Art of the State

Art of the State

Feature image: Cham (Encounter No.9), 2023, Hand cut silk, acrylic, canvas mounted on wall, 84 x 120 in.

 

Sculpture in Silk

Kenny Nguyen’s unique medium weaves tradition with ingenuity

By Liza Roberts

“Every time I start a piece, I imagine there’s a body underneath it,” says Quoctrung Kenny Nguyen, a former fashion designer who makes rippling, three-dimensional sculptures out of paint-soaked silk. “Instead, there’s this absence of a body, in sculptural form. I think it’s beautiful like that.”

Torn into strips, dredged in paint and affixed to unstretched canvas, Nguyen’s silk segments fuse to become a malleable but sturdy material that he molds with his hands and pins in place. Every time he hangs a piece, he changes the pin placement — and with it the object’s shape, shadow and energy. Some have a “more architectural feel,” others are more organic.

These works explore and illustrate Nguyen’s experience with reinvention, cultural displacement, isolation and identity. His chosen material — with its direct ties to the cultural history of his native Vietnam, where the fabric is revered and traditional “silk villages” keep ancient production techniques alive — is a key component. “Identity is changing all the time,” he says, “and the work keeps evolving, in a continuous transformation.” It all begins with the fabric in his hands. “Silk is already a transformation: from the silkworm, to the silk thread, to a piece of silk. So it’s holding a metaphor.” More than one: “People see silk as a very delicate thing,” he says, “but actually it’s one of the strongest fibers on earth.”

Right: Encounter Series No.5, 2023, Hand cut silk, acrylic, canvas mounted on wall, (Approx.) 72 x 120 in.

 

Nguyen’s work has earned him solo exhibitions and dozens of awards, residencies, grants and fellowships all over the world. It began to take off commercially in a big way during the pandemic, when he began using Instagram to share images of his pieces, and after Los Angeles-based Saatchi Art named him a Rising Star of 2020, one of the 35 “best young artists to collect” under the age of 35 from around the world. He now has art consultants and galleries representing his work all over the country and in Europe, and has had to move his studio out of the garage of his family home and into a former textile mill to keep up with demand. He no longer works alone, with three assistants (all art students from UNC Charlotte) helping him with prep work, photography and studio management. His biggest challenge is no longer finding an audience; it’s managing the business.

Nguyen couldn’t have imagined this kind of success when he immigrated here in 2010 from Ho Chi Minh City with his family. He was 19 and had a BFA in fashion design from the University of Architecture Ho Chi Minh City. But he couldn’t find a job and spoke no English. “It was just a culture shock. You can’t communicate with anybody. You feel so isolated. Homeless, in a way. I was struggling,” he says.

Art called him. Nguyen enrolled at UNC Charlotte to study painting — Davidson artist Elizabeth Bradford was one of his teachers — and found himself yearning for a way to incorporate his own culture and passions into the work. In the end, the way those came together was a happy accident.

During the summer of 2018, three years out of UNCC, Nguyen had just arrived at an artist’s residency in rural Vermont, where he planned to continue painting the “very flat, very traditional” types of canvases he’d been creating until that point. He realized that in his rush to get out the door, he’d left a container with most of his colorful paints and brushes behind. In fact, he realized that he’d managed to bring only three materials with him: a bucket of white paint, skeins of silk and some canvas. “What can you do with that?” he wondered. He began ripping pieces of silk, dredging them in paint, affixing them to canvas, “and you know, it just happened.”

Left: Encounter Series No.1, 2023, Hand-cut silk fabric, acrylic paint, canvas, mounted on wall, 84 x 65 in.

Middle: Encounter Series No.9, 2023, Hand-cut silk fabric, acrylic paint, canvas, mounted on wall, 48 x 63 x 5 in.

 

Quickly, he decided he was on to something: “The material was speaking for itself.” Bits of transparent silk dripped off his canvases, letting light shine through. “I decided I didn’t want the frame anymore. I decided: Let’s sculpt it.”

To get there, though, he knew he’d have to manipulate his silk in new ways. “Silk has such a value in the Vietnamese culture,” he says. “For me, to destroy a piece of silk, to cut it into pieces . . . that’s a big deal for me. I pushed myself to do that.”

He hasn’t stopped. “The work is evolving in such an amazing way,” he said in late December. “I’ve just been in the studio nonstop, producing work.” Nguyen says that kind of work ethic has been crucial to his success. Some of it is rooted in his early years working in fashion while in school, some of it is hard-wired, and a lot of it is simply about his love of the work.

“The more that I work with the materials, the more I realize how it works and the more capacity I have,” he says. He’s experimenting with large-scale work, which can be challenging to mold in lasting sculptural forms, but not impossible. His largest works are now as many as 40 feet long, and he makes them in five or six different segments, which he then sews together. “It’s not evolving in a straight line,” he says. “There are a lot of tests, and a lot of failures. Little accidents happen, unexpected things happen, and I pick up on that.”

When he’s not working on commission for collectors with requests for particular dimensions or colors, Nguyen often goes right back to where he started, letting colors and shapes come to him intuitively, sometimes reworking old pieces that didn’t originally come together, pulling out paints he hasn’t used in a while, relying on instinct. His materials never stop inspiring his creativity. “It amazes me,” he says, “that the material, this silk, can hold a sculptural form.”  OH

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.

Art of the State

Art of the State

Earthen Vessels

From Seagrove to the world beyond, Ben Owen III shares his pottery

By Liza Roberts

The work of Ben Owen III is earthen and practical, but also brightly hued and sculptural. It fits in a hand for morning coffee, but it’s also the lofty centerpiece of elegant spaces across the world. From the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho to the Ritz-Carlton in Tokyo to The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary, where his sculptural vessels fill spotlit niches and his handmade plates grace every table, Owen’s art provides beauty and function.

Pottery is one of the oldest human inventions, going back to pre-Neolithic times. Earth into clay, clay into pots, pots into fire, vessels out. Also unchanged: all hands on deck to get it done. It takes a team to keep a wood-fired kiln’s flames stoked and blazing 24 hours a day for days on end. Like farmers raising a barn, potters fire a kiln together because they need each other. It’s what they do.

Owen was born to this life, born with Seagrove clay beneath his feet. His father and grandfather, Ben Owen Sr. and Ben Owen Jr., built the foundations for Seagrove’s modern pottery community; before them, as early as the late 1700s, their forefathers arrived from England, making and selling clay vessels to early settlers. Owen III works today on the same site his grandfather did.

“He was a great teacher and a great mentor for me,” Owen says, “showing me the fundamentals, building all those skills.” Starting at the age of 9, Owen went out to his grandfather’s studio every day to make pots. During these sessions, his grandfather taught Owen technique and aesthetics as well as principles: how important it was to challenge oneself, to learn from mistakes, to greet change with enthusiasm, to eschew mediocrity. To “never sell his seconds.”

“I’m continually trying to find ways to refine the technique and my process,” Owen says. “How can I make the piece even better than I did last time?”

That commitment has taken his work not only all over the world but has paved the way for its inclusion in museum collections, including the Smithsonian Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, and in private collections. His work, in its various manifestations, has a timelessness about it, even when glazed in crystalline turquoise or lilypad green.

“I’m always experimenting,” he says. “A lot of people know us for our red glaze, but in recent years, I’ve been making glazes from nature. Recreating things I’ve seen hiking with my son . . . looking at textures, lichen on a stone, moss on a tree. It’s interesting to think, Could I make a glaze that would create that effect?”

Some of Owen’s pieces are finished in electric or gas-fired kilns, others in his wood-fired groundhog kiln. To witness Owen firing this kiln — a gourd-shaped, 30-foot-long structure dug partway down into the earth, hence the name — is to witness a multi-day, group massive effort, only accomplished a few times a year.

One recent morning at his studio in Seagrove, Owen was busy completing a 5-foot-tall, 400-pound, bottle-shaped vessel for the Amanyara resort in Turks & Caicos, one of nine large pieces commissioned by the property. The fire in the kiln had been going for 12 hours, and it would be another 36 before it was done. Owen slid a few slats of wood into a slot in the side of the chamber, turning to laugh at a joke from his friend Stan Simmons, a fellow potter there to help keep the fire going at temperatures reaching 2,350 degrees Fahrenheit. Another potter, Fred Johnston, was also on hand. Both men had pots of their own in the kiln. They waited.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said, gesturing to his kiln, explaining how he fits 400 pots inside. Part of it is tactical: Some glazes do well high up, some pots need to be closer to the fire. Some of it is logistical. “Right now,” Owen says, watching flames shoot out of a blowhole-like chimney pipe, “Right now it’s heating up fast. Right now, there’s more fuel than there is oxygen.”

Potters can’t always predict what will emerge from the fire, what that day’s particular combination of clay and heat, minerals and weather will produce. “Colors, or finishes on pots, are almost like sunsets,” Owen says. “Each day, it’s a little different, and depending on what’s present — just as the clouds, or the temperature, the atmosphere all affect the sunset, our glazes can react the same way. We learn to accept that. We try to control these things to the best of our ability, but we have to remind ourselves that our materials are constantly changing. And sometimes it can be a nice surprise.”

A few steps from this kiln, in the late 1990s, Owen built his own studio, right behind the one where his grandfather taught him. The newer spot is spacious, with separate workstations for different kinds of clay. There are pots in various stages of completion, one already 4 feet tall. When it’s complete, this pot will be glazed an earthy blue, weigh about 250 pounds, and stand in the entry of a home in Greensboro.

“In an era of instant gratification, where people can go to the big box stores or a mall for most of their daily needs, we can offer something different,” Owen says. “Especially when they can meet the maker, learn a little bit more about the process, and what makes a potter tick, and their particular style, and why they use that technique. The work becomes part of the fellowship.”

Owen pictures his blue vessel in place, mentions the conversations he’s had with the collectors who’ve commissioned the piece. He welcomes the chance to work closely with the people who collect his work — some of whom were also collectors of his grandfather’s work —  and to get to know them, just as he does with visitors to his region and his studio. The role of ambassador is another he embraces.

“When you can find a way to develop a relationship with an individual customer or just people coming out to visit the area,” he says, “that gives us a springboard to tell people more about what the past has done, and what we’ve been able to build on over the last several generations.”

He’s happy to go farther back, too, 280 or 300 million years or so, back to when the region was covered in the volcanic ash that gave birth to the clay he loves, and he’s happy to bring it back home to now, and to his legacy. “I just count my blessings that we’ve been able to support our family through the making of earthen vessels,” he says. “Really, the end product is how it is received by the people who use it.”  OH

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.

Art of the State

Art of the State

Careful Chaos

Chieko Murasugi’s art subverts order and changes perspectives

By Liza Roberts

Abstract painter Chieko Murasugi has navigated conflicting perspectives all her life. She holds a Ph.D. in visual science and works as an artist; she is the Tokyo-born daughter of Japanese immigrants who was raised in Toronto and lives in America; she is a former impressionist painter who has turned to visual illusion to anchor her geometric art.

“I want to make the elusive, disparate, confusing, multifaceted nature of the world absolutely clear,” says Murasugi. “I want to be clear in my view that the world is unclear.”

Illusions underpin this message; her interest in them is one of the few things that has remained constant in her life. As a scientist, Murasugi studied visual perception because she was fascinated by mysteries like 3D illustrations that seem to flip upside down or right-side up depending on the angle of the viewer, or the ghosts of afterimages, or the way the interpretation of a color changes depending on the colors that sit beside it. Now, as an artist, she uses phenomena like these to tweak a viewer’s perception, to make a picture plane shift before their eyes, to turn it from one thing into another. She populates these paintings with crisp, unambiguous, flat-colored shapes. “I have clarity and I have ambiguity at the same time,” she says. “And that’s really at the crux of my art. It’s the ambiguity, the clarity, the dichotomy.”

Her art creates it, and she’s long lived it. Murasugi grew up in a “very white” Canadian suburb, “very clearly a minority.” As a child, her father, a descendant of 1600s-era samurai, showed her maps of Japan’s former reach across Asia, and told her “Americans took it away.” He told her about how American forces firebombed downtown Tokyo, and how he and her mother barely escaped with their lives.

But these were not facts she’d been taught in school, or heard anywhere else. “I had taken world history, and I had not heard anything about the firebombings of Japan,” she says. “And so everywhere I went, I was presented with diverging, often conflicting, but very disparate narratives. Who am I supposed to believe?” When she was studying for her doctorate at York University in Canada, she recalls, her professors proudly touted the department’s significance in the field. Then she went to Stanford to do postdoctoral work in neurobiology and nobody had heard of her colleagues at York University. “Again, I had to shift my perspective,” she says. Fueling those shifts was an overwhelming curiosity, she says, “always wanting to know why. Why, why, why. Curiosity has been the driving force of my life.”

Years later, when Murasugi left her accomplished academic career and the world of science for art, her viewpoint shifted again. In a deeply rooted way, she was coming home; she had always drawn and painted, and she studied art in college as well as science. Even at the height of her successful scientific career as a professor and research scientist, Murasugi believed that she didn’t truly belong. She thought she wasn’t quantitative, logical or analytical enough, that “there was something that was missing in the way that I was thinking,” she says. With art, the opposite was the case: “I knew I could do it.”

After she moved to North Carolina with her husband several years ago, this innate conviction took her back to school, to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for an MFA. There she met fellow artists she respected and joined with to co-found and co-curate an artist-run Chapel Hill exhibit space called Basement, which has earned a reputation as an incubator for emerging artists and which regularly exhibits their work to the public.

Over the last 18 months, Murasugi has found fresh directions, resulting in a new body of work, called Chance, that explores randomization, color theory, chance and chaos. “My mother was basically dying when I began this series,” she says. “Her impending death, having to process her death, is what inspired it. And I continued it for about a year, because I was just bereft.” Murasugi’s mother survived World War II “by chance” and always thought of her life as defined by that good fortune; this fueled Murasugi’s experimentation with art made, in part, “by chance.”

Using an algorithm available on the website random.org to arrange her own colors, shapes and patterns into random arrangements and compositions, Murasugi created a series of colorful, geometric works. In late summer 2022, she posted these works on the Instagram feed of Asheville’s Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, part of her digital residency with the museum. She also exhibited them at Craven Allen, her Durham gallery.

More recently, Murasugi has returned to the illusion-anchored canvases she began a few years ago — what she now refers to as her “old way of painting.”

It has been “a huge struggle,” she says, because “the end point is unknown.” Unlike the work made with the guidance of the randomizing program, “the trajectory is not straightforward” with these newer, intuitive paintings. “It’s forward and backwards, left and right. I’ve always worked this way, before I went to the Chance series, and I’d almost forgotten how difficult painting is. Both fun, and excruciatingly difficult.” Some of the pieces currently underway will find their way to CAM Raleigh for a show called Neo-Psychedelia that opens Nov. 10. She will also have a piece featured and sold at ArtSpace’s ArtBash, a fundraising gala, on Nov. 18, also in Raleigh.

Murasugi’s work has also been exhibited in museums in San Francisco, New York and across the South, and is in the collections of the City of Raleigh and Duke University. Its abstraction welcomes any interpretation at all; its subtle illusory elements gently subvert them. “People have said to me over the years: Your work is so beautiful. And I think, well, I hope it doesn’t stop there,” she says. “As long as they see that there were two ways of looking at it.”  OH

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.

Art of the State

Art of the State

Triumph in a Bridge

Matthew Steele celebrates the beauty of the manufactured world through sculpture

By Liza Roberts

   

Left: Gallery view of Mirrored Turbine, 2022, walnut, copper rod, 23-gauge nails, 84 x 84 x 4 inches. Commission through Hodges Taylor. 

Right: Telophase no.1, 2022, oak and 23-gauge nails, 24 x 24 x 72 inches.

Infrastructure inspires Charlotte artist Matthew Steele. Bridges, highways, architecture and other physical manifestations of technology demonstrate to him the lengths human beings will go to “transcend the greatest obstacles we know.”

With honed precision, Steele’s work explores the elegance, complexity and rigor of such industrial and manmade structures, the labor that made them, and the life they each contain. The still rotors of a turbine become a thrumming work of abstract beauty when Steele makes them of wood and copper. He allows them to hang alone, the promise of movement in every blade. Steele’s scaffold-like towers of walnut merge to create a geometric, jagged skyline, but with an irregular, tendriled base: Are they putting down roots? Are these structures not built, but alive?

“There is desire in a highway,” Steele says. “There is triumph in a bridge.”

Steele moved to Charlotte in 2012 for a McColl Center residency and has made the city his home. “I’ve always been interested in the manufactured world,” he says. “I came from a super small town in Indiana. I knew the feeling I had when I would go to a city or a large industrial space, and just how alien it felt. I think I’m still narrowing in on that feeling.”

In 2015, Steele became an artist-in-residence at Goodyear Arts, a nonprofit arts program in Charlotte. This allowed him to further explore that feeling and its embodiment in his work, which has been exhibited and collected internationally. Steele and his wife, Susan Jedrzejewski, associate at Charlotte’s Hodges Taylor Gallery and a former codirector of Goodyear Arts, live in a 2,000-square-foot house with a walk-out basement that serves as Steele’s studio. This is where he makes the work that fuels his creativity. “There’s something incredible about waking up and making something,” Steele says, “of walking downstairs and turning on the table saw.” At the end of the day, Steele says, nothing can compare to the satisfaction of that kind of work: “Something can exist that didn’t exist that morning.”

         

Left: Sundowning, 2021, machine drawing / pen on black Stonehenge, 50 x 92 inches.

Right: Noir no. 2, 2023, walnut, 23-gauge nails, 47 x 73 x 4 inches. Right: Telophase no. 1, 2022, oak and 23-gauge nails, 72 x 24 x 24 inches. Commissions through Hodges Taylor.

Most of the time, that something is made of wood, and usually, that wood is walnut. It’s the wood he first learned to use many years ago when his father brought home a huge supply, and still, no other wood compares. “It’s pretty forgiving,” Steele says. “It has a quality that feels special. I’ve created the deepest relationship with walnut.”

It’s this richly colored, earthy-scented material that forms the work inspired by steel buttresses, by engine components, by industrial infrastructure. To Steele, that paradox points to a larger message. “I remember a thought I had in college about people in the world that we build,” he says. “It’s so easy for us to think of us as separate from nature, but we make our beehives, and we make our own beaver dams. We’re just animals.”

In Charlotte, Steele is making his mark. Last year, he received an Emerging Creators Fellowship from the Arts & Science Council, and he is currently at work on a major piece of City of Charlotte-funded public art that will anchor a streetscape project on J.W. Clay Boulevard in the University City area.

Making public art — which has kept him busy in recent years — is the realization of a long-held goal. In 2019, after a series of rejections for proposals he’d submitted for public art commissions, Steele decided to make a work of art to please himself: “I just thought, Nothing is working. I’m just going to make whatever I want.” He took the form of Greek statue The Winged Victory of Samothrace as inspiration and “depicted that idealized sculpture as this sort of grim, dark oil-covered mess.” The resulting (Nothing is Working) Victory is a metal form that recalls the iconic sculpture’s shape, but is built using intersecting pieces of metal, held up on a wooden trestle. The process taught him to make organic, volumetric shapes he hadn’t been able to create before. A few weeks later, Steele got his first call to make a piece of public art — one that called on his newfound skill.

   

Left: Basalt Pillars, 2021, walnut, 23-gauge nails, 16 x 48 x 4 inches.

Right: Rendering of Fabric, a city-funded work slated for installation in University City in 2026. Rendering courtesy of Matthew Steele.

Guaranteed funding, a larger scale, a public audience and a sense of permanence make these commissions particularly prized. But the making of a piece of public art can become weighed down in procedure — paperwork and correspondence and engineering — that can remove an artist from the creative process. “It’s a tricky transition,” Steele says. “You’re using new materials, on a completely different scale.”

Schematic depictions of Fabric, the piece he’s currently working on for the City of Charlotte, clearly share the elegance, energy and story of his studio work. Before submitting his proposal for the commission, Steele researched the industrial history of the area and became inspired by the early-1900s textile mills of the NoDa area. “I found old photos from the archives, images of factory rooms with thousands of spools of thread,” he says. “I just couldn’t get over the visual, all of these threads coming through.”

He began to experiment with steel rods and developed the design for what will become a 10-foot-tall, 6-ton piece of steel rods. Slated to be installed in 2026 on a median in J.W. Clay Boulevard, the piece will be a sort of pyramid of rebar, where slivers of daylight will shift with the movement of a viewer.

“Public art is really, really exciting,” he says. “You get to do something you wouldn’t do any other way.”  PS

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.

Art of the State

Art of the State

Creative Genius

The reclusive Mel Chin creates deeply engaging artwork at an international scale

By Liza Roberts

   
Wake, 2018

The only visual artist in North Carolina ever to win a MacArthur Genius award, Mel Chin manages to hide in plain sight in his home state, where only the most art-informed even know he’s here.

Tucked into Higgins, N.C., a distant corner of Yancey County near the Tennessee border, this world-renowned artist has space and time for his creativity to expand and his engagement with the wider world to ignite. His massive public sculpture, augmented-reality, subversive video, collage and interactive installations address issues as wide-ranging as climate change, political division, the environment, community health and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Chin says his conceptual work is a tool for civic engagement and a way to raise awareness of social issues. Through art, he believes questions can be asked and possibilities raised in uniquely effective ways. “I have always described the practice of art as providing an option, as opposed to an answer,” he says, sitting back in the shade of a porch at his stone house. Ivy and overgrown shrubs blur its edges as the Cane River rushes nearby.

He was here in 2019 when the MacArthur people called to tell him of his remarkable award, including its no-strings-attached check for $650,000. Chin “is redefining the parameters of contemporary art and challenging assumptions about the forms it can take, the issues it can address, and the settings it can inhabit,” the Foundation said in announcing its decision.

“When people ask about what inspires you,” Chin says, “I no longer speak in terms of inspiration, but of being compelled. Because how could you not?” The issues that compel him are not necessarily new, he points out, but they’re in the news, which provides new opportunities.

   
Cabinet of Craving, 2012

Remote as he is, much of Chin’s work is done in collaboration with others, near and far. His 60-foot-tall animatronic sculpture Wake, which resembles both a shipwreck and a whale skeleton, was created with University of North Carolina Asheville students and was installed in Asheville’s South Slope after forming the focal point of a larger installation in Manhattan’s Times Square. There it was accompanied by Unmoored, a mixed-reality mobile app he designed with Microsoft that depicted the square as if it were 26 feet under water, submerged by rising sea levels. It was one of several installations in a New York City-wide survey of Chin’s works in 2018. 

The creative expression of scientific information and the use of technology to inspire empathy is a Chin hallmark. One ongoing project uses plants to remediate toxic metals from the soil; a Mint Museum installation used oceanographic data to create “cinematic portraits” of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; and a viral, community-based work circulates hand-drawn hundred dollar bills to draw attention to lead contamination in soil, water and housing. “You could say that I’m involved with the process of bridging science and community,” he says. 

Revival Field (Diorama), 2019, mixed media, 40 x 66 x 8 in

Community in the traditional sense seems far removed from his remote corner of the world, but Chin’s dogged social conscience, regular travel, wide network and the connected reality of 21st-century life keep him plugged in. He’s turned the stately 1931 stone mansion at the center of his compound into a rambling archive and workshop for his many artistic pursuits. The mansion was originally built as a library and community center for the creation and distribution of local crafts. It became part of a regional study on poverty and was visited in 1934 by Eleanor Roosevelt; it also served as a school and was used as a birthing hospital. The place had fallen into disuse and disrepair when Chin acquired it in the late 1990s as an inexpensive place to store his work. A few years later, he left New York, where he had lived for many years, and moved here himself — not into the mansion, but into the relatively modest house a few feet away, one originally built for the hospital’s chief doctor. 

Etching Revival Ramp, 1996

Chin says he was drawn to this part of the country not just for space and the chance to live deeply within the natural world, but also by the region’s history of racial injustice and his own lifelong commitment to fighting it. The American-born child of Chinese immigrant parents, Chin grew up in Houston in the 1950s, worked at his parents’ grocery store in the city’s predominantly African-American Fifth Ward, and became aware of and thoughtful about issues surrounding race from an early age. 

“To be engaged in the world,” he says, “it’s OK to be in places where the engagement is very real and uncomfortable.” Lately, that engagement transcends geography. “It’s an important time,” Chin says. “We’re at this bridge. It’s about consolidating a commitment to actually begin again, listen more and reorient actions, and respond.” The role of an artist, he says, is to “excavate” the questions such issues provoke, provide a starting point and draw collective attention. Still, Chin points out that from his perspective, the “job description of artist” is constantly evolving: “People think it’s kind of funny when I say that I’m still trying to be one, to be an artist. But I mean it, actually.”  OH

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.

Art of the State

Art of the State

Just Working

Antoine Williams forged his own path to bring his art to light

By Liza Roberts 

    

Left: There Will Be No Miracles Here, printed material and acrylic on wood panel, 2021

 

Antoine Williams was in his early 20s when he made an important decision: If he wanted his work to be seen, he’d have to take matters into his own hands.

He’d earned a fine arts degree from University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2003 and was busy making mult-media work including drawings, paintings and collages that responded to the world around him: about politics, about the war on terror, about “how ridiculous all of it was.” But to Williams, the traditional gallery route seemed impenetrable. Not only to him, but to the other young artists he knew, many of them also young, politically active Black men without a network in the established world of art. “People were literally afraid of us. We were walking into galleries, and I remember one gallery. I asked: Can we do an art show? And they were like: We don’t have metal detectors,” Williams says.

His friends, including multimedia artists and illustrators Marcus Kiser, John Hairston Jr. and Wolly Vinyl, had another hurdle, too. Traditional art venues weren’t the obvious places for the audiences they sought. They wanted to connect with like-minded people who were also influenced by art, comics, music and culture. They were eager for dialogue and weren’t sure they’d find it in a traditional venue. “A museum can be a scary place if you’ve never been there,” Williams says.

Williams knew that from experience. A first-generation college student from “rural, working-class, conservative” Red Springs, North Carolina, Williams never knew an artist or much about art growing up — but his imagination was allowed to flourish. “It was cool to be a creative kid growing up in a place where you could run outside and go in the woods and play,” Williams says. “I was always daydreaming, and I was always either drawing or making stuff.”

He tapped into that wellspring when he cofounded the art collective God City in 2005 with Kiser, Hairston, Vinyl and a few other artists. The group rented industrial spaces, put together pop-up shows and got the word out with flyers. “We were really into hip-hop, politics and comic books,” says Williams. “We would do exhibitions . . . in any place that would take a bunch of young Black dudes.” Over a seven-year run, the group forged collaborations with poets, filmmakers, dancers and DJs. “It was all these groups of Black and brown people making art outside the major institutions,” says Williams. “It became a community in Charlotte . . . It was this really beautiful time.”

Left: There Will Be No Miracles Here, printed material and acrylic on wood panel, 2021

 

The establishment took notice. Kimberly Thomas, a curator at the Mint Museum, became a God City regular. In 2008, she included work by Williams and Hairston — as well as art from nationally recognized Black North Carolina artists like Juan Logan and the late Romare Bearden — in a 2008 exhibition about contemporary portrayals of Black masculinity called Scene in America. The exhibit included Williams’ I Wanna Kill Sam, a graphite and acrylic representation of a Black man shouting before a backdrop that could be part of an American flag. It’s about “the frustration of being caught within the system, the system that you don’t fully understand, but that you do know is not working,” says Williams.

Since then, Williams has not struggled to get his art seen. Addressing cultural identity, signifiers of class, race and power, and the stories and myths society tells about them, his work incorporates drawing, painting and collage. Most recently, Williams says, he is focused on “Black folklore and other narratives” and is making art that “relates to Black people and movement to spaces of liberation.” The works shown on these pages incorporate these themes and will be exhibited at the Turner Carroll Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, later this year. Also in 2023, Williams will have four murals installed in Washington, D.C,. as a recipient of the National Academy of Design’s Abbey Mural Prize.

     

Left: Putting Breath in the Body #1, ink, printed material, transfer, acrylic, 23.5″x 28″, 2022

Right: Putting Breath in the Body #2, ink, printed material, transfer, acrylic, 23.5″x 28″, 2022

 

A Moment of Rest While Convincing Monsters That I Am Human, a drawn mural created for a giant wall at the entrance to the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem last year, was made following the nationwide uprisings over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, an effort to depict both the injustice and the exhaustion of that fight. “Those marches were for the bare minimum, just so that the justice system would work,” Williams says. “Not that it would do anything extraordinary — just work.” The mural depicts a man hunched over beneath a mountain of clothes, which Williams says indicates “how absurd it is, but also how exhausting it is.” Hoodies, jeans and sneakers refer to the distorted, negative stigma society puts on these signifiers of young Black men; the enormous pile indicates how they “constantly have to deal with the piling on of these perceptions.” The burdened figure persists, but pauses, “needing to take a break, and reclaim humanity,” says Williams.

Williams’ work has been exhibited at the North Carolina Museum of Art, Greensboro’s Weatherspoon Art Museum and at Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum (CAM). He has had prestigious residencies and fellowships at Duke University and the McColl Center. Most recently, he was an artist in residence at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, where he created sculptural work inspired by a quote from the author Octavia Butler: “There’s Nothing New / Under the Sun / But There Are New Suns.” Last July, Williams took a tenure-track job teaching art at the University of Florida.  OH

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.

Art of the State

Building Community

An artist and teacher, September Krueger finds connections through her practice

By Liza Roberts

September Krueger’s intricate quilts and silk paintings use subtle, watery colors, delicate stitching, layered images and the unexpected juxtaposition of organic and designed shapes and lines. They honor the natural world: birds and plants, and the environments they share. And they are the work of an artist with a deep appreciation for her subject and her medium.

From an early age, Krueger loved to draw. She studied textiles as an undergraduate in Philadelphia with the idea of becoming a fashion designer, but her graduate work at East Carolina University between 2007 and 2010 opened her eyes to the potential of textiles as an artistic medium, inspiring her to “develop layers of information on woven cloth.”

Her 77th Year, painted silk with machine and hand embroidery, 42 x 42

A kimono she made at ECU was the turning point. She was on familiar ground when it came to the sewing and structure of the garment, but found herself pulled in a new direction with the fabric itself and the stories it told. “All of the motifs were of cloth that had been batiked,” says Krueger, referring to the artistic process of using wax-resistant dye to create patterns, “and all of the batiked imagery related to religion, which comes up a lot in thinking about myself and my family.” From that point forward, function took a back seat, she says: “‘Wearable’ became less and less important.”

Krueger uses silk and other fluid fabrics in her work today, enabling her to “build up the surface in so many ways, almost like a collage artist,” often using repeated motifs like a small bird or a leaf. These also show up in her finely wrought woodblock prints.

   

Left: Goatsucker, painted silk with embroidery, 24 x 24
Right: Reward: Reveal, silkscreened on cotton sateen with machine embroidery and organza

Central to Krueger’s artistic calling, she says, is an instinct to share it and use it to build community. As director of lifelong learning at Wilmington’s Cameron Art Museum since 2020, one of her central goals is to open the museum’s offerings to new populations. Paradoxically, she says, the pandemic might have helped with that effort, because people who might not have taken themselves to the museum in ordinary times were compelled to visit virtually. Krueger’s community focus goes beyond Wilmington. In Kinston, for example, she and Anne Brennan, a fellow artist and the executive director of the Cameron Art Museum, designed tile mosaics for installation in Kinston Music Park. They were inspired by the work of iconic North Carolina artist Romare Bearden, known for his work in collage, and created it together with the young women of a community development organization called The Gate.

In addition, Krueger’s work as head of the art department at Southeastern Community College, where she has been a teacher since 2011, takes her to nearby Whiteville regularly. “I found a community immediately here in Wilmington, between the university and the community college. I found that there are outstanding artists in our community college system,” Krueger says. “And I also met people who were at different stages of life and were going back to study and figure out what they might want to do . . . Art connects them all.” OH

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.

Art of the State

Sacred FIGURES

Cristina Córdova sculpts soulful, fantastic people from clay

By Liza Roberts

“I was always very creatively inclined, and very restless,” says sculptor Cristina Córdova, as she moves – glides, really, with ease and focus – around a massive head she’s shaping out of clay in her Penland studio.   

She molds it with elegant hands, quickly, decisively, certain about what she wants this clay to be. Like the work that has made her name, it will become real, it will be soulful, thoughtful, disarming, alive. Its eyes will be hollow, but they will express sadness; its face will be impassive, but it will express stoicism.

Known for her remarkably lifelike figurative sculptures in clay, which typically range from diminutive to lifesize, Cordova grew up in Puerto Rico and earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Puerto Rico and an MFA in Ceramics from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University before moving to Penland in 2002 for a three-year residency, and subsequently making the campus her home. 

Córdova credits her mother with nurturing her creativity from an early age, steering her toward the career that has made her one of the most respected sculptors in North Carolina and a pillar of the Penland community since 2002. She credits a ceramics teacher with first showing her the potential of clay, the possibility that it could go beyond representation to “embody any idea.” At that point, she says, “the material revealed itself to me in this really exciting way. And I never looked back.”

   

Left: Cosmología Isleña

Right: Vestigios.

Still, she took some time to settle on her subject. Gradually, “I started to become a little bit more excited, more empowered to start specifically to focus on the figure.” It was a focus borne in part by her heritage. Growing up Catholic in Puerto Rico, she says, in a house with literally hundreds of depictions of saints all around her, the idea of using a figurative work of art “as a way of harnessing your emotional energy and pulling it into something sacred” was a mechanism she’d internalized. Though her current work is not religious, Córdova finds that it’s understood “at a different level” in Puerto Rico, where “Catholicism is not a choice, it’s woven into the culture, so people come to the work with a shared insight.”

Her subject may come naturally, but that doesn’t make it easy. Depicting the figure in clay is a challenge. Early in her career, Córdova found herself stuck in between two worlds, the sculptural tradition of working in the round with a live model, and the more organic ceramic tradition. Eventually, she settled on a hybrid approach, one that includes not a live model but a series of blueprints that provide her with the measurements and dimensions she needs to create a sculpted three-dimensional figure.

The head before her on this particular day — not necessarily a man nor a woman, as is sometimes the case with her figures — is imagined instead of representational, and so its blueprints are designed merely to keep her to scale, leaving room for improvisation. In other instances, she uses a series of photographs to help her create more precise blueprints.

Córdova gestures to the head before her: “I’m called right now to do things that are big, almost monolithic. I think it has something to do with what we are experiencing [with the pandemic]. I’m not interested in intimate or narrative-oriented work. I’m interested in big statements.”

Big statements seem called for by the importance and enormity of our internal worlds in such a situation, she says. “The isolation, the uncertainty, the newness — to have to take all this in without being able to respond in our normal ways . . . recourse is very limited. So you’re holding this inside of you, and that’s all you can do, is hold it, and witness it, and be with it. We need a big container for that right now. So I’m making big containers.”

   

Left: El Rey. 

Right: Del balcón.

It’s not a simple process. Beginning with a large donut-shaped piece of clay that’s laced with sand and paper pulp for stability and structure, Córdova then patches in a perpendicular slab, and then another, and then adds rings of clay, providing “the basic topography.” From there, she more fully fleshes out and articulates the shape of the head and face.

Having worked “all over the place in terms of scale” over the course of her career, the process of working in such large dimensions now excites her: “This to me is a starting point. I really want to get bigger. I have no idea how I’m going to do that.”

Córdova’s award-winning work is in the permanent collections of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Puerto Rico and many others.  OH

This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, to be published by UNC Press this fall.

Art of the State

Into Being

Painter Herb Jackson creates meticulous, vibrant abstracts

By Liza Roberts

Deep Dive

“I don’t want you to know how I work unless I tell you, because I want it to seem spontaneous,” says Herb Jackson. He’s in his Davidson studio, surrounded by the unmistakable works that have made his name; the vibrant, abstract paintings that convey energy and light and appear to have been made with swift, gestural strokes. But in reality, he notes, holding two fingers up in a narrow pinch, “I’m working about that much at a time.”

“The tricky thing is to make it not look like that,” Jackson says. “It’s a little archaeological. There’s a lot of drawing that goes on. I can work for hours on an area, and the next day completely cover it.” These palette-knifed layers accumulate, day by day, sometimes into the triple digits; many he scrapes away or sands with pumice. “If it’s not up to what I want it to be, then I just keep working,” he says. Light and shape and color and texture shift and morph, disappear and re-emerge. About two-thirds of the way through, a painting “will begin to assert itself,” and when they’re finished, “they tell me,” he explains.

Art has been communicating with Jackson since he was a child. He won his first art award when he was still a teenager as part of a juried exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art; his work has now been collected by more than 100 museums, including London’s British Museum, has been shown in more than 150 solo exhibitions around the world and has won him North Carolina’s highest civilian honor. After college at Davidson College and an MFA at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jackson returned to this college town to teach, eventually serving as chair of the art department at Davidson College for 16 years.

Along the way, Jackson created a prolific and ongoing series he calls Veronica’s Veils, all of the same size (60 by 48 inches) and format. The name refers to the historic Christian relic thought to have received an image of the face of Jesus when Saint Veronica used it to wipe his face at the sixth Station of the Cross. Jackson says these works “have nothing to do with Jesus, but have a lot to do with Veronica and her luck, being at the right place at the right time.” When one of his paintings “comes into being,” Jackson says, “that’s basically my Veronica moment.”

Jester’s Retreat

That moment coheres not any particular concept, but the confluence of everything he’s ever experienced, “which is much bigger than any one idea.” All of that can take some wrangling. “Occasionally, they’ll go beyond what I expected as far as challenging me, and I’ll put them up there and stare at them for several days, to just be absolutely sure,” he explains. “Because once I decide you’re finished, then I don’t go back in.” To do so, he says, would violate a painting’s integrity. “There are paintings from 18 years ago where I spot something I would have done differently — but I was a different artist then.”

For the last 50 years, Jackson has had two or three solo exhibitions of his paintings a year, but has recently decided to curtail those to focus on what matters most: painting for its own sake. “Committing to exhibitions became confining,” he says. “I just want to make my work.”

The Raleigh native has been drawing every day since he was a young child and selling paintings since he was 12, time enough to be many different artists. He’s still amazed by the experience and the process: “Where a painting comes from and how it comes together for me is still mystical, and has been for 60 years.” He credits his subconscious, but assumes some of his inspiration must come from art and travel and nature, from exploring the woods and creek and digging in the earth near his childhood home near the old Lassiter Mill. Some also must come, he says, from the pre-Renaissance and Byzantine paintings of the Kress Collection, which formed the foundational basis of the North Carolina Museum of Art in its original downtown home — works he regularly took the bus to go see.

“Those paintings were so formative for me. If there hadn’t been the North Carolina Museum of Art, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”  OH

This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, to be published by UNC Press this fall.

Art of the State

Super Natural

Davidson artist Elizabeth Bradford celebrates the beauty of the wild

By Liza Roberts

Photograph By Lissa Gotwals

In a former cotton shed in Mecklenburg County, Elizabeth Bradford paints the natural world around her. With extraordinary, saturated colors and meticulous, zoomed-in details, her landscapes can be exotic, surprising, even strange. They are also poetic: meditative celebrations of the beauty, interconnectedness and geometry of the natural world.

On canvases nearly as tall as she is, Bradford takes countless hours over many weeks to paint the magic she finds in nature. Sometimes it’s an eddy of water. Sometimes it’s the messy bank of a receded river, where roots protrude and collide. Trees, fields, ponds, creeks: Bradford finds wonderlands in them all. Representational, but with deep, twisting tentacles into abstraction, her canvases beg the viewer to look hard.

In January 2023, Hidell Brooks Gallery in Charlotte plans a solo exhibition of her art. Wilmington’s Cameron Art Museum exhibited a powerful one-woman show of Bradford’s work, entitled A House of One Room, in 2021. Her paintings are also in the permanent collections of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum, as well as in many top corporate collections.

This University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduate considers herself largely self-taught as an artist, but she also studied painting and lithography at Davidson College and worked as an art teacher before devoting herself full time to her craft.

Bradford says her work began to “develop a power” when she started backpacking in the mountains of North Carolina about nine years ago. With two friends, she started “going into a lot of obscure places, wild places, where the world is crazy,” she says. Now armed with a pole-mounted camera, she takes photos as she goes, hundreds of them in the space of a few days’ hike. These images become her inspiration when she returns to the studio. “Truth is stranger than fiction,” she says. “The wild is stranger than anything I can dream up.”

       

(left) Water’s Edge, (center) Weeds at the Treadwell, (right) Cumberland Island Swamp

The truth is also more meaningful. The wilder the land, the more Bradford says she finds to care about. “I’m on a mission to sensitize people to the beauty of the earth,” she says. To take things “that aren’t obviously beautiful and to render them beautiful.” She does that in large part with unexpected, vibrant oil and sometimes embedded shards of glass, something she once eschewed as a “cheap trick.” But after a number of years of hewing as close to the actual color of the natural world as possible, she decided she was selling herself short. “Why are you being this ascetic?” she says she asked herself. “Why are you denying yourself access to something you love so much? And so I started pumping up the color. And as a result I’ve gotten more imaginative, more intuitive. More soulful.”

She brings all of that to every one of her subjects, most recently weeds. “Weed studies have introduced me to some really cool forms,” she says. “Arabesques and extravagant curves. I’ve been playing with a lot of that . . . I’m always trying to keep moving outward, not just repeating the same things. I keep looking for newness.”

Actively challenging herself has become an ingrained habit, one that began the year Bradford turned 40 and made a promise to herself: “Instead of getting bummed out about getting old, every year for my birthday I would pick something I didn’t think I could do, and I would spend a year trying to do it.” That first year, she decided she would paint a painting every day. A few years ago, she made the commitment to learn French. Lately, she’s begun renovating an 1890s farmhouse, one she discovered deep in the woods on the bank of a creek, far from roads and traffic and noise. A two-hour drive from her (also 1890s-era) Davidson home, it will serve as Bradford’s summer residence and studio. “It’s my dream,” she says.

And so as she ages, Bradford’s world gets more and more interesting — not that boring is an option. “The world is just so complicated and fascinating,” she says. “There are just not enough years of life to do everything you want to do.” OH

This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, to be published by UNC Press this fall.