It’s important to have goals to work toward, and as Carla Aaron-Lopez’s experience shows us, you don’t always have to know what the goals really mean.
While earning two master’s degrees at the Savannah College of Arts and Design in Atlanta, Aaron-Lopez always told herself and others she wanted to run an art department, she just didn’t know what that meant yet.
“I used to tell all my friends in Atlanta, ‘One day I want to have my own art department,’ but I never framed what that meant,” she recalls. “Does that mean at an agency? At an institution? What does that mean? I never defined what that meant.”
Upon returning to her hometown of Charlotte in 2013, Aaron-Lopez got connected with leaders in Charlotte’s underground arts scene — folks like Dammit Wesley at BLKMRKTCLT, where she now has a studio; and Sam Guzzie, founder of the META mural residency and one of the lead organizers behind the fledgling Talking Walls mural festival.
She kept her goals vague while she built connections in Charlotte.
“I always start with the underground, hands down,” she says. “Whoever is running the underground of the city, those are the people you want to work with first. Find them. Identify them. Get to know them. Do not have an end goal in the very beginning, because if you have an end goal in the beginning, people smell it, they go away. Nah, I don’t want you to go away. I want to get to know you. I want to understand how you work. I want to understand who you are because I only want to work with high-value people, and those come in different bodies.”
She slowly began to build her name in Charlotte, working as a full-time arts teacher but also making her own moves in the scene. She curated multiple exhibitions in 2021, including the Local/Street pop-up show and collaborative It Takes a Village exhibit, both at Mint Museum; as well as the JOY exhibit at Elder Gallery.
Earlier in the year, Guzzie approached Aaron-Lopez about potentially taking her spot as chair of the Talking Walls festival committee. That’s when the goal that Aaron-Lopez had held onto for years began to come into focus and build into a vision.
“When she asked me if I wanted to take on her position, that was what I thought of: I finally get my own art department,” Aaron-Lopez says. “From there I began to think about all of the possibilities that Talking Walls can become in the future.”
Launched in 2018 by artists with the Southern Tiger Collective, Guzzie took the lead role in 2019. The festival is a week-long event that commissions murals from a mix of artists representing local, national and international street art culture. In its first three years, more than 50 artists have made their mark on the city, creating more than 40 murals across Charlotte.
Talking Walls 2021 begins on Oct. 18 and will feature some artists from other cities and countries, but will focus more on local artists due to difficulties in setting up travel accommodations during the ongoing pandemic.
Guzzie says she began to consider Aaron-Lopez as her potential replacement from the moment of their first conversation, during which Aaron-Lopez explained how she made Talking Walls a part of her CMS curriculum. It was clear she already understood what the festival was all about.
“I really always knew I was crafting that role for someone else,” Guzzie tells Queen City Nerve. “Carla proved herself as that person through her passion and her work, plain and simple, and she accepted the responsibility humbly, and one that I know is not light to take on.”
In her new role, Aaron-Lopez hopes to spread the influence of Talking Walls from Uptown and the fringe neighborhoods where much of the past work can be found — NoDa, Plaza Midwood, South End — to neighborhoods in east and west Charlotte where she says art can play a role in telling the rich and diverse history that too often goes ignored in Charlotte.
Connecting communities with murals
We meet Aaron-Lopez on a Wednesday afternoon outside of BLKMRKTCLT’s studios in Camp North End. She’s winding down after a day of teaching, drinking a tallboy of Miller Lite and mixing it up with her neighbors at dupp&swat.
Mother, artist, teacher, mentor, curator, Aaron-Lopez keeps a strict schedule as a matter of self care. Weekdays she devotes fully to work: mornings and afternoons are strictly for her students (“They need my presence there because they cuss me out when I’m absent.”), evenings are spent at the studio with her art and artist cohorts, weekends are spent on self and family.
“I gotta chill out on the weekend in order to be in a good mindset to continue to serve people, because that’s really what I’m doing is I’m serving people,” she says.
When we meet, she has recently opened the JOY exhibit, which wrapped up her 2021 exhibition season as a curator. She is now fully focused on Talking Walls.
Her first order of business upon taking the chair position was to expand the Talking Walls board, with an eye on diversity and inclusion. For her, that’s a purposeful mission that goes beyond simply making sure people of color have representation.
“I’m like any other regular person,” she explains, “I’m like ‘Yeah, I want all my friends to be on it,’ but that might not be a good idea. I need people of action and I need to see people for who they are, and if that’s the case I’m looking at several different kinds of people and not just one specific group to work with.”
The board today is made up of 14 artists and organizers; some like Mike Wirth and Arko have been involved since the festival’s founding. Others such as Irisol Gonzalez and Makayla Binter have been brought on to help build connections in their communities.
Aaron-Lopez refers to an experience she had over the summer in which she helped Gonzalez complete a mural at Compare Foods on North Sharon Amity Road in east Charlotte. Community members weren’t used to seeing muralists working in their neighborhood, but they showed up — not just to help during community paint day, but in more concrete ways, too.
“They would refill her cooler with ice, they would ask her if she wanted something to drink, she would translate for me, ‘There are people who want to know if you want something to eat and they’re going to run in the grocery store and buy you food,’” she recalls. “So we know that the community will take care of artists if the community knows that you’re creating something beautiful that is a reflection of them, or something that you can identify with. I’m here for it, I do think it needs to happen.”
Street art and gentrification
Of course, some communities hold more nuanced views of street art. In already gentrified neighborhoods like NoDa and South End, new murals are sometimes celebrated, other times taken for granted. In underserved communities they can be viewed in not such a positive light.
Elders in the Black community especially carry their own conclusions about what street art represents.
“A lot of Black and brown people see murals and street art as a form of graffiti, graffiti being defined as illegal,” Aaron-Lopez explains. “When something is illegal, then it’s also associated with other illegal acts. Street art is not necessarily an illegal act. It is if you didn’t ask nobody to do what you did, but when you build a relationship with businesses — if you walk to them and say, ‘I want to make this space beautiful. Can we create some sort of beautification process and I will give you this painting at the end of it?’ a lot of people begin to lean into it.”
On the other hand, people sometimes recognize murals as a harbinger of gentrification itself. The cycle is a recognizable one: Artists with low to moderate incomes move into an area due to the affordable rent, they create murals and other projects because that’s just what they do, the area becomes cool and hip due in part to all the beautification carried out by the artists, developers seize on the popularity and build the area up, rents increase, the artists are priced out along with longtime residents of the area, and the cycle starts again somewhere new.
For Aaron-Lopez, that’s a simplified way of looking at it. After all, developers gon’ develop, especially in a city growing as quickly as Charlotte. Murals aren’t displacing people, she points out, but if artists from those neighborhoods are the ones doing the murals, that helps build a sense of community for residents in the face of gentrification.
“A lot of people see murals in their neighborhood as the sign that gentrification is coming,” she says. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that the deals, the plans have already happened. When you do see the murals, please don’t feel like you are no longer welcome within your space. I think actively pursuing more artists of color across the board is one way to truly stay connected to a neighborhood.”
She points to Jamil Steele, who along with fellow local artist Stacy Utley has been working on a public revitalization project at Five Points Plaza across from Johnson C. Smith University in the Historic West End.
“[Steele] has been given a wonderful gift to paint one of the Corridors of Opportunity that the city of Charlotte has been talking about for quite a while. That means a lot,” she says. “He’s very well aware of the history of the area because he’s from that area … There are a lot of artists in town who are producing high-quality works that are from here or from neighboring areas like Rock Hill. They know about Charlotte. They’ve been here for as long as we have.”
Following a tragic mass shooting that took four lives during a Juneteenth celebration in 2020, Carla Aaron-Lopez was part of a team of artists who came together to paint murals along the corridor.
Since then, more have popped up, including a River of Life mural paying homage to icons of the West End, painted by Abel Jackson, who’s been brought on to participate in Talking Walls 2021.
“No one has tagged them, no one has touched them,” Aaron-Lopez says of the new murals on Beatties Ford Road. “So I learned instantly, people want the same murals that they see in South End, that they see in NoDa, that they see in Plaza Midwood; they want those murals on their side of town. Every time I teach about street art, I have to answer my students when they say, ‘Why isn’t this in our neighborhoods?’ I don’t have the answer for you.
“I fully understand as a person of action that it’s going to take time to build out into these areas,” she continues. “I’m not a fan of gentrification either, but I know I’ll sleep fine at night if I had a hand in not only helping people recognize the history of a space, but adding to the beauty of a neighborhood.”