Protests, Pandemic Inspire Art In North Carolina. But How Will It Be Preserved?

Jun 28, 2020

This is no ordinary year.

A pandemic is sweeping across the world as cries for changes to address systemic racism fill the streets of American cities. The economy is reeling, and a presidential election is looming. But sometimes self-expression thrives amid turmoil.

"There's a lot to be frustrated about," said Charlotte artist Dyair Steele. "We're cooped up, social distancing, and we are having to confront a very old, ugly energy that's been in our nation for quite some time and it's coming to a head now. We're going to have to confront that. It weighs heavily on your psyche...

"Your art is your voice. It's another type of voice."

Dyair Steele poses next to a mural he painted on plywood on South Tryon Street.
Credit COURTESY DYAIR ART

Protesters demanding an end to systemic racism and police brutality haven't just marched and chanted. They've also made signs, designed T-shirts and in some cases painted entire murals. A block of South Tryon Street in uptown Charlotte is now home to a city-sponsored Black Lives Matter mural, and other paintings adorn plywood boards that businesses used to shore up their windows.

And while many people have been wearing masks, you've probably noticed a bit of design variety. Some homemade masks have patterns from whatever fabric was lying around the maker's house, while some others have incorporated Black Lives Matter messaging for people who want to protest with a bit of COVID-19 protection.

All of those different things have something in common. They all help tell the story of this moment in time. And that's a story the North Carolina Museum of History wants to preserve.

"We want to tell the story of all North Carolinians, and we want to make sure we're doing it in a thoughtful way as we're moving forward," said RaeLana Poteat, chief curator at the Raleigh-based museum. "We're interested in hearing from people and collecting a wide range of things from the movement... We want to be able to tell this story to future generations."

So the museum and the State Archives of North Carolina want submissions. The archives can help preserve photos, videos and digital elements, but the museum is looking for physical objects.

"Hopefully, between the two of us, the state really is able to give future visitors and patrons an idea of what it was like to live during this time and how that varied from person to person and how different opinions were held across the state and how people were affected in different ways by everything that was going on during this amazing year," Poteat said.

The North Carolina Museum of History is collecting items that showcase the coronavirus pandemic -- including homemade masks.
Credit N.C. Museum of History

The museum is also collecting items specific to the coronavirus pandemic. And Poteat says staff would like to score some of the plywood art that's been popping up in cities across the state.

She's taken her kids to look at the murals in Raleigh and noted that people across the state have been snapping photos of similar impromptu installations.

"I think it's a moment that has offered lots of opportunities for discussion among family members, friends and acquaintances, and I think seeing what's going on helps lead to talking about history and about the world we live in today," Poteat said. "We want to be a part of telling that story in the future and helping those conversations continue over time through generations."

And artists like Steele want their work to spark those conversations. The 37-year-old has a background in illustration and portraits, but he's becoming known around Charlotte for his murals, too. His pieces add color around town, including one near Shamrock Gardens Elementary School, where he teaches art, one in the Levine Children's Hospital and, most recently, one on South Tryon Street.

Steele helped paint the letter M on the Black Lives Matter mural but then came back the next day to make his statement on plywood. Steele's mural — three Black protesters wearing COVID-19 face masks while carrying a Black Lives Matter banner — has been the subject of plenty of social media posts from passersby since. Steele's OK with that, and he says the impact of art right now can't be understated.

Protesters march through uptown Charlotte on June 8.
Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE

"I teach my students that art is a visual language," Steele said. "Regardless of our language barriers, we all can see and understand art. It's meant to capture certain moments in time — there's no time period in history that hasn't been documented by art."

And that's certainly happening now.

"I think this time is a very surreal time," Steele said. "... We'll get through this. This too will pass, but hopefully, we'll get through this stronger and better, and hopefully, art will be on the forefront of leading that fight and change."

Art about this moment might be front and center at exhibits in the future, too. So far, North Carolina Museum of History staff hasn't been able to collect anything because of pandemic restrictions, but plans are budding for a future exhibit.

No item is too small -- or, theoretically, too big -- to be considered.

"We do have to keep our storage capacity in mind," she said. "That's something especially when we're looking at the plywood murals that's going to be a challenge for us. We only have so much space, but we never want to turn away an amazing object."

Folks interested in contributing content can use this form or email Poteat at raelana.poteat@ncdcr.gov.

A version of this story originally appeared in our weekly arts and entertainment newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here

Iamoni McClellan, right, paints the name of Emmett Till on a board remembering victims of racist violence June 5 at Freedom Park in Charlotte.
Credit Steve Harrison / WFAE