Local Arts

Can these faces be part of Charlotte’s ‘provocative conversation’?

Dustin Farnsworth created “WAKE II” (detail shown here) with Timothy Maddox, designed as both a memorial and call to action.
Dustin Farnsworth created “WAKE II” (detail shown here) with Timothy Maddox, designed as both a memorial and call to action. Courtesy of the artist

McColl Center visiting artist Dustin Farnsworth has some weighty concerns about the world being left to future generations, and that’s increasingly reflected in his artwork.

Over the past five years, Farnsworth has sculpted a series of busts of youth wearing elaborate headdresses influenced by historic architectural forms. Those headdresses represent the weight today’s youth will inherit, he said: cultural, societal, familial.

Several of his works-in-progress at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation speak to the current clime of police shootings and protests across the country. He arrived in Charlotte shortly after the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott sparked protests, and he’d been in Madison, Wisconsin, which saw similar protests after 19-year-old Tony Robinson was killed by police.

His current project — a 6-foot sculpture modeled on a 10-year-old Charlotte youth — will incorporate audio for the first time. The goal: Capture the hopes and fears of local youth and add them to the “provocative conversation in this town,” he said.

This interview with Farnsworth – whose work goes on display April 14, with that of Joyce J. Scott and Mary Tuma in the McColl’s “Tell Me More” exhibition – has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. How has living in two cities in the aftermath of police shooting deaths and community protests influenced your recent art?

My work leading up to my time spent in Madison and Charlotte was based on projections of what I felt youth were experiencing and the weight associated with the world they are inheriting. Witnessing communities in strife – seeing protest movements demanding change castrated, edited and overlooked by national reporting – is appalling. Being present in these communities and seeing this firsthand was a call to make my work more specific. To join hands in that protest.

Q. Tell me about your collaboration with sign painter Timothy Maddox of Asheville.

My original piece, “WAKE,” was an arrangement of 287 cast masks, wall-mounted and overlaying a black graphic chevron of two reversed American flags (without stars). “WAKE” evolved during a dense period of U.S. school shootings and mass abductions carried out by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram in Africa.

As these events were reported in the news, the response was sedated. “WAKE” was used for its dual meaning – to hold a vigil beside someone who has died, or to emerge or cause to emerge from a state of sleep. The piece was intended as a memorial and as a call to action.

Timothy and I discussed the intentions of the original piece, and although the protests covered a lot of ground, they also boiled down to the same “call to action” to a public remaining largely silent.

I provided the canvas and creative space to let Timothy approach the project however he saw fit. He really challenged himself by painting protest signs in miniature, photographing them billowing in the wind, and then projected them onto the canvas with much more dimensionality than a hand-painted sign would have alone. The specific slogans of the banners and their arrangement are all 100 percent Timothy. It looked nothing like I had imagined, and all the better for it.

Q. One of the messages from the protests movement is to stay “woke.” Is it coincidental that your mask installation is titled “WAKE?

This inception of this piece came before these current protests, but this speaks of solidarity of those demanding justice and change. Equal rights. Equal treatment. Equal protection. This piece is just one of the many blood cells in the pulse of these movements.

Q. Your Charlotte project, unlike other sculptures in the series, will not have an architectural headdress. Why is that?

As I began to have conversations with local residents, I became aware that most of the historic architecture in Charlotte was destroyed and that many of the neighborhoods were gentrified. The absence of a headdress, as compared to the other works in the series, became a more powerful statement. The result is a nearly 6-foot-high portrait of a youth with the top of the head truncated where a headdress or crown would have sat. Evidence of concrete footings, a vital part of foundation construction, will be incised around the head below the truncation. Remnants of that structure, including ash, will wash down the face from above.

The finished portrait of a contemporary African American youth will allude to and draw parallels to ancient Roman statuary as it exists today, with holes in the marble surface, stained with verdigris where we imagine a bronze laurel wreath would have sat.

Q. What do you want to leave behind when you leave Charlotte?

My goal is to add to the record of provocative conversation in this town, in hopes that the conversation continues to churn and build on those notes played. For me, the long-term goal is to create work that operates like jazz. Visual communication is the medium and some of the collaborators are craft, process, materials, concept, research and narrative. Right now I’m trying to work with the pulse of culture through recordings of youth. The other tools soften while that new player begins a solo.

‘Tell Me More’

On view through May 27 at McColl Center for Art + Innovation, 721 N. Tryon St. Opening reception 6-9 p.m. April 14. Free admission, live music and cash bar.