Public art commission extends deadline for city portrait

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Kelly Bennett (right), project planner for Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, speaks with members of the public art commission. (photo by Jordan Green)

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Public Art Commission is extending the deadline on applications for an ambitious project to create collective portrait of Winston-Salem.

The call to artists to create an ambitious photographic portrayal of the varied communities that make up Winston-Salem paints a picture of an overall appealing city, albeit one with some conspicuous blemishes.

“Downtown Winston-Salem is resurgent with condos, restaurants, breweries and the best examples of a creative economy,” the request for qualification states. “Yet, despite our community’s efforts, the transition from industrial to postindustrial city has not ended the problems of segregation, inequality and poverty.”

David Finn, a sculptor and professor at Wake Forest University who chairs the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Public Art Commission, said the project creates a challenge of representation.

“If you’re making a portrait of me, you’re going to show not just the idealized version of me,” he said. “I want you to portray the way I am. We call it realism. We put ‘portrait’ in quotations.”

The Public Art Commission voted unanimously to extend the deadline for applications by at least 30 days during its meeting on Tuesday. To date, the commission has received seven applications — significantly below expectations — and commissioners speculated that a crush of grant deadlines before Christmas may have depressed participation.

The request for qualifications describes the project as “a photographic portrayal of our community: a portrait made of our many faces, displayed where we come together and where we’re divided.”

Finn said the project should explore the intersections of neighborhoods and different kinds of communities. Teams may include artists from a range of disciplines including visual arts, performing arts and urban design, with a suggestion that teams might leverage the expertise of architects, community organizers and entrepreneurs.

Following the selection of an artist team, the project timeline calls for planning from the spring to fall, and then production from the winter to spring of 2019, with a public rollout in the summer of 2019.

The budget for the project is $200,000, with $60,000 designated for artist fees. The project also calls for a local coordinator to be hired with the lead artist’s approval.

The public arts commission has been in place for about 18 months, and has overseen about two projects per year, said Project Planner Kelly Bennett, the city-county employee assigned to work with the commission.

At its meeting on Tuesday the commission also approved a commissioned portrait of the late Larry Leon Hamlin, the celebrated actor, director and playwright who founded the National Black Theatre Festival, to be displayed in the Benton Convention Center, and reviewed applications from four semifinalists to paint a mural on a water tank on the south side of Winston-Salem.

The commission voted to hire New Orleans painter Aron Belka to paint Hamlin’s portrait, with members expressing admiration for the arresting quality of his work. There was one dissenting vote.

Harry Knabb of Art For Art’s Sake argued for Owens Daniels, a photographer based in Winston-Salem.

“This is city and county tax money,” Knabb said, “and I think we should exhaust every Winston-Salem/Forsyth County regional artist before we go out of state, number one. Number two, Owens Daniels knows the National Black Theatre Festival; he’s covered it. He’s taken tons of photographs. He knew Larry. He knew the flow and the energy of what’s going on and I think we’ll get much more bang for our buck if we have somebody who’s familiar with the festival, that’s been there, that’s been a part of the community.”

Endia Beal, a nationally renowned photographer who serves as director of the Diggs Gallery on the campus of Winston-Salem State University, noted that Larry Leon Hamlin’s widow, Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, expressed a preference for Belka.

“I think if Sylvia liked Belka, then we should go with the person she liked,” Beal said. “It’s her husband, it’s his memory.” Other members said they thought it was appropriate to hire an artist from outside of Winston-Salem considering that the theater festival draws a national audience.

Knabb said he was “digging my heels in for future fights” with his dissenting vote.

“There’s gonna be a constant tension from now until doomsday,” Finn said. “There’s always gonna be that tension between local artists and people that are coming in from outside. It’s something we’re always going to have to be thinking about, if not negotiating. But thank you for sticking to your guns.”

Later the discussion turned to applying for grant funding to train local artists to market themselves and effectively apply for public art projects.

“What I want to tell artists who are local, Harry, is it’s not like you should have to do things here,” said Finn, who was commissioned to create a mobile at the Benjamin Branch Library in Greensboro. “There’s a town called Greensboro that’s only 20 minutes away that does a lot more public art than we do. You should be applying for stuff there and everywhere else, too.”

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