From the very beginning, the ambitions of Art of the State: Celebrating the Visual Art of North Carolina are clear. Written by Raleigh resident Liza Roberts with photography by Durham photographer Lissa Gotwals and released by UNC Press, the 272-page book offers a sprawling, vital survey of North Carolina art now. As Larry Wheeler, the renowned former director of the North Carolina Museum of Art writes in the forward, “[This is] the first contemporary and comprehensive look at the rich diversity—people, places, and materials—which characterize the art of North Carolina.”
Art of the State is structured by region. Like taking a slow trip down I-40, it starts in the mountains and goes eastward, with dips down to Charlotte and the Sandhills area, summarizing the prevailing trends and characteristics of each region. Western North Carolina focuses on the community around the Penland School of Craft; the Sandhills section displays the region’s internationally recognized craft pottery legacy; and in the Triangle area, the NC Museum of Art, the dynamic museums of local universities, and prominent artists like Beverly McIver and Thomas Sayre are highlighted.
The book itself is impressively designed and rich with captivating images of art that are often paired with profiles of artists and collectors. These cutaway sections—separate from but interspersed with the main text—give the book the feel of a well-curated gallery, with individual pieces hanging on the wall and coalescing around a holistic theme. As Roberts told me over email, her intention with these profiles was to showcase “not only a broad range of art in terms of media, message, technique, and style, but also a broad range of human stories.”
It’s obvious that Roberts did a vast amount of research for the book.
A journalist and the founding editor of WALTER magazine, Roberts notes that for her research, she conducted over 200 interviews, which took over three years to complete. Gotwals’s photographs are a standout addition, documenting the artists and their art with an appreciative, joyful sincerity. Many of the artists are at work in their photographs; seeing the ladders, kilns, stitching needles, and shears reminds the reader of the deep physicality of even the most ethereal pieces of creative labor.
As the Seagrove-based glass artist Sarah Band points out in the book, “Art is just lucky enough to be limitless.” But the support for it is much more bound by tangible concerns. Why has North Carolina cultivated such a community of artistry, one worth celebrating in books and museums? “The state itself fuels this art, with its extraordinary natural beauty, its affordability, and its quality of life,” Roberts writes in the introduction. That might all be true, but that could describe why a biotech firm relocated here as much as a sculptor.
Later on, Roberts hits closer to the distinction when she notes the investments made by community institutions and the ideals committed to by the state. Prominent local institutions—like Greensboro’s GreenHill Center, which exclusively features contemporary art from North Carolina; the North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove that upholds a traditional form of craft making that traces back to the state’s founding; and the influential Light Factory Photo Arts Center in Charlotte that has trained Queen City photographers since 1973 and exhibited the work of Diane Arbus and Sally Mann—serve as a cultural backbone offering forums and vital support networks for local artists.
Although a number of individual collectors are featured, there is also an understated but critical emphasis on the role of public and government leadership. As Roberts writes in the book, the NC Museum of Art was “the only [museum] in the nation built on a collection purchased by the state.” The UNC higher education system, with its MFA degree programs, affiliated museums, and cultural programming, has seeded creative outposts across the state.
While Art of the State is (rightly) laudatory of all of this, what is happening outside its pages could leave a reader forlorn. Could you imagine the North Carolina legislature establishing a conservatory like the UNC School of the Arts today? Does such creative foresight fit within the cruel and cramped vision of so many reactionary Tar Heel leaders?
As a survey of North Carolina’s distinctive contemporary art scene, Art of the State succeeds as a thoughtful visual record of where we are now. The remaining question is the future. The Durham artist Stacy Lynn Waddell is quoted in the book talking about representation, a concept with resonance in artistic expression as much as in aspects of identity: “Who gets to be represented and how? Why is it that representation matters, and who gets to decide that?”
In Art of the State, readers will find a well-researched celebration of this state’s artistic legacy. With that heritage in the rearview mirror, Waddell’s questions take on a larger shape, for artists and art lovers alike.
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