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What Charlotte’s public art says about how we view world

By Marc Gustafson
Special to the Observer

We have all heard it whenever we travel to distant places. “Oh, you’re from Charlotte. I’ve been there. It’s such a clean city.”

I like clean. Clean bathrooms, clean hands, clean clothes. But I believe Charlotte is so much more than clean.

Maybe we don’t display our history as readily or as comfortably as cities like Charleston or Boston, but we have a story to tell, and I believe public art is a good step toward telling that story.

Typically, art is displayed in private places or at least places that aren’t readily accessible to the public like museums, galleries and living rooms. Bringing art out of these places and into public spaces is like inviting the world into our homes. And just as art can tell you something about its collector, displaying our public art for all to see provides a view into our collective souls. It can tell others who we are, where we came from, how we view the world that we share, which direction we would like to travel and how we interact with each other.

Public art, then, should be a reflection of our community. As the Public Art Commission, which manages the ordinance, the Arts & Science Council and the community celebrate 10 years of the city and county ordinance appropriating 1 percent of eligible capital improvement projects for public art, this is an appropriate time to reflect on what our public artwork communicates to the world.

To me, “Passing Through Light” under the I-77 overpass as you head west on Trade Street to Johnson C. Smith University and Beatties Ford Road speaks volumes about our community. Artist Erwin Redl uses changing LED lights to guide viewers from uptown to the West End. This imagery is not just aesthetic but asks us to consider the possibility of passing from a gleaming center city through what was once a dark tunnel to a stressed corridor and coming out on the other side of a neighborhood that continues to show a promise that reflects its long history of pride.

Similarly, “Canopy” by artist Billy Lee brightens a busy intersection in the Steele Creek community. The painted aluminum sculpture of a tree in front of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department at Westinghouse Boulevard and South Tryon Street depicts the many trees in the Steele Creek community that serve as a shelter but also represents the police as a pillar of protection. The soft white of the sculpture often reflects the beautiful Carolina blue sky above.

These are just two ways in which public art creates the fabric of our community. We may not always notice it as we pass by. It may even blend into the background at times. But it adds to our surroundings. After 10 years, the public art ordinance stands as a testament to the city’s and county’s willingness to work together to enhance our community. And as our public art collection grows, it allows us to invite visitors into our living spaces to hear our story and to understand we are more than a collection of shiny buildings, but a place with a storied past, a clear present and a limitless future.

Marc Gustafson is an attorney at Essex Richards and chair of the Public Art Commission.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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