Stitching Together An East Charlotte Art Trail
We've all been there: Falling into routine, getting into "the zone" doing something repetitive, tuning out the periphery. But there's a lot to be missed on the sidelines.
Take Charlotte's Monroe Road, for example. The corridor heads southeast for roughly eight miles from the end of Seventh Street at the Chantilly neighborhood to the start of John Street at the Matthews town line. John Lincoln, who's on the board of MoRA – short for Monroe Road Advocates — says the thousands of drivers who travel the street every day may see the corridor as "a blur," but it "actually has vibrancy and life to it on either side."
The nonprofit works to promote the corridor through community improvement projects, neighborhood cleanups, entertainment gatherings and even public art. So, it was kind of a natural fit when ArtWalks CLT founder Anne Wise Low got in touch with MoRA about including the area in an upcoming self-guided tour of east Charlotte creativity.
ArtWalks compiles public art installations and charts them out in ways that people can easily set out to see them – a 10-minute self-guided tour of murals in uptown or a five-minute walk that hits a cluster of murals in South End, for example. The tours also promote the artists whose work is being displayed.
More public art has been popping up on the east side in recent years, including the prominent "East Side Pride" mural by Rosalia Torres-Weiner at the intersection of Central Avenue and Eastway Drive and two MoRA projects, the 16-foot "Embrace" sculpture at Conference Drive and Monroe and "Tapestry" community mural at the Charlotte Water facility at Monroe and Idlewild Road.
But all that east side art is spread out over several miles, so an ArtWalks "walk," per se, hasn't been feasible. Low's idea: a self-guided biking or driving tour instead.
"I know that there's great art in the east side," Low said. "It's just a little bit less accessible than say, NoDa or South End, so what this will do is make it accessible so that people can go find it and be able to draw the connections ... and sort of create that idea of what we're calling a trail."
And the Monroe Road corridor is set to be a major part of that, starting with a new project that will give three crosswalks colorful – and meaningful – makeovers. Multidisciplinary artist MyLoan Dinh and mixed-media artist Michelle "Bunny" Gregory, founder of the Underground venue, will spearhead the project.
The installations will be off Monroe, with one near Oakhurst STEAM Academy, one near the "Embrace" sculpture and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library's Independence branch and one near the intersection of Sardis Road North and Monroe.
Dinh says she not only wants the crosswalks to be noticeable to drivers so things are safer for pedestrians, but she wants them to help tell the story of one of the most diverse areas of Charlotte. That idea fits well with something else that has influenced Dinh's work in the past: patchwork quilts.
"It's all about community, and it's about sharing bits and pieces in the physical way — bits and pieces of fabric, but what I interpret that as is bits and pieces of our stories, of our lives, of family, of friends," Dinh said. "And particularly, this area of town is very diverse, culturally."
But how do you collect bits and pieces of culture and community, especially during a pandemic? Dinh and Gregory have a plan.
"We're going to actually create patterns that people could color on and draw on and distribute them in different ways," Dinh said. "Folks can actually do stuff on them and then send them back to us and also share a story with us about their exposure to quilts or community or stories that somehow are inspired by patchwork quilts."
Plus, they'll make patchwork quilt kits, which they plan to distribute through businesses along the corridor and even those "little library" book exchange stands in neighborhoods. Ideally, people would snap photos of their creations and send them to Dinh and Gregory.
Outreach will begin toward the end of this month. Dinh says she and Gregory plan to meet – though possibly virtually, given COVID-19 – with as many participants as possible before putting together their own crosswalk designs based on submissions.
The quilt-style crosswalks won't include words.
"When people share stories with us, what we're going to do is imagine what would that look like visually, and how does that come across as a pattern, and how to we connect one person's story with another person's story?" Dinh said. "Those will create those little patches, if you will."
Dinh hopes a participant might be walking one day and step on something familiar.
"People might be like, 'Oh my gosh, that's part of what we created at home,'" Dinh said. "I hope that people can see themselves in this."
And that inclusion is a big part of Dinh's goal. She says public art in the city hasn't always accurately represented the population, but that things are changing. She noted the Torres-Weiner mural's location at a gateway to a side of town with more Latino residents, and her and Gregory's crosswalk art will be prominent displays created by Vietnamese American and African American artists.
"This east side trail is part of this process of creating, I think, more inclusion of folks who might not have been represented in the past as artists," Dinh said.
Dinh hopes to complete the crosswalks in spring 2021. Lincoln, of MoRA, says there's more to come.
"This is not a one-and-done thing," Lincoln said. "This is our ongoing effort to stitch together all of our community."
The project is one of 24 to be recently awarded funds from the Arts and Science Council's Cultural Vision Grant program. The trail project got $2,500 out of the $148,700 that was divvied up between recipients. Other projects include efforts to support art exhibitions and social justice talks in South End, a ballet studio that takes dance lessons to community centers across the city and even an international street food and music festival that's moving online because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"The real purpose is to use arts, science and history as a way of building community and bringing people together across points of difference, really making sure that we're uplifting and celebrating the communities and cultures that make up our Mecklenburg County area," said Liz Fitzgerald, program director for grants and services at ASC.
Public art's a big part of that. Dinh says there's just something special about it.
"It's probably the most democratic of ways of experiencing art because it's on the streets and it's free," Dinh said. "And the thing I think about the east side is it's so culturally diverse... That's the part that was so exciting to me about this, is that it really is going to reflect the people who live within those neighborhoods."
A quick note: John Lincoln is a member of WFAE's Community Advisory Board.
A version of this story originally appeared in WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here.