Almost everyone enjoys a good painting. Those who couldn’t spell “Rembrandt” even if their life depended on it have probably hung a piece of art on their wall at some point. But ask a random person if they’d like to visit an art gallery and you might see some hesitation. While anyone can express why they like a movie or song, a meticulous painting can be trickier. The result is that someone who might really enjoy an exhibition could be worried that in a public setting they may not “get it.”

This is understandable. To the inexperienced, art can be intimidating. The stereotypical undertone is that to appreciate fine arts one needs a degree or formal training. And even though most everyone does enjoy art to a degree, no one wants to be embarrassed by their lack of knowledge. In many ways traditional fine art has always carried a certain inaccessibility to the general public.

But a growing trend in the Chapelboro community is helping to end this stereotype. Sprinkled around town are makeshift galleries in the most relaxed of places: locally owned coffee shops and restaurants.

Of course these displays are not official exhibitions, but it’s more than just eateries decorating their walls with random hodgepodges of paintings. Not only are original works presented, but there is usually a cohesive style that ties the different pieces together. Jessee’s Coffee & Bar in Carrboro even goes as far as exclusively displaying work from one particular artist to create a cohesive atmosphere (shown below).


Arrangements like these lay a foundation for appreciating and discussing the art in an accessible and easygoing way. Explanations from the artists themselves are often even included—undoubtedly written with the layperson in mind—allowing for a deeper understanding.

Immediately apparent here is a lack of anything fancy or technical. No definition of Cubism or Fauvism is necessary to sit in a local coffee shop and check out some great art, and one doesn’t need to know whether it was Van Gogh’s left or right ear that he tried to give as a gift. The only requirement is that the observer be interested in what he or she is observing.

Clearly this is great for customers, but the relationship is advantageous for everyone involved. Since most locations tend to showcase local works, pricing details are often included— patrons can consider potential art purchases without the insecurities of inexperience that can come with a high-class gallery and even the purest of artists would entertain the idea of making their work more marketable.

Likewise, a contribution to the intellectual atmosphere already common in many cafes promotes good business. Chyenna Jessee, owner of Jessee’s, stresses the mutual benefit for all parties: “It’s a community thing. I don’t charge the artists. If it feels right for my clientele, I put it up.”

“Community” is why this matters.

Naturally each party benefits on its own: the artist gets a wider platform to make connections, the public receives an enlightening experience, and the businesses in turn enjoy the rewards of it all. It’s self-perpetuating and wholly positive, but what’s most important is the end result of that cycle. In the end it becomes something bigger than its individual parts, and that’s what the essence of a community is.

In a way this is a metaphor for what art is in the first place. (A meta-metaphor, maybe.) After all, the power within art is that it represents more than what it actually is made of— a painting has more meaning than just shapes of oil and canvas. And by making creative works accessible to more people, those works become more powerful. Eventually, a cycle is set in motion, community bonds are strengthened, something greater is created, and it all starts with simplifying and opening up the experience.

This isn’t to imply that community can’t be fostered in traditional galleries, or that one should ignore those venues— far from it. It goes without saying that locations like Ackland at UNC are vital for the education and production of art and artists, both past and present. But, the idea here is that Ackland and the like aren’t the only avenues for those who want to appreciate culture in this way, and more informal arrangements can in the end bolster the demand for traditional art galleries as a whole.

A new fan of art is a new fan of art. Period. In the end, the one can help the other. Imagine how many less basketball players there would be if you had to start out on a varsity team. The playground pick-up game allows for everyone to participate, and gives those who might not be up to speed a place before tackling something more formal. It’s win-win.

If you’d like to take part in this laidback community approach towards the fine arts, stop by Crook’s Corner, Pepper’s Pizza, Caffe Driade, Jessee’s, or Open Eye Café, among many others. Or even better, check out Second Friday Art Walk sometime. You’ll notice that many of the locations are nontraditional galleries. And most importantly, don’t worry if you don’t “get it.” Just enjoy the experience in the way you want.

This article was originally published on December 7, 2012.