid said. “I’ve been trying to get in my studio as much as possible. It doesn’t ever stop.”
“Sometimes it’s nice to be outside your city with your work. I think being able to work with Kati on a collaboration is what inspired me as well as people here. Any kind of collaboration, to me, is a worthwhile venture.”
In conjunction with the art exhibit, Duncan-Cunningham said that they are creating an ice cream flavor tailored to the Winston-Salem theme. WS Spice Cream will be made with Moravian cookies.
O’Kelly anticipates bringing New York artists to Delurk Gallery next year. And Kincaid will interview Duncan-Cunningham for her Artists on Art series when she is in Brooklyn for the exhibit opening.
Duncan-Cunningham said that she’s found one experience builds on another.
“What I’m hoping will come out of it, just the experience of it, is an inspiring experience for everyone who’s there and everyone who’s associated with it that will continue to grow,” she said. “On a practical level, I’m hoping to get some exposure for artists in Winston-Salem who might not otherwise be showing in New York.”