You could say Will Puckett and his family had come full circle on their experience living in Charlotte's NoDa neighborhood on a recent Monday evening.
His sister, Bobbie Puckett, was hanging out with his wife, Lauren, and two daughters, 3 and 5 years old, while they ate from a Domino's box on the floor. Will poured another Premium Roast Coffee Stout from a NoDa Brewery growler, exhausted from the day's work, which included finishing a piece of art for his mother-in-law while packing all of his belongings and getting them ready for transport overseas.
The next day, he and his family would move to Scotland after spending 10 years in NoDa. The communal-style dinner was due mostly to the fact that all of the furniture had been packed already, but the scene was reminiscent of their arrival to Charlotte's arts district a decade ago, when Will, Lauren and Bobbie lived together in an old, one-room church on Yadkin Avenue, unsure of the future and completely unaware of the mark they'd leave on the ever-changing neighborhood.
The art project still laid unfinished on the driveway and boxes full of life's junk drawer items were strewn about the kitchen when Will sat down to oblige CL on our last-minute interview request. He welcomed the break; a chance to sit back, drink a couple beers and talk about his legacy in NoDa, how his view of art has changed in recent years and why he decided to leave Charlotte for Edinburgh, Scotland.
If you've driven around NoDa at any time since 2010, you've almost certainly seen Will's work. The nearly 1,200-square-foot mural on the north-facing wall of JackBeagle's is the most recognizable of his public works, and the one that launched him into a full-time career in painting, but it's just a fraction of the approximately 40,000 square feet of space he's covered in the Charlotte area.
In the NoDa/Villa Heights area alone, he's done the JackBeagle's mural, the entire atrium floor at NoDa at 28th Street, the murals on each side of North Davidson Street under the Matheson Bridge, an Obama mural next to Charlotte Fire Department No. 7, the mural above the Neighborhood Theatre marquee, the front entrance of JackBeagle's, a painting of Ms. PacMan above the entrance at Abari Game Bar, a mural at the Johnston YMCA playground and multiple works at Cordelia Park. Just down North Davidson Street at 15th Street, he's adorned a large wall at Area 15 with a mural depicting some of the goings-on within.
In the countless hours he's spent alone with his work on Charlotte's streets, he's made some friends, if that's what you call them.
"It gets very strange," Will says. "I had guys threaten to fight me. I've had plenty of people buy me beer, which is awesome. People tell me how awful things are and how wonderful things are. I've been offered a few weird sexual exploits; women offering to take me home. I'll take a growler of beer but, no thank you, ma'am. I appreciate the offer."
Will has been drawing and painting all his life. He grew up attending Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools; J.H. Gunn Elementary School, Northeast Middle School (Northeast Junior High School at the time) and Independence High School. He married Lauren 14 years ago — they celebrated their anniversary on arrival in Scotland, three days after we spoke — and moved to NoDa in 2005.
Will has worked his share of seemingly random jobs; from a model who's walked runways in Paris and New York to a farmhand. He had always cultivated his love for art, however, and hoped to do it professionally someday. As he became known around NoDa for the odd art job here and there, that possibility began to present itself in a more realistic fashion.
Only a few weeks after moving into the neighborhood, the owners of NoDa at 28th brought him in to paint the floors of the indoor atrium that connects the businesses inside. The mural depicts a range of things from jazz musicians to hair stylists in action, and although it's now heavily damaged, it has outlived most of the businesses in the location — even Amelie's was then named Marguerite's French Bakery.
"Up until that time I'd just paint anything that I could do that would give me some sort of practice; a surfer going down stairs, kids' bedrooms. That was the first real job I had," Will says.
In 2008, he began talks with incoming ownership at the not-yet-opened JackBeagle's restaurant about doing something with the huge wall space facing the since-closed Salvador Deli.
He did the job for free, but it paid off in the end — even before that. Halfway through his work, the folks at Salvador Deli got a call from Mint Museum inquiring about the artist across the alley, and Will was soon doing a paid job for them. Multiple other potential clients asked about him, as well, and by the time he was done with the JackBeagle's wall, Will was ready to quit his job and take on painting full-time.
Whatever's come since then, the JackBeagle's wall holds a special place in his heart.
"For me it was a great catalyst for the neighborhood to stake a claim in the public arts, to want to bring people to show that they were in this mural or that this thing was happening. Outside of being an interesting piece, hopefully, I got a lot of community support from it, and that was the most beneficial thing about it," Will says. "It's meant to be a time capsule for what was going on: that block party scene that was happening there at the time — to show construction, to show people coming together, to show celebration."
A lot has changed in the neighborhood since then. As galleries closed, the art moved into public spaces; to the streets and to the bars and boutiques that were replacing the galleries. For a guy who had always bristled at the thought of an art gallery, the transition worked well.
"There's been a very small, intimate organicism that goes with it, and here within the neighborhood it has, to me, felt more approachable," Will says. "Galleries had not always been my favorite spaces, especially as a young artist. They were very intimidating as a kid who grew up in the sticks — going to the white wall spaces with fancy people was intimidating. Even approaching them as an artist wanting to showcase there was troublesome for me. During this period of transition in the neighborhood, there has been some loss of those spaces, but there's an embracing of the arts here in the community."
As the neighborhood changed, however, so did Will. About four years ago, as he put the finishing touches on his MeckDec mural under the Matheson Bridge, he began to feel a longing for something new. He decided to return to school, attending UNC Charlotte to finally finish the undergraduate studies he began in 1997. He could never have known just how new of a road that would send him down.
While pursuing an art history degree at UNC Charlotte, Will became interested in contemporary art theory and the works of theorists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. The studies changed his worldview, he says, and made him rethink his work as an artist.
"I found that as a younger artist I was very caught up in a romantic-era idealism of the artist as bohemian — that I needed to struggle and paint and be shirtless and drink all the time," Will says. "All the sudden I was given this new insight into this really remarkable discourse about why we think the way we do and why people are practicing the way that they are."
He immersed himself in the work of structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, specifically his work on pastiche — "repeating what your father tells you," as Will puts it — and bricolage — "reaching out into other tribes to make new and push forward."
He began making abstract art based on citation analysis of other works, mapping the citations and influences of things through time and place.
"I've found a discourse there that I really love, particularly this idea of appropriated practices; how we take from the past and remake and redo," Will says. "In taking what I read and using citation analysis, I take a single artifact or article and work backwards from all the people that they have cited and drawing maps through geography and time to create these shapes that I can then fold on themselves and create abstractions, so that I can project and go backwards where these ideas have come from, but then do abstract paintings too. It's not so much a data visualization as much as it is using research as an art practice."
It's heady stuff, to be sure, but it's where Will has found happiness with his work, so much so that he'll now be pursuing an MA in Contemporary Art Theory and a PhD in Philosophy studying the same types of things at University of Edinburgh (pronounced Edenburrah, you damn tourist).
"My perspective of the art I was trying to make was really blue collar, which I'm not putting down at all, I'm actually very fond of it. I just work with paint. I do big paintings, but the composition was much like an architectural project; you meet with your client, you talk about what you want and what you don't want. Then you sort of develop some things and reorganize," he says. "It was very much a working man's art, which I have been very lucky to be able to do, but in gaining new knowledge and new exposure, it has just changed some stuff."
Will now wants to curate while continuing to create his own art and study and write about theory.
As for Lauren, who has built a name for herself locally as an artist in her own right, she's supportive of Will's plan, but not quite as ready to leave the public art projects behind.
Lauren was recently hired for some work at the new Mercury NoDa apartments, for which she contributed three stained-glass faces looking out on 36th Street and a large stained-glass water tower at the entrance of the parking garage. She enjoyed the work so much that she's already applied to do more in the States and will fly back at a moment's notice if given the opportunity for another one.
"That was my only real public art project, so I really got the itch to want to build these big stained-glass pieces now," Lauren says. "I'm still technically a resident of the U.S. I can fly in and design and come back."
She's ready for a new life in Scotland, however, and said that she and Will specifically picked the neighborhood they'll be living in because it reminded them of NoDa in the early days. Both will be doing all they can to replicate the feeling of community they've experienced here over the past decade.
Lauren has also become a successful real estate agent in recent years (she's also a pilot, the woman honestly deserves her own separate article) and looks forward to delving into that market once they get settled in Scotland.
"We were really interested in investing in a community and bringing the art back," she says. "We were thinking if we're going to invest in real estate, because I understand real estate, let's really create this community around us and let's feed into it and make it something unique."
Although she loves the community they've been a part of in NoDa and Charlotte, Lauren sometimes sounds as if the only qualms she has with the big move is that it didn't come sooner.
"Moving overseas for an extended period of time in another country and culture was always on our radar," she says. "We really always thought we would do it in a more bohemian sense where we would just go off and wander, but this opportunity has a lot more structure and is based on education. I think it works out better. Now it's just so exciting because we have a drive and goals and there's a motivating factor."
And the little ones? They're just as excited as mom and dad to arrive in a new, magical land.
"Here we are moving to Edinburgh and my daughters think I'm going to Hogwarts. Hell, I kind of feel like I'm going to Hogwarts," Will says.
Might we suggest House Ravenclaw?