Universal Oneness

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Universal Oneness

Sheila Brame’s artful life in Winston-Salem

By Nancy Oakley     Photographs by Amy Freeman

For Sheila Brame, moving to Winston-Salem was a leap of faith. “When I came here, I didn’t know anything about anything,” says the youthful-looking, soft-spoken blonde, who lived in Wilkesboro 40 years before relocating. She had planned to stick around a while longer, until one day in 2012, her daughter, Katy, who lives in High Point, called. “She said, ‘I’m in downtown Winston and there are a few places I’d love for you to see. I know you’re not ready to move.’” Shelia remembers, “And I said, ‘OK. I’ll have lunch.’” So she came to the Twin City, looked at Piedmont Leaf Lofts in Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, then another place in Tar Branch Towers in the Brookstown area. But when she visited a third location, a condominium in the center of of Winston’s Downtown Arts District, something clicked.

“When I walked in, it had all this energy,” Sheila recalls. “It just felt right.

The open, loft-like space, with its hardwood floors and walls of windows that open onto to a balcony overlooking Trade Street, is part of a mixed-use condominium complex known as Trader’s Row, so named for the plethora of small shoe shops and clothing stores that once lined Trade Street in the 20th century.

“It’s a typical example of what you would see around the country in urban infill to add density to make a more sustainable community,” says Rence Callahan, senior partner at Walter Robbs, the architectural firm that designed the building and occupies its entire third floor (the first LEED-certified project in Forsyth County). In a circuitous path involving the city’s decision to sell a smaller deteriorating building that once occupied the space, Walter Robbs, Samet Corporation in Greensboro and Winston-Salem developer Chris Chapman, Trader’s Row was completed in 2007, giving a boost to the fledgling Arts District. It consists of an underground parking area, the sports marketing outfit IMG, which occupies the ground and second floor, Blue Rock Wealth Management, Walter Robbs, and on the top two floors, 18 residential condominiums, each one custom-designed. “When we put them on the market in 2006–07, they sold like that,” says Callahan, snapping his fingers. Many of the home buyers were prominent Twin City residents who invested in the project, some of whom have stayed, while others have moved on, including the former occupant of the unit that so entranced Sheila Brame.

Sheila had to make a decision quickly, because the sought-after location had attracted another prospective buyer. Additionally, a family interested in purchasing her 5,000-square-foot house in Wilkesboro was waiting in the wings. She rolled the dice and made an offer.

Now she had a life’s worth of possessions to move into a smaller space. There was only one thing to do: Call Leslie.

Leslie Moore, designer and owner of L. Moore Designs in High Point, had been a longtime friend of Sheila’s daughter, Katy, having helped her with interiors of various houses. During one of the renovations, Sheila was often present to lend a hand and became acquainted with Moore. “We really did connect,” Sheila says. “It was one of those friendships that was meant to be.” She had also seen Moore’s own home and, “loved everything about it.” So, in 2007, when construction on the house in Wilkesboro began, she turned to Moore.

“It was Katy who said, ‘My parents are building a house and my mom wants to hire you.’” Moore chuckles. “This is the kind of stuff they do to me,” she quips. “‘We just bought a house and have to move in three weeks; can you pick all the paint colors, blah blah blah?’” She laughs again, but recalls the trips to Wilkesboro with fondness. “I started going to Wilkes on a regular basis, and we would go to different places for lunch.” Talia Espresso became her favorite. “It was always fun whenever I’d go to Wilkes. Just a fun day with Sheila,” the designer says. Fun choosing neutral fabrics for upholstery, a backdrop for the pops of color from Sheila’s art collection and accents, such as window treatments in an orange silk taffeta. “Orange became a neutral to me,” says Sheila, who, with Moore’s guidance, was sharpening her own eye. “I have all this confidence in her,” she continues. “Everything I would ask Leslie to do, she would just pull it off.” Unbeknownst to the two women at the time, the Wilkes house would serve as a blueprint for the interior of the Trader’s Row condominium in Winston.

“He called it my house,” Sheila says of her husband, Rick.

“He was just letting her basically do what she wanted to do,” Moore affirms. “The house was halfway constructed. We’d been working a few months, and I’d never even met him.” And then one day as they drove up to the house, “Sheila was like, ‘Oh, there’s Rick.’” She pauses, “We always talk about Rick when we’re together.”

It’s virtually impossible not to, given such a larger-than-life personality as Rick Brame, always ready with a good joke, or “even a bad one,” Sheila comments. A native of Wilkes County, Rick, whose family owned several pharmacies in the area, attended Pfeiffer College. There he met pretty, demure Sheila Bondurant of Lincolnton. “My parents just thought I needed a small Methodist college, Sheila explains. “I met my husband. He was the wildest person I ever dated. They were like, ‘Whew! Maybe we made a mistake!’” she says, her eyes lighting up at the distant memory. Both Sheila and Rick graduated in the 1960s, “an age of innocence,” she recalls, interrupted by Rick’s military service in Vietnam.

As an Army lieutenant, he was head of a platoon that fell under attack at close-range in northern Qang Ngai Province. He was awarded two medals for leading the platoon to safety and attempting to rescue a fallen comrade in arms. “He was a war hero in Vietnam,” says Sheila, proudly pointing to the two Silver Stars, framed and hanging alongside various paintings and photographs in the den/guest room of her sunny Winston-Salem condominium. A portrait of her husband painted by a friend is temporarily propped against one wall until Sheila finds an appropriate spot to hang it. Across from it is a postmaster’s desk the couple bought together on one of their many trips, and hanging above the desk is another painting depicting a bright yellow artist’s cottage in Taos, New Mexico, a favorite travel and golf destination of Rick’s.

After Vietnam, he returned to North Carolina to attend pharmacy school at UNC-Chapel Hill. Again, Sheila smiles. “We were in Chapel Hill for three years. I taught at Storybook Farm, a working farm that had a kindergarten and preschool,” she says, the faraway look returning to her eyes. “Those were the best years,” she says, recalling the Flower Ladies, a group of African-American women who used to sell bouquets along Franklin Street. “He would bring me flowers sometimes,” Sheila remembers. “Chapel Hill was just magical and wonderful.”

But his family encouraged him to work in its pharmacy business, so Rick and Sheila packed up and moved to Wilkesboro. There, they lived the good life, raising children, Katy and a son, Rick Jr., and pursuing their independent interests, the “beauty” of their marriage, says Sheila. For Rick, golf, tending to his yard and his dogs, serving with various civic groups filled the off-hours away from the pharmacy. Sheila’s passion? The arts.

That began with art and piano lessons from childhood through high school in Lincolnton, and continued with art history, music appreciation and English Lit classes at Pfeiffer. Playing the piano, she says, brings solace and has been a source of “wonderful spiritual therapy,” during life’s challenging times. “Visiting art galleries and going to the theater are always top of my list when traveling,” she adds. Gazing at the Trade Street establishments from her balcony she reflects, “It’s interesting, because there were times when we would travel and I would say, ‘I think it would be fun to live in a downtown area.’”

She became involved with Wilkesboro’s downtown partnership, in fact, and served on the board of its Arts Council and the Northwest Artists League, developing friendships with several Foothills artists whose works fill her condominium: striking, urban landscape of lines and shadows by Realist painter Ward Nichols hangs in the kitchen and dining area, (dominated by a long table, a gift from Rick in the early years of the couple’s marriage). Another Nichols painting complements the white marble and tile in the master bath: a small landscape of woods on a snowy evening. “It was one of his first paintings,” Sheila says. “He was in his studio in a barn in his house. He decided to see what he could paint in one hour in a snowstorm.” The anecdote, she says, amused art lovers when she entered the painting in a retrospective of Nichols’ work.

There are several colorful pieces crafted by Foothills potters and paintings by another area artist, Ron Carruthers, such as Native Girl, a soft portrait that hangs over the bar, and a large still life of birds’ eggs adorning the kitchen. In the master bedroom is a stylized landscape of trees in various shades of green by Wilkesboro’s Tonya Bottomley. “It’s my son’s favorite painting,” Sheila notes. “It’s kind of like you’re looking out of a window . . . but you’re not.”

Practically every piece of art has a story to go with it. Next to one of the kitchen windows is a small landscape with a church as its focal point, a gift from daughter Katy. “From my house in Wilkesboro you could see at a distance, a church on a hill.” Sheila explains. “My daughter decided to get that so I could remember what it looked like.”

After all, Sheila only lived in the house for four years. Rick, even less.

Shortly after moving into it in 2007, “he wanted to do a Christmas party,” Leslie Moore recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! Can’t y’all just wait until next year?’” The Brames had called on the designer to help them with holiday directions. “I do not decorate my clients’ houses at Christmas,” Moore says emphatically. “But guess whose house I’ve decorated twice,” she says, casting a sly grin at Sheila. Her tone grows more serious as she recalls capitulating to Rick’s request. “It was a godsend that he kept pushing and insisted, ‘We have to do this party,’” she remembers. For in March of 2008, Rick received a terminal diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer, a result of his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

“It was really rough,” Sheila concedes. In the four years that she remained in the Wilkes house after Rick’s death in the summer of 2008, her children encouraged her to move. With Katy in High Point, they argued, Sheila could be closer to her grandchildren and to her son, Rick Jr., and his wife, Betsy, who had relocated from New York to Durham. And the Triad, particularly Winston-Salem, offered a wealth of arts that Sheila so loves. Which is how she wound up at Trader’s Row.

“Living in Wilkesboro, my husband and I always lived in neighborhoods. Our homes were just traditional homes and I’d never lived in anyplace industrial,” Sheila says.

“Most people see industrial as this,” says Callahan, indicating the exposed pipes and ductwork of a common area of Walter Robbs’ 26,000-square-foot space. The fact is, all of the 18 units in Trader’s Row vary slightly from one another, though Sheila’s is perhaps more contemporary than others, with its open areas. Some of its spaces, such as the den/guestroom, can be cordoned off with pocket doors. Portions of the floors are raised on platforms, requiring one to take a step up to reach the kitchen level, or the master bedroom, or take a step down to approach the living room area, a clever way to “minimize the number of drainpipes that are coming through the floor, into the ceiling of somebody else’s space,” Callahan explains. “Raised little platforms, particularly for kitchens, are kind of a nice little thing, anyway.” If potentially hazardous: “I’ve had a couple of friends take a few trips down,” Sheila notes.

And, as Leslie Moore was quick to observe: “The space was devoid of any interior walls.” This feature would affect how she would help Sheila decorate. By stroke of luck, the prospective owners of the Wilkes house wanted to include the new furnishings of the kitchen and family room area with the sale. “It gave us the opportunity to do the sectional,” Moore notes, which, with the addition of two armchairs and two “martini chairs” by the doorway to the balcony, accommodates several people in the living area, but doesn’t feel too big when Sheila is by herself. “And she wasn’t going to have a kitchen area, kitchen table or anything. So poof! That furniture wasn’t going to come, because the other people wanted it,” Moore continues. Sheila insisted on bringing an armoire, all of her chandeliers (including a crystal one that hangs, rather puckishly, in, of all places, the powder room, which is covered in a bold, graphic wallpaper) and of course, the cherished postmaster’s desk and the dining room table.

The two friends also borrowed the color palette from the Wilkes house, using yellows and pops of orange, some in a warm terra cotta tone, the draperies in the den/guestroom, being one example, and one of only a couple of window treatments that Sheila agreed to. But as Moore observes, “there are no trim or moldings on the windows.” They needed a little structure. To avoid blocking light from the living room, she opted for reed shades and loose-weave curtains, which also add a textured look. “I’m real big on textures and how they play off each other,” she says, “woods and metals — when mixed with the right proportions.”

Complementing the warm hues, or to balance hot with cool, as Moore says, are shades of blue: a blue/gray in the armchair upholstery, a turquoise blue print for the martini chairs and a soft blue — with orange trim around the bottom in the upholstered dining room chairs, from Verellen, in High Point. “We did the new chairs here that I’d always wanted to do in Wilkes,” says Moore. And they are practical, as Sheila notes: “They’re on coasters, so when I entertain, I can move them around. Even on the balcony.”

The balcony, is her favorite “room,” where she often hosts friends for a glass of wine on the comfy sofas during warmer weather. She literally has the arts at her feet, listening to the strains of the Summer on Liberty music series (which she enjoyed even more when it was just down the street on Trade and Sixth streets), and the rattle and hum of diners, barflies and gallery hoppers. To the east, she has Innovation, with the bright red “@” symbol hovering over the heart of Innovation Quarter, and the Reynolds Building, illuminated at night in different colors at various times of the year — blue, for Autism Month in April, red and green during the holidays, and so forth. Wrapping around the northeast corner, the rest of the balcony offers a leafy vista extending to the barely visible contours of Wake Forest’s Wait Chapel. On clear days, says Sheila, “I can see Pilot Mountain and the [Sauratown] Mountains. I can watch the weather patterns. That was one of the first things I noticed the first night I was here.”

That first night was a bit scary for Sheila, having moved to a new town where she knew no one. “I felt like I had been married most of my life, and I had been in Wilkesboro. It was so much safer to stay there than to move. More comfortable, I was in my own element. Coming here, it was like jumping off a roof: I’ll either crash or land safely. I just wasn’t sure,” she reflects.

Though she still kept a foot firmly planted in Wilkes, continuing to serve on its board for Habitat for Humanity and playing bridge with friends there, Sheila began to explore her new environs. She joined Centenary United Methodist Church, and within a year was invited to join its Music & the Arts Ministry committee, becoming its leader the following year. Adhering to the philosophy that arts and the spiritual life are entwined, the ministry hosts a variety of programs for the public, such as music concerts in its vast sanctuary on Fifth Street, or a film series, like the upcoming one in January featuring the films of local playwright and filmmaker Angus MacLachlan. Particularly rewarding for Sheila has been the ministry’s work with another local nonprofit, City With Dwellings, which helps the homeless. “Last year, we started Art for the Homeless Community,” she says, explaining that the church members provide art supplies for the clients seeking help and services from City of Dwellings. The point is to address the homeless citizens’ isolation from the community. “When they get to sit down and have sketchpads or paints or clay, they’re in the moment. It’s been amazing. Just an example for humanity. It’s universal, art and music.”

Sheila has further integrated into the city’s arts scene, enjoying the company of Sue Poovey, owner of downtown’s Gallery VI, from whom Sheila has purchased several paintings, including a stunning still life of flowers that lights up her living room, not to mention a few pieces by New York painter Noma Bliss. She likes that she can walk to some of her newfound favorite haunts — the Mast Store,
a/perture cinema, Mission Pizza, Jeffrey Adams for a quick bite
before some theater at Hanesbrands Theater or the Stevens Center. “I can drink wine and I can walk!” Sheila says impishly, citing the bar at the Katharine in the Kimpton as another favorite place to gather with friends. She has also started volunteering at UNC-School of the Arts, through another pal, Kathy Hoyt. “She really just took me under her wing and introduced me to different people at School of the Arts and invited me to different concerts and performances,” says Sheila. Not to mention organizing a transformative experience: a monthlong trip to India last February.

Sheila was taken with the beauty of Kochi, in southern India, where she and her companions stayed on houseboats, accompanied by Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist guides. “We got to really learn about the cultures, and spend time with them,” she remarks. She waxes poetic about the colorful saris Indian women wear, even while working in the fields, the holy city of Varanasi, where on a guided rowboat tour on the Ganges, she witnessed the Hindu funeral rites of scattering the ashes of the dead, believed to be carried to the afterlife on the sacred river. “I felt this oneness when I came back, this universal oneness,” Sheila muses. “They all have the same devotion to their god.”

She also felt a connection to Indian art, and purchased several works to add to her collection — a piece of woven silk, a rug with an orange diamond pattern that she bought directly from the fellow in Jaipur who handwove it, a vase of marble inlay that she bought at the Taj Mahal, displayed on a shelf above the bar alongside her grandmother’s crystal goblets. “It was made by the descendants of the original artisans of the Taj Mahal,” she says. “That’s why I bought it,” she explains.

Sheila has collected paintings from other far away places — a Harlequin from Haiti, whose “mysterious” expression appealed to her; a seascape from Santorini, Greece, a watercolor from France. And in the foyer, perhaps as a nod to her new hometown, one of Winston-Salem native Stephen White’s distinctive, stylized “ladies” — reminiscent of the one he painted for the commemorative poster for the Stevens Center’s opening in 1983.

For Moore, original art enriches the design process. “My background is art history,” she says, “So I am just passionate about original artwork. When I go into a space, I’ll say to someone, ‘Here’s the sofa you need. Here’s these pieces that you need to work with the way you live.’ But for them to bring in their artwork or flavor, accessories that they find in places and stuff? I think that’s really important.” And there was an additional benefit for the designer who has typically worked in High Point and Greensboro. “Coming here was like another country. I love the restaurants,” she adds, mentioning a particular fondness for Mozelle’s. Plus, “it’s easy to get here from High Point.”

And a good thing, too, because Sheila is nudging a reluctant Moore to help with a Christmas party for her Arts & Ministry group, as she did last year. With an unseasonal stretch of warm weather, Sheila was able to host her friends on the balcony last December. “I had a big tree out here.” Moore had enlisted Lisa Wheatley of High Point’s REAL Kitchen & Market to cater the affair. “They brought a special drink — a martini drink,” Sheila recalls. It proved so popular that some of the guests got locked in the stairwell. “It was fun,” she laughs. She kept the tree up on the balcony through January, when it snowed. “I had my own woodsy area.”

And for the entire year, the universe, just outside her windows. “I’ve got the moon at night and the sun in the morning,” Sheila says.

Those heavenly orbs will continue to light her way, as she continues to navigate life’s ripples and currents on her solo journey, until like those souls carried along the holy waters of the Ganges, she crosses the great divide. And there, on the other side Rick Brame will be waiting with a joke . . . and a bouquet of flowers.

Nancy Oakley is the senior editor of Seasons magazine.

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