Local Arts

Seen those new brilliant-colored tubes along Charlotte’s light rail? Here’s what they are

What’s this new Forest along the light rail?

Artist Ivan Toth Depeña and architect David Furman explain what's going on, in South End.
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Artist Ivan Toth Depeña and architect David Furman explain what's going on, in South End.

“Let’s get something done!”

The “something” architect David Furman was talking about, an intriguing South End public art collaboration, is now indeed done: “The Color Forest,” a new, eye-catching sculpture formed by 100 brightly colored poles along the Charlotte Rail Trail at Bland Street in South End.

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The poles were loaded by number to streamline installation of “The Color Forest.” Joshua Komer The Charlotte Observer

And the collaborators he was addressing? Not just artist Ivan Toth Depeña, but also Glen Nocik, who, with his wife, Maria Nocik, owns ASCM (American Classic Sign Manufacturing), a South End design and construction firm now branching into art fabrication and installation.

While folks in the far-flung suburbs may not know much about the Rail Trail phenomenon, to residents and workers in the ever-growing South End, the Trail and its catalogue of idiosyncratic public art has quickly become one of the main organizing features of their lives, a boulevard for runners, commuters, cyclists and scooters.

Architect Furman, the principal of Centro CityWorks, was the originator of the Rail Trail, and he’s been spearheading that enterprise for several years. For this project, he worked with Historic South End to hire Nocik to fabricate and install “The Color Forest” to Depeña’s design and specifications.

Nocik was attracted to this collaboration from the outset: In addition to ACSM, he and Maria Nocik run C3 Lab, an artist and co-working community. C3 “created a place of community to support artists any way we could as it helps artists move forward,” Glen Nocik said. Using their parallel design and fabrication business on this project was a way to do that.

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Chris Logan cleans pieces of “The Color Forest” before they’re placed into the ground permanently. Joshua Komer The Charlotte Observer

Furman has described Depeña’s work as “cerebral in nature but also public … very accessible.” Depeña, who teaches at Queens University, said something similar: “My interest in public art is that it breaks down the boundaries between the ‘white cube behind the velvet rope.’ It’s accessible.”

Glen Nocik and his team had the aluminum poles fabricated for “The Color Forest,” painted them with brightly colored automotive finishes in their spray booth, and cut them into 8- to 12-foot lengths. After prepping the soil, the installation began with digging holes on site and installing the aluminum poles in concrete, with Depeña’s artist’s eye tilting each one slightly for his desired perspective effect, worked out in advance in his copious sketches.

You may have walked along the Rail Trail and wondered how these and other sculptures happened to roost here in South End: a giant yellow rocking chair (“Edna’s Porch”), an oversized yellow seesaw; a very large chicken; vibrantly colored magic carpet murals on the ground; an interactive chalkboard …. These are all the products of Furman’s imagination.

Many people think public art of this nature is far simpler to make than it is. This belief might be reinforced by the fact that some art on the Rail Trail has appeared as if by magic. “Abracadabra!” – and a giant table and chair materialize, and then a giant metal chicken gazes at you, and then an enormous red exclamation point catches your eye. But it would be misleading to expect each intervention to be as “simple” a process.

To appreciate how “The Color Forest” was installed, it’s necessary to understand how the Rail Trail arose. A project like this takes a lot of people to bring it to fruition, takes time and has a lot of details.

Back in 2012 when architect and developer Furman had the idea to enhance the walk alongside the light rail line with some art, he wrote a letter to Charlotte Center City Partners proposing the idea for a Grand Promenade along the trail: “Why not implement art there?“ he asked.

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Local artist Ivan Toth Depena adjusts the angle of each pole Dec. 11 as “The Color Forest” is installed on the Rail Trail. Joshua Komer The Charlotte Observer

It took awhile. Six months went by before he heard from Center City Partners, he said, and he got impatient. So he installed a few of his own sculptures as guerrilla interventions. “I saw an empty concrete pad,” said Furman, and “put an 8-foot chicken there.”

Then others appeared, sometimes with and sometimes without the blessing of CATS and other landowners. For example, Duke Energy helped fund the big Adirondack steel yellow chairs.

“We have done a lot of stuff the last five years,” Furman said recently.

But guerilla tactics can’t handle everything, and professional partners, in the form of landscape architect Richard Petersheim of Land Design and architect Terry Shook of Shook Kelley, worked with Furman to produce detailed proposals and a master plan. You can see that at www.charlotterailtrail.org/plans/Public Art Master Plan.

The collaborative process between Furman, Depeña and Nocik, with the support of Charlotte Center City Partners and CATS, is what enabled “The Color Forest” to materialize unannounced, a model for how public art can suddenly appear to beautify a community.

As Maria Floren, planning and development director of Charlotte Center City Partners, said: “The Rail Trail is envisioned as a place where art pops up.”

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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