When Amy Bagwell was in third grade her teacher instructed each member of the class to write a poem.
“My first poem was about a baby deer lying in the grass,” she says. Her teacher returned it scrawled with accolades.
Today Bagwell is sharing her love of poetry by spearheading The Wall Poems of Charlotte, which brings poems by North Carolina writers to buildings and other outdoor surfaces in uptown Charlotte.
On Fifth Street the words of award-winning Whiteville-raised, Irish-American poet A.R. Ammons crawl toward the street from the second story of Dandelion Market. “Salute” – the poem that graces the black side wall of Kevin Devin’s restaurant and bar – was the first of many that will be taking over uptown with lyrical, thought-provoking messages.
The poem begins: “May happiness pursue you …” The sentiment spoke to Devin – an Irish transplant who also owns Connolly’s and Prohibition.
“It fit the business. It’s warm and friendly,” says Devin, sitting with his baby daughter on a quiet Monday afternoon at Dandelion with Bagwell, an English instructor at Central Piedmont Community College, and Graham Carew, art director for The Wall Poems. Carew – a friend and fellow Irishman – approached Devin with the idea. Devin is no stranger to the arts: He co-produces the annual AWOL music festival in SouthPark and hosts DJs at his businesses.
“It was right up my alley,” says Devin, who read countless poems in search of the right one to literally mark the alleyway beside his restaurant. “I love art and culture and now I’m starting to love poetry.”
Poem selection for the murals starts with Bagwell and Carew, who suggest poems and writers to a business owner such as Devin. For his building they searched for an Irish-American poet. The design is created by students from CPCC’s Advertising and Graphic Design program. The project gives students experience as they tailor the design to the location, the business and the client.
For Dandelion, the design, which was painted by Scott Nurkin of Bona Fide Murals, was created by Jennifer Raudales last fall for her Typography I class.
“Charlotte as a city has become a great spot for culture and art,” Raudales says. “There are so many different ways to interpret words other than just reading them – the way the words look, the typeface, the color, the space in between letter forms. ... When I was designing, I wasn’t thinking about the combination of the different art forms as much as I was thinking about the best way to interpret the poem.”
A wall, another poem
In September, a second poem appeared on the William Treloar House (known as the bail bond building) across from ImaginOn on East Seventh Street. Part of the “Inside Out 11M” project, it uses photos of people from the community pasted on buildings to convey diversity and draw attention to immigration issues. The installation, which was initiated by the Latin American Coalition locally, is happening in more than 20 cities. Along with the large printed photographs that cover the boarded-up windows of the dark red building is an excerpt from Charleston-born poet Jon Pineda’s “Memory in the Shape of a Swimming Lesson.”
The wall facing Seventh Street is the first of seven donated by Levine Properties, including the Dixie’s Tavern building and one located at the future Ninth Street light rail stop. Poems will soon appear on news racks reserved for public art along Tryon Street. Those 3-by-11-foot news-rack frames, which are on loan from Center City Partners, won’t be permanent installments and will contain excerpts.
“At every corner it’s been met with positive feedback,” Carew says. “It’s an open conversation. No one has said no.”
“The space on the back of the news racks along Tryon and College Streets can only be used for art and events space – not for advertising – so it seemed a perfect match to showcase this temporary arts project,” says Robert Krumbine of Charlotte Center City Partners.
The idea came to Bagwell in 2009 while teaching a seminar on “Getting Poetry to the People” as a graduate student at Queens University of Charlotte.
She discovered the Leiden Walls of Holland, where 101 poems in different languages dot the buildings of the small city of Leiden. A few years later she mentioned the idea to Carew. As an artist who often incorporates texts into his painting, Carew was interested in the idea of combining public art, text and images.
As a teenager Bagwell was drawn to poet E.E. Cummings’ twisty, experimental style of deliberately placing words on paper.
“That might be where I got obsessed with the visual side,” she says.
The end goal is to have a walking tour of The Wall Poems of Charlotte where words rise stories tall or are hidden in nooks for passers-by to discover. She and Carew, who is attuned to the street art phenomenon in other cities, bonded over the idea that written words in public view, particularly in rougher areas, can improve a community.
Living amid poetry
For Bagwell, it all connects back to exposing as many people to poetry as possible before it becomes a lost art.
“I love that it celebrates literature from the state and highlights CPCC students under the umbrella of spreading poetry. The reason to do this is to bring poetry to the people. It’s our expression. It’s how we started writing, it’s how we remembered things – epic poems that we’d memorize and sing to one another,” Bagwell says.
“Jazz is the same way. Jazz couldn’t have roots any further from where it is now. It’s the real American musical art form that’s based largely in the African-American experience, and now what is it? Rich white people. Poetry is the same way and I believe poetry can change people’s lives.”
She suspects poetry walls are good for the city, too.
“I read that when New York did these trains and buses with excerpts from poems on them, crime dropped.” She pauses, still brimming with enthusiasm, not far from the kid excited about her teacher’s positive feedback: “It’s good for the psychological landscape.”
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