May 14, 2012

Mural re-creates history under NoDa bridge

A 14,000-square-foot painting on the underside of a NoDa bridge will be unveiled Saturday, marking the latest in what arts boosters hope will be a series of gussied-up city underpasses.

A 14,000-square-foot painting on the underside of a NoDa bridge will be unveiled Saturday, marking the latest in what arts boosters hope will be a series of gussied-up city underpasses.

The painting, created by Charlotte artist William Puckett, depicts the 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, when Charlotte became the first community in the 13 colonies to declare independence from Great Britain.

This weekend is the declaration’s 237th anniversary. The mural unveiling also marks the second time this year that a major underpass in the city has been turned into art.

In March, a piece called “Passing Through Light” was unveiled on the underside of Interstate 277 at West Trade Street. The artwork consists of computerized colored lights and was paid for with the help of Johnson C. Smith University and public art money administered by the Arts & Science Council. The council also gave a $5,000 grant to the NoDa mural.

More underpass art will follow, if the community makes good on a 2020 Vision Plan presented to the Charlotte City Council late last year. The plan, commissioned by the city, Mecklenburg County and Charlotte Center City Partners, recommends that I-277 underpasses be used for things like public art as a way of linking uptown to nearby neighborhoods.

Such projects have been created successfully in larger cities across the country, including a “light art” installation in the Brooklyn Bridge underpass in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Federal Street Railroad Bridge Art Gallery in Pittsburgh.

As of yet, no new underpass projects have been formally proposed, officials said. But Charlotte Center City Partners has talked to the Urban Ministry Center about an uptown underpass mural that homeless artists would paint.

City Council member Patsy Kinsey said the city could work through the Arts & Science Council to commission an artist to do another project, if public art money became available. She’s a fan of the NoDa mural, in part because one of her ancestors, Matthew McClure, was a signer of the Mecklenburg declaration.

Kinsey noted the city not only helped pay for the NoDa mural with a $25,000 neighborhood matching grant but worked with Duke Energy to repair lights under the bridge. The mural becomes city property on completion.

‘Gateways’ for travelers

Nicole Bartlett of the Arts & Science Council believes improving entrances to the city’s major corridors will impress travelers.

“Murals and mosaics are not uncommon in underpasses and aqueducts around the world,” she said. “In our society, underpasses are seen as gateways. ... Think of how often doors to buildings are decorated. It’s the same idea.”

In the case of the NoDa mural, Puckett transformed an eyesore into art in 10 months, said Hollis Nixon, president of the NoDa Neighborhood Association. The group showed its support by contributing $5,000 toward the $80,000 cost, and pitching in with volunteers to landscape the entrances. Donations made up the thousands not covered by grants, including a $3,500 gift from Puckett and his wife, Lauren.

The underpass, at Matheson and North Davidson streets, was consistently “dark, ugly and overgrown” before the project, Nixon said.

“Honestly, that underpass was not a place that you wanted to walk through at night,” Nixon said. “Now, it’s the premier art project in a community of artists. It shows we are changing with the times and aren’t afraid to think outside the box.”

Choosing a subject

Puckett came up with the idea after becoming interested in the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. He said he discovered through three months of research that all but two of the 27 signers had streets named after them in Charlotte’s northern corridor.

He did most of the work wearing rock-climbing shoes, to compensate for the slope of the bridge’s sides. Ear plugs also were required, to drown out the roar of engines and jackhammers during a construction project overhead on Matheson Street.

“It’s a whimsical painting, sort of childish, like a children’s book version of Mecklenburg County’s Declaration of Independence: a really, really big children’s book,” Puckett said.

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