Each August, hundreds of aspiring artists follow their dreams to Winston-Salem, the City of Arts and Innovation. Many of you probably know little about the city, apart from the fact that it is home to the renowned UNCSA Conservatory, where you will hone your skills and nurture your creativity. You may not be aware of the city’s rich resources for culture, entertainment and recreation, and its promise of inspiration for creative minds who yearn to tell stories their artistic expression or art forms.
“For many of our students, the city is a new, unfamiliar place,” said Joseph Mills, professor of writing and humanities in the humanities department. “And sometimes they can quickly fall into a cycle of dorm, studio, classroom, cafeteria, dorm and literally never leave campus. Simply walking to Washington Park with its dinosaur playground or along the Strollway can be refreshing and even enlightening for them. Many have a stereotype of what Winston-Salem is as a ‘small town,’ but they realize it has a rich, multifaceted history.”
In a rut? To go for a walk.
Mills and his colleague Michael Wakeford, who teaches history and humanities, offer an elective course designed to break the typical student routine by taking weekly walks to places of interest and inspiration. Wakeford says artists and philosophers throughout history have gathered inspiration and imagery by walking and observing. “Every time you take a walk, you create a story,” he said. “Our campus is in the middle of an interesting city. It’s the perfect setting for artists to find their muse and discover their stories.”
Back in the classroom, students discuss and write about the places they saw, making connections to the city’s history and its current challenges in social justice, equity, inclusive community design, and environmental sustainability. “These are issues that are very close to the hearts of students and issues that will inform the stories they tell as artists,” Wakeford said.
Mills, who has published seven volumes of poetry, said, “I often get asked where I get my ideas from, and I’ll say, ‘Walk around the block and you’ll get half a dozen.’ There are stories and history everywhere; you just have to walk slowly and look for them.”
During a course review, one student said the course has “changed the way I see my surroundings and my view of Winston-Salem as a community. I can’t say I saw the city as anything other than a way station on my journey. However, as we walked around town, I felt more involved in the community, and the history we shared helped me to root the value of Winston on a personal level.”
Like many students, Erin Edge (Dance HS ’97) found her own way in the city and learned to appreciate it so much that after dancing and teaching dance professionally, she returned to her family in the city of arts and innovations to raise. “Winston-Salem has a wonderful community of artists of all kinds, both within the UNCSA community and in the city at large. It was (and is!) very inspiring to be in a city that welcomes and supports artists of all kinds,” said Edge, who now manages the Artpreneur grant program at UNCSA, among other things.
“One of the things I love about Winston-Salem is that it’s a city that’s big enough that there’s always something to do, but small enough that it’s really easy to get around and to live,” added Edge.
Cameron MacManus (PAC Music ’11), director of the UNCSA Community Music School, says the cost of living is a major benefit that drew him to Winston-Salem for graduate studies. “I didn’t want to live in a big metropolitan area and it felt like home here,” he said. “There are opportunities to do the things you want to do as a musician and a community of established professional musicians willing to help.”
Where to go and what to see
Not every student can take Humanities 2918: Walking Practitioners and Practices, but they can still explore Winston-Salem. The following is a curated list of recommendations from Edge, Mills, and Wakeford.
Old Salem, just a stone’s throw from Main Street, is one of America’s most comprehensive historic sites, telling the stories of the Moravian, Black, and Indigenous peoples of the American South. “My friends and I have always enjoyed walking off campus to Old Salem to treat ourselves or to see the historic buildings,” Edge said. The village, with museums, shops, a restaurant and open green spaces, is also a Mills favorite.
Reynolda Gardens offers plenty of acres to stroll and inviting spots to curl up on a blanket to read. The 340-acre landscape is more than a century old and is part of the original footprint of the Reynolda estate, the country home of tobacco baron RJ Reynolds. “Just enjoy the beauty and take in the history of the Reynolds family and Wake Forest University,” Wakeford said. Reynolda also features Reynolda Village Shops and Restaurants and the Reynolda House Museum of American Art.
Downtown Winston Salem is a great place to explore. “Unlike so many cities, Winston-Salem has managed to keep its downtown area alive,” Mills said. “So you can take a nice city walk from Hanes Park or the West End along Fourth Street past the Reynolds Building, the prototype of the Empire State Building.” , a fantastic independent bookshop, cafes and restaurants”.
innovation district At the north end of downtown is a diverse, mixed-use community and arts ecosystem designed to inspire creativity and collaboration in a classic urban industrial setting. The community is anchored in Bailey Park, a four-acre oasis that hosts concerts, food truck events, and regular outdoor yoga classes, all surrounded by sculptures and murals. Along the Innovation Quarter runs the Long Branch Trail, a 1.7-mile paved trail for biking and hiking. The Long Branch Trail joins the Salem Creek Greenway and provides users with access to a 20-mile loop from the north end of the Innovation Quarter to Salem Lake and back. The Long Branch Trail includes an abandoned railroad bed that historically separated East Winston and its mostly black residents from downtown, where they made their living, Wakeford says.
“The Innovation District and Bailey Park exemplify a radical transformation of the Reynolds Tobacco facility into one of the most fun and dynamic parts of the city,” he added.
Southeast Center for Contemporary Art is another favorite of Edge and her classmates. SECCA offers a front-row seat to the art of our time through exhibitions, experiences and educational programs with a focus on local artists. A subsidiary of the North Carolina Museum of Art, SECCA offers unique, large-scale indoor and outdoor environments to explore the intersections of contemporary art and culture.
Choose a park. “Winston-Salem has nearly 80 city parks, and all of them have benches,” Mills said. Salem Lake is one of his favorites, with a seven-mile trail for hiking, jogging, or biking, as well as fishing, boating, and places to relax and picnic.
Vintage Shell Station on Sprague Street is a must for students, Wakeford says. Built in the 1930s by the Quality Oil Company, a Winston-Salem-based Shell Oil marketer, the shell-shaped gas station is “a straight walk from campus and is a great illustration of how big this city is,” Wakeford said. “You’ll hear languages and see Latinx businesses, and discover how a city with a rich history is transforming.”
More Winston-Salem Resources
by Lauren Whitaker
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