Charlotte, N.C., mixes contemporary art with community engagement

Flourishing art scene complements booming financial district in Charlotte, N.C.
BY TRACEY TEO, For The Oklahoman Published: December 28, 2013

— Let's face it. Contemporary art can be intimidating. We've all been there, staring at a painting or sculpture, with tilted head and knitted brows, thinking, “I just don't get it.”

The McColl Center for Visual Art in downtown Charlotte (locals call it Uptown) demystifies the creative process. If you want to know what the artist had in mind while sketching a scowling African woman with George Washington clinging infant-like to her naked bosom, just ask.

Progressive and forward-thinking, North Carolina's largest city embodies the “New South.” It's the nation's second-largest financial services hub after New York, but Charlotte takes as much pride in its flourishing arts scene as it does in its booming financial district. Nowhere is that more evident than at the McColl Center.

Home to one of the top artists-in-residence programs in the country, the McColl Center has nine studios with an “open door” policy three days a week. A stark contrast to distinguished programs in rural areas that cloister artists away from the community, the urban McColl Center fosters community engagement.

These artists don't revel in the cliche of being “misunderstood.” They want viewers to understand and appreciate their work, so they welcome the chance to chat about current and future exhibits.

Take North Carolina artist-in-residence Jason Watson, for example.

He's happy to discuss “Witches' Sabbath,” a work-in-progress that's a nod to Spanish romantic painter Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828).

Mixed media on canvas, the work features a phantasmagorical melange of incongruous faces and objects. Like many of Watson's drawings and installations, it was largely inspired by his global travels. Anything from bizarre African ceremonial fetishes to a day spent at one the world's great cultural sites can be a thrilling catalyst that sets Watson to drawing.

For years, Watson has been sketching archetypal and historical figures depicted in paintings and statues at historic monuments and museums, so he has a vast archive of images to pull from. When integrating the figures into his work, the facial expressions are morphed and juxtaposed against unlikely objects.

“I like to take these different faces and bodies and put them next to each other and reanimate them through the process of drawing them,” Watson says. “I create different relationships between them, a different tension between them, and suggest narratives that the viewers will bring to the piece when they see it.”

In a sense, artists are outsiders who look at a dynamic world through a unique lens, constantly interpreting those observations through their work.