WILMINGTON — Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a time to commemorate the instrumental civil rights leader and all he stood for — to reflect on how far-reaching his messages on equality have gone and how much further they need to extend.
In recent years, especially at the peak of 2020’s George Floyd protests, murals and installations across cities began popping up. They were created to draw attention to the nation’s harrowing events of the past and its hopeful prospect of the future.
On this third Monday of January, dive into the history of our area often overlooked, such as that of the U.S. Color Troops who marched for their own freedoms during the Civil War. The installation by Stephen Hayes is on view at the Cameron Art Museum.
There are also multiple pieces referencing the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, such as Dare Coulter’s “Because It’s Time,” as memorialized on UNCW’s campus.
Artists have found new inspiration to create and new spaces that welcome their messages. The socially impactful works on display have a lot in common: None came easy and none are safe. Yet, they provide powerful moments of rumination.
In no particular order, here are six works of art to visit on MLK Day.
Artist: Nathan Ryan Verwey, otherwise known as The Revolution Awaits. His work can also be seen outside The Hive, Axes and Allies, and Tacobaby.
Location: North 8th and Princess streets, next to the historic Giblem Lodge
Nathan Ryan Verwey has always admired Dr. King as a speaker and a leader. So when he was approached about completing a mural linked to the Black Lives Matter movement, he created the electrifying portrait that honors King.
Verwey had done muralist work for the building owners in the past. They originally wanted a larger piece across the adjoining wall. As a white man, Verwey declined, preferring to reserve that space for an artist of color who he believed should have a larger say in the conversation. He was willing to incorporate a smaller piece that stands in solidarity, however.
“I was always drawn to his speech and his power and how he uplifted people and that positive message,” Verwey said. “In my own work and my social media presence, I always try — as hard as it gets sometimes — to be positive about situations.”
Verwey also particularly appreciates King’s controversial speeches in opposition to the Vietnam War and how he didn’t back down when criticized for speaking outside the box.
The mural along Princess Street reflects Verwey’s style with a bright palette and competing but complementary shapes and lines. The electric colors match who King was as a person, Verwey believes.
A crown floats above the martyr’s head, with paint dripping from its base.
Verwey spent three days in September working on the wall, first washing it, then “buffing” it with the light pink base, sketching his vision on the bricks and filling it in with paint.
“I did it so that people would think about what was going on and they have a face to that situation,” Verwey said. “And I hope it brightens their day.”
Artist: Jason Lee Parker, also Tinker Bird Creative, well-known for murals that have been installed as part of the Carolina Beach Mural Project, including “Carolina Dreamin’” across the side of Crush & Grind
Location: 511 Castle St.
In the summer of 2020, artists around Jason Lee Parker were putting up works related to Black Lives Matter. Parker wanted to send a distinct message, one that not only promoted the movement but defended it.
“We actually need to make steps to not just say it matters but to actually stop the path that we’re down,” Parker said.
He pitched his idea around the Castle Street arts community, eventually coming across a property owner who happened to have a similar taste for a mural tackling social issues.
Parker spray painted his mural on Independence Day, still in the early days of the pandemic and at the height of the BLM movement. The end result is a Black female healthcare worker, wearing a scrub top and a mask. Her eyes are tired. Her lower hand is clenched in a fist. The other is raised in the air.
Pink azalea blossoms float in the background. Dainty and reminiscent of the city’s popular annual festival, the flowers are also falling in a similar fashion to the ashes of a fire.
Just blocks from the mural is where the home of Wilmington’s Black-owned newspaper The Daily Record once stood. It was burnt down during the massacre of 1898.
“Whenever someone sees something over and over again, it kind of gets lost in the noise. I hope that maybe those people that are looking over Black Lives Matter murals might actually see ‘Defend,’ and it might slightly change the way that they look at the movement,” Parker said. “I want people to think about responsibility. What is it that I should do to make our society better?”
“History Happens Now”
Location: Across from 1898 Memorial Park, 1018 N. 3rd St.
For a long time, Wilmington’s violent racial history was buried. The 1898 Memorial Park opened in 2008, only after the events of Nov. 10, 1898 started being widely acknowledged. That day, white supremacists with the Democratic Party overthrew the local Wilmington government, then led by an unofficial Fusionist party of Republicans and Populists, made up of both Black businessmen and white allies. Historians have called the massacre the only successful coup in U.S. history.
1018 N. 3rd St. now serves as a place to remember the people who were brutally killed and dislocated from town because of the massacre — but more so reflect on the ripple effects it had on Wilmington and southeastern N.C.
Across the way from the 1898 Memorial Park, an eye-catching palette — with bold lines and silhouettes of bright blue, pink, purple and red — presents a reminder to think about the present as well.
It declares: “History Happens Now.”
“The choices we make to impact the present tell us who we are as individuals,” artist Brianna Mellot said. “As a group, we wanted individuals to feel empowered to make history, and — perhaps — to create a kinder world.”
Brianna Mellott, a teaching assistant at DREAMS, worked on the project alongside her colleague Heather Divoky and a group of 14- to 17-year-old students in the program.
In the summer of 2020, when protestors were marching the streets of downtown Wilmington, Kevin Rhodes, the former co-owner of Palate, approached DREAMS about putting up a mural on a vacant lot he owned nearby.
He gave them plywood sheathing and the freedom to create whatever they wanted.
In a gathering at the memorial in August, the teaching assistants and students brainstormed the concept. The discussion evolved into a conversation about how street art is viewed in the context of its surroundings, Mellott said.
“We talked about the history of 1898 and Wilmington’s piece of the larger struggle for civil rights, and arrived at an understanding that we — today in this moment — make history with every action we take or don’t take,” Mellott said. “Our history was someone else’s present moment.”
During a sketching session, the iconography of the project was chosen based on a student’s design. The group then met every other week to paint, tracing projected shadows to produce the silhouettes and consider messages sketched onto the protestors’ masks.
Originally intended to be temporary, the piece finished on Aug. 29, 2020, and has been up ever since, despite Mellott’s fears of vandalism.
“Two years down the line, I’m always happy to see that it is still there,” Mellott said.
“Because It’s Time”
Artist: Dare Coulter, sculptor and artist who spent the latter part of her life in and around Raleigh
Location: UNCW offers free visitor parking in Lot M (just off Riegel Road, adjacent to Price Drive) and visitors can walk toward Campus Commons to see the structure is located alongside a pond.
On a campus that in the past has not been seen as diverse, a sculpture was erected this past Juneteenth that showcases Black culture and history.
Some members of the college’s board of trustees responded hesitantly to the concept, but it did not require their approval.
Commissioned for the project, Dare Coulter created the piece over six months, collecting input from students and the community to develop the concept. Her drawings were converted into digital files, then used as stencils to cut out metal to be welded to the piece.
Weighing 1,996 pounds and standing 13-feet tall, the permanent display is made out of bulletproof metal. It’s the same material as the historic markers along Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River, where 14-year-old Emmett Till’s body was retrieved in 1955.
Viewers will take notice of the connections to 2020 protests upon closer inspection, as a Black woman and man on each side act like pillars to the piece, representative of “American structures built on the backs of Black people,” the artist explained to Port City Daily over the summer.
There are multiple references to the 1898 coup d’etat, such as the historical plaque and red waves of the Cape Fear River, where bodies were thrown. The white supremacists who organized the massacre were proud of the blood in the water, according to Coulter’s research. Figures are reaching out to save the arms and hands coming up from waves.
A scroll fastened to the sculpture possesses signatures of students from GLOW Academy, DREAMS of Wilmington and others who participated in a class that, through art and emotional learning, taught about 1898 — an event Coulter and many others say was skipped over in their schooling.
A child under the historic plaque bears a sign. When first installed, it read: “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.” The artist painted over it with black acrylic ahead of the unveiling.
“I Matter” was the statement UNCW agreed to.
Artist: Stephen Hayes, a Durham-based sculptor and Duke University professor with a focus on social and economic themes
Location: Cameron Art Museum, 3201 S 17th St.
Within the wooded area beside the Cameron Art Museum parking lot, three rows of three men march. One flag bearer and a drummer lead. These men are still and their bodies are bronze but once, over a century ago, humans stood in their place.
Historically overlooked, the US Colored Troops are honored in “Boundless.” The 2,500-pound and 16-by-7.5-by-3 feet sculpture went up in the fall of 2021, only months after other monuments in Wilmington that celebrated the Confederacy were coming down.
“Boundless” tells the story of how in 1865, after the fall of Fort Fisher, around 1,600 Black soldiers trekked 17 miles to land that today is situated beside the Cameron Art Museum. In the Battle of Forks Road, the USCT won against the Confederates in fighting for their freedoms. The victors took control over the port city, a noteworthy step toward the end of the Civil War.
Hayes spent two years bringing his structure to life. He molded faces of African American men with ties to the history — descendants, re-enactors and military veterans — and referred to historians and others to help recreate the authenticity of every man’s uniform. The work was initially carved out of plaster, fabric and wood, before it went into a wax mold and was then cast in $325,000 worth of bronze.
Looking face-to-face with the men, spectators will be able to take note of the details: the folds and creases in the clothes depicting movement, the items they carry, and the names inscribed along the side of the 1,820 men who fought in the battle.
Inside CAM, Hayes also has on exhibit, “Voices of the Future’s Past,” opwn through March. It features more than 300 sculptures and mixed-media designs, including “Cash Crop!” which represent the 15 million slaves that crossed the Atlantic to be used as commodities.
Also on display Monday, Jan. 17, as part of CAM’s celebration of MLK Day will be community-created “I Have a Dream” Peace Flags. The flags encourage participants to consider their own hopes and dreams, as well as desires and wishes for their cities and nations, as well as globally. The flags, inspired by Tibetan prayer flags, will be installed around the pond on CAM’s property (see last year’s installation here).
“Black Lives Do Matter”
Artist: Eighteen forward, a collaboration of Wilmington artists directed by GLOW Academy teacher Greyson Davis and UNCW professor Janna Roberston
Location: Jervay Memorial Park, off Parsley Street
Despite its controversial approval in 2020, the “Black Lives Do Matter: End Racism Now” display is standing for another year. Over the fall, city council extended the installation’s life through September 2022.
In 2020 local artists wanted to join a worldwide wave of painting “Black Lives Matter” across streets protestors had marched in solidarity to speak out against police brutality. To receive approval from the city, the idea was changed to a display that could be easily dismantled, and the message was morphed to include the word “do” to separate it from the national BLM organization.
The 18 metal letters, each measuring 4-feet-by-8-feet, were individually designed by one local artist or group. Viewers may recognize local artist styles, like Tiffany “Nugget” Machler’s spray-paint technique and Davis’ (Happy Fangs) recognizable toothy smile. Students at GLOW Academy, DREAMS and Rachel Freeman School of Engineering also participated in the work.
The work includes depictions of Bell Hooks and Trayvon Martin and references Wilmington’s history, with nods to Minnie Evans and The Daily Record. Spelled out on an oversized yellow traffic sign, the message “End Racism Now” accompanies the letters.
Upon closer inspection, there is even an image of Dr. King.
All photos by Alexandria Sands Williams. Work by artists.
Shea Carver contributed to this report.
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