Local Arts

Kids can lift activist voices, says artist who’s part of McColl Center project

Chavez watches Eli Godwin create a poster.
Chavez watches Eli Godwin create a poster. Video still by Basic Cable

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“A Tale of Two Cities” – a project the McColl Center for Art + Innovation proposed, aimed at engaging the voices of more neighbors, particularly those experiencing homelessness, in how the North Tryon Street area should be developed – won a $350,000 grant from the national organization ArtPlace in late 2016. Since then, a number of artists have worked together with neighbors of the McColl Center. Juan Williams Chavez, an artist and cultural activist based in St. Louis, Mo., brought a curriculum on urban ecosystems to let students explore ideas and figure out what they think ought to happen in the community.

Describe your role in this particular project. My role was to collaborate with Bree StalIings, lead teaching artist, and Trevor Hoskins, teaching chef at Behailu Academy, on developing a curriculum that empowered students through exploring the Charlotte urban ecosystem through the lens of bees/pollinators, food rights and by meeting community leaders that are activating green space with creative projects. The name of the class was called the Charlotte Young Honey Crew.

© CPCC CRMS Photography_ CENTRAL2018_ copy
Learning about beekeeping, outside the Van Avery Culinary Arts Center at CPCC. Darnell L. Vennie Darnell L. Vennie, Central Piedmont Community College

What was the most surprising moment? The Charlotte Young Honey Crew had several challenges, like finding the right beehives and community garden to visit. Bree has a lot of connections with the community and everyone she reached out to was so happy to help and loved the project. We visited a master gardener, Bernard Singleton, and students learned about the garden and had the opportunity to taste his famous black garlic. The students also visited the beehives at CPCC’s Van Every Culinary Arts Building where they were able to wear bee suits and inspect the hives with one of the head chefs.

CYHC visit Bernard Singletons garden
Behailu students and volunteers flank (beginning third from left) Juan William Chavez, Bree Stallings (Behailu’s lead teaching artist), Trevor Hoskins (culinary arts instructor) and master gardener Bernard Singleton. Courtesy of Juan William Chavez

What was the most meaningful moment for you? The privilege of working and collaborating with Behailu Academy. Charlotte is so fortunate to have such an amazing organization that is doing smart and impactful work with such creativity. I have learned so much from the students, the teaching artists, and administration. It is truly a unique and special place.

What about this project has changed your art or the way you approach your practice? This project gave me validation for the studio research, process and curriculum that I have been developing over the past five years in St. Louis. The success of the project showed me that it’s designed for successful collaborations that celebrate a city’s ecosystem by highlighting the amazing people that are committed to community building.

Pedro_activist poster
Pedro Toledo-Lopez and the poster that stopped traffic. Juan William Chavez

What about your part in this project did the best job, in your opinion, of lifting the voices of the people who have not been heard from? I feel the project gave the space and the opportunity for students to explore, experience, analyze and express how they feel about the urban ecosystem or access to urban green space. Throughout the whole project, I kept thinking about the mission statement of “Lifting the voices of the people who have not been heard from.” In the last workshop, I presented a question: How can we share the information we have learned with others? And what is the message we want people to know? The workshop assignment was to take all the information that we have learned to create a unique statement by using keywords and drawings to create an activist poster. The poster would then be used to create a photo portrait or a selfie. One of the students, Pedro, created a beautiful drawing of a bee and flower with a simple statement of “more plants more bees.” We went outside to take the photo of him holding the poster and at that moment a person driving by in her car stopped and asked him if that sign said “more plants more bees” – and if so, she would like to help him promote his message. We were all shocked by the reaction. But it demonstrated that small actions do have an impact on lifting the voices of the people.