The sculpture was like an oasis of calm, a touch of whimsy amid the hustle, bustle, protests and heavy-handed security in Uptown around the 2012 Democratic National Convention. That was until spectators realized that the ice block letters, placed there by Brooklyn-based art-and-activist duo LigoranoReese, spelled out the words “Middle Class,” as they slowly melted in the sun, never to return,
The temporary sculpture was the most visible facet of Morning In America, a series of installations by the duo comprised of husband and wife Marshall Reese and Nora Ligorano. The project took its title from Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign slogan.
“Reagan … slashed social programs demonized poor and working people, and transformed the U.S. into a debtor nation, running up the highest budget deficits in American history,” reads LigoranoReese’s online explanation of their contribution to Charlotte’s DNC circus from eight years ago. “Thirty years later, the working and middle classes are still crumbling.”
Witnessing a symbol of American hopes and dreams inexorably dissolving in Marshall Park was the first time many Charlotteans encountered the iconoclastic work of LigoranoReese. It would not be the last.
In 2020, the two artists are back in Charlotte, at least virtually, to challenge assumptions, shake up the status quo and inspire people to make their voices heard. The couple originally planned to craft another one of their ephemeral ice sculptures, this time carving the phrase “We The People” into the ice. It would have been the centerpiece of The School of Good Citizenship, a six-day series of multi-disciplinary art events and workshops occurring over three weekends in August to bookend the 2020 Republican National Convention (RNC) in Charlotte.
That plan had to be scrapped, ironically enough, because of the very conservative policies that LigoranoReese so often criticized and questioned. Right-wing politicians’ refusal to act with urgency as the COVID-19 pandemic cut like a scythe through the nation ultimately sank their celebration of President Trump’s catastrophically corrupt and incompetent administration. In June, miffed that N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper would not jettison basic health and safety standards to please the president, the Republican National Committee moved the bulk of its political convention to Jacksonville, Florida.
In late July, the Florida iteration of the RNC was also abruptly canceled due to health concerns. Some business aspects of the gathering will return to Charlotte, but it will not be the self-aggrandizing blowout Trump craved. While many in the Queen City breathed a sigh of relief over these developments, the situation raised a quandary for LigoranoReese.
“At first, we were looking at each other saying what are we going to do because we have this public art piece and we can’t be in public,” Ligorano remembers. “How do you frame a festival about social engagement during a pandemic?”
It dawned on the pair that it was highly unlikely that they were going to do an ice sculpture, as they had initially planned. In fact, it was no longer feasible for LigoranoReese to come to a state recently designated as a coronavirus hot spot in a report the White House had tried to keep hidden from the public.
LigoranoReese Links Up With the Locals
It looked like the artists’ multidisciplinary art festival and collaboration with local artists might dissolve into nothing, much like their transitory ice sculptures. Instead, certain that art’s role is to inspire people in the public realm, they decided to forge ahead with an expanded program.
“That’s the value of public art,” Reese maintains. “It’s not just the statue commemorating a historical figure or event. Our society is in a profound moment because everybody is reevaluating the meaning of these monuments. We wanted to expand the audience, who we were talking to, who to bring into it.”
In the process, Charlotte and its people, institutions, and artists became collaborators with LigoranoReese in mounting The School of Good Citizenship.
“When an artist makes a public project about a place, the location where you’re working will affect your choices of how the artwork develops,” Reese says. “Charlotte did that with us.”
Luckily, LigoranoReese had done their homework in planning The School of Good Citizenship. On their own, they contacted several Charlotteans plugged into the arts, social justice, and civic spheres, forging relationships with local organizations like The Light Factory and Levine Museum of the New South.
An early contact was Susan Brenner, a painter and retired UNC Charlotte art professor. Brenner urged them to get in touch with Jen Edwards, the chief curator at the Mint Museum. Edwards in turn pointed LigoranoReese to Jonell Logan, a Charlotte-based curator and arts advocate. After meeting Logan in Charlotte a year and a half ago, LigoranoReese hired her as project manager for The School of Good Citizenship.
“Jonell was the one who said, ‘You guys, don’t let [COVID-19] scare you,’” Ligorano remembers. “She told us to think about it as an opportunity.”
Instead, Logan encouraged LigoranoReese to focus on their mission to bring people together and to elevate voices.
“It’s funny that they remember that,” Logan says, recalling her advice not to let the virus scare them out of the work. “COVID would normally be an opportunity to back out. This is a moment where people can feel disenfranchised and frustrated. If there is ever a moment to struggle through and to figure it out, this would be it.”
So, LigoranoReese embraced the opportunity to reshape their entire program. “[The pandemic] made us think that we didn’t need to concentrate all the events around August,” Ligorano offers. “We were able to open up the calendar and have a lasting effect leading up to the election.”
A Public Forum in a Pandemic
While LigoranoReese has gone virtual for their slate of performances, workshops and exhibits, they have also gone big, scheduling events from June through October. Now The School of Good Citizenship can engage a broader, more diverse community around civic engagement through visual art exhibitions, public art, film screenings, spoken-word poetry, panels and artist workshops and discussions.
First up on the calendar is Seeing Voices: Community (Un)Heard at The Light Factory on Aug. 1 and 22. Following two weekends of workshops in June and July focusing on photographic storytelling and incorporating text into images, August’s Synthesis: Sewing The City encourages attendees of the first two sessions to share their work with the city through zines, postcards and projections.
Like the previous two Light Factory workshops, the upcoming one will be held on Zoom, Ligorano says.
“The participants [are] excited to be there and that excites us,” she says. “We think that’s success.”
Next up on the art festival’s docket is Counting UP! What Does Your Ballot Look Like?, which runs at the Levine Museum of the New South from Aug. 20 to Nov. 8. For the open call exhibition about voting rights, 20 artists have been selected to interpret what voting rights look like and mean today.
Logan’s input has been invaluable here, LigoranoReese say, working with the artists and installers.
“Marshall and Nora laid the groundwork and were super active in the process,” Logan explains. “I’m doing a lot of the support work and having things executed. It’s logistics, like how do you take something from idea to manifestation?”
One lesson Reese has learned from the initial public reaction to Counting UP! is that people are ready to embrace their power by speaking their minds.
“I think that people want to have an effect on the forces that govern their lives and they want to be heard,” he says.
From Aug. 24-27, The School of Good Citizenship will present I Once Was Lost, Now Am Found, a musical event that is close to its founders’ hearts. On those four nights, until recently set aside in Jacksonville for the now-canceled RNC, musicians, singers and spoken word performers in Charlotte and across the country will present virtual choir concerts.
In collaboration with choir masters including David Tang, Eric Banks and Kevin Mayes, a different chorus each night will perform songs of uplift and hope, culminating on the last night in a final upwelling of song.
The reason LigoranoReese chose music is simple, Reese says.
“We were looking for something that was ephemeral and durational like the ice sculptures,” he offers.
In the fall, The School of Good Citizenship will incorporate two film screenings into its program, courtesy of Wilmington-based Working Films, a documentary company co-founded by the late Charlotte filmmaker Robert West.
Revisioning Recovery: Films Uncovering the Roots of Disaster will screen on Oct. 2. It’s a collection of short films that examine the injustices and systemic forces that contribute to climate disasters, as well as positive responses and solutions to the problem.
A second screening on October 3 will present Stories Beyond Borders, a collection of documentaries about the crippling impact of the attacks on immigrant families and communities in America.
LigoranoReese is hoping to screen both programs at a drive in, contingent on the severity if the pandemic come this fall.
On a yet to be determined date in the fall, The School of Good Citizenship will conclude with a Civic Saturday sermon and discussion at the Cone Center at UNC-Charlotte.
LigoranoReese pitched the sermon to the university which was enthusiastic about the idea, Reese offers. The two artists found a civic seminarian student, UNC-Charlotte undergraduate Rebecca De Luna, to deliver the sermon. The event will either be a public gathering or it will be streamed over the internet, or both.
LigoranoReese hope the wrap-up of their expanded arts festival will bring students and others in Charlotte together to find common ground around visibility, engagement and activism, themes that have become increasingly important to the country and society.
I’ll Melt with You
Both Ligorano and Reese feel that The School of Good Citizenship is the logical extension of Melted Away, their series of transitory ice sculptures. The artists have done numerous ice sculptures through the years at several political conventions in cities across the nation. Each time they repeated the process, they changed it, adding elements like performances, spoken word, time-lapse video and live-streaming, Ligorano says.
But The School of Good Citizenship, a public arts festival dedicated to civic engagement, is also, in many ways, a culmination of the couple’s life work.
Ligorano and Reese met in 1977 when the former was studying painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. That’s when the couple became partners in life as well as art.
In 1992 they ventured into political art with a series of editions called Pure Products of America, which takes its title from a line from William Carlos Williams’ poem “For Elsie.”
“The first line is, ‘The pure products of America go crazy.’” Reese says. “We started making sculptural objects that took off from the connection between marketing, politics and morality.”
The sculptural object was a “Bible belt,” a modified New Testament Bible on a belt that you buckled around your waist.
“The bible covered your ass, and it had a triangular-plated Jesus belt buckle in front,” Reese offers.
Flash forward to 1995 when LigoranoReese devised one of the duo’s most infamous artworks. In response to the Republican majority win in the Congress and the launch of their Contract with America campaign, which the two artists saw as a brazen marketing strategy, LigoranoReese made a product: Contract with America underwear.
“It had the image of [former Speaker of the House of Representatives] Newt Gingrich on the crotch and the tenants of the Contract with America on the seat,” Reese remembers.
Three weeks later, the RNC threatened LigoranoReese with copyright infringement. The artists’ conviction that the Contract with America was merely a marketing strategy was actually being verified by the Republican Party.
After being pilloried by the conservative media and declining multiple requests to appear on the Fox News show Fox & Friends in New York, LigoranoReese nearly stumbled accidentally into what became their signature series of public art works.
Reese had just negotiated a publishing deal with Jim Kempner Fine Art Gallery in New York to get a series of criminal mugshots of George W. Bush administration members published as postcards. After Reese sealed the deal and was leaving, the gallery manager asked him if he and Ligorano did lawn sculptures.
“You don’t want to say no,” Ligorano says. So, the artists agreed to produce lawn sculptures and went home to figure out what the hell they had just agreed to do.
Ligorano hit upon combining ice sculpture and language, and so, Melted Away was born. Their first piece was “Democracy” in the garden of the Jim Kempner Fine Art Gallery in New York City in 2006. More elaborate sculptures were to come, many in major municipal parks during the two major parties’ political conventions.
As additional events and artistic statements aggregated around the ice sculptures, LigoranoReese set their public arts and discourse sights higher, which brought them to The School of Good Citizenship and the quarantined Queen City this year.
Why This Year Is Important
LigoranoReese have high hopes for the current slate of projects that will take them and Charlotte well into the fall.
“We want to encourage people to vote in a very important election,” Reese asserts. “We’d like to see people realize that they can have an effect in public life and that their efforts can make change.”
Through the lens of art, LigoranoReese is framing civic engagement as a creative joy, Ligorano maintains.
“We hope that this has a lasting impact not only on the community but also the players,” she says. Ligorano wonders what young women like Rebecca DeLuna, who will lead the Civic Saturday gathering, will be doing in a year from now. She hopes that DeLuna’s commitment sticks and becomes a habit, then becomes an inspiration for others.
“It’s really heartwarming to see this spark, this passion,” Ligorano says.
Logan says The School of Good Citizenship provides a great opportunity to think about collaboration.
“It’s a chance to look at what it means to bring people together in a time when we’re not physically able to engage,” Logan says.
“I think The School of Good Citizenship offers hope because it allows people to be able to intervene in forces [perceived as] beyond their control,” Reese says. “It goes back to the idea of giving people a voice. The one thing that makes me very happy is that Nora and I have created a structure that invites people to contribute their thoughts.”