More from the series
Charlotte Arts Guide 2019-20
Here’s all of our stories on the new arts season. We’ll introduce you to the diverse group of people making vital contributions to the arts. You’ll find them in museums, on stage, in studios and even outdoors. And you’ll get our calendar listings for theater, dance, music, museums, literary events and visual arts.
Public artist Ivan Depeña expected a hyper-competitive environment at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation. But the community of artists surprised him: “It felt like everyone was working together as opposed to competing with one another.
“That actually extended into what I feel is the art culture in Charlotte as a whole,” he added. “There’s a lot of helping one another and a lot of interest and energy in other local artists’ work. Not only from the artists, but from the community. There is a good energy and support system here.”
Depeña moved to Charlotte for an artist-in-residence position in 2014. Once the residency was complete, he remained in Charlotte with his wife, Teela Depeña, and their son, Alto.
“(The) McColl Center (experience) was definitely pivotal,” Depeña said. “It changed the course of our lives to the extent that we physically moved here.”
He’s responsible for the new 100-foot-by-25-foot mural going up on Charlotte’s Rail Trail near Tremont Avenue. It’s bringing studio art to street art, Depeña explained.
People riding the light rail in the summer might have seen Depeña with his spray paint, a tool he seldom deploys, working on the mural.
“I thought I’d take something I worked on as a painting in the studio and actually kind of enlarge it, and then push the media little bit,” he said. “It’s exciting to be back painting on walls... It’s actually been pretty cool.”
Commuters are already familiar with another work of art by Depeña.
His Color Forest, made with 100 colorful aluminum poles, was installed last December north of Bland Street, along the Rail Trail. These projects were commissioned by Charlotte Center City Partners, which asked Depeña to define the trail, enhance the space and make the users’ experiences more enjoyable.
“Public art expresses the city’s authenticity,” said Cheryl Myers, senior vice president at Charlotte Center City Partners. “It shows how the city cares about how art and culture not only represent the place but also feeds the soul of the people who live here. It shows how important creativity is to the citizens.”
A longing for art
New York City graffiti artists caught Depeña’s attention as a boy growing up in Miami. Their work inspired him to copy an album cover and draw comic book characters such as Cerebrus, an ever-changing aardvark, and Cheech Wizard by Vaughn Bodē.
“It’s the reason why I paint today,” Depeña said of his attraction to the graffiti artists’ large murals on trains and buildings.
He acknowledged the illegal and disrespectful aspects of their work: “I don’t know if there’s a certain excitement. You had to do it at three or four in the morning when nobody’s out. I was very much interested in making art, not tagging and destroying property.”
Creating (legal) public art wasn’t a career Depeña initially considered. “Public art is something that came up about nine years ago. In retrospect, it feels so obvious. There’s an element of architecture; there’s an element of public space; there’s an element of graffiti in there. It just makes so much sense, but I never saw it.”
“Reflect,” Depeña first public art piece, was completed in 2011.
It is an interactive light piece in the lobby of Miami’s Stephen P. Clark Government Center. He installed “Air/Traffic/Control” in 2018 at the Nashville International Airport’s Ground Transportation Center and Terminal Parking Garage. Both projects were recognized by the Public Art Network in its “Year in Review.”
Despite graduating high school from the New World School of the Arts in Miami, an art intensive high school, Depeña pursued a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Miami. He feared unemployment as an arts major. After college, he worked for an architecture firm in Miami.
“I still felt a longing for making art,” he said. “I went into the discipline of architecture; I was intrigued by it. I enjoyed the rigor and the attention to detail. I always considered it as an inhabitable sculpture.”
The tech connection
Eventually, it was technology that connected Depeña’s art with his appreciation for the form and space of architecture.
In 1996, he began a master’s degree in architecture at Harvard University. There, he participated in a work-study program called the digital design initiative.
“It was in the early phases of designing interfaces and user experience before those were even words people used,” he said. “Interactive CD-Rom was a big thing. We take it for granted now that your phone has user interface that’s inherent in there now. Back then, we were just figuring out how these things were going to work.”
After Harvard, he worked in the emerging field of multimedia design at a San Francisco-based company. He learned how to make art with computers by using new tools such as digital photography, scanning images and coding.
It was unexplored territory, and Depeña was fascinated with the possibilities. By mistake, he realized he could view an image in code.
“What happens if I just change a comma in this code,” he said. “Then I’d look at the image, and it would become this beautiful abstraction. Now it’s common place in this day and time, this glitch aesthetic.”
Chris Beorkrem, an associate professor in the School of Architecture at UNC Charlotte, introduced Depeña to machines for computer-engineered designs during his time at the McColl Center. He still excavates his art with a computer numerically controlled router. It adds an element of chance to his art, removing himself from the piece after it’s been painted, drawn and printed.
Depeña joined the Queens University of Charlotte arts faculty last year.
He teaches new media design, interior architecture and studio art. His interactive light piece for the lobby of the new Sarah Belk Gambrell Center for Arts and Civic Engagement will be revealed at the building’s opening in February.
“We wanted to commission a piece that was high quality but that also interacts and responds to community members who enter the space,” said John Sisko, Queens’ dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “We were looking for a dynamic responsive installation.”
That ‘homegrown vibe’
Later in the spring, Depeña’s solo exhibit at UNCC Center City’s Projective Eye Gallery will feature image mapping. Butterflies’ movements are captured using technology to create real-time drawings.
Adam Justice, director of galleries at UNCC, admires how Depeña pushes limits and uses digital innovations in ways it was never intended.
“I’m impressed about how Ivan can mesh digital technology into our everyday environments, whether that be natural eco-systems or into designed architectural structures or monuments,” Justice said.
Since his days at the McColl Center, Charlotte’s art scene continues to inspire Depeña. It’s a sincere and “homegrown vibe.”
Teela Depeña manages her husband’s South End studio. As nature enthusiasts, they’ve named Charlotte their “city in a forest.” At times, Depeña’s work in public art may require travel, but his future is here in Charlotte.
“This is where I want to be,” Depeña said.
Obvious cool/hidden cool
We asked artists and arts administrators interviewed for the Fall Arts preview to talk about their favorite piece of Obvious Cool art in Charlotte and their favorite Hidden Cool art.
Obvious Cool art: Michael Hayden’s “Quadrille” on the Duke Energy building at 526 S. Church St.
Hidden Cool art: The large-scale work by Jean Tinguely at 227 W. Trade St. “It was a nice surprise to find such an important and complex installation in the lobby of an office building in Charlotte,” Ivan Depeña said. “This is an example of an excellent kinetic art installation composed of various electro-mechanical parts and restored by local artist, Kit Kube.”
More arts coverage
You can find all of our arts season preview stories and calendars in one place: charlotteobserver.com/topics/charlotte-arts-guide.
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