From ruin to art house

A new project at the old Virginia Paper Co. building in uptown will pay tribute to one of the city's most famous artists while sprucing up a building that has long been an eyesore.

Last week, crews installed about 20 vinyl art panels, designed by Hopewell High graphic design students, over the windows of the old Virginia Paper warehouse building at Third and Graham streets.

The art depicts scenes of city life and was inspired by collages and other works by Charlotte-born Romare Bearden, one of the foremost African-American artists of the 20th century.

Bearden, who died in 1988, will have a future county park named for him, slated to be built across the street from Virginia Paper.

The paper building was built in 1937 as a distribution center for wholesale paper and was among the last large industrial buildings built in the center city.

The abandoned warehouse now sits on land that is supposed to one day hold a ballpark for the Charlotte Knights baseball team. But the stadium project has been delayed, and the building had fallen into disrepair.

Christie Kahil, director of educational programming for the Arts & Science Council, said the agency was approached earlier this year to help improve the appearance of the building. The council teamed with the McColl Center for Visual Art, which then linked up with the Hopewell class.

New-media artist Annabel Manning, a former McColl artist-in-residence, gave a presentation about Bearden last month to the Hopewell students, and highlighted his popular collages, "The Block" and the "Mecklenburg Series."

The latter featured Bearden's recollections of time he spent in the county as a child.

The students then spent about two weeks in October designing the panels, which include pictures of a church, school, street musicians and other images, said Hopewell graphics arts teacher Ben Premeaux, who used students from three of his classes on the project.

The Hopewell teens themselves are shown in the art, with some panels featuring mashed-up photos of the students - an effort to help show unity and diversity in the community, Premeaux said.

Premeaux, a future McColl Center artist-in-residence, said the students were excited that their work would be highlighted on the uptown building. "An artist would have killed for an opportunity to create a project on this scale," he said.

Kahil said leaders hope to display the art for up to two years. It could come down earlier if the building is demolished for the ballpark. However, the Knights' current contract with the county states demolition can't happen until the team has lined up financing for the ballpark.