Visual artists reflect on a year of creativity and community

December 4, 2023

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The Triangle’s vibrant arts community has strengthened and grown in 2023, according to multidisciplinary artist and UNC first-year master’s student John Felix Arnold — but he senses even bigger things on the horizon.

“You can sort of feel it,” he said. “There’s this bubbling in the undercurrent of things — there’s people that want to create spaces and there’s opportunity, too. As the area grows, the audience grows.”

Arnold, a Durham native, has exhibited work in New York and California, as well as in the Triangle, over the course of his career. He said he has noticed an amazing upsurge of creative community in the Triangle in the last 10 years.

“More artists have stayed, or artists from elsewhere have come here,” he said.

Arnold said BASEMENT, a creative space in Chapel Hill that opened in 2019, is inspiring new activity and bolstering growth with residencies and support for experimental art practices. Established Raleigh galleries Lump and Anchorlight  continue to do great things in the arts community, as well as Durham’s Ella West Gallery, Carrboro’s Peel Gallery, Chapel Hill’Attic 506 and local museums, he added.

Over the past year, Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture has continued to contract local artists for public artwork projects.

They undertook a number of projects, including storm drain murals, bus shelter printsmurals on pipes along greenways and trails and interior ceiling vinyls on Chapel Hill Transit buses, according to public art coordinator Steve Wright. 

This summer, the group also commissioned a wrap for a Chapel Hill Transit bus. The colorful design by Durham artist Gabriel Eng-Goetz reads “From Asia to Chapel Hill with Love” and celebrates the Triangle’s Asian American community.

Wright said that for Women’s History Month in March, they selected the design of Sri Lankan American artist Mayanthi Jayawardena for the mural “Lotus Rising — An Ode to Women” on the side of Lantern Restaurant off West Franklin Street.

Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture aims to beautify the town and add interest to the everyday Chapel Hill experience by installing art in places people might encounter it unexpectedly, Wright said.

“Our mission is to inspire creativity and celebrate the community in Chapel Hill,” he said. “And through public art, we often do that by representing voices that aren’t often portrayed in the arts.”

Arnold said he returned to the area this fall for his Master of Fine Arts rather than pursuing a program in New York because there are vital conversations that need to happen in the South to confront difficult histories and reimagine the future, which Southern artists can help facilitate.

“People want to continue to cultivate and grow the community here, create spaces that show solid work and have strong discourse,” Arnold said.

Senior studio art major, photographer and printmaker Madison Speyer has exhibited work through UNC’s art program and in the broader community.

Their upcoming solo exhibition, “Esmé’s Home,” will conclude the semester’s exhibitions for the Studio Art Majors Alliance’s SAMple gallery.

The Studio Art Majors Alliance aims to host three group shows per semester and end with a solo or joint duo exhibition, Speyer said. Speyer collaborated with their friend and fellow artist SamLevi Sizemore in the final show of the spring 2023 semester. 

This year’s themed group exhibitions were “Body (of) Work,” “Anti-Portraits” and “Remember, You Will Die,” she explained.

Speyer is also showing pieces in a benefit show at Lump and a group exhibition at Peel. They said the Triangle’s arts community is supportive, communal and willing to help one another.

“It doesn’t feel like people are fighting tooth and nail for every little thing like it can in New York or something,” she said. “The Triangle is very unique, I think, in that it’s a very community-oriented and uplifting arts environment.”

Speyer also attends as many art events as they can, which they said is also a good way to find out about spaces to exhibit work.

Information about upcoming and past events can be found on individual gallery or museum websites and social media pages.