“You can’t have this ego or this ‘I’ mentality. We need to help each other out. None of us can do it alone.” – Dammit Wesley
This is the first installment in a three-story series by Liz Logan with members of the 2019 Fall Artist-In-Residents cohort at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation.
The McColl Center for Art + Innovation —that beautifully Gothic-style church-turned art center—is home to seasonal residencies year-round that selects artists from all around the country, bringing them to the city and onboard for a few months to work towards extensive projects and other endeavors with the support of an artistic community. Most often these residencies have been filled with artists from outside of Charlotte. Now, with the help of a few socially active-minded artists, there is, in fact a “Residents Residence.”
Last fall, applications were opened up specifically to artists from around the city. In a conversation with Janelle Dunlap, the Community Arts Curatorial Fellow with the McColl, I attempted to define these individuals “art activists” and was quickly corrected.
“To call these artists ‘activists’ is to endanger them. Activists can quickly become targets and, though some of our artists are, in fact, activists, this art practice can be informed by activism,” Dunlap says of the artists she helped bring to the center for their inaugural residency, “These are, in fact, social practice artists.”
Rethinking the Approach
This innovative approach to McColl residencies came with a lot of leg work from Dunlap. Asked by the executive director to help rethink the process of artist selection, Dunlap spent eight months hearing from other Charlotte institutions—The Bechtler, the Mint, the Symphony—to be able to fully answer her looming question: What is the McColl’s place in the community?
“We were looking to create a safe space for artists with a deeper message involving social and political commentary,” Dunlap says. “Charlotte is small enough for artists to make mistakes. It’s still fertile ground, but we can’t approach art in a traditional way.”
Alongside De’Ja Taylor, the McColl’s Executive Administrative Assistant, the idea of residency began to float alongside the concept of making art and opportunities accessible in a realm typically offered to outsiders as opposed to Charlotte-area artists.
It’s About Opportunity
Local artist, Dammit Wesley, was one of the artists chosen for this inaugural opportunity. Born as Jimi Thompson, Wesley has seen personal and political transformations since leaning into life as a professional artist.
Upon meeting Wesley for the first time (and frankly, I’m surprised it took me so long considering his level of active community involvement), I was met head-on with his no-bullshit mentality. Wesley has such a peaceful air about him that is intertwined with passion and, dare I say it, rage. This trifecta of internal characteristics are the backbone of his groundbreaking and pervasive art that is both stunning and thought-provoking.
But Wesley wasn’t there to talk to me about his art, it seemed. Sure we could go into his color and stylistic choices or even his provocative subject content but Wesley was having none of that; his art speaks for itself. Wesley was there to talk about opportunity.
“Art doesn’t exist for people of color in the city because of a lack of accessibility,” Wesley said. “It doesn’t matter if the Mint is free on Tuesdays if someone has to work late or has to catch a bus to get there. There is this institutional problem and we are under the guise that the city is something that it is not. We are a minority-based city, but that is not reflected in our arts and culture.”
Wesley is vocal about this discrepancy citing his self-declared fascination with race and his deeply rooted interest in being a minority and what that means.
“My mom always told me that as a black man, I’d have to be twice as good to get half as much,” Wesley said. Through his art and presence in the community — from but not limited to his exhibits, social media presence and BlkMrkClt — he is hoping to take this reality off the table.
“People like me need to infiltrate places like this,” Wesley said of the McColl Center. “White spaces and institutions like this hoard resources. They are literally housed in a castle that was burned down and rebirthed like a Phoenix. We need to see people of color rise up. We need a way for people to move up out of the West End and Belmont. The kids in these neighborhoods don’t have the resources or the information they need to get involved in the arts. What’s the point in making all this stuff free if it’s inaccessible?”
When You Lack Resources, All You Have is Creativity
Wesley has a very clear purpose as an artist: to influence other people of color to create work to change the perspective of racial and cultural identity. This may seem like a large order, but he believes that when you lack resources, all you have is creativity.
Through his joint project “Post Racial Park” with fellow resident, HNin Nie, Wesley is using the experiences of gross inequality and other-ness he spoke so directly about to drive his work.
The passion and heart behind Wesley’s strongly held convictions were evident in our conversation as he detailed how he plans to get the black experience (and those of other minorities) in a more prominent space.
“Representation matters,” he said. “We need these images out there so others will see it and create value around black artists and black skin. This will change how the world sees us. When things have value, it changes how they are treated. We want to be treated with respect as humans.”
Wesley continued, “You can’t have this ego or this ‘I’ mentality. We need to help each other out. None of us can do it alone,” Wesley said.
“We have resources to work together. My Baptist background taught me the story of Jericho—there was this big wall and everyone marched in circles around it until it fell. The caveat here is that everyone needs to be in step and in sync. That’s how walls fall and glass ceilings cease to exist.”
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