For most of this century, Moving Poets Charlotte has been like one of those Pacific islands visible only when wind and waves combine to reveal their rugged beauty. The group rises briefly into the Queen City’s view, grabs the attention of those who know where to look — often toward the Poets Cabin, an Oakwold address given to people who attend events — and subsides into relative obscurity for a while.
Yet over the last year, founders Till Schmidt-Rimpler and MyLoan Dinh have gently if unobtrusively increased the Poets’ presence, spending more time here and less at the Berlin arts center they saved from an Irish developer’s wrecking ball. They’ve embarked on a collaboration this spring with Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art, where they’ll present the show “We See Heaven Upside Down.” It’ll be at 1520 S. Tryon St. May 3-June 15.
Though the title comes from “Spring-Watching Pavilion,” a piece by 18th-century Vietnamese poet Hồ Xuân Hương, Moving Poets have had a habit of seeing heaven, hell and Earth from unusual angles for 22 years, since producing a “Dracula” in the ruined Carolina Theatre that shocked, entertained and sometimes bewildered audiences (myself included).
They’ve long since dropped the words “Theatre” and “Dance” from the name, so people don’t expect conventional performances. Instead, they stage anything from concerts to readings to visual exhibitions that raise eyebrows, consciousnesses and discussions.
“Our focus now will principally be (in Charlotte),” says Schmidt-Rimpler. “We’re going to continue with artistic collaborations — we have a core group of artists, as we have in Berlin — and be project-based, instead of worrying about full seasons. Working when the money’s there has saved our neck. How crazy it was to be in that rat race!”
This version of “Heaven” will be the fourth show in their “Migrations” series, which will culminate with a big event in 2020 at Booth Playhouse. The first two “Migrations” took place in 2015 and 2016 in a Germany startled by the influx of 1.4 million immigrants.
“Those shows happened at the height of the refugee crisis, when there were a lot of open arms in Germany and also a lot of panic and xenophobia,” says Dinh, herself a refugee who fled Vietnam with her family during the 1975 fall of Saigon. “People worried how this would change Germany as a country. So we involved artists — some of them refugees, some not — and politicians and started a dialogue.”
The third “Migrations” happened at Central Piedmont Community College’s Sensoria festival in 2017. But the atmosphere has changed enough in two years, says Dinh, that “it’s much more difficult to get refugees and immigrants to work with us now in Charlotte. They’re afraid to go out of their neighborhoods because of ICE raids. It’s a challenge to find participants.”
Unusual artists they can always find. The current crop ranges from Dinh to Mexican-born Rosalia Torres-Weiner to Colombia’s Nico Amortegui to Charlotte’s Michelle “Bunny” Gregory. One of them, Luis Coray, benefited from immigration to his tiny region of Switzerland: According to Schmidt-Rimpler, his Romansch language was dying, until people moving there from other countries with similar linguistic roots took it up.
After the grand opening May 3, Moving Poets will hold a “Heaven in A Flat” concert May 16, with performers from six countries singing, playing and reading; a “conversation/presentation” May 22 with Standing Rock Sioux artist Cannupa Hanska Luger, who’s in this show and won the inaugural Burke Prize for contemporary craft from the Museum of Arts and Design; and a documentary screening of the short film “Exile” May 30, followed by a panel discussion. (Syrian filmmaker Dellair Youssef couldn’t get a U.S. visa to attend.)
None of this would be possible without a partnership of a kind Dinh has seldom seen before in Charlotte: “It’s rare to find a nonprofit working like this with a for-profit gallery.”
Sonya Pfeiffer has had three careers in North Carolina alone: as a journalist at WTVD in Durham, as an attorney since 2007 — the last eight years at the Charlotte law firm Rudolf Widenhouse — and as creative director of the gallery she took over in 2017.
“Part of my vision for the gallery was to keep offering fine art, but I’ve always been attracted to people who invite us to have non-threatening conversations about issues,” says Pfeiffer. “Art can be a vehicle for discussions about topics you’re afraid to allow yourself (to think about).”
That philosophy inspired “The Art of Struggle,” a 2018 exhibit for Black History Month that went beyond obvious matters of race to consider Charlotte as a community. One piece, a container full of boxing gloves from which scuba equipment emerged, reminded viewers that in life — as in scuba diving — nobody can safely go alone forever, and we’re all sometimes in an environment that makes us afraid or leaves us feeling we can’t breathe. Pfeiffer met Dinh during preliminary discussions about that show.
“I need to sell art, but I also want to build bridges,” says Pfeiffer. “ ‘Struggle’ was a leap of faith that audiences would follow us.”
“Heaven” seems to be another. All three participants see it not as a show intended to confront people but to remind them of the hardships that immigrants face, the contributions they make, and the beauty that sometimes soars above their pain or loneliness.
“Against all odds, these people are trying to achieve the American Dream,” says Schmidt-Rimpler of the ambitions long-settled Americans may take for granted. “We’re the most diverse nation in the world. Moving Poets asks. ‘What do we all contribute to that?’ ”
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.