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Van Gogh Residency Program Inspires Artists To Build off Each Other

On the Gogh

Artist Justin Ellis
Justin Ellis, a mixed-media artist from Charlotte, plans to use the traumatic car crash he was in on the way to Immersive Van Gogh as inspiration for the work he creates during his residency there, which begins Aug. 19. (Photo by Arlette Pinckney)

A traumatic experience has the power to change our perspective on life. For artists, it can reshape how their interpretation of the world flows through their work. 

Had mixed-media artist Justin Ellis not been in a car accident while on his way to see the Immersive Van Gogh installation at Camp North End on July 2, he probably would have absorbed the show differently and, in turn, wouldn’t be creating the pieces it inspired, he said. 

“I was really shaken up, but once I entered the exhibition it took every form of anxiety away,” Ellis said. “It was really emotional … the soundtrack, the pictures and motions of the colors. It shaped me to use more colors in my palate.”

“Since then, my brain has just been rewired to be more positive,” he continued. “Whatever negative thoughts I did have have been jolted out of my brain and whatever materials I don’t have, I think, ‘What can I use to create that?’”

Ellis is one of 10 Charlotte artists chosen for the Artist in Residence program at Immersive Van Gogh, a digital arts show featuring the works of Vincent van Gogh projected on 500,000 cubic feet of projections, which opened in Camp North End’s Ford Building in June. The 76,000-square-foot exhibit, which was set to run through the end of September but was recently extended through Oct. 31, is a collaboration between Lighthouse Immersive, Starvox Entertainment and Blumenthal Performing Arts. 

As an added, localized layer, the chosen artists-in-residence — Laura Sexton, Rosalia Weiner and Zaire McPhearson (June 25-July 19); Eva Crawford, Mike Wirth and Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. (July 22­–Aug. 16); Cat Babbie, Tara Spil, Justin Ellis and Elizabeth Palmisano (Aug. 19–Sept. 22) — get to create and cultivate work during a paid one-month-long stay at the exhibit. The residency serves as an opportunity for these Charlotte artists to create, showcase and sell original art to attendees.

Ellis plans to merge his traumatic car accident with the emotional experience of attending Immersive Van Gogh immediately afterward in the work he’ll produce during his residency, which begins Aug. 19. He says he is “obsessed with bones and the grunge and the creepy,” so he’ll be painting, collaging and illustrating skeletal structures in the style of Van Gogh, with pops of color and directional lines. He’ll also add birds, writing and circles that represent completion.

“Anybody that experienced what I did doesn’t want to be engulfed in any sort of darkness, they just want to be surrounded by light,” Ellis said. “That’s really what I’m trying to do is shine a light on all the darkness going on.”

Painting by Zaire McPhearson
“On the Hills” in Van Gogh style by Charlotte artist Zaire McPhearson. (Photo courtesy of Zaire McPhearson)

Bridging a gap

Behind the Artist in Residence program is Bree Stallings, director of artistic experiences with Blumenthal Arts. A well-known visual artist herself, Stallings was instrumental in reaching out to other Charlotte creators about the opportunity and, as a result, received about 60 applications for the program, more than any other city hosting Immersive Van Gogh. 

At the heart of her motivation to weave as many Charlotte artists into the exhibit as possible — 50 local artists also have work for sale in the gift shop — lies a desire to bridge a gap that exists between Van Gogh’s seemingly out-of-reach existence and that of contemporary artists. Those who come to relive Van Gogh’s masterpieces also get the chance to see and talk to living, breathing, working artists from their own community, connecting art of the past with art of the here and now.

“People are sometimes intimidated by interacting with artists but these are sweet, good people who just want to share their work and the best way we can honor Van Gogh’s legacy is by introducing people outside of the art world to local artists and this is such a great opportunity to do that,” Stallings said.

Stallings took a purposeful approach when creating the residency groups, making sure each grouping had a mix of artists who have different styles and are at varying levels in their careers. She tried to be intentional with their personalities, too, and said so far the result has been touching.

“It’s just been really sweet to see the artists talk to each other and they really have each other’s backs if someone’s not there to talk about their work,” she said. “When I first came to Charlotte, the artist community was a little dog-eat-dog for a while and it’s like, there’s enough sunshine for everybody. So, watching them interact in this environment was really a shining example of that.”

Fiber artist Cat Babbie, who starts her residency on Aug. 19, said incorporating Charlotte artists into Immersive Van Gogh and giving them a space to interact makes the show that much more unique.

“In any creative community, you need a good flow of artists connecting with other artists and the community where they live,” Babbie said. “The Van Gogh exhibit is, I would hope, also priming visitors to be interested in art and they walk out and they meet the artists and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you guys live here,’ and I just think there’s endless value in that.”

Babbie creates wall pieces and soft sculptures with hand-dyed yarn using textile mediums like tufting, felted sculpture, weaving and sewing. During her residency, she plans to tuft pieces based on Van Gogh’s palettes and her own interpretation of his colors. 

Visitors will get a peek into Babbie’s process as she conducts water-color studies, which is how she plans color placement in her pieces and discovers new colors to dye her yarn.

A nod to Vincent

Incorporating Van Gogh’s style is not a requirement for the artists, although some have taken to doing so on their own. Stallings said she looked for three factors when narrowing down applications: color, texture, and an emotional connection to the artist who brought us “The Starry Night.”

“The passion brings that drawbridge down for people to connect,” Stallings said. “We don’t have to disguise it or shave it off.”

Eva Crawford has a studio and gallery at Dilworth Artisan Station in South End and is known for creating pieces that aim to show the core humanity of us all. The main characters of her compositions are inspired by her younger sister with physical disabilities, her elderly parents, family members with mental illness and street kids from her trips to Uganda.

Artist Eva Crawford drawing
During her residency, artist Eva Crawford has been working on Your Good Neighbor CLT, a series of charcoal portraits of people who make Charlotte a better place. (Photo by Karie Simmons)

She is currently in residence at Immersive Van Gogh until Aug. 16 as part of the second group of artists along with Mike Wirth and Alvin C. Jacobs Jr. Throughout her time there, she’s been creating Your Good Neighbor CLT, a series of charcoal portraits of people who make Charlotte a better place. 

Crawford said she’s been overwhelmed not only by the amount of nominations she’s received, but also the emotional stories behind them.

“It’s fun to see the light bulbs go off in people’s heads and they go, ‘Oh, I know exactly who I would nominate’ and it gets them talking,” Crawford said. “That engagement with other humans is what feeds my art.”

In a subtle nod to Van Gogh, who is known for his color and paint application in his portraits, Crawford aims to emulate the rhythm and movement of his mark-making in the lines she incorporates in her drawings.

Her plan is to eventually give the portraits to the subjects “so they know they’re appreciated.”

“It’s a small return for all the good they’re doing,” Crawford explained.

Van Gogh’s use of intense lines and colors to convey emotion has been a key influence in acrylic artist Laura Sexton’s work, especially in her portraits and landscapes. She tapped into that influence even more during her residency with the first group of artists, which worked in the Ford Building space from June 25 to July 19. During her time there, Sexton developed her new “rainbogh” style. 

She starts with an underpainting of purple, then adds Van Gogh-type strokes of light-toned colors to highlight, then gradually mixes in mid and dark tones for contrast. She used the technique to create two series — Island Starry Nights and City Starry Nights — depicting places like Hawaii, Chicago and Charlotte.

“It’s all about assigning different colors,” Sexton said. “I was painting from a picture, so I had to take a complete departure from what I was looking at.”

Zaire McPhearson paints
Mixed-media Charlotte artist Zaire McPhearson estimates she created over 100 pieces during her month-long residency at Immersive Van Gogh. (Photo by Laura Sexton)

Surrounded by inspiration

The Artist in Residence program was a first for Zaire McPhearson, a mixed-media Charlotte artist, photographer, painter and sculptor who teaches photography at Duke University, where she received her masters in May 2020.

McPhearson worked in the first group alongside Sexton and Rosalia Weiner and said she was so inspired by the environment of Immersive Van Gogh — the music, art and her colleagues — that she couldn’t stop painting. She estimates she made more than 100 pieces over her month-long stay, the most she’s ever created in that time, including several Van Gogh-inspired portraits and paintings of houses, landscapes and sunflowers.

“As an artist, that month felt like forever because I grew a lot in painting and learning new techniques and learning mixed media and the different strokes and what colors and how I want them to lay out,” McPhearson said.

“It’s not about how much you create, but about the time you have and the feeling of being safe in your environment to be vulnerable and try new ideas that have only lived in your head because you’re surrounded by people who support you.”

McPhearson has been inundated with requests for commissions since her residency ended and that’s in large part due to the program giving her a platform to show her work and gain exposure, she said. Though normally shy and introverted, she left the Van Gogh experience with a newfound confidence.

“It lets me know OK, I’m doing something right and people are interested in the work that I’m creating,” McPhearson said. “They like the message and concepts and techniques and ideas, so that’s given me the motivation to explore more. The more that you create, the more you get into that.”

Sexton called it “a stroke of genius” that Stallings brought together an experienced veteran (Rosalia Weiner), a newly graduated academic (Zaire McPhearson) and a self-proclaimed newbie outsider (herself) with distinct styles who would become united by a love of color and expression. 

Artists Zaire McPhearson, Rosalia Weiner and Laura Sexton
Charlotte artists Zaire McPhearson, Rosalia Weiner and Laura Sexton painted “The Collaboration Piece” during their residency at Immersive Van Gogh. (Photo courtesy of Laura Sexton)

Had she not, they would have never created “The Collaboration Piece,” a mashup of Van Gogh-style flowers painted by Sexton, trees and landscape by McPhearson and a portrait of Vincent himself by Weiner.

Sexton, a high school Spanish teacher, was hesitant to even apply for the residency because she didn’t think of herself as a “real artist.” She didn’t have formal training, just a few years of painting classes under her belt, and felt disconnected from the artist community.

That doubt and insecurity would go away a few days into her residency.

“If I think about it too much I get a little imposter syndrome, but being there with Rosalia and Zaire it just made sense like this is where I should be,” Sexton said. “I didn’t feel like I wasn’t anymore. I didn’t feel like I had no claim to fame, so I have that as proof to myself.”

It doesn’t always take a car crash to change your perspective.

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