By VITTORIA BENZINE, June 2021
Eden, NC now offers a new kind of service with assistance from local curator and commercial developer Marty Kotis. Since 2010, Kotis Street Art has employed artists to enrich their real estate holdings throughout Greensboro with world-class murals. Their latest endeavor, Graffiti of Eden, is currently underway in the nearby city of Eden, bringing more than a dozen artists to paint Kingsway Shopping Center.
Kotis was attracted to the notion of Eden for its visual and conceptual potential. “You've got the tree of knowledge, the tree of life,” he listed. “You’ve got the forbidden fruit, the serpent, the cherubs…I thought it was visually rich, that there was a fair amount to play with.”
Graffiti of Eden grows even deeper ideologically. The Christian creation story marks the crux of many discussions surrounding faith. “People would say, ‘Why does God let certain things happen?’” Kotis continued. “The answer is ‘because we have free will.’ That's the original theme of man. You have the choice to eat the fruit if you want to. You have the choice to hurt someone else, theoretically. You have the choice to sit on your couch all day and do nothing. You couldn't have that if God controlled everything.”
Enter muralism, that monument to free expression. Participants at Graffiti of Eden enjoy the freedom to work with the concept from their own perspectives. “Why not go head on into a town named Eden having a discussion?” Kotis asked. “If you can’t talk about it, then that’s a problem.”
Aaron Golbeck, aka AG PNT, discussed his rendition of the snake that tempts Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge and trigger humanity’s fall from grace. “The idea intrigued me,” Golbeck stated. “Usually the snake is depicted as the devil.” This subject matter worked visually as well, lending itself to his signature style of figures filled with pastel graffiti tags culled from sketchbooks and Instagram story submissions. Of all his professional forays into graphic design and snowboarding and muralism, Golbeck told me that graffiti has always made him feel most alive. “I owe everything to writing my name on a wall,” he explained. In this snake, he sees an empowerment echoing the very ethos behind graffiti and street art, forbidden visual fruits steeped in counterculture.
I spoke with Greensboro-based oil painter-turned muralist Jenna Rice as she began her work bringing Eve into the present. While art has historically revolved around religion, she observed that time has led more and more people to lean on their own beliefs. “I believe in the power of the universe, how we're all connected by energy and frequencies,” Rice said. Here, she imagines Eve as a new beginning rather than a fall from grace. “She's cute and flirty,” Rice smiled. “She's having fun.”
South Asian illustrator, painter, and muralist Raman Bhardwaj, aka Artist Raman, arrived to Greensboro in 2018 on an artist visa. A few months back, his girlfriend told him about the Eve Gene, the inspiration behind his latest mural. “The first woman who walked Earth was a black woman,” Bhardwaj stated. Still, Adam and Eve have been depicted throughout history as white people. “It's the artist representing their own image,” he said.
The artist honors Eve’s strength and grace through her gaze. “I want to show women looking up for a bright future,” Bhardwaj said. “The upward gaze is like ascension, growth.” Muralism encourages realism, a departure from his experimental studio work. “It has been very gratifying for me to do something that speaks to the masses right there with no explanation, no pretense.”
Douglas Cason came to Greensboro from Texas three years ago. Working with Kotis Street Art has enabled him to expand his experimental style to entire facades, blending the drama of historical painting with swirling surrealism on a new scale. “It’s all about history not being able to actually pinpoint things perfectly,” Cason said. “The swirl represents the ambiguity of putting a story together.”
Before beginning his mural, Nous Sommes Tous Des Serpents, Cason found an obscure reference image by an old Dutch Master. “I started working from that, taking my normal pulled swirl style,” he recalled, first distorting Eve’s image into a snake-like form and surprising himself by enacting same process on Adam. The result challenges viewers to reevaluate their archetypes.
It’s no small authority these artists are questioning. Graffiti of Eden is the first installation in Eden, a city with few murals or art galleries. Cason quoted one of Eden’s city managers: “We’ve been at a loss for artwork like this, mainly because there's a generation that can't wrap their minds around putting paint on the outside of a building or doing anything beyond a landscape or a still life.”
For the most part, residents are excited about the artwork. “Every day that I went by my wall, there was a truck sitting in front of it and kids taking photos,” Golbek beamed. Cason recounted how one woman came by to thank him. “This is a great way to meet people face to face, whether they want to meet or not, and then hopefully get a conversation going,” he remarked.
Public art provokes dialogue, free from admission fees and gallery doors. Cason posited that the advent of computers spurred art’s fall from mainstream consciousness. “That need for the ‘art church’ was lost,” he claimed, wistful for the salons of eighteenth century France. Everybody goes to the grocery store. Maybe the visual confrontation created by placing artwork on essential buildings will encourage its resurrection.
Australian street artist Damien Mitchell spoke with me before leaving for Eden. “Usually I don't have an idea what I'm going to paint until I'm literally on the way there,” he said. “I find it more fun to go with the flow and not get too swept up.” He noted that Eden isn’t always religious—it has far-reaching connotations. "I believe in living in a moment, and that moment never being in your grasp,” Mitchell mused. The present is all we have, but it’s always fleeting. Eden can be simple as the rare glimpse at fully inhabiting a moment.
Whatever paradise means to you, Graffiti of Eden breaks down the garden’s walls, bringing providence to the public.“You don't need to go to a gallery to find a piece of art that inspires you,” Golbeck concluded. “You can just go outside and look around.” This organic, semi-permanent “art church” transpires in the community, behind shopping centers, wherever souls are gathered, with more murals to come throughout Summer 2021. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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