Ever Higher, Ever Upward: New Excelsior Sculpture Honors Charlotte's West End History
J. Stacy Utley met Dorothy Counts-Scoggins a couple of times at community meetings in Charlotte’s West End recently, but it was the picture of her from more than 60 years ago that kept projecting in the artist’s mind.
That’s the picture where Counts-Scoggins, then just 15 years old, held her head high as she walked into Harding High School in 1957, integrating the school as a crowd of mostly white children and adults jeered and spat at her.
It’s become a famous representation of the nobility and strength needed to overcome segregation and racism.
And it’s what’s featured on one of two new public art pieces that together form “Excelsior” in the West End’s new Five Points Plaza. Both “Ever Higher” and “Ever Upward” — which together, form “Excelsior” — are being installed now, with finishing touches expected this weekend.
Counts-Scoggins lives in the West End area, and attended Johnson C. Smith University there. When Utley was tasked with designing the public art pieces that would be displayed in the new plaza slated to open at the end of the year, he wanted to make sure to include meaningful images that would resonate with the community.
Few things represented the community better than Counts-Scoggins, Utley said.
“It's one thing to see the picture,” Utley said. “But when you meet the person and you find out how much this person reminds you so much of a relative, this is how genuinely sweet this woman is, and to see all that she had to endure, I felt strongly like she needed to be a part of this.”
So that picture is one of three images on “Ever Higher.” The others are of the Excelsior Club, a longtime center of Black social and political life in Charlotte, and Biddle Hall at neighboring Johnson C. Smith University.
That sculpture has three metal panels, ranging from 18 to 28 feet tall. Utley says it’s intended to represent both a tree and a quilt – rooted in the community and stitched together.
“And then it’s also kind of formed into a torch because it's talking about passing on the torch to the next generation, because it’s right across the street from a university,” he said.
“Ever Upward,” meanwhile, is formed from pieces of metal found at various points on West Trade Street and on the southwest side of Interstate 77. They rise 7 feet high, and Utley says evoke both hands in prayer and legs walking on a “faith walk.”
“The cool thing about it — and I like to think that we were that smooth with it — but when you look at it coming down West Trade Street, it looks like a ‘W,’” Utley said. “So it looks like it's kind of introducing you into the West End.”
Utley created the public art project in collaboration with Edwin Harris, of Durham's Evoke Studio Architecture, who is a former classmate at North Carolina State. Utley’s own background is in architecture, but he turned to art full time more than a decade ago. He also teaches at Charlotte Country Day School.
He’s sought public art projects in recent years because of the work he’s done in his career with African American communities and gentrification of city neighborhoods. Some of his early college work focused on the gentrification of his own childhood neighborhood in Raleigh.
“And so when this project came up, it was something that I really felt a connection with and I felt passionate about it,” he said. “And I wanted to go after it because I wanted to tell the story and the importance of that community. I feel like when it comes to public art, public art does not belong to the artist. It belongs to the public. And I wanted to create an art piece that reflected that community.”
Charlotte’s West End community is rapidly changing as the Gold Line streetcar through the neighborhood nears completion. That’s why Utley says it’s important to celebrate the history of the area. And why he wanted to make certain that Counts-Scoggins was part of the display.
He said he didn’t ask for Counts-Scoggins' permission. He simply told her, “I hope you know, your face is going to go on this piece.”
“She just kind of laughed and said she was really honored,” Utley said. “But the honor was more mine, more of us to do it just because of who she is and what she means to so many people. You know, we stand on her shoulders and we want to make sure we honor people while they're here and give them the respect that they deserve.”
Counts-Scoggins told QCity Metro that “My hope is this will be a piece that will be able to teach the history of not only me but the university as well and the Excelsior Club. That is what it’s all about. We’re losing so much of our history. At least I will know that this history will be standing there long after I’m gone.”