Local Arts

Salt and tassels, weaves and clay – and $10K each

Meet the four Charlotteans awarded 2017 fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council. The program, started in 1980, awarded $10,000 grants to 17 artists this year to support a varied array of work. From these parts come:

Andrea Vail

(Above: Vail; her “Island,” photos by Brandon Scott; and her “Woven Community,” photo by Terry Brown.)

Fiber artist Vail, 36, creates sculptural homes for discarded goods, and initiates community art projects with neighbors and strangers as co-collaborators. She earned her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. Vail’s collaboration “Friendge” is a tassel-laden exhibit that began when an 8-year-old cousin began collecting tassels in response to images Vail posted online. The organic piece currently has more than 300 collaborators, from Quebec to Hawaii. “Woven Community” is a communal tapestry created on a 6- x 8-foot moveable loom that travelled the streets of downtown Richmond. Donations of knitted and crocheted works were unraveled by VCU students, then woven at locations ranging from a comedy club to a library. Vail plans to merge her community work and her sculptural work.

Q. Why is fiber your medium of choice?

A. It translates well for me, because my studio work is situated around themes of the domestic landscape, and overabundance, and mass production, so I’m using materials that are either domestic home goods, or mass-produced and discarded. I try to find a new life for them, and oftentimes they end up looking like landscapes.

Q. Can you speak to your 2015 sculpture “Duck Pond”?

A. There was a time when duck napkin rings were in style, because I find so many of them. I want to create a new environment for them. With the water hose, now they have a water source, and it’s awkward, but maybe that’s a more natural environment for them.

Q. How about the 2015 sculpture “Island”?

A. It’s made of reticulated plates. There’s an element of humor, or curiosity. Why do those plates have holes? They have a history because a lot of them are from a trip that someone took. I realized that I could use those holes to thread the pink polyester, and the shape of the polyester net would mimic the holes, and continue the reticulation. The pink is awkward because it is so fleshy. It undulates and makes waves and I realized that it started looking like an island.

Q. Why are you attracted to community projects?

A. I’ve never been the type of artist who works in solitude. In the studio work I’m making connections between orphaned objects. In the community work, I’m interested in creating authentic scenarios, and meaningful partnerships. If I can get people’s hands working, I’ve seen communication happen effortlessly.

John W. Love Jr.

(Above, Love, photo by Jeff Cravotta, and his “Neequa’s Shoe” and “Black Alum Gris Gris,” photos by Jay Weinmiller.)

A creator of evocative characters adorned in elaborate costumes, and sculptures made of home-grown crystals, the ageless and ancient John W. Love Jr.’s eclectic body of work reflects abundant fascination and a fascination with abundance. First trained as an actor, Love is currently working with the chemical compound alum in narrative and immersive installations.

Q. What’s the allure of alum?

A. Alum is a salt, but it is very astringent. In the environment, when you put large amounts of alum in a water system the alum will cling to the debris, and then you can scoop it out. Alum is also a coagulant; at old barber shops it is used to stop the bleeding. So literally, alum cleans up the water and stops the bleeding. For the poetry of my work, that is everything.

Q. You say you are your toughest critic.

A. If my work doesn’t speak to me, heal me, caress me, excite me, then there is no way it is going to do that for anyone else on a deep, rich, or significant level. When I share work that I love, other people’s opinion about the work becomes a moot point.

Q. What do you yearn to express?

A. That intangible thing that inspires the gasp. For example, I’m a pretty politically and socially aware person, but the way that plays out is theater. The feeling, that gasp, whether it is one of horror or one of bliss, is where we are really living. As a creative person, that’s what I’m fascinated about touching.

Q. Do you feel pressure to create?

A. One of the things about fellowships – and when you talk about really supporting an artist’s career, life and process – is, life happens. Things come up that require you to respond in a particular way. I don’t think a lot of artists gives themselves a break. The creative process is always a collaborative process. Scientists and artists are more aligned than people think. An experiment in the lab is guaranteed 99 percent failure. If failure was a thing of shame, then we wouldn’t have any brilliant scientists. Artists should embrace failure with dignity. The real deal is about showing up. What happens after you show up is gravy.

Q. What feeds your fascination?

A. I wake up bombarded with life, with my own thinking, my dreams, my failures, my desires, but I’m always stepping into the fascination. It is the only way that I can continue to participate vibrantly, and with autonomy. It is an intentional choice to be fascinated, and to follow what fascinates me, and it also keeps me honest, because not everything fascinates me.

Stephanie J. Woods

(Above, Woods and pieces from her “Weave Idolatry,” photos by Johannes James Barfield.)

Photography, film, textiles, and her own body are some of the media Stephanie J. Woods, 26, employs in her exploration of how people move between their public and private spaces. Woods earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Q. Where do you work?

A. I work inside of my bedroom at my mother’s house, and I like it that way. I like to work in the environment that I’m creating in, because it allows me to wake up and start working rather than preparing to go somewhere.

Q. How is your work distinctly African American?

A. I grew up in African American hair culture. I hope my work is addressing universal themes of Western standards of beauty, and challenging those themes. Hair is a medium that has become part of my visual language. I was working with things I’d find on the street, and then one of my friends had a suitcase full of hair weaves. I have a strong interest in textiles and fabric. I’m also using the hair as a means of sculpting.

Q. Tell me about your installation “Weave Idolatry.”

A. I took a ceramics class with Nicky Blair and I realized I loved sculpture. I was working on mannequins but I really wanted to display the weaves on bodies. I felt like clothes would interfere. I decided to paint my body black to disguise myself, and to create a static image of a person transforming herself. It was me putting together my interpretation of an altar, me representing the weave in the mask as an idol, and playing that into a domestic study, to represent this idea of public vs. private.

Q. What are you working on?

A. I was playing on a series called “How to Get Halle Berry Hair.” What would it be like for someone to grow their own hair weave in their home? I was reading a book about growing black hair long and fast, and I was also thinking about terminology, such as the “big chop,” which is when you cut off the ends of relaxed hair, and you grow it out naturally.

Now I’m creating a series of seeds, which are going to evolve, in stop-motion animation that will show the seeds growing into hair plant sculptures that are basically houseplants. The hair industry is a million-dollar business, but now we have a hair revolution going on where many African Americans are going natural, which is being reflected in hair products.

Thomas Schmidt

(Above, Schmidt, photo courtesy of Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery; and “Bubble Cast” and a detail of that, photos by the artist.)

Sculptor Thomas Schmidt, 36, melds state-of-the-art technology with the ancient art of ceramics. He’s an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Architecture at UNC Charlotte, where he helps run a digital fabrication lab.

Q. What happens when you apply modern technology to ceramics?

A. I capture moments and layer them on objects. I’m drawn to methods that attempt to freeze a moment, and that’s what keeps bringing me back to scanning, mold-making, and photography. The object is revealing its own history in a particular moment. I want the viewer to see a piece and not know right off the bat to know how it was made.

Q. How is 3D printing used to make ceramic sculptures?

A. Some people build their own clay printers that extrude porcelain directly into a shape. Another way is to print 3D molds. I make plaster bubble forms, and then it turns into a traditional ceramics process of slip casting and mold-making.

Q. What was a pivotal moment in your work?

A. I made a mold of a perfect cube, and filled it with perfect porcelain. In industry you would drain it and be left with a shell of clay. But I left it there for weeks. The clay created this geologic effect by sinking into the mold. The tension of the fire cracked and splintered it. All I did was orchestrate an event. That excited me, because it allowed me to appreciate how there’s an active and a passive role as an artist, and it’s in flux all the time.

Q. Is it difficult to explain your work?

A. Part of what drew me into the arts when I was young was that it was something unspoken, and the material and textural qualities were such that I didn’t want to explain it. It’s a challenge to be in an academic environment. I’m inspired by the colleagues and students, but it imposes a certain analysis of a process that might have otherwise been a little more free.

Q. Why are you drawn to clay?

A. It’s such a versatile material that many have spent their entire lives studying its surface and texture. If you are inclined to nerd out about a material, there is endless content here, and if you are into the history of it there is a lot to chew on. Sometimes that is seen as baggage, but I think it provides more to draw on.