Charlotte-based architect and artist J. Stacy Utley aims to make his artwork "Excelsior" a dynamic conversation between a neighborhood’s past and its future.
At Five Points Plaza in the Historic West End neighborhood of Charlotte, North Carolina, two sculptural forms soar skyward. From a distance, the shape and deep orange tones of the laser cut metal panels suggest flaming torches, reaching almost thirty feet high above the plaza. But come closer to the sculptures, titled “Ever Upwards” and “Even Higher,” and vivid details emerge that pay homage to the history and hopes of this historically Black neighborhood.
The sculptures, collectively titled “Excelsior,” are the creation of Charlotte-based artist J. Stacy Utley ’14, who collaborated with architectural firm Evoke Studio to bring the work to the plaza, which is undergoing construction as part of neighborhood development.
Stacy is still astonished that the project, three years in the making, is finally completed. And in May 2021, the news came that “Ever Upwards” and “Even Higher” would be part of an exhibition, “A South Forty: Contemporary Architecture and Design in the American South,” at the 2021 Venice Biennale.
“It’s still a little bit surreal,” he says, “but we’re very, very excited about it.”
Five Points Plaza is in a historically Black community that’s riding a tidal wave of change, including extensive redevelopment and a recent streetcar line extension to Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black college. The changes have been welcomed by residents but in Charlotte—one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.—they have also raised fears about gentrification and displacement.
Stacy, whose thesis in Lesley’s MFA in Visual Arts program focused on the role that artists play in neighborhood gentrification, notes that historically, urban renewal projects in Charlotte have had a profoundly damaging impact on Black neighborhoods, such as Charlotte’s Brooklyn neighborhood.
“The Brooklyn community was completely razed for Interstate 277 and the government center. A lot of people who lived in that area moved to the historic West End, and now that area is undergoing transition as well.”
He felt personally invested in making “Excelsior” a dynamic conversation between the West End’s past and its future.
Planting the seeds
A military kid, Stacy was born at Lakenheath Airforce Base in Suffolk, England, grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and has lived in Charlotte for the last 13 years.
He majored in architecture at North Carolina State University and worked in the field for years until he decided to pursue his MFA in Visual Arts at Lesley with a plan to teach architecture.
“It was probably one of the craziest, best experiences of my life in terms of the connections that I made, the relationships that I still have here with people like Andrew Yang and Joseph Fontinha,” he says. “I didn’t know what to expect but I got so much out of it.”
He still uses practices he learned in professor Laurel Sparks’ class on professional development and credits the mentoring he received from faculty members like art historian Sunanda Sanyal and fellow students like artist Ya La’Ford ’13, who was in the class ahead of him.
“It’s good to have relationships like that, where you can just shoot a text to pick their brains and hopefully someday down the road collaborate with them.”
His thesis focused on the intersection of artists and gentrification in low-income neighborhoods.
“A lot of artists move into these areas and become part of a community; they retrofit the spaces for their life and work,” he explains. “And then that area starts getting traction and people start coming to visit the artists, and then all of a sudden you have studios and galleries, and then coffee shops and restaurants. I found it very interesting that art found its way at the beginning of gentrification, before the Whole Foods, and the Starbucks and all those places come into it.”
He had always been interested in the history of urban planning, including zoning laws and the practice of redlining which excluded Black people from home ownership by making bank loans more difficult. As a Black architect and artist, he had complex feelings about gentrification, especially when it came to his hometown.
“I struggled with that because at the same time, I was an architect. I was like—what agency do I have? I felt like I’m on one side of it, but also have experienced what it’s like to be on the other side. It’s an interesting place to look at it.”
The contradictions found their way into his artwork. And a class with MFA Director Ben Sloat, “Site Specific,” piqued his interest in public art.
“I just remember those conversations and site visits, thinking how much this is like an architectural studio. And that was when I really kind of started thinking about public art. I didn’t get into it until much later but that’s where that seed for me got planted.”
He started teaching as an adjunct professor at UNC Charlotte and is currently teaching for a private school in Charlotte. But he continued to work on his own art and design work and when the chance arose to collaborate with Evoke Studio founder and friend, Edwin Harris, he took it. After working on architectural projects at cultural institutions like museums and universities, creating art in public spaces didn’t seem very different.
Telling a community’s story
From the start of the Five Points Plaza project, community engagement was a top priority.
“When you do a public artwork, at the end of the day, it’s going to live in that community—it’s going to be the community that surrounds it—going to work, going to school, walking by there on the weekends—and so it’s important to engage people.”
The Historic West End installation pays homage to the historic Excelsior Club, a nearby hub for Black social and political life in Charlotte for over 75 years and to Dorothy Counts-Scoggins, a civil rights pioneer who integrated Charlotte’s segregated Harding High School in 1957 and still lives in the West End. She was one of the many local elders whom Stacy and Evoke Studio spoke with when they were awarded the project in the fall of 2018. They partnered with Johnson C. Smith University, which was working on an oral history project with a group of community members in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
“We were able to talk to them and hear first-hand what their experience was like growing up there and how it’s changed over the years,” Stacy says. “That’s the kind of knowledge and insight that you just can’t get from a book or website.”
Elevating and sharing that history through the two soaring beacons was the goal.
“We wanted it to be the narrative of that community,” explains Stacy, “so whether you lived there for four months or 40 years, you understood what the history of that community was about. “
“A South Forty”
The community’s response to “Excelsior” was overwhelmingly positive, and then came the news that the piece would be included in “A South Forty.” The exhibit included projects from 40 different architectural and design practices in the Southeastern U.S. and aimed to showcase “place-based design” that reflected the complex history, culture, and aspirations of the American South.
“It was a very humbling, overwhelming, emotional, what-in-the-world type of moment to hear that this piece was going to be included along with Evoke’s work in the Venice Biennale,” Stacy says. He regrets that he wasn’t able to travel to Venice to see the exhibit but hopes that he and his family will have a chance to visit this summer.
Stacy has new public art projects in the works and signed a lease for a new studio space. The complex role that artists and architects play in the gentrification process is a subject that he’s still exploring.
“I still find ways through collage and mixed media to talk about that work. They’re conversation starters, because people see them and say, ‘That’s happening in my neighborhood; that’s happening to my grandmother’s neighborhood.’”
Still, he hopes that public art can create a dialogue to help strengthen the ties between a community’s past and its future.
“Change is inevitable, but I think you have to you have to be respectful of the community and the culture and the history,” he says. “You can’t just come in and whitewash that away.”
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