"I always try to celebrate anything good happening for the community; so when I go for a mural and someone else gets it, that's good. I'm happy because that means that somebody is spending money on murals. [...] there's enough sunshine for all of us."
by Jeremy Lewis
Even over Zoom, it’s hard not to get swept up in Bree Stallings’s all-encompassing passion for the blossoming artists community in Charlotte, North Carolina. Bree foresees a bright future for the city as a hub for artistic innovation and, in her eyes, its potential lies in local artists who reflect the rich tapestry of the city’s past and present.
Since stepping into her role as Art Director for the IVG exhibit in Charlotte, Bree has focused her attention on the voices of previously underrepresented Charlotteans. And when comparing what she advocates for in this interview with her own artistic work, the correlation is clear. Bree’s murals are wild landscapes of ferocious color, scaling buildings with equal parts beauty and pinpoint precision; but they also leave striking, celebratory, contemplative images in their wake, inviting the viewer to question what they believe to be true.
In conversation with smART Magazine, Bree reflects on the challenges of navigating the monochromatic creative world that COVID-19 left behind, and the part she has played in expanding the list of talent in Charlotte’s artistic portfolio. Bree discusses her position within her community, how she takes care and responsibility for the environment that supports her, and why she insists on questioning the world around her and herself. We learn about The Blumenthal Artists Program, Charlotte’s tightly-knit artistic community, the historic Ford building at Camp North End, and how her own work reflects the history of Charlotte.
by Tash Cowley
Bree Stallings: Artist & Community Leader
On the Blumenthal Artist Program
I've consulted for The Blumenthal for a couple of years and worked on a number of different projects with them. As a working artist myself, I understand how badly COVID affected our creative community. This time last year, I was down and out. I felt as if all the progress I had made in my own career trajectory had diminished and it felt so bad to see everything dry up. One of my biggest passions lies in hiring artists and putting creatives to work, to make things communal. I also think that having this big international exhibit here in Charlotte and not having local artists involved would just be insulting, because Charlotte has such a big artist’s community. Especially at Camp North End, where there's a bunch of artists who have their studio spaces on site.
So far, I've hired 19 artists. They have worked to create murals, installations, sculptures, picnic tables… I even have a person who's painting this historic guard shack from when the army was here – it's getting Van Gogh’d! In addition to those 19 artists, we have 26 artists going into the boutique, selling their merch and their work through Lighthouse Immersive, and 10 Artists-In-Residence coming in. To my understanding, that's around triple or quadruple the standard number of local artists involved in the IVG exhibit and selling their work.
We talk a lot about exposure in the arts and it gets a bad rap, but with the number of tickets that we've sold for IVG, it is great exposure. We had a whole list of people, and I didn't even get to involve a fraction of the people that I wanted to, but it felt good to offer some money and exposure to those we did bring in. I'm trying to put their names in as many places as possible, to highlight them in our magazines and make sure that their work is credited on the actual picnic tables and stuff like that. It's really important to me. I wouldn't do any of this without considering my artistic community first.
"In addition to those 19 artists, we have 26 artists going into the boutique, selling their merch and their work through Lighthouse Immersive, and 10 Artists-In-Residence coming in."
On her Murals
Creating murals is much harder than people imagine, but it's also meditative in a way. You have to be outside of your body to do it, or else you would be miserable the whole time! When I enter into that state of meditation, I think it feeds into the social justice issues that come up through my work. I come from a multiracial background, and that's a very interesting perspective to have in the south. In the south, everything is very black or white; literally, black or white. And to come from a family that checks the box of “other” is something that people don't necessarily know how to deal with. They don't know how to handle it, how to compartmentalize it, how to “sort” people. In addition to that, I'm white-passing, and so people who see me don't always assume that I'm with my family. They start speaking another language to my mom, and then say something kind of rude to me about her. I've had this duality in my life regarding how people will treat and interpret me, compared with my mom, my grandmother and my other family members.
"In the South, everything is very black or white [...] And to come from a family that checks the box of “other” is something that people don't necessarily know what to deal with."
I don’t like to speak on others’ experiences, just the ones that I get to experience, and it comes up all the time. I am white, right? I identify that way. So when people ask me about it, it's like “Well, how much time do you have and how interested are you in understanding the fullness of how we all identify?” My mom, who's less than half white, identifies as white because it's safe. In the south, the idea is that it's better to be white than not, and so we assimilate. We lose our languages, and we lose our cultures. It's also interesting because I can speak from my perspective, but I also can't speak from a Black perspective. It's different. People of Color and Black people don't have the same experiences, especially here in the south; it's something that often gets umbrellaed, but there are different layers to the ways that people are affected by white supremacy.
On the history of Charlottean Workers
First and foremost, let’s establish where we're at contextually. We are in a historically Black neighborhood called Druid Hills, which developed as Uptown was being built. People were being pushed out. We are in a very interesting time now, because Camp North End is this giant construction that feels like the first Horseman of the Gentrification-Apocalypse. Things are starting to change; condos are going up (which feels like the Second Horseman) and it's very interesting to witness.
As an artist, it's something that I struggle with. I contribute to these places, but then these places eventually displace people, and I don't know how to deal with that. Within my own work, that's something that I want to question. I don't know if I have enough authority; I don't own the land, so I don't really have capacity in this conversation to change it, but I also realize that I come in, I make a place cool, and then the rent goes up. That bothers me because I've also dealt with it personally; we had our house foreclosed upon when I was in college, so I’ve dealt with being in complete crisis mode on that end. That's something that my work deals with, this intersection of class and race.
Additionally, the IVG exhibit does a good job of representing the working class people that Van Gogh highlighted through his work. It's not just Sunflowers, it's not just Starry Night cafe scenes. During the Dutch phase, he was just exploring people working, which is so perfect for Camp North End because this has always been a place for people to work. It was a Ford building for a long time, where they assembled Model T's and Model A's, and then it was a part of the army’s missile and ammunition warehouse. That's where the wooden floors come from; they were laid by the army 85 years ago. They're not ceramic because if they were and some of the ammunition dropped, it could spark. That's also where the camp’s name comes from; Camp North End stands for “Charlotte Army Missile Program.” After that, it was a distribution center for Eckerd and Rite Aid, so working class people have been coming here. Over the last 10 years, it's been a place for artists and small business owners but for literally a century, people have been working with their hands here, and it even predates the Ford building. On some of the fabrics displayed in the exhibit, you'll see that there are images of the landowners and the land keepers who worked here before the building was constructed. I think that if you can allow that history to tie in, it rings true contextually.
"As an artist, it's something that I personally struggle with. I contribute to these places, but then these places eventually displace people, and I don't know how to deal with that."
On her role within Charlotte’s Artist Community
At the beginning of my career, I had an exhibition called Modern Poverty, where I invited people to show their own work about living in or around poverty; it was an international exhibition, and it got a lot of media attention. From there I started working for a program called Project Art Aid, where I worked my way up the ranks from being a volunteer to Director, where I was giving out grants to artists. So very young, very quickly, I was giving out money… which means people wanted to be around me! I started meeting a lot of artists and developing the community.
Charlotte is a small town; we have over a million people now, but it's all happened really quickly. There’s a lot of fluidity to people coming and going, and so within communities like the arts, music or non-profit communities, there are these staples of people that you know, over and over. Even when we were choosing the Artists-In-Residence, we were going through the list and we were all saying “yes, we’ve worked with this person!”. These circles become Venn diagrams, all overlapped.
I think when I was younger and when I was coming into the scene, it was a little scarcer, and there was more of a dog-eat-dog mentality. Like, “if you get this then I can't have it.” But I think that's starting to shift now. I always try to celebrate anything good happening for the community, so when I go for a mural and someone else gets it, that's good. I'm happy because that means somebody is spending money on murals. That's not something that was happening five years ago here, and there's enough sunshine for all of us.
One of the biggest roles that I took upon myself at The Blumenthal was to create an artist directory. I want to document who is here, and make sure that I'm not missing people who I haven't met yet or worked with before. I'm also trying to be more intentional about hiring people. There are some major hitters in the mural community and the arts community, probably five of us that get chosen again and again and in realizing that I'm a part of that group, I can think outside the box. For the picnic tables that we have here at Van Gogh, I chose a lot of street and graffiti artists. These are OG’s in our community, amazing graff writers who don't ever get commissioned because of their style. They are important to the art scene and the muralogy of Charlotte, but do they ever get chosen for anything? No. Because it doesn't fit in with people's perceived aesthetics. I just want to think differently about that whole process as we start to be more innovative in our approach to community arts.
"I want to document who is here, and make sure that I'm not missing people who I haven't met yet or worked with before. I'm also trying to be more intentional about hiring people."