Local Arts

Burning question: What keeps these 5 Charlotte artists sharp? (besides this new money from ASC)

Ruth Ava Lyons has some underwater photography under her (dive) belt already, but plans to get more, with her ASC fellowship money.
Ruth Ava Lyons has some underwater photography under her (dive) belt already, but plans to get more, with her ASC fellowship money. Courtesy of ASC

Artists filter life through the lens of inspiration, but at times even professional dreamers get stuck. So what do they do? Five established Charlotte-Mecklenburg artists who each received $10,000 Creative Renewal Fellowships from the Arts and Science Council shared their tricks for reawakening the muse.

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Jeff Jackson at the historic Milestone Club in Charlotte, which was an inspiration for his latest novel. Nancy Pierce Courtesy of ASC

Jeff Jackson

A novelist (his latest novel, “Destroy All Monsters,” is scheduled to come out in October), playwright and editor, he says he turns to other mediums when the ink runs dry.

“Film is always a big exploration for me, so when things slow down I turn to cinema for inspiration with story, structure, vibe and energy,” he says. “Photography books are another source. There are no words to deal with, just images, but there’s something about the narrative of a good photography book, the way images are sequenced, that’s inspiring.”

Jackson also has a studio in Goodyear Arts, located in Camp North End on the West side, where he assembles sculptures out of found objects. The process mimics the way writers weave seemingly disparate elements into a narrative, and encourages Jackson to take himself less seriously. “The nice thing about working with these found objects is that they’re not as precious. I can give myself permission to be ridiculous and see where it might lead. It gives me a little more freedom, and is a good reminder to be receptive and try a bunch of things.”

The results often end up surprising him. “I don’t know why taking a T and nailing it on a red string and putting it above a mirror makes things suddenly more or less interesting. It’s a good reminder that many things I think are weird work.”

Jackson plans to spend time in Paris, studying with novelist Dennis Cooper and watching films by Philippe Garrel.

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Kojo Bey, on his wooded land with his instruments, a Jembe and a Shekere. Nancy Pierce Courtesy of ASC

Kojo Bey

Cofounder and lead drummer for the Sounds of Afrika drum and dance troupe and founder of Drums 4 Life, Bey is spending his fellowship recording the techniques of master drummers in Guinea. When he feels stuck, he literally runs from it, taking to the woods. He recently purchased 5 acres specifically for that purpose, clearing a path around the perimeter to run every morning.

After a run, “I find a quiet place where I can get clarity to determine my next series of moves. I sit in that stillness to help me re-center and gather all that is within and around me for fortification and regeneration.”

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Martha Connerton in her studio. Nancy Pierce Courtesy of ASC

Martha Connerton

Connerton, founding director of Martha Connerton Kinetic Works, works in many other creative milieus as well: catering, interior design and home renovation. When sexism limited demand for women choreographers, she said, she put her creative energy into these other avenues.

“At a young age I realized that although dance is the main thrust of how I identify myself, it’s simply the medium I’m most comfortable working with,” she says. “It’s how I get myself out into the world rather than an identity, and that’s why I’ve been able to survive when there’s a dearth of work opportunities.”

Still, “it’s rare the muse isn’t there,” she says with a chuckle. “I don’t get enough opportunities to choreograph for that to get blocked. I have so many ballets dying in my head and shaking the bars trying to get out that when I get the opportunity it’s a relief.”

When problems do arise, she takes a sports break—not playing, just watching. “I’m a crazy tennis fan. I lie down, turn on the TV and watch until my brain reasserts itself and my energy comes back. That flips me out of one state into another. The change is dynamic.”

Connerton plans to work on her series of interactive children’s books and on a movement/theater project about the intersection of Arabic religious and political groups and Western culture.

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Russell Smith on Red Boot Ranch, in Clover, S.C. Nancy Pierce Courtesy of ASC

Russell Smith

Oil painter Smith takes comfort in routine. His breakfast is always a bowl of cereal and a couple cups of coffee. For lunch it’s salad and a banana. “You don’t have to waste brain cells on it and can put all your energy toward creating.”

Smith paints both aviation art and Western-themed subjects. Aviation takes a tight, detailed form, while Western art’s natural landscapes are more impressionistic.

“If I haven’t planned out a painting as well as I should have and find myself realizing it’s not working how I want, I take a couple of steps back,” he says. “If I’m working on an aviation piece, I take that off the canvas and put it in the corner for a few days, and work on a Western painting instead. It refocuses my brain in another direction.”

Smith plans to go to two painting workshops, in Miami and Wyoming, and the Shearer Artist Ride in South Dakota, in which professional Western artists are invited to gather with models portraying Western life in the 1800s, on a ranch along the Cheyenne River.

Ruth Ava Lyons

Lyons, a mixed-media visual artist and photographer, ignites her creativity by shifting gears, she says.

“I change my medium when I feel like I am not growing, or I experiment,” Lyons says. “Taking risks in the work and willing to fail is a self-imposed challenge that moves me forward.” With her fellowship, she plans to take a master underwater photography workshop in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat Islands, to advance work that she’s titled “Oceanic Alchemies.”

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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