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Meet The Couple Who Set Foundation For NoDa's Arts District

Courtesy: Ruth Lyons

Today, Charlotte’s NoDa neighborhood is known as a creative hub where artists go to live, work and play.

But in the 70s and early 80s, the area was known for its vacant textile mills. The future looked grim.

Then, a new vision started to emerge when a young artist couple arrived 30 years ago and showed what’s possible. WFAE’s Kim Watson Brooks has their story.

In 1983, Paul Sires and Ruth Ava Lyons saw opportunity in a building along North Davidson Street that was in such bad shape, no bank would loan them money. And for good reason.

The building was just four boarded up storefronts with a collapsing roof.

So they financed with the owner, and went to work:

“The first couple of days we were out there working, across the street you could hear people, and there were a couple of guys hanging out in the doorway and I just remember being out there and hearing some conversation and the word ‘artists’ and everyone laughing inside the bar,” Paul recalls.

The heckling went away as Paul and Ruth continued to work and earn the neighborhood’s respect.

“Of course they didn’t understand what the artist part meant, but when they saw us with hammers and saws in our hands, they could identify with us,” Ruth says.

Each renovated part of the building became a new studio for Paul and Ruth. Paul is a sculptor and Ruth is a painter, but they were becoming something else: Community leaders. Architect and former North Davidson resident, Craig Isaac remembers those early days as what was then called North Charlotte began to transform into NoDa.

“I don’t know how many times we walked the neighborhood handing out flyers for people to come to meetings. The thought was, if we can get the neighborhood looking good, and people caring about that, it’s going to help the business district,” Issac says. “And then when the empty storefronts got filled there was more and more activity in the business district."

That activity included Paul and Ruth’s own Center of the Earth Art Gallery, the area’s first of its kind and a NoDa landmark until they closed the doors in 2010. The NoDa Neighborhood and Business Association says the gallery helped give birth to NoDa as an “arts district.”

They’re just two people that you’re going to follow and you’re going to respect. That’s just the way it is,” Isaac says.

Today, NoDa has more than a few dozen arts venues, bars and restaurants. You can go to this arts district to experience live theater, comedy and music. Ruth says she and Paul were really just being artists when they bought that first building.

“This is also historically what artists do,” Ruth says. “They go into areas that are neglected and substandard housing and just areas that time has forgotten. They are so resourceful, they have to learn how to be resourceful to survive.”

That’s not to say there aren’t problems. Some people are worried about what the light rail extension will mean to NODA. The fear is the spirit of the community will change and residents will be priced out.

“When the light rail comes through five years from now – you’re starting to see development already - if you don’t like it now or you wish it was like it was, then you’re going to really hate it because it’s going to be different,” Paul says. “It’ going to be more people and more apartment buildings and more development. So just look for the next place.”

Paul and Ruth moved from Michigan to Charlotte more than 30 years ago because Paul needed health insurance and took the first job that offered him coverage. The plan was to stay a year and move on. That plan changed after they returned from a prestigious residency in Omaha. They were both determined to find their own studio space.

Their artistic work has earned acclaim. Paul primarily works with granite and draws inspiration from nature. His work is known to create the illusion of a floating sculpture and can be seen outside Time Warner Cable Arena, at the entrance of Reedy Creek Park and in places like the Duke Energy building.

"You go out, you buy a piece of granite that is shaped in some way whether it’s art or a counter top or whatever, that will outlast you. That will be around well after you’re gone and probably your kids and even their kids, " says Paul. 

Ruth also draws inspiration from nature. Her paintings focus on what breaks down in the environment and resurfaces as something new. Her work is on display at the Hidell Brooks Gallery and she is one of 20 local artists commissioned for the ArtPop series. Over the next year, their work will be featured on Charlotte area billboards. The project excites her because it reaches a mass audience.

“People can be profoundly affected by it on a day-to-day basis,” she says.

But their work is already on display every day in NoDa. After all, they help set its foundation for how we know the neighborhood today. Their advice for the next generation: If you see something missing, create it yourself.

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.