If she could, K. Liles would wrap her arms around the entire Charlotte creative community.
It’s a theme that kept popping up in our conversation when I recently met Liles at the Hygge Coworking space in Camp North End in the lead-up to a juried art exhibition that her organization SouthEnd ARTS is holding on Dec. 7.
When Liles described how she was welcomed into Charlotte when she moved here from Indiana 10 years ago: “When I walked through the door, people opened their arms like they do in the South.” When she spoke about Elijah Kell, a 12-year-old ceramic glass artist who will be showing his work at the exhibit: “He wraps himself around people, and then they wrap around him.” And when she explained the mission of SouthEnd ARTS, a 501c3 organization that emphasizes equity in arts: “We as artists are reaching out to the community, but then asking the community to come in and wrap their arms around the artists, and it will be mutually beneficial.”
SouthEnd ARTS, born of a group of local artists who were left without a place to work when the Charlotte Art League closed its doors in January, has spent the last year hosting juried art exhibitions featuring the work of up-and-coming Charlotte artists, many of whom have never showed their work in an exhibit before. Now, the organization has a home to wrap its arms around.
The Dec. 7 exhibit will be the first SouthEnd ARTS exhibit at Charlotte Powerhouse Studios, a space awarded to the group by Charlotte Center City Partners as a location to host exhibits for at least the next year. The space is a perfect fit for SouthEnd ARTS, as it’s an organization that has taken quite a ride around the neighborhood since its formation.
First came the closing of Charlotte Art League’s sprawling warehouse, which was home to nearly 100 artists. Liles and others local artists like Sloane Siobhan and Chad Cartwright found themselves working out of garages in a Morningstar facility in South End. It was there that the seeds for SouthEnd ARTS were sown, and with the help of Morningstar’s then-manager Cindy Henry, Liles and friends hosted their first exhibit in the facility’s lobby in February, featuring just five artists. About 20 people showed up. Since then, the team has formed into a 501c3, formed a board of directors and continued to build on that first show. An exhibit in September featured 20 artists and attracted about 400 patrons.
Now, with a space to call its own, Liles is excited about the future for SouthEnd ARTS.
“We don’t get the whole space and we don’t get it all the time, but it was really becoming difficult to go from brewery to brewery setting up the logistics of space for every event,” Liles said. She hopes the new relationship with CCCP will bloom into something bigger. “We know it’s not permanent, but we know that if we show that we’re doing well and follow our dreams, I think they’ll be pleased with what we do.”
Those dreams — to educate, empower and showcase a diverse range of up-and-coming Charlotte artists in a way that emphasizes equity — first came to Liles after she took a six-week study of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, a class hosted by local community organizer Patrice Funderburg through her organization Educate to Engage.
Liles said the class changed her life.
“Six weeks is important to really delve into all of the misconceptions that we have about the reality of mass incarceration, but also institutionalized racism,” she said. “We had an amazing group of prosecutors, social workers, people who grew up in the New York projects, attorneys, healthcare people, people who had gotten pushed into it. Patrice became my mentor.”
That experience started Liles on the road to social justice, and then she read Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Stevenson’s words convinced Liles that art was the path to enlightenment when it came to social justice.
“I decided after reading Just Mercy that I would commit my art to social justice,” Liles said. “I did a whole series thinking Charlotte’s not going to buy this, and they didn’t, and they didn’t, and then all of a sudden it’s gone.”
Following the CAL closure, Liles found herself driven to form something new around arts and social justice. She joined up with Siobhan and two other local artists, Bryan Wilson and Jerry McQuay, to launch SouthEnd ARTS. With the help of CCCP’s Meghan Gude, the team was able to begin hosting grassroots exhibits showcasing the work of Charlotte’s lesser known visual artists. The idea is to work together with artists to promote their work and the organization.
“When artists use their social media accounts, SEA marketing, and personal mailing lists to get guests to our shows, they are getting exposure for their own work while also connecting their audience with the larger arts community,” reads the buyer’s guide for the upcoming Dec. 7 exhibit. “This ‘ARTS interACTION’ is the mission of SouthEnd ARTS.”
Liles has never been scared to ask for help. In fact, she has a group of folks she has reached out to over the last year to mine for advice on her new venture. Her list of mentors, as she calls them, includes Gude; Wendy Hickey, founder of ArtPop Street Gallery; and Sam Guzzie, co-founder of local arts organization Brand the Moth.
“I know that every successful group has something around it that makes it powerful, it’s mostly gentle power, and it has to do with that power. Our mentors, we have lunch together, and I know that they have been where I am right now. I leave with five suggestions that I put into play and then I go back for another lunch,” Liles said. “I’ll tell you, I think I’ve found my tribe.”
One member of that tribe, however, will soon be leaving town. Siobhan, who has been a part of SouthEnd ARTS since its creation, will be moving to Las Vegas at the end of December. The news was tough to take for Liles, who considers Siobhan “a daughter from other parents,” she said. Liles met Siobhan outside of the Charlotte Art League on the anniversary of Siobhan’s mother’s death. The two immediately became close. Liles hired Siobhan to teach her to do portraiture. Siobhan spent Christmas Eve with Liles and her husband last year.
When I asked Liles about what it means to her that Siobhan will be moving across the country soon, her eyes welled up and she took a moment to gather her thoughts before expressing her silver-lining sentiment.
“I can’t be selfish with Sloane, it’s her time to fly,” Liles said. “You give them the base and let them go see what life’s about. And so that has made it easier, because she’s an adult and she doesn’t need anybody at this point. She’s been looking for that completion in her life and she has that right now. So I am hopeful for her that she will find out what she needs to learn.”
As for SouthEnd ARTS, Liles is looking forward to a year full of firsts for the organization. Later in 2019, she hopes to fulfill one of Siobhan’s goals, which was to hold an exhibit showcasing the art of students at Northwest School of the Arts, since most graduate without having participated in a juried art exhibition to place on college applications.
The Dec. 7 exhibition will be a soft opening for the new space at Powerhouse Studios, with a grand opening scheduled for Jan. 31. That event will have a “Love Wins” theme and feature an art exhibit and speakers from Charlotte’s faith community, including Muslim organizer Rose Hamid and — Liles hopes — Rabbi Judy Schindler with the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice.
And so for now, it appears that despite being pushed out and moved around multiple times, Liles has found a home in South End to continue pursuing connecting Charlotteans and pursuing greater equity. She couldn’t think of a better place to do so.
“We chose South End because it’s that No Man’s Land between two Charlottes, and that really brings people in,” she said. “When they come into the community somewhat curious, obviously motivated or they wouldn’t have got themselves to the space, that’s where collaboration begins. And so, it is so exciting to see it happening.”
Now the question that remains to be seen is this: Can Charlotteans wrap their arms around that?