Sunlight gleamed in through the open garage door as people packed into Divine Barrel Brewing Co. just as the sun prepared to set on March 23. Still, the lights were dimmed enough to make things dramatic in the corner of the taproom where owner Gavin Toth prepared to make his major unveiling.
Following a speech from local artist Shefalee Patel, leader of the creative collective Namaste Artists Charlotte, Toth pulled back on a rope, dropping a curtain and exposing a brightly colored 12-by-8-foot mural depicting two blank, dancing human figures backed up by a beautiful but chaotic mosaic of neon colors.
The crowd of nearly 100 art patrons applauded wildly before DJ Pawan dropped a track that sounded like a mix of traditional Indian music, hip-hop and electronic dance music, with Patel leading her collective — 15 of whom participated in creating the newly unveiled mural — in a traditional dance.
For Charlotte Is Creative cofounder Matt Olin, the scene was exactly what he originally envisioned for Drop Series, an event series that commissions artists for large-scale murals before then turning those same murals into beer can designs to be distributed throughout the Carolinas by Divine Barrel.
“This is a really cool way to say, ‘Alright we’re going to create this really dramatic, theatrical vibe event where we’re literally going to drop a curtain to reveal a brand new mural,’” Olin told Queen City Nerve. “As a guy from the theatre world, I just love the drama around that.”
The March party was the second Drop Series, which launched in November as a quarterly event, beginning with a mural from three artists associated with the #BeattiesFordStrong movement: Ricky Singh, Ty McBride and Danyelle Ray.
At Drop Series Vol. 2: Bollywood, Beer & Art, cans of Divine Barrel’s new brew, Drop Series Vol. 1: Going Together, were stacked on the bar while glasses of the Berliner weisse-style ale with blood orange, guava and pineapple flowed from the taps all night.
The cans depict a triptych featuring each artist’s panel from the mural, including the artists’ respective Instagram handles, the #BeattiesFordStrong mural and a QR code that allows drinkers to learn more about the movement as well as the Drop Series.
For Olin, the partnership with Divine Barrel, which will distribute the cans in locations all around North and South Carolina, is the perfect intersection of his organization’s two top missions: compensation for local artists mixed with innovative exposure.
“One of the cornerstone ideologies of Charlotte Is Creative is championing collaboration between the creative community and the business community. And that doesn’t just mean the big guys, the corporate community, but also small and medium-sized businesses as well, like Divine Barrel,” Olin said.
“Their willingness to take that piece of art and put it on a beer can that gets distributed around the Carolinas … it was just this sweet spot where it was like, ugh, this is that collaboration that we’ve been looking for with the Divine Barrel folks. It just came after years of exploring and keeping our eyes and ears open for the right concept.”
Speaking with Queen City Nerve on the patio of Divine Barrel shortly before the most recent unveiling, artist Ricky Singh said the partnership with Divine Barrel was a natural progression. Toth and the Charlotte Is Creative team had already been supportive of the #BeattiesFordStrong movement, but this gave a chance to expand it out from activations on the west side to put it in front of a new NoDa audience.
“It’s exciting to see a dream that I’ve had for quite some time actually come to life,” Singh said of the partnership. “I feel like it was one of my first thoughts or conversations I might have had with Gavin years ago. ‘What if?’”
Toth himself may not remember that exact conversation, but he does have evidence that it took place. While going through his phone one day in early April, after the brewery had already hosted two Drop Series events, he came across a message in his Notes app: “Beer is art, mural project with can releases.”
According to Toth, it has been part of Divine Barrel’s mission since opening in 2018 to invite collaboration with Charlotte creatives. The brewery hosts a rotating display of local artists, curated by Matt Alvis with Art Cart NoDa and Tough Ass Crew, as well as regular events that spotlight local talent, from a “yarn bombing” by local fiber artist Pam Imhof to the series of OneBand concerts that invite musicians of all experience levels to get onstage and perform together, often for the first time.
“I think [art and craft brewing] go hand-in-hand, when you look at how a lot of galleries that keep closing, now some are starting to emerge again, but people need to continue to take these opportunities in these larger spaces,” Toth said. “Breweries can be galleries for everybody.”
The brewery also hosts the NoDaHood Market, which features local artisanal entrepreneurs to sell their wares. The last event featured more than 100 vendors, a NoDaHood record.
“Making those connections is so key, because just like beer, we gotta sell it to make money, and artists love their craft, and they probably want to make their money off of it eventually, too.”
Toth emphasized that Divine Barrel does not take any cut from art sold during Alvis’ rotating exhibits at the brewery.
“We want them to be successful, too,” he said. “They’re a small business.”
Giving artists space
Divine Barrel is far from the only local brewery that is engaging with the local arts scene. In NoDa alone, which long ago began a transition from arts district to “entertainment district” (read: bars), breweries have been creating space for artists pushed out of shuttered or repurposed galleries.
On April 29, The Chamber by Wooden Robot will host its second annual Astro Pop Mural + Music Festival, a popular event that features a slew of local artists live-painting large-scale murals along with live music, food trucks and beer. The event, organized by local artist and Wooden Robot employee Brett “TWOKAT” Toukatly, was well-attended during its inaugural iteration in 2021, but had to be postponed in October 2022.
“It’s important that Wooden Robot keeps the culture of art and music alive in a neighborhood they’re new to,” TWOKAT told Queen City Nerve in 2021. “I wanted to put them on the map in NoDa’s eyes as someone who is supportive of the arts scene.
“I wanted to make sure this is about what NoDa’s been for so long,” he continued. “There’s been a lot of changes and a lot of new construction, but I like to think the reason people are coming here is because it’s been the arts and music district.”
Elsewhere in Charlotte, Protagonist Beer will host the SXSE23 festival (South by South End) on the same weekend, organizing a three-day event from April 27-29 that will include film screenings, a comedy night and a music festival.
For Olin and Charlotte Is Creative co-founder Tim Miner, who launched their organization with the sole goal of connecting the local arts scene to the local business community, breweries make a natural venue to host those connections.
“We’ve been rallying around this idea of craft beer as creativity for years, so this idea of using their taprooms, their physical brick-and-mortar space to be a place where creativity and artistry is celebrated, that’s just so aligned with how we feel about the community and how we feel about these collaborations between the creative community and the business community,” Olin said. “We’re going to continue championing this and the more this can be happening the better.”
The diversity question
It’s a well-known fact that the craft beer scene has a problem with diversity, an issue that Ricky Singh acknowledged during the Drop Series Vol. 2 event. For him, it’s an opportunity to push his message in front of a new audience.
#BeattiesFordStrong was created in response to a mass shooting that took four lives during a Juneteenth celebration on Beatties Ford Road in 2020 — not just to memorialize the victims but to push back against the media narrative that the Beatties Ford corridor is nothing more than a collection of crime-ridden neighborhoods.
“There’s a notion of a negative connotation that goes with the words Beatties Ford Road or the west side often, as much as there’s such a positive history and present that is there, and I think projects like this that uplift the west side and continue to show a spotlight that the west side is a big part of Charlotte history. This opportunity to have cans in stores around the state, I’m hoping people will Google Beatties Ford Road and will find all the positives that are going on in the west side,” Singh said. “My hope is that it spreads and that people see the west side as a place of growth, historical value; we have a sense of pride.”
Fellow #BeattiesFordStrong artist Ty McBride agreed.
“It’s a good way to get the appreciation of the message on both sides,” she said. “We can’t preach the same thing to the same group of people over and over. We all need to support each other so that it kind of bridges the gap and I feel like art can be that bridge. So that’s what we’re here to do.”
For Toth, the hope is that events like Drop Series not only expose artists like Singh and McBride to new audiences but bring a more diverse crowd into Divine Barrel.
“We want everyone to know that Divine Barrel is open to everyone regardless of ethnicity, anything, sexual orientation, you name it, as long as you’re just happy to be here,” Toth said.
“With the Drop Series you’re seeing a mixing of cultures, too, where yeah you’re bringing people who may not have been to Divine Barrel or a brewery before, but also the cool thing is when the new can comes out with the old mural right as we drop the new mural, you’re seeing artists who may not have met each other, may not run in the same cultural circles, meeting each other and mixing together and sharing ideas, and that’s really what it’s all about.”
Olin agreed, pointing out that the mix of creatives that attended Drop Series Vol. 2 were not the type of crowd you’d see on any given Sunday at a Charlotte brewery.
He added that Divine Barrel has the potential to be the bridge that McBride referenced, seeing as how it’s placed directly on the border of NoDa and the rest of east Charlotte — home to Charlotte’s most diverse neighborhoods.
“That’s really where I get excited about the drop,” he said. “When you see 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. It’s super intentional and we’re just so gratified to see it actually happening and it’s working.”
All it took was a little flair for the dramatic.
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