Well, we have reached another crossroads: old year, new year–and definitely the new millennium this time. But we are, in the United States, at another cross in the road, and we may be stuck there for a while, if the tug-of-war in the long election is any indication.
At the crossroads, you always have to make a decision about how to go on, which is why the cross and the crossroads have been powerful symbols to humans long before the advent of Christianity with its variant use of the cross symbology. Along with other basic forms, such as the spiral and the circle, the two crossed lines appear in the visual language of every culture since the beginning of human mark-making. Those lines point to the four directions, thus encompassing everything, but, unlike the circle, the cross-mark indicates not inclusion but the sometimes painful necessity of choice. To choose is also to exclude. And now as a society we are virtually immobilized by our division into nearly equal and opposing forces. We can shift neither left nor right; we can’t go back; we can’t seem to go forward. Will we die at the crossroads, will we split apart and scatter to the four directions, or will we somehow choose a way to go on?
In the wonderful synchronicitous way that art has of reflecting its time without consciously trying, two recent North Carolina artworks dwell on the crossroads theme. Last year, the Town of Chapel Hill held a competition and commissioned an artwork for its town hall. The artist chosen was Anita Wolfenden, who created the large beautiful wool tapestry that now hangs on a brick wall near the building’s entrance. Wolfenden based the design of Crossroads on a 1792 map by John Daniel, who surveyed the land at the junction of the two main roads traversing the state in the 18th century, so that the first state-supported university in the new nation could be laid out. Wolfenden’s tapestry, executed mostly in subtle shades of blues and greens, shows a hill between two creeks, with the roads forming a large red X across the terrain, and a cluster of buildings around the crossroads.
The village existed before the university, simply because this was a place where the four directions met, yet since 1792, Chapel Hill has formed its identity from its relation to the university. There has always been some conflict between Town and Gown, but each has appreciated the other, like siblings. Now, however, a serious struggle looms. The little village has grown up to have a personality of its own, while the adored brother–the university–has become an overgrown bully. The new chancellor, who has barely been at Carolina for a year, recently made such egregiously arrogant remarks about Chapel Hill’s desire to plan and control growth within its zoning boundaries that we can expect a pitched battle very soon down at the crossroads, where the town’s pride in and love for the university has begun to change to suspicion and distrust. At the time the town commissioned Wolfenden’s tapestry, no one outside the university administration knew that the school–which was whining about not being able to keep up its buildings–was planning a gigantic expansion. But now Wolfenden’s innocently conceived artwork hangs in the center of town like a declaration of precedence and sovereignty–a sort of “Don’t Tread On Me” flag.
A more bizarre and ultimately more frightening confrontation is now taking place at the intersection of erudition and ignorance in Statesville, where two of the 20th century’s major interstate highways cross. Ben Long, one of the few fresco artists anywhere, and one of even fewer North Carolina artists with an international reputation, was asked to paint a fresco for his hometown, in the new Statesville Civic Center. Long based his impressive design on his knowledge of Greek mythology, and drew for his Images at a Crossroads the triple-figured Titan Hecate, guide and guardian of the crossroads. She is associated with other moon goddesses, and so became known as a helper of women. Because she took part in the search for Persephone, Hecate also became identified with the underworld. In more recent times, she has been made into a figure in Wiccan beliefs. In other words, to fundamentalist Christians, Hecate is a symbol of witchcraft. And Long, who is widely known for his fine frescoes in Christian churches, as well as in Charlotte’s temple of money, the Bank of America headquarters, now finds himself at the center of a controversy, accused of dangerously corrupting public morals with his pagan imagery.
Like Wolfenden, Long has gone to the crux of a central conflict in our society. How can we go on from this crossroad? Can we choose the road of knowledge, wisdom, courage, or will we take the fork towards fear, ignorance and barbarity?