Back in May, when artist Monique Luck led workshops at the new Renaissance community near the Charlotte airport, residents kept asking – a little skeptically, Luck says – about the collage they were working on together: “What’s this going to be?”
Luck told her artistic accomplices – senior citizens, families and young children – they’d have to wait and see. She needed them to cut out words and pictures from magazines, sign their names and they’d all find out, in time, what it would become.
From a troubled past ...
The Renaissance is what became of Boulevard Homes.
In 2012, the city demolished Boulevard Homes, a crime-plagued public housing development. The 40-year-old apartments off West Boulevard had a sad distinction: They were the site of the only double police homicide in Charlotte’s history – the 1993 shootings of Officers Andy Nobles and John Burnette.
There were a lot of mothers in the old Boulevard Homes ... It was clear that the ideas of mother, returning and family had to be part of this piece.
Artist Monique Luck
But they were also home to families who tended gardens, loved neighbors and raised children.
Beverly Ann Miller, 58, was one of the residents then. And she’s among a handful to move back.
She and other neighbors were part of Luck’s workshops, helping to create a public artwork that could be a focal point of the new community. Miller chose to cut out letters from a magazine to spell “Welcome back.”
Luck found that sentiment so powerful, she changed the name of her site-specific, mixed-media collage from “Dreams of the Past, Present and Future” to “Welcoming Dreams” – honoring both a rebirth and a homecoming.
The Renaissance, modeled after the successful Villages at East Lake community in Atlanta, is home to people of different incomes, now a guiding principle for affordable housing in this country, and a reversal of old policies that concentrated poverty in large public housing developments.
The community includes a completed 110-unit independent living facility for fixed-income and disabled seniors and 224 completed mixed-income apartments and townhomes. A child development center operated by the YMCA and pre-K-8 CMS STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) elementary school are also planned for the site. There’s a community center with a computer lab where residents can work on resumes and search for jobs. Kids do homework here.
The waiting list for a unit – once more than 3,000 names long – is now down to 1,000. That number speaks to both the appeal of The Renaissance and the severity of Charlotte’s affordable housing shortage.
The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture calls the sculpture “a powerful focal point for a new community rising from a troubled past” in its news release. The piece is the first effort in the Gantt’s Community Arts Project, and Gantt officials promise an announcement soon about next year’s project.
A mosaic of memory
You can’t miss the colorful outdoor sculpture, installed Oct. 12 on the roundabout just inside The Renaissance’s entrance. It’s seven separate pieces – Luck said when she saw the site, she knew it called for more than one – set in acrylic and mounted on stakes set in concrete. The work catches the light – and your eye – as you enter.
Artist Monique Luck told the residents at her workshops: “I really want part of you in the piece.”
The largest of the pieces is a woman, shown in profile, with a glorious mane of hair blowing behind her. She’s made up, mosaic-style, of all the torn paper, children’s scribbles, old photos and magazine clippings. She’s sunny yellow, aquamarine, hot pink, chartreuse, ebony, vermillion, purple, more.
“I want this to be any woman,” Luck said. Neither black nor white. Not Asian or Hispanic. Everyone.
She is, Luck imagines, a mother. “There were a lot of mothers in the old Boulevard Homes,” she said. “After talking to residents, it was clear that the ideas of mother, returning and family had to be part of this piece.”
There’s another acrylic-protected collage that features a little girl. She’s based on a photo of a former resident. Renaissance West Community Initiative’s Mack McDonald – currently chief operating officer, becoming CEO in January – said his staff is trying to find out who that little girl is and where she is now.
On installation day, Luck was delighted with what she called the “stained-glass effect.” The sculpture looks different depending on where the sun hits. One side is subtle and quiet while the other is boisterous.
“It amazes me how simple imagery and color can transform a space in a community,” Luck says.
Art binds a community
The Renaissance residents can point with pride to their community’s sculptural centerpiece and say, “We had a hand in that.” But they can also take pride in knowing the work was designed by a respected artist.
The honor of creating art for The Renaissance came with a $5,000 grant, awarded by the Gantt Center and funded by Bank of America.
Originally from California, Luck has done public work before: She was chosen to create an Art Pop billboard in 2014, and created an installation for the Cornelius Community Garden. In Pittsburgh, she painted murals for the August Wilson Center and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
She’s only lived in Charlotte since 2007, but that’s been long enough, she says, to see that Charlotte is constantly changing. With this piece, she set out to honor both past and future.
At the May workshops, she gave residents magazines and encouraged them to clip their favorite images. At Luck’s urging, senior citizens brought objects that held special significance – a jewelry box, an embroidered teddy bear, an afghan. Luck photographed them. She explained that she’d use their photos and collages in the final product. “I really want part of you in the piece,” she told them.
She also showed them some of her finished collages to give them idea of what she was going for. “You made that?” one woman asked increduously. “That’s great.”
Once Luck had residents’ contributions, she did more research on the community’s history, reading about the police shootings, thumbing through old photographs.
Then she began sifting through the pieces in her home studio, cutting and tearing, positioning and gluing. As always happens, bits of paper was soon everywhere. Paper gets stuck to her leg, ends up in her shower, even finds its way onto her dog, Vander, a boxer who serves as studio companion.
She included many names in the piece: Travis, Thomas, Ana M are there, in children’s careful handwriting. There’s Mrs. Betty, and there, the fallen officers’ first names – Andy and John.
Seeing the names is a reminder of how far this community has come. A transformation has taken place. There’s a sense of optimism.
That was the goal, Mack McDonald said. “We want this sculpture to give residents hope.
“Seeing this is a great way to start your day – or be welcomed home.”