When Seraphim Smith moved from Durham to Kinston last year, he met Stephen Hill his first night in town. A culinary internship as a cook with award-winning chef Vivian Howard had drawn Smith to this Eastern North Carolina town of around 20,000.
But Smith was more interested in painting than cooking, and when Hill asked what he did, Smith told him he was an artist.
“That got his attention and he asked me, ‘Have you heard about smART Kinston?,’ ” Smith recalled. “ ‘It’s cheap rent for artists. You should apply!’ So I did. And here I am.”
“Here” is a well-kept and comfortably quaint two-bedroom house on Atlantic Avenue, on the edge of Kinston’s Mitchelltown historic district. It serves as both studio and living quarters. Smith pays just $375 per month — significantly less than the market’s going rate — to rent the bright red 1,050-square-foot house, thanks to the smART Kinston City Project Foundation, an artist-relocation program that Hill heads up.
So far, Hill has bought about 60 houses in Kinston and refurbished them, with brightly colored exteriors as a signature. About half of those houses have artist tenants — with artist broadly defined, encompassing culinary and grooming as well as visual and performing arts.
Smith’s internship with Howard, who owns Chef & the Farmer and the Boiler Room restaurants downtown, turned into a marketing job. Smith’s art is an idiosyncratic style of painting that involves graphic design, a genealogical mindset and staggering attention to detail on food-related illustrations. Between working for Howard, smART Kinston’s cut-rate rent and what he makes selling artwork, Smith has pieced together the seemingly impossible dream: a living as a fulltime artist.
“My style of painting is ‘magic realism,’ which isn’t really an art term,” Smith said. “People have labeled me a food artist, which has some validity because I’m a chef and I do paint food a lot. Painting is the labor of love, looking for the medieval connection between food and art. That’s my happy spot.”
‘A big leap’
A few blocks away from Smith’s house, two potters named Jacob Herrmann and Heather McLelland live in another smART Kinston house. They moved here this past August from Wilmington and McLelland is in graduate school at East Carolina University in Greenville, while Herrmann is trying to make a go of it as a full-time pottery artist.
Thanks to smART Kinston, their rent is $600 for a purple house plus a studio and kiln mere steps away.
“This was a big leap for us,” Herrmann said, seated in his studio. “It does sound way too good to be true. Stephen told us the sky’s the limit and we kept wondering what the catch would be.
“But so far,” Herrmann concluded, “he’s fulfilled everything he said.”
Seated nearby, Hill smiled. Getting people like Herrmann to move to the town’s growing Arts and Cultural District is why he started smART Kinston. Gesturing in different directions, he ticked off other artist grantees that were on the way.
“Blue house over there will be a sculptor,” Hill said. “Across the street from Jacob, a visual artist from Winston-Salem. And a music teacher who just got out from being in the Marines band. He’ll be doing after-school programs for underserved populations using donated instruments.”
Hill, 56, is a Kinston native who made his money in the family business of health care-related real estate and insurance. He’s also the entrepreneur behind Mother Earth Brewing, Mother Earth Motor Lodge and other rising Kinston establishments.
Hill has lived in Kinston his whole life except for a decade spent at military school, college and working for Congress in Washington, D.C., before his family summoned him home at age 25. That time away gave Hill an enhanced appreciation for the arts.
Serving for more than a decade on the North Carolina Arts Council (of which he is currently chairman) also revealed the impact art can have on tourism for communities struggling to keep up in the 21st century — especially the council’s statewide smART initiative to encourage art-based economics.
Kinston is already on the rise as a food destination, thanks to Howard’s Chef & the Farmer restaurant and the accompanying PBS docuseries, “A Chef’s Life.” It’s getting to be an artier place, too, with a growing public-art trail. On the same street as Herrmann’s pottery studio is “Flue” (by Raleigh Convention Center Shimmer Wall artist Thomas Sayre), a series of tobacco-barn-facade sculptures that pay tribute to Kinston’s tobacco-town history.
“Art can be an economic driver, if you pull it all together and create a destination,” Hill said. “I see Kinston becoming someplace where you can come spend the weekend — or the week or month — and eat and drink and walk around, meet artists. Make it a fun place to go.”
‘Let’s do this’
With the decline of its onetime economic pillars, textiles and tobacco, Kinston has struggled and lost population over the years. It’s down to less than 21,000 now, from its 1960 census peak of 24,819.
Just down the street from Smith’s house stands the old Glen Raven Mills textile factory, which has been closed, empty and silent for more than a decade. As jobs evaporated and local property owners moved away or died off, the neighborhood around Glen Raven Mills also began to decline.
But with house prices dropping to where Hill could afford to buy a lot of them, he saw an opportunity and created smART Kinston as a local version of the arts council’s smART initiative. Artists apply for the program online. In addition to cheap rent, the program also pays relocation grants of up to $1,500 to cover moving expenses and up to $1,500 for art supplies for those accepted.
Art can be an economic driver, if you pull it all together and create a destination.
Stephen Hill, head of the smART Kinston artist-relocation program
As smART Kinston’s underwriter, Hill professes to be unconcerned about his own bottom line. He appears to mean it, too.
“I’m so altruistic, I don’t let ’em hit the final button to tell me how much in debt I am with this,” he said. “The local arts council, city council, city manager, business leaders and chamber are all on board, working together for the betterment of this project. They have to be forward-thinking to listen to this crazy guy saying, ‘Let’s do this.’
“That would be me.”
‘Anything but gentrification’
In growing communities across North Carolina, affordable housing has emerged as a major issue. That’s especially the case in Raleigh, where the city’s gentrifying downtown is fast becoming out of economic reach for artists and other low-income workers. An exodus of artists and creative professionals can have serious long-term consequences in terms of a city’s vitality.
“If you force artists out into the suburbs or rural areas because they can no longer afford to live in the city center, you lose a lot of creative heart,” said Brandon Cordrey, executive director of Raleigh’s Visual Art Exchange. “That also attracts more ‘hobby’ artists instead of serious full-time career artists. Something like what smART Kinston is doing helps.”
But creating affordable housing takes money and political will. With Raleigh’s city council deadlocked over issues like whether to allow construction of “granny flat” outbuildings to boost affordable housing, the issue is not making much headway.
N.C. State professor Thomas Barrie did a recent study, “Homes for Artists: Affordable Housing to Support Creative Communities in Raleigh.” He points to public-private partnerships like Pittsburgh’s Brew House artist lofts as a possible model. Raleigh has a ways to go to catch up.
“The 2016 Raleigh Arts Plan clearly states the value of growing and retaining a creative community here,” Barrie said. “The city often presents itself as a city of arts, but the plan’s only recommendation for affordable housing was to ‘encourage’ developers to provide it. Not much teeth in that.”
Meanwhile, finances might dictate that artists find other places to cluster. Kinston, for example. Hill is waiting with open arms.
“What we’re doing here is anything but gentrification,” Hill said. “The end of gentrification is wealthy people getting an awesome place to live. That’s not the purpose here. I don’t say, ‘If you build it they will come.’ I say, ‘Build it and you can believe it.’ And I think they will definitely come. I freakin’ know it.”