Art for Living
At Winston-Salem’s Visual Index, affordability and fun are key
By Nancy Oakley • Photographs by John Gessner
For Toni Tronu, there’s very little in life and art that isn’t “amazing” or “awesome.” Frequently peppering her speech with seemingly her two favorite words, Tronu loves nothing more than for customers to come in and spend time in her shop and gallery, Visual Index, situated in the heart of Winston-Salem’s Downtown Arts District. And who wouldn’t be mesmerized by her colorful assortment of wares in a variety of media — paintings, pottery, glassware, tea towels, cutting boards, not to mention jewelry, scarves and clever greeting cards — all of them arranged in fetching, but uncluttered displays? So fetching, in fact, that you find yourself picking up, touching and feeling the art . . . exactly as Tronu intends.
“When I was first figuring out what I wanted this place to be, I was visiting a lot of galleries, and there was this feeling that people don’t understand it or they don’t think it’s for them,” she says. She found people shied away from such places. “I knew, whatever I did, I wanted it to be approachable,” Tronu says. “So when people come in, I always tell them: ‘Please, feel free to pick things up and enjoy them.’” Not like other galleries with such an exclusive vibe that you’re afraid to breathe. “You’re like ‘Oh God! My purse ran up against that!’ So I want to break that ice.”
Among the ways she makes art seem less daunting is to hang paintings at the standard Smithsonian height of 60 to 64 inches from the floor. “The point of that is to be accessible to all people,” Tronu explains, including clientele who might be wheelchair bound, or children. “It’s not way up there, so they can’t see it.” Nor does she clutter her shop-as-gallery, eschewing what she calls the “salon-style” method of hanging things all the way to the ceiling or cramming the shelves and displays with goods. “In here, if something sells, it’s like a game of ‘Art Tetrus’ to get it back to looking good. And I think you can’t celebrate every artist if you’re overwhelmed,” she explains.
“Supporting living makers,” she says, is the name of the game, and each one is distinct from the next: A series of soulful portraits by Bernardsville artist Melanie Norris — photographs overlaid with swaths of paint — hangs next to a hand-dyed, knitted piece in wool and acrylic by an ArtsGreensboro’s 2015 Regional Projects Grant recipient Ann Tilly. Just adjacent is a small end table with clean lines, fashioned from exotic woods by another Greensboro artist, Bob Wagner. Tronu points to smaller pieces of his: squares of wood with colorful geometric shapes attached to them by magnets. “You can change the artwork every day if you want. ‘Maybe I’m feeling some red on green today,’” Tronu muses, as she playfully rearranges a colorful circle and triangle on one of the magnetic squares. “And the nice thing is, these are his leftovers and there’s no waste,” she adds.
Her meticulous curation of goods is a skill Tronu learned at Greensboro’s GreenHill gallery, where for three years, she worked as shop manager, registrar and photographer, with an eye toward owning her own establishment. Having grown up in Pensacola, Florida, with both parents as shopkeepers, Tronu saw first-hand how to run a retail business (her mother, Dinah’s bookstore, Hawsey’s Book Index, was the inspiration for her own shop’s name). She always had an interest in art, pursuing a degree in photography from Pensacola Junior College (now Pensacola State College), and finishing up her studies at UNCG. Also a musician, Tronu had become aware of the Gate City from one of the members of the rock band she fronts, Elemeno. “We were all living in Florida, and we were like, North Carolina is awesome! Super supportive of the arts, so we were like, ‘Now’s the time to get out of our hometown. If we don’t do it now, we’re never gonna do it,’” Tronu recalls, citing Pensacola’s high cost of living as another motivation for the entire band — her husband and bass player Robert Pennington, guitar player R.J. McKee and Ben Minor —to leave.
She approached GreenHill as a “test-drive” for learning how to run a gallery. “What better way than working in nonprofit, where you have to do the job of 1,000 people and have all the pressure on you?” she posits. “I was like, ‘If I can handle that, I can run a store by myself. And I love everyone there! They’re so amazing,” Tronu enthuses.
But a visit to Winston-Salem while she was assessing various galleries led her to Tamara and Ron Propst. Longtime pioneers of the Arts District, the Propsts in early 2017 were ready to close their gallery, the Other Half, in the Trade Street building, which they also own. (They have since downsized the operation to a smaller studio a couple of doors down below street level.) But they didn’t want to lease the space to just anyone. “The arts district needs to remain the arts district,” Tamara Propst told the Winston-Salem Journal back in February. “We want something in the space that will make people say, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is wonderful!’”
By August, Visual Index was up and running.
“Everyone is so nice to me!” Tronu says. “It’s not really competition,” she adds, pointing to the neighboring galleries such as Piedmont Craftsmen and Fiber Company, “but community.”
Community that she extends to artists, not just from the Triad or North Carolina, but across the United States, as well. Determined to represent visual creatives from all 50 states, Tronu is now halfway to her goal: Among the 73 artists whose works fill the gallery’s shelves and walls, 23 are from outside of N.C. And this intent, too, grew out of Tronu’s experience at GreenHill, which celebrates artists only if they have an affiliation with the Old North State. “I just started making this Excel file while researching North Carolina artists, just going through that rabbit hole of websites,” Tronu says. “You’re like, ‘Oh! What is this?!’ And you’re like, ‘Are they affiliated with N.C.? Probably not. Put ’em over here for later.’” By the time she was ready to set up Visual Index, she had “quite a substantial list” of candidates whose work she considered — yes, “amazing” — but who had few if any invitations from galleries.
Among the standouts: Philadelphia potter Brian Giniewski, whose colorful “drippy” mugs and pots look as though an ice cream cone has melted on top of them. “He’s a big deal right now, because he can control the glaze,” Tronu explains, fingering a perfectly proportioned purple drip. “It’s inspiring, you want to use it! You want to wake up in the morning and go, ‘Oh! I love this mug! It’s so weird!’ What a great way to start the day!” By contrast, Noelle Hoover of Indiana, draws delicate linear patterns on her stoneware mugs — by hand. “It’s a therapeutic process for her but it would drive me over the edge,” Tronu says of the images that are unglazed, providing a contrasting matte texture to the vessels’ smooth surfaces. “I love texture!” Tronu affirms, as she moves over to another shelf of perfectly round glassware blown by Pittsburgh artist, Margaret Spacapan. More colorful glassware by Pensacola’s Joe Hobbs sits next to a series of painted, ceramic hearts by another Pensacola maker (formerly of N.C.), Lou Mitchell Courtney. “They’re rattles!” Tronu says, shaking one of them.
She moves about the store, pointing out flour sack tea towels by an Oregon outfit, Oh, Little Rabbit, and others printed from ethereal watercolors by Greensboro-based HighBrow Hippie. Though she continues to fulfill her quest to include artists from across America, Tronu says the majority of works are crafted by Tarheel hands: a line of tableware from Silo Knoll Pottery, and wooden cutting boards and bottle stoppers by Larry Daniel, both based in Winston-Salem; sleek wooden fish sculptures by Greensboro’s Paul Sumner and from the Raleigh area, graceful graphite drawings on clay board by Raleigh artist Kiki Farish, and fabric collages by Caitlin Cary.
All of the artists whose works fill the shop have a variety of backgrounds: Some have had formal training, others create things as a sideline, some are seasoned, others are just starting out. Tronu doesn’t discriminate, “As long as it’s quality, affordable and fun — let’s do it!,” she says with gusto. She is adamant about keeping price ranges from about $4 to $1,500. “I can’t afford a $1,500 painting, but there are definitely people out there who are more established who can, who maybe would buy a $10,000 painting,” she says. Keeping things within reach also allows Tronu to educate her clientele, and “teach people, slowly, that you can buy these two cups instead of 30 plastic ones for the same price.” And those cups, by the way, are dishwasher- and microwave-safe, like all the tableware in the store. “So you don’t have to be a huge responsible person,” Tronu says. “It’s like art for living.”
That’s why she encourages customers to handle the goods in her store, to experience them, draw inspiration from them and see what might be a good fit for their homes. She often gets inquiries from online shoppers, and if pressed to ship merchandise, Tronu will oblige. “But,” she says, “I really would prefer you come in and touch it . . . and hang out.”
Visual Index, 562 Trade St., NW, Winston-Salem; (336) 875-3674; visualindex.co. Open Tuesday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.