June 18, 2014 Arts » Cover story

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Poetry in plain sight 

The Wall Poems of Charlotte alter reality, one building at a time

Jax McClure admires the 25-foot-high wall poem on 5th Street. - JIM MCGUIRE
  • Jim McGuire
  • Jax McClure admires the 25-foot-high wall poem on 5th Street.

Amy Bagwell — poet, artist, educator — sits on the back patio at Snug Harbor on a steamy May evening, sipping from a beading can of Sierra Nevada and holding forth on the NBA Playoffs, a new documentary about the rock band The National and sundry other topics. In the background, the bar's staff readies for the onslaught of Thursday night's weekly Shiprocked party as strains of '80s and '90s rock filter out from inside the club.

Bagwell is here to talk about the Wall Poems of Charlotte, the public art project she co-founded with her former student at Central Piedmont Community College, painter Graham Carew. Like any artist worth her salt, Bagwell has a polymath's enthusiasm for culture and the arts. But when the discussion turns to the local arts scene and how the wall poems have addressed Charlotte's outdated status as a cultural wasteland peopled by banker-bots and arts-hating politicos, the youthful 43-year-old grows perceptibly more animated.

She may not exude the theatrical zealotry of the preacher or prophet, but her passion is no less palpable. She leans forward in the patio chair, her voice rising slightly and her hands gesturing as though to punctuate the thoughts elbowing for room in her sentences. The wall poems, Bagwell insists, aren't meant to alter the city's image so much as highlight the vibrant arts scene that already exists in the shadows of the skyscrapers and stadiums.

"I hate the term 'creatives,'" she says. "It makes it seem like there are people who can be creative and people who can't. That's just bullshit — yes, there are people who have talent that other people don't have, I believe that. But to make a divided culture creates this sense that it's us versus them, and it's not. There's so much integration. And people will celebrate beauty, and they'll celebrate something that transcends."

The Wall Poems of Charlotte are her offering at this shared arts altar, almost like enormous versions of the installation poems she makes in her North Davidson studio. Like public art projects everywhere, the wall poems alter a city's psychic landscape as much as its visual environs. Two permanent wall poems have already made their mark. The first, A.R. Ammons' "Salute," went up almost guerilla-style with no prior fanfare on the side of Dandelion Market on 5th Street in April 2013. The second, an excerpt from Carl Sandburg's "The People," extending across a 70-foot-long brick wall, was recently completed at Trinity Episcopal School in First Ward.

But the project is about to get a significant boost in exposure this summer, when painting begins on the first of six downtown walls donated by local arts patrons David and Daniel Levine. Based in a quadrangle between 7th, Caldwell, 9th and Brevard streets, the six Levine Properties walls will feature poem excerpts highlighting the state's deep catalog of native poets, including Charles Olson — his "These Days" goes up at the end of June on the side of Dixie's Tavern — and Robert Martin Evans, whose "Where We Are" will go up on the side of Villa Francesca on North Caldwell later in the summer.

For the Levines, donating the wall space was a natural extension of the family's legacy of arts patronage, which includes the Levine Center for the Arts and Spirit Square. "As a lover of art and beauty," says David, "it is exciting to be able to be a part of this project that so many people are going to enjoy and be touched by."

Graham Carew and Amy Bagwell at Trinity Episcopal School - MOLLY WILBANKS
  • Molly Wilbanks
  • Graham Carew and Amy Bagwell at Trinity Episcopal School

For Bagwell and Carew, who went into the Levine meeting hoping to land one wall, the result offered concrete validation five times over. "They saw the merits of our project and we walked out with six walls to do together," says the 38-year-old Carew, who splits his time between the U.S. and his native Ireland. "It confirmed to me that we have a good project."

THE WALL POEMS represent much more than just dolling up blank walls downtown. This marriage of local graphic design and regional poetry dovetails with the group's passionate pride in civic art and their hopes of sharing poetry's transcendent power with Charlotte's citizenry, in the most democratic fashion possible. It's also about reclaiming the art form from its fusty reputation by injecting into it the contemporary influence of street art, and changing the way people experience their immediate environs in the process.

"There are certain poems that everyone should be exposed to," Bagwell concedes, "but more important than that is that everyone should have the opportunity to encounter poetry that might mean something to them. With a wall poem, you just happen upon it, you don't have to read it. But just to have the chance to encounter it, that's key, because it's blood and guts and real life. And like all good art, it makes you feel like you belong somewhere."

Bagwell's been an advocate for the inclusive benefits of poetry since she wrote her first poem — about a mother deer and its child — for her third-grade substitute teacher in Columbus, Georgia. She's also seen first-hand how poetry can transform public spaces and even affect how we live our lives: She called New York City home from 1997-2002, when the Poetry in Motion public transportation project was in full flower.

But it was another public poetry project, the Wall Poems of Leiden, that inspired the Charlotte wall poems. Bagwell first learned of the Leiden project — 101 poem-murals hand-painted throughout the Dutch city between 1992-2005 — when she was completing her poetry MFA at Queens University in 2009. She was teaching a seminar at the time that was meant to "get poetry to the people," she says, a calling that also informs her poetry-centered mixed-media art and her teaching philosophy as a CPCC English instructor.

The Leiden wall poems presented an epiphany, though, suggesting an approach beyond the classroom or pages in a book. Her first thought upon discovering them — "I have to do this here" — altered the course of her life in much the same way the project is transforming downtown Charlotte. But the dream lay largely dormant for three years until she met and confided in Carew, now the project's art director. He wondered why she hadn't done it yet, then went out and landed the project's first wall (Dandelion Market) through connections with Charlotte's Irish community.

Last winter, Bagwell fulfilled a years-long dream and travelled to the Netherlands — where she met up with Carew, who traveled there from the U.K. — to see the Leiden wall poems in person. For three days, the two wandered the old city's streets, relying on Dutch language paper maps rather than phone apps to point them to wall poems by e.e. cummings, Langston Hughes, Rainer Maria Rilke and others. Bagwell and Carew saw roughly half of them, from 5-story-tall, bright-yellow poems to hidden gems on the walls of homes down nondescript alleys.

On their last day, the travelers even got to pick the brains of the aging project founders over coffee and drinks. "They were so encouraging," Bagwell says. "It was just incredible to see how the poems were woven into the fabric of the town."

The Leiden poems have become so popular with the city's denizens and visitors that they've been the subject of books, and similar projects have sprouted in towns across the Netherlands and throughout Europe.

While no books have been inspired by the Charlotte project yet, it appears to be picking up exponential support, buoyed by praise from citizens high and low, from office workers to poet Richard Blanco, who read at the 2008 inauguration of President Barack Obama.

The Dandelion Market wall poem kick-started much of that energy. As an opening gambit and bar-setting for future poems, the 25-foot-high poem couldn't have been more effective. It's become a frequent photo subject for tourists and has garnered coverage from The Charlotte Observer to Our State magazine, even earning Creative Loafing's Best Public Art award in 2013. The striking, off-set shadow design by then-CPCC student and current team designer Jennifer Garrison reinforces Ammons' invocation of happiness and tends to stop passersby in their tracks. Bagwell wept when she first saw the design: "It hit me on such a gut level," she says. "It just really worked with the space, the scale, with the tone of the poem, with its message — it just hit it on all levels."

Here's a peek at what Charles Olson's 'These Days' will look like on the side of Dixie's Tavern. - WALL POEMS OF CHARLOTTE
  • Wall Poems of Charlotte
  • Here's a peek at what Charles Olson's 'These Days' will look like on the side of Dixie's Tavern.

THE LENGTHS TO which people, from CPCC interns to the Levines, have been willing to give of their time and treasure is another measure of the project's momentum. Individual volunteers and businesses have contributed everything from the paints and the muralist lift to administration time and pro bono legal advice; with a low-end price-tag of $3,000 per wall, Bagwell, Carew and the other six members of the project team have welcomed it all.

That largesse confirms the city's arts-friendly maturation, Bagwell says. To emphasize that, the co-founder turns all praise back on the patrons and a thriving local arts scene — everyone from the students in CPCC's graphic design, welding and construction programs to professionals like project muralist Scott Nurkin and designer Cynthia Frank, who'll be the unifying design hand for the Levine walls.

But for many, it's Bagwell's commitment to bridging the gap between local artists and local decision makers that catalyzes the support the wall poems receive across the cultural board.

"One of the things that Amy's really succeeded in doing is art by artists, understood by artists, and then run through the mill of city politics, rather than aesthetics by either committee or fiat," says Davidson professor Alan Michael Parker, winner of the last two Randall Jarrell Poetry Prizes from the North Carolina Writers Network. "She's really thinking hard about what it means to be a civic artist, and how to produce collaborative pieces between community and the art form."

Parker — whose poem "The Take-Out Menus in the Lobby" adorns one of the project's temporary 3-by-11-foot news rack installations on North Tryon — also likens the wall poems to public sculpture. Like a monument or statue, only with additional levels of meaning, the poems are experienced by a wide swath of the community: Commuters who pass by every day, visiting tourists spreading the word back home, kids on a bus heading to school to learn. "There are really interesting audience dynamics that contribute to the success of these pieces," Parker adds.

That freedom of interpretation points to something fundamentally subversive about the project. Language and meaning bloom in poetry, the opposite effect of the public texts that usually confront our senses. Take political jargon, where empty slogans purposefully obfuscate meaning, or commercial text, which aims for our baser, atavistic selves and then rarely delivers on its promises ("Lose weight without dieting or exercise!").

Typically, we scurry away from these visual assaults and their rote corruption of language. But if a wall poem catches our eye, we slow down to take in its meaning and provide our own.

"Public art is very democratic. Anyone can see it; anyone can react to it," says Carew, who as a student wrote an essay for Bagwell about utilizing empty spaces for art as a tool of urban regeneration. "A piece of public art can challenge the city government about the role artists have, and it makes people look at their surroundings and their environment. For me, artists of all types should be engaged in their environment and their community."

Language comes alive in poetry, too. Under the care of a conscientious writer, words reveal their family trees and etymology, the culture and politics that bred and changed them over time, and the sound and rhythm that creates their specific music ("generous" is a musical word; "departmental" less so).

Better, still, poems are truly interactive and subject only to the coding of one's imagination. That in itself is a radical idea, says Parker.

"Ultimately, if you can change the way someone looks at their built environment, and you can do that in a way that's through the excitation of language, i.e., a poem, then you are offering them a way to live differently."

Editor's Note: In the print edition of this story, Alan Michael Parker's name was spelled incorrectly.

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