The Assembly’s monthly literary column highlights all things books in the Old North State. Author Wiley Cash helms the newsletter, which includes older books with new relevance, new titles with timely appeal, reviews, author Q&As, and excerpts. You can sign up for the newsletter here.

This month’s book is Art of the State: Celebrating the Visual Art of North Carolina, written by Liza Roberts and published by The University of North Carolina Press.

I went through a range of emotions reading Art of the State: Celebrating the Visual Art of North Carolina by Liza Roberts, a seasoned journalist and founder of Raleigh’s Walter magazine. 

I felt proud to be a native and resident of a state that can boast so many incredible artists, along with the collectors and gallery owners who support them. I felt honored (and pretty cool) to discover that I know many of the artists featured in the book. Perhaps, most powerfully, I found myself embarrassed in how little I knew of North Carolina’s long history of fostering and supporting the arts. 

Roberts’ introduction does a great job educating readers like me who have always appreciated the state’s art but don’t know what was done to foster it. 

I learned that North Carolina was the first state to support a publicly funded art museum, after the legislature passed a $1 million appropriation bill for the purchase of art in 1947. Two years later, the nation’s first municipal arts council was founded in Winston-Salem. In 1961, Governor Terry Sanford created the nationally unparalleled North Carolina Awards to honor the arts and humanities, and four years later the North Carolina School of the Arts was chartered as the first public arts conservatory in the nation. 

And in 1971—which happened to be the same year the state legislature consolidated the state’s 16 public institutions of higher learning into the UNC System—the North Carolina Department of Art, Culture, and History became the country’s first such cabinet-level state agency. 

Roberts spends the rest of the book walking the reader west to east, from the mountains to the sea, to honor both the geographic distinctions of the state and its diversity of expression. With a mixture of natives, new residents, and visitors, North Carolina is a state in flux, borrowing equally from tradition and outside influence to create an art that is distinct and vibrant. 

Author Liza Roberts, courtesy of The University of North Carolina Press.

Within chapters on the mountains, Charlotte, the Triad, Seagrove and the Sandhills, the Triangle, and the east, Roberts profiles not only the artists living and working there but also the gallery owners, collectors, and curators whose support allows these artists to thrive. 

She begins in the mountains, with the Penland School of Craft, which was founded in 1929 to teach local women how to weave and get their work into the marketplace. Penland has become an international beacon for artists looking for a place to sculpt, weave, blow glass, and explore countless other approaches to craftwork. After they visit, many of them stay. 

“This is the area in the U.S. that is most densely populated by practicing craft artists,” says Mia Hall, who has served as Penland’s director since 2018.

One artist who was drawn to the area and ended up planting roots is Mel Chin. He was in Yancey County when he received a call from the MacArthur Foundation in 2019, letting him know that he had won a “Genius Grant”—a no-strings-attached, $650,000 award given to individuals who excel in their artistic, academic, or community-based pursuits. Chin has long seen himself as an artist deeply engaged with global and national conversations while finding a way to distill these complications in his work on a local level.

Artist Mel Chin at work. (Photo by Lissa Gotwals)

His 60-foot-tall animatronic sculpture Wake was created with students from nearby UNC-Asheville and installed downtown after being the focal point of a larger installation in Times Square. 

Roberts then takes us to downtown Asheville, where we meet gallery owner Tracey Morgan, who moved to the mountains from New York City in 2015.

“I can see why this is a hotbed of creativity,” Morgan says. “The sharing of ideas is a big part of it.”

But hotbeds have drawbacks, the primary one being higher prices for rent, including studio space. So Roberts continues her story through western North Carolina. We learn about artists who left Asheville for places like Madison County, where they were able to find or create affordable spaces to continue their work. 

From there we head to Charlotte, where, one day in 1995, Bank of America Chairman and CEO Hugh McColl was gazing out of his office window at a burned-out church he had gazed upon many times before. 

“It came to me that it had perfect northern light,” McColl says, “and you could create art studios in it.” Four years later the Tryon Center for Visual Art was born from the ashes of the sanctuary; it was later renamed the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in its founder’s honor. 

Charlotte is full of innovative spaces that bring art to forgotten buildings and underserved communities. Camp North End, which is home to studios, creative businesses, and restaurants, sits just north of Uptown in a former Ford Motor Company assembly plant. Farther north is BLKMRKT, a gallery and studio space designed to provide “a safe creative environment for artists of color.” There’s also the Light Factory, where photographers can both showcase their work and nurture their careers in a supportive community. 

While many artists find strength and inspiration among peers, others set out on their own. Daniel Johnston, who lives and works at the end of a long dirt road in Randolph County, might be a good example. Often barefoot with a cigarette dangling from his lips, Johnston creates enormous, handmade clay pots of materials dug from the earth near his studio in Seagrove. Being from a rural area grounded in poverty, Johnston always understood that “land was power.” His work speaks to that power, but it is “not self expression,” he says. Instead, it is “an expression of the world. Because art that does not have context does not transcend, it is just an exercise.”

As Roberts carries us farther east, she showcases artists working in mediums, using techniques, and focusing on subjects that might surprise some readers. There’s sculptor and installation artist Christina Lorena Weisner, whose work literally floats on the waters off the coast of Kitty Hawk. There’s Lumbee painter Alisha Locklear Monroe, who sees her role as an artist to be a keeper and communicator of history. And there’s Wilmington-based quilter September Krueger, who considers her collage-style quilting an act of building and layering community. 

As an artifact, Art of the State is as marvelous to behold as the art within its pages. Roberts portrays the artists as everyday North Carolinians while also explicating and untangling the often complicated nature of their work. Lissa Gotwals’ photographs of the artists, many of them in the midst of the creative process, are simply stunning.

As I finished the book, my mind kept returning to two statements that appeared in its early pages. The first is by Roberts herself who, when wrapping up her history lesson of the many ways in which North Carolina has fostered the arts, writes, “None of it happened yesterday, and none of it happened by chance.” 

The second is from McColl: “My main goal was to build a great city. And I don’t think you can build a great city without art.”

As Art of the State makes clear, North Carolina’s greatness didn’t happen by chance. 

Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.

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