Saturday, September 30, 2023

‘Time doesn’t heal wounds, intention does’: BLM sculpture unveiled on UNCW campus challenges uncomfortable conversations

Dare Coulter finalizes the installation of her 1,996-pound sculpture on UNCW’s campus ahead of its unveiling. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Last Wednesday on UNCW’s campus, before the bright blue sky turned dark into a thunderstorm, North Carolina artist Dare Coulter was standing on a palette on a forklift, doing final touch-ups on her Black Lives Matter installation in front of the Fisher University Union. She created “Because It’s Time” over the last six months, and was preparing to see it unveiled Friday, as presented by the UNCW Office of the Arts, Office of Institutional Diversity Inclusion, and the Office of Community Engagement.

“It weighs almost a ton,” Coulter said.

The sculpture is made out of metal — bulletproof metal, to be more specific. She found it while researching markers situated along the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. The markers reference the place from where 14-year-old Emmett Till’s body was pulled. Till was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman in a grocery store in 1955.

“White supremacists kept shooting the markers because they just — well, they do stuff like that,” Coulter said.

Coulter decided to reach out to the company, Lite Bright Neon, that helped make the Mississippi markers bulletproof. “Because It’s Time” is constructed from the same material.

“I talked to company owner Matt Dilling to ask if he’d be willing to do my piece,” Coulter said. “I thought it was really important that the fabricator of [‘Because It’s Time’] would be someone who also likes doing this work.”

“This work” refers to constructing art that can be a conduit for social activism. 

It’s part of UNCW Office of the Arts’ engagement director Fidias Reyes’ goal to inspire conversations that bridge diversity. “Sometimes those conversations can be hard,” Reyes said.

Chancellor Jose Sartarelli shakes hands with Raleigh-based artist Dare Coulter after revealing “Because It’s Time,” a Black Lives Matter installation. (Port City Daily/Photo by Jeff Janowski, courtesy of UNCW)

“I don’t know that art can be legislated in a democratic way”

Back in March at the UNCW Board of Trustees meeting, Dr. Donyell Rosboro, UNCW’s chief diversity officer, gave a presentation about where UNCW falls statistically when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion of marginalized and minority students. Roseboro revealed results of a National Survey of Student Engagement that showed 56% of senior students, after having been immersed in campus culture for four years, don’t see UNCW as committed to diversity. 

“Space is important for students to feel a sense of belonging and a connection to campus,” Roseboro said in the meeting. 

Also at the meeting, Roseboro, Reyes and Coulter presented a mockup of “Because It’s Time” to the chancellor and board of trustees.

“We thought about what we could do in terms of public art that could potentially create a possibile dialog on this campus that would honor our difficult racial history,” Roseboro told the trustees. “Because I fundamentally believe we have to acknowledge it, we have to recognize it, we have to talk about it in order to move forward.”

Roseboro said students arrived back on campus last fall with a renewed interest in civil rights — discussions often centering on the rise of protests that had taken place in the summer of 2020.

Yet, the Black Lives Matter movement put university leadership on the defensive in the fall semester. In September, the chancellor banned large signs on campus without pre-approval after a Black Lives Matter banner appeared at the entrance to Bear Hall. In November 2020, an uprising of UNCW Faculty Senate members debated instigating a “no-confidence” vote against the chancellor for his comments on the movement, but ultimately opted not to follow through with the formal condemnation, deciding instead to “censure” him. The following month, the university settled a federal discrimination lawsuit filed by an employee in its admissions department; UNCW had a proportionately lower percentage of Black students and faculty than the general population and other colleges.

Roseboro and Reyes confirmed Black faculty and staff, as well as the Black Student Union chose Coulter’s work out of the handful of applicants. Roseboro went on to explain the sculpture would center around Black Lives Matter as a principle –– not a movement. 

A few board of trustee members seemed confused as to whether the presentation of the art installation would require their votes. Chairman Henry L. Kitchin Jr. assured members they were only being informed of its progress, not executing jurisdiction over the sculpture’s approval; that authority belonged to the chancellor. 

Board secretary Mark Lanier read out of the policy manual that the board only had say over capital construction projects and the engineers and architects that build them — or over rights in naming buildings. “This doesn’t rise to that level of authority, where it requires the board of governors or legislative approval,” Lanier added.

Trustee Michael Drummond asked if it was a conversation better suited to a closed session with an attorney. 

“There are only certain items that are permissible for a closed session and this does not fall into any of those categories,” the chairman responded. 

Board members kept referring to “Because It’s Time” as a monument or statue, referencing heated national debates on what’s allowed or has been removed from college campuses or parks across the country in recent years. City council in Charlottesville, Virginia, voted to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee from Virginia’s Market Street Park, after being stormed by white nationalists armed with tiki torches in 2016. UNC Chapel Hill stowed away Silent Sam after protesters pulled it down last year.

“I go and look at other campuses that have torn down more statues than makes sense,” Drummond said. “Because of all these happenings, we’re going to put a statue on our campus that may infuriate other groups, and we end up with the same problem in the reverse.”

“I think we need to be very cautious about how we do this and involve the entire campus — not just one group of people,” he continued. 

Coulter chimed in and asked to respond to the board’s concerns, forthrightly reminding them art will not please all — nor was it her goal to attempt as much. Rather, she said, she was more concerned in remaining true to the project’s parameters, showcasing Black culture with the goal to build inclusion on a campus that wanted it.

“I don’t think it would be fair to say that, in a place with such intrinsic racial history — particularly like Wilmington, where there were people who were indiscriminately killed specifically for the reason of being Black in 1898 — that you have people who would say, ‘OK,’ [to] anything representing any concept of Black lives being valuable or important or mattering — there are just people who wouldn’t cosign that.”

Coulter reminded the board the authority rested with the chancellor, who was pushing the initiative forward. 

“[I]t’s up to the people who have the option to make the decision what part of history everything’s gonna fall on,” she said.

Roseboro added Coulter’s piece would center on a statement that is inclusive: “I Matter.” “And I think every student on this campus would agree that they matter,” she said, “so I cannot believe that that’s an argument that we need to have. It should not be a conflict.”

Board of trustees member Maurice Smith spoke in favor of Coulter’s sculpture. “I like the piece,” he said. “I don’t know that art can be legislated in a democratic way. So if the spirit of what we’re trying to create here is something of value that we all appreciate, then, chancellor, I trust your judgment in making the decision to deploy this art.”

Sartarelli agreed: “I think it encapsulates some of the ideals of hope, in a better world, so to speak for all of us. I think it’s a good thing to do now, but I’m more than willing to have that discussion in closed session — so that we can go deeper or wider or broader or whichever way.”

Dennis Burgard wanted to move on to business as usual but only after assuring the board wouldn’t vote. “To me, the bottom line is kind of simple here: Either the board of trustees is tasked with approving or disapproving this,” he said. “This is an interesting discussion . . . I know I can have my own opinion, but it’s just an opinion right now. Is this something we vote on in any way, shape or form as trustees?”

“My understanding is that the answer to that question, Dennis, is ‘no,’” the chairman repeated.

Wilmington and campus communities gathered at the art unveiling in the campus commons near UNCW’s amphitheater, in front of the Fisher University Union. (Port City Daily/Photo by Jeff Janowski, courtesy of UNCW)

Artivism: Art for Social Change

Coulter creates work that celebrates the Black experience and represents Black voices. A graduate of NC State University — she also studied art at Meredith College — Coulter has had work commissioned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, specifically a portrait of the late Nina Simone. Coulter’s piece helped the organization fund renovations of Simone’s North Carolina childhood home. 

She has done public sculptures — of Black cowboys in Greensboro — and even illustrated a series of children’s books, as appointed by the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, to help teach kids Black history. A Jo Ann Williams Artists Fellow, Coulter often has said her art-making centers on releasing unbridled Black joy that exists in people who have overcome the worst of times. 

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that joy,” UNCW’s arts engagement director Reyes explained. “So much of our history is tied down to a lot of — and for good reason, obviously —  heaviness, with tragedy of death, a lot of blood . . . And I think that Dare [Coulter] was able to bring an honest, authentic approach of where we came from, but also showing, this is where we’re going.”

“Because It’s Time” is part of a series Reyes titled “Artivism.”

UNCW has already hosted a few exhibits. Last year, it put up a virtual show featuring signs local protesters carried in downtown Wilmington streets during Black Lives Matter marches that spawned from the murder of George Floyd. It also featured the Black Lives Matter banners removed from campus buildings.

In spring 2021, Reyes said digital artist and arts department assistant professor Gene Felice installed foam core boards in the Fisher University Center to project video and images representative of Black lives. He specifically took imagery and interviews from the theatre department’s February production “Am I Next?” — written by Black students, talking about the Black experience in Wilmington. 

Coulter’s sculpture is another extension of “Artivism” that Reyes hopes will spark compassion, innovation and creativity. More so, she wants it to inspire talking points, possibly during UNCW ambassador tours or for professors to include in assignments. 

“Let’s talk about this — we know racism exists,” she said. “It’s tearing our community apart, it’s tearing this country apart. Why? If it makes you uncomfortable, it’s worth having a conversation over.”

Reyes said if the sculpture compels even one student to enroll at UNCW, it has done its job.

Dare Coulter puts on finishing touches of “Because It’s Time” ahead of its unveiling on UNCW’s campus. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Rising to resilience

Coulter wielded a paint brush over scraped corners and sides of the 11-foot-by-13-foot metal piece, as she talked about the Wilmington Coup of 1898. The event was central to the “Because It’s Time” proposal, a $41,800 installation budgeted and paid for from “non-state, discretionary trust funds,” according to a UNCW spokesperson. 

Coulter first heard of 1898 from an artist friend, Mike Williams of the Black on Black Project, who then introduced her to the Christopher Everett documentary “Wilmington on Fire. It follows the story of America’s only successful coup d’etat — how white supremacists overthrew a biracial Fusionist-led government in Wilmington by setting fire to the Black newspaper building, The Daily Record, and killing and successfully dislocating Black residents. 

Coulter painted the historical plaque of the Wilmington Coup of 1898 front and center on the sculpture. Toward the bottom, she inked red waves, with arms and hands bobbing out from the river, as Black figures bend down and reach out and save them.  

“They were so focused on this river,” Coulter said, referring to reports she studied of white supremacists’ reactions in 1898. “They threatened to choke the river with bodies — then after, they would brag about how the river was red with blood. So I decided, ‘Oh, they are going to get this river because they were so happy about it.’”

A modern-day child’s portrait is under the coup’s plaque. She holds a sign that was originally slated to be inscribed with the words “I Matter.” Coulter changed it to: “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.”

“I have to paint over it,” she said, while opening a tube of black acrylic.

“I Matter” was in the original proposal UNCW agreed to for the piece.

Flanked on each side of the child, a Black woman and Black man stand with their arms raised, fists closed, acting as pillars that hold up the entire piece. “It’s representative of American structures built on the backs of Black people,” Coulter said.  

Once Coulter learned about the intricacies of 1898 and how its brutality affected so many in her home state, she said she “was mad as hell” — naturally because of the heinous bloodshed but more so because it had been eliminated from history lessons. “It was frustrating because I went to school here, since sixth grade, in Clayton, North Carolina, and I didn’t know anything about it,” Coulter added.

Coulter’s piece inspired a curriculum designed by Janna Siegel Robertson, a UNCW Watson School of Education professor and local artist, to teach students content like 1898 through art and emotional learning. Students from GLOW Academy, DREAMS of Wilmington, as well as other local schools and organizations signed on in spring. 

“Resilience is so vital to my life as an artist and a Black person,” Coulter told students in a video. “Getting back up after being knocked down is a part of life — everyone’s life.” 

Coulter asked students who participated in the curriculum to officially sign their names on a scroll she then installed onto “Because It’s Time.”

Above the scroll, the artist painted faces of protesters from pictures of family and friends as representations of strength and resilience. “That’s Uncle Gary,” she said, pointing to one.

“He danced for Alvin Ailey, and he went to the Million Man March,” Coulter continued. “His generation knows a whole different experience than we do. And that idea of them having access to happiness, I think, for some people, even that concept was not OK.”

Another face features friend Whitney Mero, who runs her own fashion company. Coulter chose Mero to represent Black success and sexuality. 

“Sexuality was wiped, even weaponized for Black people in particular,” Coulter explained, referring to when enslaved Black women were forced to marry not for love, but according to whether they could reproduce strong children to keep the workload going for slave owners. 

“So the fact that Whitney gets to maintain her sexuality, that it is hers, that she owns it, I think that’s really important,” Coulter said.

Coulter calls sexuality the base for a lot of needless racism. She references Emmett Till again — specifically, how 60 years ago during segregation, a Black boy even accused of flirting with a white woman could lead to death. 

“A lot of these fights ended up being white men trying to protect white women, their sexuality, their fragility — they’re the most prized possession,” she said. 

Raleigh-based award-winning sculptor, artist and illustrator Dare Coulter works in her studio on a new artwork that will stand between 11-13 feet tall. The project’s goal is to use artwork as a tool for social change, emphasize awareness about race, identity and the Black experience as well as highlight Wilmington’s history of racial violence. (Port City Daily/Photo courtesy Colt Kirwan)

“We must bear witness”

Coulter’s work is more than a singular vision; it’s a culmination of many efforts people in her life have worked toward achieving — philosophically, emotionally, and laboriously. 

Forty hours alone went into a graphic artist turning Coulter’s drawings into digital files that could be used as stencils to cut out the metal. “There are a lot of strokes in there that are very small, and every one has to be cut by hand,” Coulter explained.

A welder then had to ensure all elements were fastened and sturdy, such as the “mantle” that separates the protesters at the top from the “I Matter” child in the center. A message penned by Elie Wiesel also is on the mantle: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” 

Wiesel read it at the opening of the United States Holocaust Museum in the mid ‘90s. Coulter finds it healing, in that it acknowledges the wrongdoings imparted upon innocent people while imploring those living to continue honoring their plight. 

More so, she said that recognition is indicative of retributions that must be paid to make things right. She points to monuments that honor Jewish people who died in World War I and laws put in place in Germany that “make the display of a swastika illegal” (though, it’s not illegal in art). 

“In a lot of different ways, America hasn’t gone through that acknowledgement process to be able to move forward from slavery,” she said. “Wilmington has a lot to sort through — because we were forced to leave with the threat of violence, and stuff was taken: land, property, lives. The country has to face slavery and institutional racism and lynchings and Jim Crow laws and how it all influenced us today. How people still benefit from it today.”

She points to her friend Dilling’s comment when he agreed to help her with forging “Because It’s Time.” Dilling told her, essentially, when someone has a knee injury, that person likely won’t continue to walk, run and pretend the knee isn’t hurt. The person usually finds out what’s wrong and then moves forward with a plan to fix it.

“Time doesn’t heal wounds, intention does,” Coulter said.

“Because It’s Time” is on permanent display near the amphitheater on UNCW’s campus in front of the Fisher University Union and is open to the public.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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