Mixed-media artist Stephen Wilson’s upcoming show isn’t just a reflection of his own creative vision, it’s also a window into the unique perspective of a group of 13- to 17-year-old foster children from Children’s Home Society of North Carolina.
Together with Wilson, the teenagers produced 30 additional pieces that will be displayed alongside his own work. The exhibit, Modularity, runs through April 15 at the New Gallery of Modern Art following a benefit reception on March 5 and public opening March 6.
Wilson’s work, which often incorporates elements of pop iconography and high fashion, has been exhibited in galleries from Los Angeles to Bulgaria. He’s also a member of the ArtPop Street Gallery Class of 2019, so you might have seen his work looking down on you from a billboard during your commute.
The Charlotte-based artist describes Modularity’s aesthetic as a combination of the series he’s worked on over the last five years.
“They look very distinctly different,” he says. “But what I noticed is when I had pieces, or work would come back from a gallery or museum, they were hanging in my gallery or museum together, and I started to see a lot of things that tied the pieces together.”
For Wilson, one approach always remains constant: his use of fabric, embroidery and applique to embellish and overlay his designs.
It’s a style rarely found in contemporary art, borne out of Wilson’s time as a professional embroiderer in the fashion and home décor industries.
“I saw that as soon as someone used fabric or embroidery, they would immediately think of folk art and that whole vibe,” Wilson says. “It was never modern. It was never contemporary. So I started making pieces for myself just to really push the envelope of what I could do as an embroiderer that wasn’t commercial, that was more experimental.”
Wilson is a longtime supporter of CHS, whose mission it is to provide every child with a “permanent, safe and loving family,” whether that is through foster care and adoption or additional social services that help parents provide a more stable home for their children and preserve families in crisis.
Over the last eight months, local teaching artists have been working with 10 youths from CHS, and when Wilson heard about those efforts, he immediately wanted to become involved.
It was Wilson who suggested the Modularity collaboration, as well as exhibiting the teenagers’ work as a finale for this arts experience.
The participating youth are all part of CHS’s child-specific recruitment program, which focuses on addressing the unique needs of “older youth, regardless of their placement in foster care,” says Donna Henderson, senior program director at CHS.
Each year, between 40 to 50 youth in Mecklenburg County “age out” of the foster care system, meaning they turn 18 years old without having a permanent family, Henderson says. That population is at greater risk of homelessness, undereducation, unemployment and incarceration.
“That negatively impacts our community,” says Tara Spil, regional director of philanthropy at CHS. “It negatively impacts our society and, most importantly, negatively impacts our children. So with this project, we’re really hoping to connect with the community so that they will be aware of these issues and feel compelled to support this organization, either through philanthropic dollars or becoming resources, becoming families for these kids.”
While placing these teenagers with permanent families is a major priority of child-specific recruitment, the program also goes beyond that effort, Henderson says.
“It really is about helping them understand who they are, where they’re going and how they’re going to get there,” she says. “We do that through different experiences and this one started out with some teaching artists who were working specifically with the youth around topics of who they are, to kind of help answer some of those questions but also to provide an opportunity for their voice to be heard. And it ended with Stephen really tying it into the community and giving a platform for the youth to be showcased and for awareness to be brought around that.”
All sale proceeds from the collaborative works in Modularity go directly to CHS, so Wilson sought to create pieces that will entice people to purchase them.
“My goal is for people to buy these pieces and help this amazing charity, but also really be excited about hanging that piece in their home,” he says. “So I wanted to really be cohesive, so that people can buy three of them and they’d go together, or they can combine them with other pieces of my work or other work they have and it still looks good.”
Wilson also wanted the collaborative works to complement the pieces he was already planning to show in Modularity while still highlighting the teenagers’ imagination and creativity.
He had recently begun incorporating photographs into his work by stitching over them with thread and fabric. For the collaboration, Wilson decided to have the CHS group create the assorted pieces that would become the embellishments for his black-and-white scenic photographs of Charlotte.
“The kids all came into my studio one day, and instead of painting like individual works of art, they actually decorated and painted individual pieces of paper and fabric and really spent the whole day throwing paint around the room,” Wilson says.
“And then I took those painted fragments and used those in the photographs and stitching … The unique part was that they didn’t know, really, what I was going to be doing with them. So they’re expressing themselves in one way, and I’m taking their pieces and turning them into something else, which is really cool,” he continued.
“The projects were fun,” says one participant, a 14-year-old boy. “It was fun to be together with all the other kids to talk and chat and relate with each other.”
The collaboration with Wilson, and the other experiences with the teaching artists, will have an enduring impact on the kids, Henderson says.
“Art is like music, and it helps us connect with who we are,” she says. “I mean, it’s a safe place to explore. And it’s also a talent that many youth have or don’t really know they have. They’ve learned things about themselves that they might not have known, and they’ve connected to the greater community around them. So, really, to me, it’s a lifelong impact. No matter what their experience was when they went through it, they leave with something that is very individual to them.”
Wilson says he’s excited to watch the kids’ reactions when they see the exhibit, since they currently don’t have a clue what it will look like.
“So now they’re going to be picking little elements out, like ‘I painted that,’” he says. “And hopefully, it’s an uplifting experience for them.”