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Arts & Entertainment Critics’ Pick Winners: Best in the Nest 2023

The best in Charlotte's visual and performing arts as chosen by Nerve critics

Creatives continue to act as the heart and soul of our city, and therefore the heart and soul of Queen City Nerve.


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LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD: Ruth Ava Lyons & Paul Sires

When painter Ruth Ava Lyons and sculptor Paul Sires arrived in Charlotte in the mid-80s, the creative hub we call NoDa today was a dilapidated and neglected mill village of north Charlotte. Captivated by the area’s character, the couple restored the 1927 Lowder Building and created the first artist establishment, the Center of the Earth Gallery, which they ran for 22 years.

Paul Sires and Ruth Ava Lyons
Paul Sires (left) and Ruth Ava Lyons in Starlight on 22nd in February 2022. (Photo by Karie Simmons)

They continued to renovate nearby buildings and millhouses as part of a revitalization effort, offered studio spaces for artists and lobbied to attract arts-related businesses such as The Evening Muse, which still stands today thanks in no small part to them.

Today they are in the process of doing the same on East 22nd Street with their bar and venue Starlight on 22nd, as well as their other properties on the same road — X Foundation artist and design studios along with Rock on 22nd, which houses Pachyderm Music Lab and We Rock Charlotte.

In May, Lyons reached out to the community for help in her battle against polycystic kidney disease, a diagnosis that led to major health struggles and would require a kidney transplant to treat.

On Nov. 17, Lyons posted on Facebook that she had undergone a successful transplant. The donor? None other than We Rock Charlotte and Pachyderm Music Lab founder Krystle Baller. It just goes to show that when you give so much to your community, it gives back.


BEST CREATIVE: Ricky Singh

Acclaimed muralist and education consultant Ricky Singh has been an assistant principal for the innovative Charlotte Lab School, an organizer in the Beatties Ford Strong movement, a master teacher and coach for the New York City Department of Education, a hip-hop connoisseur who launched NYC’s first rap-themed after-school program, a teenage spoken-word artist who appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, and a guerrilla street artist who tagged unreachable Big Apple landmarks.

Ricky Singh spray-painting. (Photo by Jim Dukes)

In September, Singh partnered with the Harvey B. Gantt Center to organize and shepherd Youth Residency: At the Table, the museum’s first-ever youth residency. Through the residency, Singh created an experience that focused on and fostered youth leading youth.

“Youth can hear from adults all the time. That’s great, but they’re still adults,” Singh says. “There’s power in a 17-year-old speaking to a 15-year-old, because they’re still in the same peer group.”


BEST CONNECTOR: SkinnyJay

Javarian Holley is perhaps best known for SkinnyJay & Friends, a series of parties he launched through his LLC CreativityxCollaboration, which serves as a platform for his fellow creatives in the Charlotte scene — rappers, visual artists, photographers and the like whom Holley has connected with during his time in Charlotte since moving here from Los Angeles about 10 years ago.

SkinnyJay (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“I can be behind the scenes or be in front, but also taking that creativity to help others with a collaboration is what it’s about,” Holley said of his goals with CreativityxCollaboration. “So not just looking at it like, ‘Oh, I win something from it.’ We all win. And it’s just honestly seeing us all develop and grow from the collaboration piece.”

Due to a 2022 ocular cancer diagnosis, Holley tried to slow things down, but really only became more multi-faceted. While at home resting following his weekly chemotherapy treatments, he took up DJing. He continues to build Charlotte’s creative community by networking for, collaborating with, and connecting people from different scenes.

“On good or bad days when I’m in chemo, I’m listening to my friend’s music or I’m just twiddling on my phone, just thinking of creative things,” he said. “But the creative aspect of CreativityxCollaboration helps me keep going.

“So it’s not just, ‘Oh, I’m in here with cancer.’ Yeah, I’m hooked up to an IV, but at the same time, I’m in there on my phone jotting down notes on what I want to do next or what artists I want to work with or I’m reaching out to different people to plan collaborations.”


BEST MURALIST: Lo’Vonia Parks

One of the first times Lo’Vonia Parks showed up in the pages of Queen City Nerve was in a 2019 feature about local artist Sam Guzzie and her organization Brand the Moth’s META Mural Residency. Parks, known as a painter and caricature artist, had just begun to dabble in murals.

Voted Best Visual Artist by readers in Queen City Nerve’s 2021 Best in the Nest Awards, she ended 2022 with the unveiling of her colorful community-based mural on the side of Rita’s in Five Points paying homage to the elders of the West End. She has refused to slow down since, and we just can’t seem to escape her beautiful work.

Lo’Vonia Parks (right) with Elizabeth Palmisano at the Pottstown mural unveiling. (Photo by Grant Badlwin)

We go to report on The Pauline Tea-Bar Apothecary, Parks’ “Tea-lona” mural greets us at the door. We show up at an unveiling for the historic Black neighborhood of Pottstown’s first neighborhood mural, Parks is the artist behind it.

“My good friend Elizabeth [Palmisano] once said that art is the salve on the wound of gentrification,” Parks said at the Pottstown unveiling. “Art has the power to heal and within healing, it is transformational — not transactional. Healing is priceless. If we refuse to tell all of our American history, we will leave our future confused and lost. Today is a step among many before us in the right direction.”


BEST ILLUSTRATOR: Frank Antonio

In May, 37-year-old Charlotte illustrator Frank Antonio dropped a project that was five years in the making: his first comic book, RISE OR FALL, a story about how far ideals can take a man and how, when they fall short, it can become hard to tell who’s a hero and who’s not.

Frank Antonio sits in a chair holding a copy of his comic book ‘RISE OR FALL.’
Frank Antonio holds a copy of ‘RISE OR FALL.’ (Photo by Lydia Bittner-Baird)

Antonio made a point to use colors popular in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s — fluorescent pinks, bright yellows, light blues and purples — a stark contrast to his early childhood drawings of Spider-Man, Batman and Wolverine, which were void of color due to his own insecurities, he said. Every panel is striking and leaves an impression on you well after you’ve seen it.

“I want people to take time with each page because there are a lot of panels that don’t have any text to them, and I’m trying to tell the story just through the visuals,” Antonio said. “If they’re anything like me, from when I was a kid, they’re gonna want to take their time reading it.”


BEST STUDIO: ACSM Design + Build

In December 2021, C3Lab co-founders and husband-and-wife duo Glen and Maria Nocik announced they would be scaling down their ambitious project on Distribution Street, where they had run a coworking space, artist studios, event space, restaurant and more in a sprawling campus of abandoned warehouses.

They’ve since moved into a more humble space on Tryclan Drive, where the studio and office space is more intimate and the team can better focus on their C3Lab Fellowship Program, which guides emerging to mid-career artists with a focus on public art. A recent open studio night gave C3Lab fellow Ashley Nardone a chance to show off her latest fellowship work, projected on the studio’s brick wall by the EyeLumination projector, installed atop a VW bug by local artists Mark Doepker and Rebecca Lipps.


BEST ARTS ORGANIZATION: Namaste Artists Charlotte

Namaste Artists Charlotte is a group of Charlotte artists promoting and creating Indian folk art. The organization has been part of Charlotte SHOUT!, Charlotte is Creative’s The Drop series, and Charlotte International Art Festival’s Festival of India. They’ve hosted a Mandala Medallion interactive arts corner, supported health care workers through COVID, and hosted henna booths at local festivals to not only share with the community their art but their culture.

Shefalee Patel of Namaste Artists Charlotte dances during the Drop Series Vol. 2 arts event in March. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Founder Shefalee V. Patel was born and raised in Chicago. As a second-generation Indian in America, she feels as though her responsibility is to share the diversity of her Indian culture, expressing her heritage and creativity through visual paintings and folk dances.

Fourteen of Namaste’s artists collaborated on a mural unveiled as part of the Drop Series in Divine Barrel Brewing in April, which Patel introduced.

“We started five years ago to show our culture and who we are,” Patel told the crowd tonight. “We have every background, and we love to share and show in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.”


BEST ARTS EVENT: Voces Con Pablo

This family-friendly event honored Charlotte’s diverse cultures through an eclectic blend of visual art, spoken word and classical and popular music from Latin America. Joining singers from Opera Carolina, performances included Flutepraise, Nuestra Tiempo Latin Youth Jazz Ensemble, guitarist Aris Quiroga, bandoneón player Javier Sánchez, and spoken-word poet Patrice N. Wilson.

Visual artists included Julio Gonzales, a self-taught multimedia artist whose work is defined by his use of Mexican and Mayan design elements, and Elisa Lopez Trejo, a mixed-media artist and recycled-fashion designer whose work has been showcased in Charlotte’s Fashion Week. Both artists are with the local OBRA Collective.

Although the event was one night, organized by The Mint Museum as part of Wednesday Night Live programming, it highlighted a broad collection of work from local artists with a wide range of skill sets and talents.

“The unique combination of popular music from many Latin cultures and original poetry and visual art is a perfect way to celebrate our shared culture,” said James Meena, artistic director of Opera Carolina. “This event demonstrates the power of music to bring people from diverse backgrounds together.”


BEST NEW ARTS SERIES: Drop Series

Drop Series is an event series that commissions artists for large-scale murals before turning those same murals into beer can designs to be distributed throughout the Carolinas by Divine Barrel Brewing. A party held in March celebrated the second Drop Series release after its launch in November, which kicked off with a mural from three artists associated with the #BeattiesFordStrong movement: Ricky Singh, Ty McBride and Danyelle Ray.

A stack of beer cans
Divine Barrel’s, Drop Series Vol. 1: Going Together, features a mural by artists associated with the #BeattiesFordStrong movement. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

For Matt Olin, co-founder of Charlotte Is Creative, which partnered with Divine Barrel to launch the event, the series is the perfect intersection of his organization’s two top missions: compensation for local artists mixed with innovative exposure.

“When you see how the Namaste Charlotte community came together and saw their work on the wall, they saw themselves reflected in that work, and it was just an opportunity to gather around art in a place that’s kind of like a fault line for different communities in Charlotte and to allow for those collisions, that intersection, those conversations to happen,” Olin said. “It’s super intentional and we’re just so gratified to see it actually happening and it’s working.”


BEST ARTS INCUBATOR: VAPA Center

It’s not surprising that Cohoba, an organization composed of psychedelic-positive therapists, social workers, bodyworkers and artists who advocate for psychedelic-assisted therapy, are based in Uptown’s Visual and Performing Arts Center, where they work closely with OBRA Collective, a co-op of Latino, immigrant, undocumented and ally artists who create immigrant affirming art. Where else can you find these sorts of partnerships in Charlotte?

The VAPA Center was launched in 2021 by 10 anchor arts organizations to create much-needed space for artists to create, practice, exhibit and perform their respective arts.

With affordable studio, creation, performance and exhibition spaces, VAPA has been ground zero for a host of memorable presentations, programs and productions, including theatrical shows by Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, a training center and performance space for Charlotte Comedy Theater, producer/musician Jason Jet’s immersive music and production training/awards event A Night with Iconic Youth and much, much more.

VAPA is a valuable arts incubator that facilitates spaces for creativity, art, performance and community.


BEST YOUTH ARTS PROJECT: ‘Magical Human Coding’ by We Rock Charlotte

At Independent Picture House on May 6, We Rock Charlotte celebrated the release of a new student album, Magical Human Coding, along with accompanying music videos and animated shorts put together by more than 150 youths over four months at the organization’s home studios in Optimist Park.

An adult on the We Rock Charlotte staff crouches down and looks into a camera with two youths smiling looking behind her.
Krystle Baller helps students with their music video project. (Photo courtesy of We Rock Charlotte)

Music production became a part of We Rock Charlotte’s Music Lab curriculum during the pandemic as a way to collaborate without being in the same room. Students of all ages learn songwriting techniques and music production fundamentals during one-on-one music lessons with We Rock’s teaching musicians and through free workshops called Amplify!

After the songs are created and recorded, the students storyboard their idea for a music video and make it happen. We Rock Charlotte’s teaching musicians and volunteers help make their vision a reality, and the students participate every step of the way.

“The student album connects community members across age, gender and racial gaps through collaboration. Children and adults work together to achieve a common goal,” said We Rock Charlotte creative director Krystle Baller. “People from different cultures/at different points in their lives tend to make very different choices. With our student album, the teacher offers sets of choices and the students choose their path supported by an expert.”


BEST COMEBACK: Levine Museum of the New South

After selling its longtime home on 7th Street, where it had operated since 1996, in June 2021 and moving out in May 2022, the museum moved into its new 6,000-square-foot space next to The Green on South Tryon Street in the fall of that year.

The new location has allowed the museum to resume showing physical exhibitions while continuing to step up their digital presence. Between October 2022 and September 2023, Levine engaged more than 70,000 attendees with experiences at 401 S. Tryon St., locations across the city, and digitally.

Levine Museum of the New South’s new location on South Tryon Street. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

On Nov. 15, the museum launched its latest endeavor, “50 places in Charlotte,” a digital exhibit that uses augmented reality to take visitors on a journey through 50 historical places in Charlotte. It kicked off with The Excelsior Club, an historic Black social club on Beatties Ford Road that once welcomed renowned performers Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong and James Brown.

In the museum, Levine continues to highlight national and local exhibits, including their most recent two: States of Incarceration, created by over 800 people in 18 states exploring the roots of mass incarceration in their own communities; and Grier Heights: Community Is Family, a traveling exhibit produced in collaboration with the Grier Heights Community Center and Grier Heights community residents highlighting more than 140 years of community history in southeast Charlotte.


BEST CURATED EXHIBIT: my Presence is Present, Gantt Center

Launched on Aug. 4, the Gantt Center hosts “my Presence is Present: interpretations of afrosurrealism from the American South.” The exhibit features 21 emerging and established contemporary artists from North and South Carolina, inviting them to explore surrealism and examine its presence within their own African American experiences.

Futuristic, nostalgic, intensely personal and staggeringly universal, the show boasts an eclectic array of work by artists including Carla Aaron-Lopez, Ariel Dannielle Kalin, Renee Devone, William Downs, Shanequa Gay, Garrison Gist, Roscoe Hall, Clarence Heyward, DaRemen J., Asa Jackson and more.

my Presence is Present: interpretations of afrosurrealism from the American South
my Presence is Present: interpretations of afrosurrealism from the American South exhibit at Gantt Center. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Curator Carla Aaron-Lopez is a photographer, print maker, collagist, painter, muralist, experimental spaces builder and founding member of Black arts collective BLKMRKTCLT.

“If we define blackness as a living term constantly evolving and taking on new meanings across our various lived Black experiences, our present is now more surreal than ever,” writes Aaron-Lopez.


BEST COLLABORATIVE EXHIBIT: ARKO & the MOON, Flux Galleries

Local artists Arko and Luvly Moon’s collaborative exhibit, ARKO & the MOON, opened at Flux Galleries in Optimist Park in January, featuring the two titular artists’ murals, sculptures and projections. The duo teamed up using upcycled materials to combine their unique worlds and transform Flux into a vivid wonderland of colors, textures and smells.

A look inside ARKO & the MOON at Flux Galleries. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The installation invited guests to engage their senses by removing their shoes for a fully immersive experience.
The artists hosted two events connected with ARKO & the MOON: Meditation with Moon, a 30-minute guided meditation with Luvly Moon; and Writer’s Roost with Andy Smith, which featured Charlotte Magazine publisher and arts aficionado Andy Smith.

Arko and Luvly Moon regularly curate art shows and local events to amplify the work and voices of local creatives. The artists’ collaborative works along the South End Rail Trail and Mint Museum Uptown are just part of several public installations they’ve partnered on in Charlotte.


BEST FILMMAKERS: Loyd Visuals

The brainchild of Khaleel Loyd, Charlotte-based production company Loyd Visuals specializes in video production, ranging from advertisements and promotional videos to documentaries. Khaleel owns and operates the company with his two younger brothers, Maleek and Najm.

Brothers Najm, Maleek and Khaleel Loyd smile with the Charlotte skyline behind them
From left: Brothers Najm, Maleek and Khaleel Loyd. (Courtesy of Loyd Visuals)

The company has released local documentaries about the rich history of the West End and the city’s Legacy Commission, as well as nationwide partnerships ranging from Airbnb to the Los Angeles Rams to create memorable visuals and authentic storytelling.

“No project is the same, but we treat every project as if it is a family project,” Maleek said “We invite our clients [and]… teammates to really have a say-so in the process. And that really centers us and helps to build our own camaraderie and just the quality of work that we produce as it relates to our mission. I think we’ve been able to stay true to that and it helps ground us.”


BEST HISTORICAL ART EXHIBIT: The Homage Exhibit

It is often said that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. For Nia McAdoo and her husband, that’s part of the reason they decided to start their own collection of artifacts that help illustrate the African American experience.

“If it’s not someone like us that’s really collecting and amplifying those voices and stories, they would be lost to history,” Nia McAdoo told Queen City Nerve.

Nia McAdoo speaks with patrons at a showing of Homage. (Photo courtesy of Nia McAdoo)

McAdoo’s collection, titled the Homage Exhibit, is a collection of items ranging from magazine clippings to artwork to documents from Frederick Douglass, Shirley Chisholm and Booker T. Washington.

At first, McAdoo collected items simply because she enjoyed doing so, but when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, she began collecting with purpose. Once her collection was large enough, she started sharing it with the public — a choice that has inspired many.

“To see Black history unapologetic on full display, it’s a sense of pride for a lot of people,” McAdoo added. “We see people who tear up at the exhibit because it’s needed, especially now at a time where books are being banned and history is being told falsely, a lot of people really are appreciative of the fact that it’s open to the community and accessible.”


BEST PHOTOGRAPHY EXHIBIT: Year One by Héctor Vaca Cruz

Two images capture the pandemic’s impact on Charlotte A black-and-white photo depicts the city’s new light rail lines as a portrait of life stopped in its tracks. The setting is new but desolate; technology has brought stasis. In contrast, a color photo of Pura Vida Worldly Art owner Teresa Hernandez is lively. Wearing a life-saving face mask, she leans casually in her vibrant shop, beaming good humor.

COVID-19 impact minorities
(Photo by Hector Cruz)

In “Pandemic Year One,” Cruz’s quintessential storytelling images do far more than capture the moment; they introduce a premise, a jumping-off point to prompt discussion and soul searching about such thorny issues as privilege, immigration, classism and identity.

“The pandemic brought many inequalities to the surface and into our consciousness,” Cruz writes about his show. “It also taught us all so much about ourselves and what we are capable of.”


BEST GALLERY: Nine Eighteen Nine Studios

Nine Eighteen Nine Studio Gallery opened its private venue within the Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) Center in 2020. Joanne Rogers, Nine Eighteen Nine’s founder, launched the studio in 2015 with a first exhibit highlighting the work of her husband, renowned Charlotte artist Arthur Rogers Jr.

Joanne Rogers with artist Kev Harris
Nine Eighteen Nine Studio Gallery Curator Joanne Rogers (left) with artist Kev Harris (right) at the opening reception for his show I AM, A Retrospective. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“[Art galleries] are definitely a bridge,” she told Queen City Nerve. “When you have difficult conversations — all the social turmoil that we go through — if two people were to get together and talk, it’s more combative and you get more defensive. But, when you put it on a wall and people walk by, they can take it at their own comfort level.”

VAPA has been the home of Nine Eighteen Nine for the last couple years, as Joanne has put on exhibits such as Projected Realities, The Soul Finger Project, and America Gentrified. The space provides mentorship opportunities, skills training, networking and representation for emerging artists, with a goal to support local artists of color, and to make them feel seen by their peers and neighbors.


BEST EXHIBIT FOR A CAUSE: Behind Prison Walls by Lorenzo Steele Jr.

Lorenzo Steele Jr., a former prison corrections officer, turned his passion for photography into a vehicle for social justice, exposing young people to the horrors of prison life through photographs taken during his time at Rikers Island, where he worked as a guard from 1987-1999.

Behind These Prison Walls founder Lorenzo Steele Jr. points to some of his critiques of the prison industrial complex. Below the historic photos he points at is a display comparing the shackles once used on slaves to modern-day handcuffs.
Behind These Prison Walls founder Lorenzo Steele Jr. discuses some of the work on his Mobile Prison Art Museum. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Years of seeing the worst in human nature inspired Steele to catalog these images and use them to inspire others to turn away from — or altogether avoid — a life of crime. Witnessing firsthand the unjust nature of the American criminal justice system, Steele has spent over two decades fighting to raise awareness about the realities of prison life in hopes that he can steer at-risk youth away from landing in its clutches.

Steele bought a decommissioned school bus and transformed it into the Mobile Prison Art Museum. His exhibit, Behind Prison Walls, included graphic images depicting the realities of life in jails and prisons, along with educational info, including critiques of mass incarceration comparing the prison industrial complex to America’s past institution of chattel slavery.


BEST ARTS PODCAST: ‘A Seat at the Table’ by Colin Harden & Hannah Hasan

A Seat at the Table is a limited, six-episode podcast series centered around one Black family in Charlotte — the community in which they have lived and worked for generations, how it has evolved, and the direction it is headed as the city experiences rapid changes and growth.

Recorded during a gathering over a meal prepared by Diedre Blake in October 2022, the podcast features conversations with Charlotte artists, leaders and visionaries, including local creative Mia Love Live (Mia McClure), who has traced her family back five generations in the Queen City, in the Derita and Wilmore neighborhoods, among others.

A black and white photo showing dozens of people sitting around long tables with mics hovering above to record one of two new Charlotte podcasts.
A recording session for ‘A Seat at the Table.’ (Photo by Dionna Bright)

“This series embraces the connecting power of stories and how they shape both our understanding of the past as well as our goals for the future,” said local creative Hannah Hasan, who organized the recording process.

Producer Colin J. Harden — also a native Charlottean — narrates the series, helping listeners navigate between life in Charlotte and pop culture audio references such as the late-90s film Soul Food. With a strong creative direction and theme of having a seat at the family table, the podcast feels like you’re right there having the important conversations in what feels like the “mundane.” Other topics include school/education, long lost places and landmarks, being Black in Charlotte, what family means, hope for the future, and faith as well as traditions.


BEST NEW PUBLIC ART (LOCAL ARTIST): #NoDaCloudWall by Elizabeth Palmisano

Award-winning artist Elizabeth Palmisano was commissioned by Grubb Properties to create a multi-dimensional, sculptural mural that covers well over 23,000-square-foot between a parking deck and surrounding buildings on the new Link Apartments NODA 36th. Light rail riders coming into the NoDa neighborhood are now greeted by Palmisano’s cloudscapes.

Elizabeth Palmisano stands on an elevated cherry picker and paints the tall part of a wall.
Elizabeth Palmisano works on one of her past Charlotte projects. (Photo courtesy of Galactic Headquarters)

In the early stages of the month-long project, Palmisano went into the neighborhood and gathered handwritten wishes to inscribe on the back of her painted clouds.

“In a wave of Charlotte development, developers who invest in the communities in which they build stand out,” Palmisano said in a release. “Inviting the communities to include their voices in the evolution honors them as neighborhoods develop and change.”


BEST PHOTOGRAPHER: Jonathan Cooper

Photographer Jonathan Cooper uses his camera as a tool to capture his unique projects from every angle. One of his latest endeavors, “Fragments of Food” provides what Cooper calls a “break from the norm.” While so much food photography tends to be repetitive and generic, Cooper sets out to do the opposite, using broken and fragmented dishes to create something jarring but aesthetic.

Cooper’s photography goes beyond artistic renderings of food, as his portfolio shows a knack for portraying people in their natural habitats and highlighting their personalities in a single image. His travel and architecture photos also find beauty in places others might walk past.


BEST ADAPTATION: ‘Murder & Moonbeams’

Murder & Moonbeams, a macabre black comedy musical theatre production, debuted at Petra’s in 2019. Created by musician, playwright, songwriter and former educator Molly J. Brown for her company, A Beautiful Day in Hell Productions, the dinner theatre experience featured cuisine by chef and producer Julia Simon.

Cast of Murder & Moonbeams
From left: Liza Ortiz, Bo White and Molly J. Brown on the set of ‘Murder & Moonbeams.’ (Photo by Jake Yount)

On Dec. 29, 2022, the team behind Murder & Moonbeams premiered their film adaptation. The film tweaks genre conventions by taking a decidedly darker turn. As a string of murders mount into serial killings, each clue Inspector Pierro stumbles across is distorted by the ever-present moon, flooding Pierro’s mind with unnatural thoughts.

“I don’t think you can see the ending coming,” Brown said. “I want people to like the songs and walk away with the sense that this was something different; something sincere.”


BEST ART FOR A CAUSE: Nipple and Areola Tattoos at Haylo Healing Arts

Hayley Moran, owner of Haylo Healing Arts Lounge, has practiced custom breast adornment, areola renewal and 3D nipple tattoos for nearly 13 years.

Opening her own woman-owned and operated tattoo studio in January 2015 helped create an environment where Moran could dedicate necessary care and attention to her clientele, an invitation she’s extended to anyone in the trans community looking for top surgery scar coverups.

A tattoo covers a person's breast
A breast adornment tattoo completed at Haylo Healing Arts Lounge. (Photo by Lora Denton)

“Art continues to bring inspiration and beauty into this world and body art, especially by someone who truly cares, can be the perfect step in self-discovery and self-actualization through self-expression,” Moran said.

“We are here to be a part of your journey in ways that bring you into alignment with your own body, mind and spirit. Whether it’s through realistic 3D nipples of your choice or decorative adornment, honoring and embodying your truth by getting tattooed is a meaningful and transformative personal rite of passage.”


BEST FASHION DESIGNER: Brandon Hilton

Brandon Hilton, singer, model, fashion designer, pig farmer, podcast host, drag queen, actor and soon-to-be author, launched the fashion brand The House of Mann in 2018, which has dressed major artists including Kim Petras, Dorian Electra and Allie X and has been featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Paper Magazine.

Brandon Hilton as Only Mann. (Photo by Laurence Logan)

The House of Mann has put on shows at New York and Paris fashion weeks and has had outfits featured on several popular TV series, including RuPaul’s Drag Race. This year, Hilton’s work could be seen on season four of HBO Max’s Doom Patrol, a TV series based on the DC Comics superhero team of the same name, for which Hilton designed drag queen superhero Maura Lee Karupt’s costume.

Being a drag performer himself gives Hilton a unique perspective as a fashion designer because he understands what an outfit needs in order to be functional while fashionable.

“I wanted to have like RuPaul’s Drag Race level costumes, and I wanted to have really nice costumes, but there’s no stores locally that sell drag queen costumes and super elaborate things, so I had to start making them,” Hilton said.


BEST DANCE PRODUCTION: Motive Forces

Motive Forces, a dance work created by Eric Mullis and performed in November at Camp North End, was based on the work of 17th-century French engineer, inventor and landscape designer Salomon De Caus.

Mullis used motion-capture suits and infrared cameras, interactive projections, flashlights and work lights, but also the sprawling Ford Factory building where the performance took place.

Taylor Railton and Madeline Badgett dancing in the Ford Factory building while rehearsing for ‘Motive Forces.’ (Photo by Steven Pilker).

“The Ford building is always the strongest character in any performance you stage there,” Mullis told Queen City Nerve, adding that once he settled on creating the next phase of his work in the expansive environment, he’d have to go back to the drawing board and reimagine how audience, artists and technology would collide at the site.

Ultimately this work is about humans — how humans make their way through the world and how technology at its most basic is about extending human agency in the material world.


BEST DANCER/TROUPE: Caroline Calouche & Co.

Charlotte’s only professional dance & circus company and adjoining school, Caroline Calouche & Co. (CC&Co.) and Charlotte Cirque and Dance Center, offers aspiring professional dancers or hobbyists an opportunity to learn a variety of dance styles.

Caroline Calouche points one foot and one hand hand in the air
Caroline Calouche (Photo by Tom Topinka)

CC & Co. teaches aerial and circus arts, contemporary dance, lyra, trapeze, jazz, acrobatics, hip-hop, juggling, hand balancing, ballet and more for all ages. The company also partners with schools to educate students on potential dance careers and hobbies, with the Charlotte Cirque and Dance Center offering students four different levels of training programs based on skill and commitment levels.

“We never pressure anyone to perform in our school … That’s not at all what it’s supposed to be about,” founder and school director Caroline Calouche said. “I care that the students develop a passion and a desire to intrinsically train and not want to appease anybody else but themselves.”


BEST INNOVATOR: Alejandro Cerrudo, Charlotte Ballet

Now in his second year as artistic director — and fielding the first full season he has chosen himself — Alejandro Cerrudo has shaken things up. With a lineup that has repeatedly included Fall Works, Spring Works, Innovative Works and The Nutcracker over recent seasons in Charlotte Ballet, the Works must not have been working.

Trumpeter Matt Postle and keyboardist Jess Borgnis perform in the lobby of Charlotte Ballet during intermission
Matt Postle and Jess Borgnis perform in the lobby of Charlotte Ballet during intermission. (Photo by Perry Tannenbaum)

Cerrudo banished all three from Charlotte Ballet’s 2023-’24 lineup. He started out the season at the McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance instead of waiting until winter. Cerrudo set the tone with Breaking Boundaries this fall. It’s more than a name change; Cerrudo is innovating how the Center’s studio and lobby spaces are used.

Partnering with Middle C Jazz and the Charlotte Art League, he’s also extending intermission and making it a more integral part of the experience. After that, assigned seating goes away. Cerrudo continues to implement new ideas to have audiences engage with their surroundings more and more to have a visceral and memorable experience.


BEST FICTION BOOK: ‘The Kudzu Queen’ by Mimi Herman

Mimi Herman’s debut novel The Kudzu Queen tells the tale of a fictional town in pre-WWII North Carolina that has come under the spell of the Kudzu King, who is spreading the word — and government funds — to anyone who will listen about this new miracle crop.

Mimi Herman holds her book while sitting in a booth at Amelie's French Bakery.
Mimi Herman with her debut novel, ‘The Kudzu Queen.’ (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Young teenager Mattie, the story’s narrator, is as taken by the Kudzu King as anyone and aspires to win the title of Kudzu Queen, which would not necessarily make her Mrs. Kudzu King, but might as well in her mind. As the story progresses, however, Mattie learns that her first instincts may not be her best ones, all while balancing the monotony and tragedy of life in the sharecropping South.

“Funny, sad, and tender…” reads a cover blurb from none other than David Sedaris. “Mimi Herman has written a novel that possesses a true and hard-won understanding of the South.”


BEST CHILDREN’S BOOK: ‘The Talk’ by Alicia D. Williams

When it comes to discussing racial inequality, racism and police brutality with their children, African American parents tend to have that conversation earlier than other parents. It’s a difficult conversation that parents have out of necessity.

An illustrated book cover for Alicia D. Williams' latest book shows a young Black boy looking up at his mother who has been drawn slightly out of frame.
Alicia D. Williams’ ‘The Talk’ was illustrated by Briana Mukodiri Uchendu.

When author Alicia D. Williams penned her book, The Talk, she hoped to foster an important conversation in a way that would be helpful for parents.

“It is my hope that this book will be used as a talking point for parents, to help them have these difficult conversations in a gentle, loving way,” Williams said.

Two honors have been bestowed upon the book – the Coretta Scott King Author Honor and the Golden Kite Honor Award for Picture Book Text. Williams felt that it was crucial to tell this story in the most meaningful way possible.

“While the topic is sensitive … the audience is much younger, so it was very vital to me to present the story in the gentlest way possible,” Williams told Queen City Nerve. “One that will build understanding, empathy and assurance.”


BEST THING TO HAPPEN TO CHARLOTTE THEATRE: Stacey Rose

Stacey Rose founded Queen City New Play Initiative (QCNPI) with a Charlotte native who boasts a similarly impressive national reputation: Director Martin Wilkins has worked all over the country, specializing in bringing new plays to life wherever he lands. The two friends cooked up the idea after seeing the dearth of opportunities in Charlotte for writers (especially writers of color) to develop their voices.

A selfie of Stacey Rose
Stacey Rose (Courtesy of Queen City New Play Initiative)

Wilkins moved on to other projects. Rose remains as artistic director, this year launching NC in the Margins, a festival that consisted of workshops, conversations and new play readings all over Charlotte, made possible by partnerships between the company and local production companies Brand New Sheriff Productions, Theatre Charlotte and Three Bone Theatre.

QCNPI is not a producing org. They don’t (necessarily) put on shows. What they do is direct resources toward the development of new plays. Much like The Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis, where Rose spent time, QCNPI is an incubator for new work. This is very important if Charlotte wants to be a place where culture is created and from where culture can be exported.


BEST LOCAL THEATRE PRODUCTION: ‘Wait Until Dark,’ Lee St. Theatre

Some of the best theatre in the Charlotte metropolitan area is happening at Lee St. Theatre in Salisbury, and none of their recent productions make the case as well as Wait Until Dark.

Julia Howard shines in the role of Susan, a woman who lost her sight to an accident. It’s a role popularized by Audrey Hepburn in the movie adaptation, but it’s significantly more challenging on stage. Howard succeeds by making us believe in the narrative, her character and her recent disability.

This slow-burn noir thriller is the perfect source material to showcase executive artistic director Rod Oden’s talents. Lighting, sound design and mood were on clear display in February when Queen City Nerve saw the show. This play, shrouded in darkness, is nonetheless a shining example of Lee St. Theatre’s commitment to excellence.


BEST IMMERSIVE THEATRE PRODUCTION: ‘SwimCap,’ MMP

Society has for far too long held the belief that Black people can’t or don’t swim. Whether it’s said as a joke or in seriousness, the time for that notion to be challenged has long since passed. Charlotte’s Mixed Metaphors Productions (MMP) in collaboration with Evolutionary Aquatics took up the torch to do just that with their immersive theatre production, Swimcap.

Mixed Metaphor Productions
‘SwimCap’ was a partnership between Mixed Metaphors Productions  and Evolutionary Aquatics. (Photo courtesy of MMP)

“Knowledge is power, for one, and oftentimes us in the Black community are led in the opposite direction of what is factual,” MMP cofounder K. Alana Jones told Queen City Nerve. “So it’s important that we show that we do swim. We’ve been swimming. You can swim. The fear is in oneself, not in the actual act. So most people, once they learn about something, it’s easier for them to actually do.”


BEST COMEDIC PRODUCTION: ‘Andy & the Orphans,’ Three Bone Theatre

Charlotte isn’t known for having Hollywood actors in local theatre productions, but suffice it to say, Three Bone Theatre’s production of Andy and the Orphans was unlike any production in the Queen City this year.

Eddie Barbanell as Andy in Three Bone Theatre’s ‘Andy and the Orphans.’ (Courtesy of Three Bone Theatre)

Eddie Barbanell (Andy) reprised his role from the off-broadway production of Orphans and inhabited it with a sly wisdom. His performance is the highlight of the play, but Vanessa Robinson — as Andy’s caretaker Kathy — provides necessary levity in a comedy about death and disability.

Like the character of Andy, Barbanell is a person with Down syndrome. As an advocate, he used the production as a chance to engage with and educate the Charlotte community. As an actor, he was the heart of a show that breaks down your prejudice and preconceived notions as you break out laughing.


BEST ACTOR: Hank West, ‘The Woman in Black’

In Susan Hill’s classic ghost story, adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt and put on by Proxymoron Productions at The Arts Factory this fall, Mr. Kipps is troubled by disturbing memories of his journey to fog bound Eel Marsh, where Mrs. Drablow’s lonely house stands in isolation.

Trapped by the fog, he witnessed mysterious events he would rather forget, but cannot. In desperation, he enlists the help of an actor to tell his tale and exorcise the demons that haunt his dreams.

Where Hank West shines as Mr. Kipp is in his ability to flash back and forth from reluctant storyteller traumatized to the point of desperation and other more confident, stable characters. Watching him jump in and out of fear was in and of itself an affecting experience.


BEST ACTRESS: Becca Worthington, ‘Misery’

Between Theatre Charlotte’s Misery and Three Bone Theatre’s The Lehman Trilogy, Becca Worthington had one hell of a year. We give the slight nod to her performance in Misery because it showcases her talents that much better.

Instead of emulating Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning turn as Annie Wilkes in the film version, Worthington’s Wilkes is less manic — and in some ways scarier for it. She’s the nerdy girl next door, and on the surface she’s much more normal than Bates’ Annie.

Anyone who knows the source material knows Annie is anything but normal. It’s Worthington’s restraint that allows Misery to continue to be relevant in an age of Stans and Swifties, and for that she’s earned her flowers. The next time Becca Worthington is in any local play, don’t miss it.


MOST EXCITING DEVELOPMENT: The Long Room

Opened by business partners Matt Seneca and Sarah Hayes Harkins, The Long Room’s new performance-focused venue at Central and Hawthorne avenues serves as an event space available for weddings, receptions, corporate events, bar mitzvahs or drawing down the moon, filling two neglected niches in the Plaza-Belmont sector: affordable event space and a potential artistic home for the artists and audiences who are more comfortable in the less stuffy environs outside of the I-277 loop.

Performing in The Long Room during renovations. (Photo by Darian Carlos)

“Groups like Ladyfest CLT, Baran Dance, Moving Poets and Movement Migration are making waves in dance right here in Charlotte and I would love to be able to provide a space for these groups to flourish,” Harkins said.

Seneca’s thinking about the sort of artists he’d like to see working at The Long Room ran a little further afield, highlighting visual artists like Bill Temples and wunderkind Makayla Binter as well as Nouveau Sud’s Jarrell Wallace and Cathy Youngblood’s a capella vocal ensemble Caritas.


BEST MOVE: Arts+ to Plaza Hills

After a years-long search for a new home, local nonprofit arts education organization Arts+ will lead the creation of a new cultural campus at the former Plaza Presbyterian Church in Plaza Midwood.

The 35,000-square-foot property on 2.19 acres at the intersection of The Plaza and Parkwood and Mecklenburg avenues has been home to Plaza Presbyterian Church since the 1920s, before it closed in 2022. Now Arts+ plans to breathe new life into the space, anticipating a three-year property upfit.

“Our road to this Plaza Midwood property has been full of twists and turns, but ultimately, this is an incredible opportunity for Arts+ and Charlotte, in particular the neighborhoods of Plaza Midwood, Villa Heights and NoDa,” said Devlin McNeil, Arts+ president and executive director. “This is the realization of our long-term goal of moving into a permanent home to create a centralized hub for the spokes of our programming that takes place across the city.”


MOST INNOVATIVE NEW VENUE: Pianodrome

Charlotte’s SHOUT! festival this year debuted the nation’s first pianodrome — a playable amphitheater made completely out of recycled pianos — based on Matthew Wright and Tim Vincent-Smith’s 2017 installation in the UK. The project was in the works for three years, and with the pandemic getting in the way, Pianodrome Charlotte is now expected to appear at Charlotte SHOUT! for at least the next three years.

A man sits in an amphitheater made out of old pianos
Matthew Wright sits in the Charlotte Pianodrome. (Photo by Hailey Knutsen)

Every single piece down to the screws is sourced from a used piano. The structure is held together by frame harps, which traditionally hold the tension of the strings inside of the piano. Each frame harp has a different color and design. Each piece of wood is stained a different shade of brown.

“Our key guiding principle is that nobody is unmusical, no piano is waste. We want to make sure that people feel welcome in our space and that they feel inspired to interact with the pianos,” Wright said. “It’s really important for us to turn things upside down and inside out and to hopefully be an opportunity for people to think differently.”


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