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The Story Behind the Shelter Art Along the New CATS Gold Line

Four artists, three visions, 11 new stops

The following article is part of a paid partnership with CATS highlighting projects such as the newly opened CityLYNX Gold Line track stretching from the Elizabeth neighborhood in east Charlotte to the Historic West End

CATS Gold Line
A CATS CityLYNX Gold Line stop at Sunnyside Avenue, featuring artwork by Amy Cheng. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

If you take the CATS CityLYNX Gold Line on its new extended path, which opened on Aug. 30, you’ll travel past a secret garden, through a time machine and into a world of historical beauty.

Queen City Nerve spoke to the four artists who were handpicked to develop three distinctive visions for the Gold Line’s transit shelters, creating original art for each new stop in the Elizabeth neighborhood, Uptown, and Historic West End.

The Gold Line’s secret garden in Elizabeth

Four shelters in the Elizabeth neighborhood shine translucent pink, green, and blue, with interweaving black and silver curves surrounding a centerpiece. Artist Amy Cheng, whose work experience spans from New York City to Beijing (including a stint as a McColl Center resident in Charlotte), engaged Elizabeth residents to create a piece that reflects and compliments their community. 

Cheng opened up her artistic process to Elizabeth neighbors early on. She began her piece, titled “World Within Worlds,” with an idea to explore the difference between external and internal space, contrasting the neighborhood’s proximity to the bustling uptown with its quaint, calmer community feel. However, she found her inspirations changed fairly rapidly after CATS Art in Transit held a community meeting for the neighborhood residents. 

CATS Gold Line
A CATS CityLYNX Gold Line stop at Sunnyside Avenue, featuring artwork by Amy Cheng. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Cheng asked the meeting participants to describe what they would connect with in her work: “I asked them to give me five words that came to mind about their neighborhood in three minutes,” she told Queen City Nerve.  

Many residents gave words like “friendly” and “community-oriented.” Aesthetically speaking, many also mentioned the word “trees,” inspiring Cheng’s branch-like curvy designs, as well as her depictions of leaves. 

The centerpiece of the shelters also emerged out of these conversations. Cheng learned that neighborhood residents still held the memory of a rose garden that’s been gone for more than half a century. 

CATS Gold Line
A CATS CityLYNX Gold Line stop at East 8th Street, featuring artwork by Amy Cheng. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“A few decades ago, they had a very large rose garden,” Cheng said. “The city decided to cut a road through it, just plowed it up. They didn’t save any seeds, no clippings – it was traumatic, and they’re still mourning this.” 

Sunnyside Rose Garden featured nearly 5,000 bushes stretching from Sunnyside Avenue to 7th Street. It was planted in 1931 and demolished in 1969. In homage, Cheng placed a large rose in the middle of the Sunnysdie Avenue shelter, signifying the precious lost garden. 

Traveling through time in Uptown

Jim Hirschfield and Sonya Ishii’s designs for 10 Gold Line shelters along Trade Street in Uptown serve as portals into Charlotte’s past.

Hirschfield, a professor of art at UNC Chapel Hill; and Ishii, an instructor at Chapel Hill Community Clay Studio, began their collaboration at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Main branch in Uptown, where they discovered an archive of Charlotte postcards from the early-1800s into the 1950s. 

CATS Gold Line
A CATS CityLYNX Gold Line stop at the Charlotte Gateway station in Third Ward, featuring artwork by Sonya Ishii and Jim Hirschfield. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The images they found depicted locations such as Charlotte’s old Southern Railroad Depot and scenes from Tryon Street, with inscribed messages lamenting the death of pets, one expressing the boredom of being “pent up in the sanatorium,” and others simply writing home to check in. Fascinated by these postcards’ ability to capture a single moment in time, Hirschfield and Ishii decided to expand and enhance several from the collection to develop their transit shelters. 

“The idea is if you could walk through the glass, you could walk back in time,” Hirschfield said. 

CATS Gold Line
A CATS CityLYNX Gold Line stop at Irwin Avenue in Third Ward, featuring postcard artwork by Sonya Ishii and Jim Hirschfield. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

They chose postcards that would reflect a historical counterpart to each stop; thus, most images correspond directly to the area in which they are placed. On the side of each shelter is also a message taken from a postcard, an image which Hirschfield describes as “ghostly” because it is faded against the glass. He hopes passengers might attempt to decipher the letters while waiting for the streetcar, though he warns, “It’s a puzzle when you start reading it.”  

These “shelter-portals,” as the artists call them, also hold another hint to Charlotte’s history and identity: Each artwork is decorated with a design in gold, signifying Charlotte’s role as the first gold rush site in the nation, as well as its historical mints and current banking industry. 

Paying homage to Black history on the West End

Spread along eight shelters on West Trade Street and Beatties Ford Road in the Historic West End, artist George Bates’ designs provide visual intrigue from multiple perspectives. If you glance at a shelter from across the tracks, you’ll see large, vibrantly colored figures dancing and communicating with one another. Up close, the large figures are made up of hundreds of smaller ones, each one revealing its own story. 

The title of the piece, “The Worth of That, is That Which It Contains and That is This, and This With Thee Remains,” comes from a Shakespearean sonnet that Bates found referenced in a 1954 Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) yearbook during his research. 

CATS Gold Line
A CATS CityLYNX Gold Line stop at Johnson C. Smith University on Beatties Ford Road, featuring artwork by George Bates. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

JCSU, located off one of the new Gold Line stops, was one of Bates’ most important resources. The university’s archives provided historical context for the many conversations Bates had in the Wesley Heights and Biddleville neighborhoods, two historically Black communities in Historic West End.

From these conversations, as well as his archival research, Bates discovered an endless supply of histories and images, particularly highlighting Charlotte’s Black history

“There’s a lot to unpack, if you want to take the time,” Bates said of his piece, which depicts local legends with reference info on the sides of each shelter. “Even those don’t do the references justice,” he acknowledges, due to the deep history of the area. 

CATS Gold Line
A CATS CityLYNX Gold Line stop at Wesley Heights on West Trade Street, featuring artwork by George Bates. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Bates’ work includes allusions to the historic Excelsior Club on Beatties Ford Road, North Carolina barbecue, the flora and fauna of the area, and so much more. Looking more closely, you might discover recurring imagery of lamps and light, a reference to JCSU’s “Sit Lux” motto, meaning “Let There Be Light.” 

A keen eye might also encounter an image of two people having lunch. Bates connects this image to a story from Dorothy Counts-Scoggins, the first Black student to integrate Charlotte public schools. Counts-Scoggins endured the wrath of a white mob on her first day of school at Harding High School in 1957. Years later, one student apologized for his behavior towards her. The two shared lunch and eventually reconciled. 

All four artists expressed immense gratitude to the Charlotte community for the help and input they received to create their respective works. 

Bates said his goal was to reveal something to those facing a wait. 

“What art provides is a moment of thoughtful reflection,” he said.  

It’s a moment we could all use in today’s world, so we suggest the next time you find yourself at a Gold Line stop you put your phone down and take in what these four artists have created. There’s no question you’ll feel something, and you might even learn something. 

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