As a senior graphic design major, Whitney Leach is accustomed to presenting her work to her peers and professors. “Showing a lot of the process work, having to share that with people, is something I’m pretty used to—making mock-ups and showing where your ideas come from,” she said. But last March, when the 15 students in the Mixed Media class at UNC Charlotte spoke about their designs for a set of public art murals, the stakes were higher than a midterm grade. The audience included representatives from Charlotte’s Public Art Commission, the Arts & Science Council, local art gallery LaCa Projects and the national developer, ArchCo Residential.
ArchCo Residential had commissioned the students, led by art faculty Maja Godlewska and Erik Waterkotte, to create 10 murals for the Arlo, a new apartment building on West Morehead Street in uptown Charlotte. “This was not just a class assignment,” said Godlewska, associate professor of painting. “This is for real—a lot of people outside of class will see it.” So the pressure was on, as the students came forward to explain the images projected on a large screen in the Rowe Arts painting studio. But the students were ready: They had done their research; they had honed their skills; and they had produced work for a paying customer. “As an artist it’s all about formulating and visualizing ideas, and it’s not always going to be fully your own ideas, so having to engage with clients is a good learning experience,” said Corey Hester, a senior graphic design major.
One of the dozens of new apartment buildings appearing across Charlotte’s cityscape, the Arlostands just a short distance from the heart of Wesley Heights, a community with a fascinating past and a progressive present. The century-old neighborhood was formerly a livestock farm where Charlotte’s trolley horses were fed and watered. Named a local historic district in 1994, Wesley Heights’ well-preserved homes have remained architecturally intact, and the homeowners are a diverse demographic mix. That community became the inspiration for the murals. In preparation for their designs, the students walked through the streets of Wesley Heights, sketching and photographing sights, listening to sounds and getting a feel for the physical environment. They observed the trolley and train tracks that still crisscross the landscape; they discovered old circuit blueprints inside a utility box.
“When you have a client or a viewer or an audience that you’re trying to capture, look from their perspective, really get out there,” said Darvlyn Mclean Jr., who graduated in May with a Bachelor of Arts in Art. “We did that by taking a field trip and actually being on the road, following the train tracks… Just walking along that path and being able to be in the space of the people who live there makes a world of difference when you go to pick your color schemes, materials, shapes, graphic elements, things like that. Anything of that nature, whether it’s talking to a person on the street about the neighborhood or what they know, is very good insight.”
The class then visited Special Collections at the University’s Atkins Library, where they studied, scanned and photographed old maps, images, postcards, letters and other historical documents of the neighborhood. Working in teams, and using digital technologies combined with old-fashioned handiwork, the students translated their research into poetic responses to the Wesley Heights neighborhood, past and present. “What makes a community, and how important is it that art be a part of that?" reflected Morgan Mathieu Tran, gallery and exhibitions manager for LaCa Projects. The gallery, just around the corner from the Arlo apartments, opened five years ago and represents contemporary Latin American artists. “Mural art is one of the most public forms of expression out there,” Tran said. “This is a way to not only give students an opportunity to express themselves, but to also start germinating an idea about Charlotte.”
Leran more about the Murals that Motivate here.
The mural designs were digitally printed on PVC foam board material. The students then hand-painted different elements on the surfaces, adding texture and vibrant color, and layered and glued sections of panels to create a dimensional, “bas-relief” effect. The response from the jury? “They were generally very enthusiastic, and I think everybody was excited that students—aspiring artists and designers—were producing this,” said Godlewska. Jason Jacobson, a regional partner with ArchCo Residential who had initiated the mural project, was especially pleased. “I’m thrilled with the product. It met and exceeded my expectations,” he said, adding he particularly appreciated “the real connection to the community.”
The murals were installed in August by UNC Charlotte art alumnus Todd Payne. “I hope those will be conversation pieces when people walk their dogs in the evening or ride their bike or take a stroll with their kids,” said Godlewska. “Public art is a great avenue, and a lot of artists and designers pursue that, so this is an experience that may prove to be very important later on in our current students’ careers.”