What is North Carolina Art?

The following is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Visual Art of North Carolina by Liza Roberts with a foreword by Lawrence J. Wheeler and photographs by Lissa Gotwals, which is on sale today and available wherever books are sold.

What is North Carolina art? Is it the pottery made famous by artists like Ben Owen III, whose family has been making earthen vessels in Seagrove for generations? Is it to be found in the new application of old techniques, like the wall-spanning frescos of Asheville’s Christopher Holt? What about the delicate tissue paper creations of Durham’s Maya Freelon, the massive sculptures of Thomas Sayre, the striking bronze figures of Stephen Hayes, or the floating plastic cubes of Christina Lorena Weisner?

All of it is North Carolina art. It’s as varied as the population, and as exceptional as the evolving state that spawned it. True to its roots, breaking new ground, and ever more diverse, North Carolina art reflects the times in which we live and the people we are and are becoming. This is art that brings us together, that asks hard questions, that is beautiful, and that matters.

The state itself fuels this art, with its extraordinary and inspiring natural beauty, its affordability, and its quality of life. But the institutions and programs that have grown and expanded here to educate, showcase, employ, and connect this population of creators—and the communities and patrons they’ve spawned—are also responsible. This is true in Raleigh and Charlotte, but it’s also true in our smaller cities and rural areas.

“There is a generosity of spirit in North Carolina that I want to say is unique,” says artist Eleanor Annand. “Instead of creating an environment that feels exclusive, it feels more welcoming. I think that’s contagious. It’s been a huge part of my life here.”

Why is Penland, where Annand lives and works, an artist magnet? Penland School of Craft and its surrounding community has made it one, a place where an artist can afford to live, work, and learn.

A wall in Herb Jackson’s studio, Davidson.

Why is Greensboro an artist magnet? UNC Greensboro and nearby North Carolina A&T State University are excellent schools that make art a priority. The Weatherspoon Art Museum has a national reputation. GreenHill Center for North Carolina Art is a tireless champion of our state’s artists. And there’s nowhere like the city’s strange and wonderful museum, artists’ residency, and collaborative learning lab known as Elsewhere to mix things up.

“Greensboro is this art hub that I don’t know people are fully aware of,” says Steven Cozart, an artist and educator who lives there. “You would think that it would be Charlotte, because Charlotte’s a big city. Or Raleigh, because it has the Museum of Art … but in my opinion, it’s Greensboro. In this one area, there is so much art, and so many art opportunities.”

And why is rural Kinston, population 21,000, an artist magnet? Because it has subsidized housing for artists who engage with the community; because it has important and abundant public art; because it knows that art and economic opportunity go hand in hand.

“It’s amazing what art does for a community as an economic driver,” says Kinston entrepreneur and philanthropist Stephen Hill, standing on the rooftop of the O’Neil, the luxury boutique hotel he created in the hull of a long-dormant bank building in this former tobacco town. It’s just one of a half dozen historic downtown buildings Hill has revitalized here, just a few blocks from the Thomas Sayre earthcast sculpture he helped bring to his hometown.

If art can spark an economy like Kinston’s, the reverse is also true, says the artist Ben Knight, who lives nearby. While derelict buildings and empty sidewalks dampen creativity, a busy downtown can be an inspiration of its own, a creativity galvanizer. “Once it all comes together, it’s like a room full of people,” he says. “It’s got life.”

Liza Roberts is a journalist and founder of Walter Magazine. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.