Charlotte Artist's 'The Promise' Keeps Awareness On Tent City And Homelessness
Traffic whizzes by as artist and Queens University professor Mike Wirth stands next to large panels of wood waiting to be assembled into a free-standing wall. Wirth's creation will live in the Camp North End parking lot for the duration of Passover, which begins this Saturday evening.
Wirth’s mural is part of a national arts initiative called “Dwelling in a Time of Plagues.” Jewish artists and authors around the country portray their responses to the plagues of today. Wirth says housing insecurity is the modern-day plague he wanted to tackle.
"Many of us have never experienced homelessness to know what it's like," Wirth said. "And I think that's scary. That gives us a certain amount of complacency and problems don't get solved."
His contribution is a depiction of the once-sprawling encampment near uptown known as Tent City that he used to drive by regularly.
"Tent City is now effectively gone from the space. But that was starting to become like a symbol and like a place. And, gosh, if it didn't strike me as a Jewish person of the Israelites in the middle of the desert wandering, wondering why they can't enter the land," Wirth said. "I imagine these people think, ‘Why can't I enter society? Like, you know, this is the richest country in the world, but yet I can't access that.'"
Wirth’s rendition of Tent City draws inspiration from Vincent Van Gogh’s "Starry Night." In the mural, it’s late — the sky is dark with swirling yellow stars. Dark blue tents are scattered throughout the image. The focal point is a tent in the center. Viewers can make out silhouettes of those dwelling inside.
“These are your neighbors” is written in small print on this center tent, which is painted in yellows and oranges. It’s bright and almost glowing from an unseen source of warmth.
"That was the thing that struck me was, man, it's cold out there," Wirth said. "And I know the average person who I'm trying to speak to, if they felt one minute of that would act."
Look closer near the top of the illuminated tent and you’ll see the title of Wirth’s painting spelled out:"The Promise."
"I use the Hebrew word for the promise, which is havtachah, and it means the promise of God," Wirth said.
There’s an underlying understanding in both religion and society, Wirth says, that people will be taken care of. They have been promised that. When that promise is broken, there’s a lack of trust, which is what he wants people to consider when thinking about Tent City.
There’s a lot of intention behind the mural’s current location at Camp North End. For one, it’s pointed at a high-traffic area that Wirth hopes will create an opportunity of reflection for commuters who drive by. And the second reason for this location is right across the street: hat's where the Charlotte Hebrew Cemetery is.
"And creating this piece, you know, has the cultural connection as well as that proximity to the to the sacred ground," he said. "But it's part of a tour."
That tour is another layer to this piece. Because it is painted onto a free-standing wall, it’s mobile. The mural will be stationed at Camp North End through Passover. Later, in April, on Easter Sunday, it moves to its next location, the Queens University campus in the Myers Park neighborhood.
"I think, 'What if Tent City were to come to Myers Park? How would we handle the issue?'" Wirth said. "So, in an artistic way, we're going to make that happen through images."
Wirth wants this version of Tent City to allow people to pause, to think about what they would do if they were living in homelessness — especially in a more affluent neighborhood like Myers Park. And he hopes it will inspire those with the financial means to give to local organizations that are helping those in need.
Wherever the mural is located, Wirth wants it to start a dialogue — especially, he says, as we start to think about leaving the pandemic behind. It’s something he’s been reflecting on.
"Did I use my time wisely? Did I grow? Did I change? Am I going to be better when I'm on the other side? And that's not for everybody to dive into themselves with," Wirth said. "But I want people to maybe have a little more empathy, maybe think about their neighbor a little more than they are. That's not hard."
Tent City is no longer visible as people drive by uptown, but the issues around what caused it in the first place, are still at the forefront of this artist’s mind.
Wirth’s mural is a reminder of the displaced and often forgotten in the city. He hopes people will give their time and resources to address the issue —whether people remember seeing the physical tents on cold winter nights or these now painted ones that remind us of what once stood.