Thin walls make vulnerability seem inevitable. A large room with a huge center and seemingly no corners to hide in compels one to walk along the walls and clasp their hands together with the anxieties new spaces can bring. Most places have walls that can talk, but these ones have stories to tell.
There are faces that show sadness, contempt, happiness, love and loss. Complex issues are relayed within the different breaststrokes, and cultural boundaries are broken down within a single moment of silence. The space is safe, as it bridges the gap between people’s experiences and other’s realities. One truth stands in spaces such as these: Art is a universal language.
On Jan. 14, Nine Eighteen Nine Studio Gallery held an opening reception for I AM: A Retrospective Exhibition featuring Kevin Harris’ mixed media art. The exhibit spans over 20 years of the Charlotte artist’s work. Harris reflects his view of the Black experience in America through breathtaking portraits, landscapes and abstract oil paintings within the exhibit. It requires the viewer to take a look within oneself, and truly sit in where their thoughts wander.
The exhibit will show at Nine Eighteen Nine through Feb. 11 with a community-event artist led class called “Palette Portraits.”
Nine Eighteen Nine Studio Galley first opened its private venue within the Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) Center in 2020. The goal of the studio is to provide an accessible platform to nurture the relationship between the artist, collector and community. The space provides mentorship opportunities, skills training, networking and representation for emerging artists.
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.
“He was part of my very first show,” Joanne told Queen City Nerve. “When I moved down here, I came upon my husband working — painting in the garage. I walked up, and I stayed there for about 15-20 minutes, and he didn’t know I was there.”
She explained that her husband was working a full-time job with Union County and she didn’t believe he was truly taking advantage of his artistic talent.
“I told him, ‘We’re going to find a way for you to live in your gift’,” she laughed. “I’m very stubborn.”
The show was held in the summer of 2015 at Clearwater Artist Studios. Arthur wanted to fill the space with other artists, so he asked 10 other artists to show their work. The exhibit was immersive — an authentic bamboo entrance, dancers in costume serving homemade meals — all built by hand by Joanne.
Following that first show, a crucial turning point for Joanne Rogers came in February of the next year when she attended her cousin’s art show. Her cousin was asked to do the show with 10 other artists of color and they both attended. They found the energy within the other artists that attended the event to be inspiring, and one specific part of the evening stuck with Joanne.
“At the end of it, I heard this guy telling an artist … that they needed to do abstract work, because white people will not buy their work. And I was like, well, that’s some bullshit,” she said.
Later that night, she dreamt about forming an arts group called Palette Table. Within a half hour of awakening, she told Arthur about it and he bought the domain name. Joanne hopped on the phone with her mentor and that’s how the group began.
Joanne describes the Palette Table as a “roundtable” type of group, providing information and increased opportunities for artists of color through mentoring, skills training, administrative support and networking.
“We prepared [local artists] to do this, to get ready to have their own show. And then I gave each of them their own show to introduce them to the art world. People like Stacy Utley, Brian Wilson, Kev Harris, artists that are doing their thing, were some of the first members of the Palette Table,” Rogers explained.
Rogers is also one of the founding members of VAPA, located in Uptown’s Fourth Ward. The center features five galleries, two-three theaters, a rehearsal space, a practice space, and art studios for individual artists. VAPA is home to BLKMRKCLT, Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte and Women’s Chorus of Charlotte, Charlotte Comedy Theatre, JazzArts Charlotte, Charlotte’s Off-Broadway and OBRA Collective, among others.
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. Her goal for the gallery is to support local artists of color, and to make them feel seen by their peers and neighbors.
“When I came to Charlotte, I saw so much talent. The people themselves did not believe that it could happen here,” Rogers said. “They didn’t see how incredible they were. It blew my mind, because the people here who were in charge for growing the arts were pouring into places outside of Charlotte, and our art community was struggling. Why? They say they don’t have the funding for the arts here, but they’re bringing people in and paying for them. We have artists here who are a lot more brilliant than what they’re bringing in and making [local artists] feel like a second-class citizen in their own home. I don’t do that.”
Rogers wants local artists of color to find success without having to change their practices to cater to white tastes.
“[In the past] they believed they broke the glass ceiling if they were the only person of color in a room. There’s something wrong with that,” she continued. “You see other people who don’t look like you as better than you. There’s something wrong with that. Part of what I do is showing artists their value, and showing the community their value so that they can support the artists in a way that’s sustainable and we can keep them around.”
Rogers works to make Charlotte a destination rather than just a stop over from Atlanta to New York. Her vision is to ensure that Charlotte artists no longer have to leave their home in order to be successful. The gallery mostly works with local fine artists of color due to the need within Charlotte. The gallery also opens up the space for different kinds of community events: drives for baby supplies, immersive painting, meetings of the Arts & Science Council, and events for nonprofits. Rogers has only received one grant for the studio in the nearly eight years it’s existed.
“I do a half rate for nonprofits, and a regular rate for profits. It’s much lower than anything you’re going to get. What that does is pouring money back into the artists, because before, I was self-funded,” Rogers explained. Rogers recently quit her job and began running the studio full-time thanks to the traction and workload the studio gallery is getting.
Rogers believes that creatives are vital in human connection, and ways for people to understand the realities they live in.
“They’re definitely a bridge. 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,” she said.
“You can turn away from it, and it won’t follow you. It’s a way to have difficult conversations. Again, it’s a safe space. It is a common language. Art goes across all languages — all cultures. Art is universal. It’s a universally understood language. Therefore, it is a bridge. Creatives are a gift. Creatives are a bridge.”