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Writing on the Wall

by Tricia Couture

October 7, 2013

Charlotteans it's time to read the writing on the walls. Literally. Poet and artist Amy Bagwell has started the Wall Poems of Charlotte project, which places poetry murals on public buildings in and around Uptown Charlotte. The project was inspired by the Leiden Walls project in South Holland, where 101 poems grace city buildings, a tribute to poetry for residents and tourists.

"Their project brings folks from around the world to view poems in the native languages painted gorgeously around the city. Ours is different in some ways, but utterly inspired by what they’ve done," Bagwell said.

Bagwell's project features only work created by "North Carolina poets," though she uses that term loosely - If a poet was born, lived, or worked here, that counts.

"We have a wealth of legendary writers from North Carolina and perhaps an even greater number of folks writing wonderful work right now," Bagwell said. "It seemed worthwhile to pay tribute to them, while it also seemed manageable. If we had all the poems ever written to think through, there would be no sleeping and probably far more second-guessing."

Bagwell's creative partner and art director, Graham Carew, has been instrumental to the project.

"He was a very complementary prospective on all aspects of the project." Bagwell said. "He could see things that I couldn't and I think that was really important. If he hadn't joined, the project it still might just be an idea."

Carew, a former student of Bagwell's, shares studio space with her in Noda's Dialect Design building.

"After reflecting on how best to describe my role, I was going to describe Amy as the heart of the project and myself as the brain, but that is not really fair on both of us, so I’m going with the theory that I am Spock to Amy’s James T. Kirk,” Carew said. “Amy bleeds poetry and believes the world should do so, where I am more cynical and careful I suppose."

The walls used for the project have either been donated or are the result of a proposal.

"The first wall was given to us when [Kevin Devin of Dandelion Bar] learned about our project,” Bagwell says. “The next one we’re doing Uptown, which is the iconic bail bonds building [Treloar House] on 7th Street and Brevard, was one I’d fantasized about from the moment I began thinking of doing this. We went to Levine Properties with a spec design for that building and came away with their generous offer of that plus six others. My current fantasy is the Carolina Theatre building."

Merging Poems and Art

Each wall project begins with a conversation. Bagwell and Carew take a few poems they've selected based on the location, surface, nature, and even the feeling of the wall, to the business owner for a chosen location.

"The poem and the surface have to suit one another–in a lot of completely intangible ways," Bagwell said.

There are also tangible ways to match the building and the poem. For example, Irish-American North Carolina writers were selected because Dandelion Market is an Irish pub and the owner, Kevin Devin, is Irish.

Each wall poem is accompanied by a graphic design created by students in Central Piedmont Community College's Advertising and Graphic Design program. Bagwell and Carew take the poems and photographs of the surfaces to the CPCC students and they create different designs under the direction of their instructors.

"This is such a fun, fascinating part of the process,” Bagwell said. “We are presented with a slew of designs—most very different from one another."

Bagwell and Carew work with Advisory Board members Kenn Compton, Courtney Kimball, and Cynthia Frank, and the CPCC graphic design faculty, to select the strongest 3-5 designs and take them to the business owner, then they work together to pick the right design.

The design still may get tweaked, and the student designers work with Bagwell and Carew on that.

"They’re fantastic," Bagwell said. "Jennifer Raudales was the student who designed ‘Salute’ by A. R. Ammons for Dandelion Market, and did such a phenomenal job, and she did three or four rounds of minor changes as we worked with Kevin [Devin] on getting the size, scale, and colors right."

"It was very exciting to have my design chosen for the building," Raudales said.  "It’s surreal to see something that I designed painted onto a wall as part of a larger project, and to see people stop and photograph it."

She is now also the official designer for Wall Poems of Charlotte project, and works directly with Bagwell and Carew.

"As project designer, I serve as a sounding board for Amy,” she said. “She seeks out my thoughts on poems, wall locations, and also what designs should look like. Often I give her a sketch of what a poem would look like in a particular location. I also talk through projects with her and give her suggestions of what to look for in submissions as well as what instructions to give to designers."

As a teacher at CPCC herself, Bagwell thinks creating designs for the project gives students a valuable experience.

"It gives the students a real-world project and client interaction and the chance to design in 3D,” she said. “The student's name is on the wall forever."

Bagwell is also pleased with the attention the school is getting through the project.

"It shines a light on the students, the graphic design program, and on the school, which I love so much," she said.

The finished design is painted by mural artist Scott Nurkin, who said he enjoys working with the students.

“I wish I could hire them all to work for me,” he said. “When someone hands me a finalized drawing and says 'this is what we are doing' it makes my job a lot easier. But it's even better when you have a group of designs to choose from."

Nurkin is also a member of the advisory board and wholeheartedly endorses the project's mission. "The purpose of the project is to introduce people to our state's great literary heritage through poetry, which in itself is a fantastic idea,” he said. “The whole thing is grown locally and organically, and it brings me a lot pride and joy to be involved. Being from Charlotte, I am beyond happy to see this type of thing gain support here."

Acquiring Local Support

The project has garnered support from local businesses as well. Rodgers Builders, Inc. is providing lifts for all the murals. Johnston, Allison, and Hord, PA, and its partners paid for the first mural. Levine Properties has offered seven buildings uptown. And Paul Sires and Ruth Ava Lyons have offered two buildings in Noda.

"Charlotte Center City Partners has supported us since we completed the first wall which is when they learned about us, and we’re doing six newsrack banners for them on Tryon Street—poem excerpts," Bagwell said. A link to the whole poem and information about the poet will be included on the newsracks as well.

Bagwell and the board are continuing to look at new spaces for poems, she said. "We're at about 20 spaces at the moment and still looking for more. A few are outside of Uptown… and we’re even working on a project up near the lake."

There also are plans to create walking tours around the completed buildings. "We’ll map it out as they are completed and create web and paper routes," Bagwell said. "We’ll share these with local officials and with schools; I’d love for classes to come walk the tour." 

By creating the guide Bagwell hopes to make the poems as accessible as possible.

"I hope it will give people unexpected encounters with poetry," Bagwell said. "I hope it will create a compelling walking tour around Uptown that will bring folks in and around the streets, into contact with each other, and into local businesses. I hope it will celebrate our state’s literary legacy. And I hope it will be beautiful. More beauty is good."

Creating Awareness about Undocumented Immigrants

Wall Poems of Charlotte will be receiving attention on a national level when collaborating with the Latin American Coalition to bring artist JR's Inside Out 11M project to Charlotte. Its aim is to bring attention to the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. through art. Wall Poems of Charlotte received approval to use the bail bonds building at 7th and Brevard for 20-40 portraits on the boarded up windows and a poem by Jon Pineda, who teaches in Queens University's MFA program, and whose father was a Filipino immigrant. The 11M project will also put portraits on the back of the Neighborhood Theater building in Noda.

"It's been an honor for us to work with Latin American Coalition and JR's Inside Out 11M team on this project," Bagwell said. “Both sites are incredible, and I can't wait for the Treloar House to be finished: The combined impact of the iconic portraits with Jon Pineda's poem excerpt, reflecting his experience as the son of a Filipino immigrant, should be powerful and beautiful."

When asked about an end date for the project Bagwell said, "The day I die or someone makes me stop, I suppose. Or if it ever seems to have reached a perfectly satisfying level. That will be hard to define but easy to spot when/if it happens."


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Tags: Amy Bagwell, Wall Poems, Charlotte, Dandelion Market, Graham Carew, Kevin Devin, public art

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