Art & art history: Sharon Dowell
Energy of Place
Since receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts from UNC Charlotte in 2002, painter and public artist Sharon Dowell has established a strong presence in the Charlotte arts community, receiving numerous grants, commissions, and “Best Artist” awards. Her paintings, which have been shown widely throughout North Carolina and in galleries in New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles, “capture the energy of place,” she says. “Interested in the documentation of memory and place, I strive to find beauty in often overlooked structures and spaces.” Beginning with a mural nearly a decade ago, Sharon has created public work throughout the greater Charlotte region, including major initiatives for the Charlotte Area Transit System. She describes those projects here.
This was my first mural in 2008. It was on Central Avenue (in Charlotte), on the side of a kind of benign, boring white building, and I applied for it through the Arts & Science Council.
I really wanted to reflect the neighborhood…the theme of my paintings or my bodies of work tend to be the energy of place. So I met with the Merry Oaks residents. I went to their neighborhood meeting and had them fill out surveys about what's important to your neighborhood, what would you want to see in a mural, but I also interviewed people, and then I came up with a mock-up sketch. We had a second meeting, and they commented on the sketch. All that really helped shape the imagery. I wouldn't have known how important bicycling is and the Greenway is to them, and so that was included in there. And all the different flowers represent a different country, because it's a very international side of town.
Charlotte United Buddy Baer
They have these bears all over the world, and there's a studio in Berlin called the “Buddy Bear studio,” and the idea is to have artists paint the bear as a cultural exchange. There are a lot of German businesses here in Charlotte, and Kurt Waldthausen, the German Consul, spearheaded the project, to reflect a connection between Germany and Charlotte. He rallied the German businesses here to sponsor this project, and they partnered with the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, and they put the call out.
I was chosen from among ten artists, and I actually got to travel to Berlin. It was exciting for me because I got to paint the bear in the studio in Berlin, and I got to meet artists from all over.
The imagery is about Queen Charlotte, who was from Germany. There are two different types of flowers: There’s the dogwood flower, which is the North Carolina state flower, and the bird of paradise, or Strelitzia, and that was her favorite flower. Then in the background there are binary numbers – zeros and ones – to reflect technology and how that is able to make a global connection.
Now it is in front of the main public library in Charlotte. Sometimes I will be walking by, and I will see people taking pictures in front of it. It’s just fun.
CMPD & Teens Peace Mobile Mural
This project was through the Arts Empowerment Project, which is a non-profit. We met with teenagers that are either on diversion or on probation through the court system and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers. We had six classes on Saturdays, and each class had a theme – everything from self-identity, to your rights, to how to act if you're pulled over by a cop. With every theme, I would come up with an art project for them to do, and everybody had to do it – the teens and the police officers. They were reluctant at first, but once I put some art supplies in front of them, they started going. It broke down the barrier, and they started having conversations about their art.
We all did this as a group, and I took their actual drawings to create the mural. The skyscraper in the back was drawn by a lieutenant, and I really loved that he put a person on top. It was about perseverance and goals and getting to the top. And then there was a girl who wrote “Stand up for what you believe in even when you're standing alone.”
We all spent a lot of time deciding which phrases we thought would be the most important to put in there: mutual respect, breaking down barriers, we are all the same, and then peace, justice, and understanding.
Some of the cops were really emotional. They said “You know, I just feel stuck in the middle sometimes.”
I really like the similarity between the shape of the heart and the police department badge. We are so polarized now, and I think that we need to have love for both sides – the community for the cops and the cops for the community.
Momentous: A Timeline of History Shaping Sites of Concord
This project was for the City of Concord, and I think this is one of the first public art projects that they commissioned, so it's exciting to see smaller towns starting to really invest in public art. They had a call for proposals, and I got the commission.
This was a really interesting space because it's this narrow kind of walkway alleyway between two very old buildings, and they have these old boarded-up windows peppering the alleyway. What they wanted to do was create murals in that same shape and place them over the windows.
The City Council was my client, and they really steered what was going into it. It was very specific. Every single window had to be about a specific time in history. I’m used to having to do the research myself and come up with the concept. So, we had to go back and forth a little bit. But it was great to have so many historical imagery to choose from.
Because the budget was a smaller budget, painting was out of the question. So I pitched the idea of designing this digitally. It was the first time I had done any digital work for public art, so that was fun. It was printed on metal, and the City took care of printing and installation.
Freedom Walkway Mural
The Freedom Walkway is the name of this project in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and this was really interesting for me because I worked with an art team. I actually applied for this commission and didn’t get it. Juan Logan and Laurel Holtzapple of Groundworks Studio got the project and came up with the concept, and then they hired me to paint the mural part of it and Carrie Gault to create the mosaics on the ground. So I was a subcontractor.
It was a live construction site the whole time. They were building condos. My contract was directly with the construction company, which I had never done before, so that was a learning curve.
I love this project because it’s the first Civil Rights theme project for Rock Hill and it’s about the Friendship Nine, who sat at a lunch counter (in 1961). Everything about it has meaning to it.
The blue of the chimney is important because for a lot of African Americans, especially in the Low Country, it’s a symbol of protection, especially from evil spirits. Then down below in Carrie’s mosaics, you see swirling, and that’s turbulence. As it flows up into the wall into my mural and up the chimney, it dissipates – which is kind of a nice wish for things to change.
It really hit me hard when I was up on the scaffolding painting “Liberty and justice for all.” The Charlotte protests (around the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott) were happening that week, and I cried. I was on the scaffolding painting about that sit-in, and I cried and thought, we still have so far to go.
A City On Its Side
Crista Cammaroto (then Director of Galleries for the College of Arts + Architecture) asked me to come paint a mural in the first floor window at UNC Charlotte Center City, and she said, “I’d really like an uptown Charlotte cityscape.” I feel like everybody does uptown Charlotte cityscapes, so I thought “how can I make this different?”
During that time the HB2 issues were happening in Charlotte and North Carolina, so I thought how about I flip it on its side, because I felt like everything was on its side and not right.
I invited Lara Americo, who is a wonderful local transgender LGBTQ activist, to be in the mural. So this is her face. I took out her mouth intentionally because I still feel like LGBTQ folks still don't have their full rights, and you can't speak out. A lot are afraid of getting hurt.
The cubes are something that I've been using a lot in my work to reflect boxes. We still want to label everybody and put them in boxes. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter or LGBT issues, we need to listen, we need to get to know people who are different from us. Once you start to do that you start to have more empathy, and your opinions change.
Halcyon Idyll II
There was a call for artists by CATS (Charlotte Area Transit System) for the light rail stations, and I got a smaller project, originally, just to design signal houses and communication cabinets. One of the artists that was working on the 25th Street Station decided to leave the project, and I had been asked to collaborate with this artist at the time, so when he left, I guess CATS had really liked what I had presented thus far, and they offered me a shot at that station. So I whipped up some designs very quickly.
While I was working on the 25th Street Station, they said they had another opportunity on the line, and of course I said yes again. This was exciting because it was so huge, we had to hire a company from Brooklyn to come down, and they had eight guys painting around the clock.
I was not allowed to paint because of insurance reasons, because I'm not an employee of the company that I hired. But they did let me paint on the ground.
This is going to become a throughway for people to walk or bike in and out of uptown Charlotte, and the light rail is going to pass right through underneath the overpasses, so in designing this, I was thinking about the people that are walking by and the detail I wanted to provide, but also the train passengers streaming by, and what that would look like.
The piece is called Halcyon, and it’s about my hope that we can coexist with nature as we progress. You know, we think of progress as buildings and skyscrapers, so I went to uptown Charlotte and took photos of construction and incorporated that imagery in there and then put in some vines and organic imagery.
In the past this was really a kind of no-man’s land, just trash and people sleeping or doing drugs under there, so it’s nice to be part of something that’s revitalizing the space.