For almost a month now Charlotte artist Ruth Ava Lyons has been taking cold showers to prepare for her trip to the Arctic.
She leaves in two weeks and expects the water to be 32 degrees when she snorkels and dives for underwater photography.
From Sept. 29 through Oct. 16, she’ll be part of the Autumn Art & Science Expedition sponsored by the New York-based nonprofit, The Arctic Circle. It’s an expeditionary residency program, and Lyons’ involvement is partially funded through a grant from the Arts & Science Council.
“They take scientists, researchers and artists to the Arctic Circle,” said Lyons, 63. “I’ll be 10 degrees latitude from the North Pole. I’ll be sailing on a barquentine vessel, which will go throughout the Svalbard archipelago. My life is going to be changed by going there.”
Each day, Lyons and 29 other residents will study glaciers in the Arctic Ocean’s Svalbard region. Aaron O’Connor, director of The Arctic Circle, said the purpose of the expeditions is to provide a platform that enables work in all disciplines of art and science. “And to provide an incubator for thought, experimentation and collaboration,” he said. “The results of our program have been exhibited and published internationally for over a decade now.”
Inspired by art
Lyons was born in Cleveland. As early as kindergarten, her parents dropped her off at The Cleveland Museum of Art. She remembers viewing rooms with Egyptian art and coats of armor and appreciating how the sarcophagi, sculptured stone coffins, were tied to history and culture.
“It wasn’t like it is now,” she said, “art for art sake. I really responded to the (idea) that it was part of the existence of a civilization and their day-to-day activity.”
She received a bachelor’s degree of fine art from Kent State University and a master’s degree from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Before coming to Charlotte in 1983, she spent time in South America as a Fulbright scholar and taught in New York and Cleveland.
‘Parents’ of NoDa
When her husband, sculptor Paul Sires, was offered a position at Spirit Square, she agreed to live in Charlotte for one year. She taught life drawing, art history, painting and design classes at Central Piedmont Community College, UNC Charlotte and Winthrop University. They remained in Charlotte because it would cost too much to relocate.
She refers to herself and Sires, as the “parents” of NoDa, but admits they didn’t have a plan when they started. Their artists-in-residence experience at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Nebraska inspired them to create a community of artists. They purchased buildings on the 3200 block of North Davidson, and for five or six years, they worked in boarded up space. As they renovated, they’d rent it out to pay for the next construction project.
“One of the first things we did was a pop-up called ‘Eyeball Witness,’ from the television show, ‘Dragnet,’ ” Lyons said. “It was an invitation for people to show their work. It was kind of underground, but everything was underground. There was no social media.”
That pop-up in the late 1980s morphed into Center of the Earth Gallery. The couple operated the NoDa gallery for 24 years, closing in 2010 for personal reasons.
Jen Sudul Edwards, who is chief curator and curator of contemporary art at the Mint Museum, met Lyons and Sires in 2017. Even though Sudul Edwards was not in Charlotte during the time the couple transformed NoDa into an arts district, she sees and feels the effects of their dedication.
“They came here and they saw NoDa as this place where they could buy a lot of property and make it a place where they can have a gallery and rent studio space to artists, to really create an environment that would allow creativity to blossom. That’s extraordinary to find people who do that,” said Sudul Edwards.
It’s Lyons devotion to environmental issues that astounds Sudul Edwards. She imagines that the focus Lyons exhibits in her art now is similar to what was used to create a thriving arts community in NoDa.
More than a decade ago, Lyons made the hardest decision of her career: She stopped work and turned her art to face the wall. She wanted to focus on environmental issues such as global warming and her current work didn’t allow for it.
Rather than let her work evolve organically, like most artists, she decided to start new. Her first pieces were dark and depressing, she says.
Over the next year, a new process developed.
“I go to those ecosystems that I’m interested in,” she said, “which is rain forest, the Amazon, the Everglades, wetlands, old growth forest, the desert, the barrier reef. I do a lot of scuba diving to coral reefs.”
Materials such as spray paint, oil paint, resin, acrylic, collage, and metal flakes are included in her mixed media work. Lyons documents the ecosystem with underwater photography.
She creates abstract art with the imagery. For her Oceanic Alchemies series, she printed underwater photos of the dead reef on aluminum sheets and painted on top of the images.
“I’m bringing it back to life,” Lyons said. “I’m injecting color and vibrancy into what was documented as dead reef. It’s a little bit of an educational mission that I have to speak about conservation and just that it’s possible to have hope with this idea of renewal and revitalization. We can bring it back.”
Despite her travels and change in practice, Lyons stays active in Charlotte’s art community. She participated in ArtPop Street Gallery in 2014. She and Sires incorporated art into the 36th Street LYNX Blue Line station, part of a public art commission with Charlotte Area Transit System.
“It is difficult to separate the two artists’ work at the station,” said Pallas Lombardi, retired Art in Transit program manager for CATS. “However, all who know them and their art recognize Ruth’s iconography – her mosaic Lotus and images from her paintings and unique color choices.
“Because of their role in the creation of NoDa, it is fitting that their art captures ‘NoDaland’ and preserves for future generations what makes NoDa special in the City of Charlotte,” Lombardi said.
Lyons’ studio, X Foundation, is on Brevard Street in Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood. Hidell Brooks Gallery in South End represents Lyons’ work. Upcoming public art projects include murals at the Charlotte Douglas Airport and thermal plastic imagery on the Four Mile Creek Greenway.
Lyons also hopes to do a dedication piece for UNC Charlotte students Riley Howell and Ellis Reid Parlier who died in the April 30 shooting at UNCC.
More to explore
“She still makes beautiful work,” Sudul Edwards said, “but she’s really committed to getting the environmental urgency message across through her work and through her practice. She travels the world now. She’s constantly training to do these arduous taxing explorations of our natural world to create her work.”
After her Arctic adventure, Lyons heads to Iceland to dive at the Silfra fissure where the tectonic plates for North America and Europe meet – you can touch them with both hands, she says.
“It’s like one of the most amazing dive locations in the world,” she said. “I hate the cold. I’m pushing the edges of my fear factor going to the Arctic.”
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