These days, Charlotte’s arts scene is painting an impressive picture. Meet the creative geniuses and innovative players giving this city an artistic edge.
Matt Hooker and Matt Moore
Matt Hooker isn’t shy about taking credit for the fact that more painters in Charlotte are “jumping off the easel” and instead standing on ladders to do their craft thanks to his accidental partnership with “the other Matt.” (That would be Matt Moore.) The Matts were friends for years before they realized they were both artists. About three years ago, they began working together to create the striking murals for which they’re now known.
“We kind of cracked open the Charlotte market, and a lot of people are crawling through the hole now,” says Hooker. “It’s cool for me, personally. I’m from Massachusetts originally and I’m used to a city that already has its cultural markers. I choose to live here for many reasons, but one of the main reasons I stay is that I have a chance to help write the book on the cultural movement in Charlotte.”
The duo has created dozens of murals across the city and recently finished a project transforming all the garage doors out at Camp North End. They recruited painters—from renowned artists to high school and college students—to create murals at the city’s newest hotspot just north of Uptown.
Over the years, they’ve done work for the Bechtler family and at Art Basel in Miami, and the pair still takes the occasional canvas commission. But their focus for the future is on helping people see the world just a little bit differently—if only for the time it takes to pass by one of their creations. “Even if it’s just for a second during a commute, when I see a mural that’s done well, it immediately takes me into that imaginative mindset,” says Hooker. “And that’s what’s happening in the Charlotte art scene right now.”
When it comes to most of her work right now, Melissa Salpietra says, “I’m at the tail end of things.” But thanks to recently being awarded a prestigious fellowship, she’s hoping to change that.
Salpietra moved to Charlotte in 2011, and has worked for years as a video editor and animator, mostly on scientific documentaries that are based in fact. But this spring she was one of four Charlotte artists awarded a 2017 Arts & Science Council Creative Renewal Fellowship. The $10,000 reward is meant to help artists renew themselves creatively.
Thanks to the grant, Salpietra says, “I’m getting out of my comfort zone and doing some screenwriting, coming up with a fictional idea from scratch and I’m hoping at the end of it to have several scripts.”
Salpietra says the film industry in Charlotte was devastated a few years ago when the legislature got rid of tax incentives and much of the work here dried up. “In the wake of that you have an amazing talent pool here, and that’s why the independent film scene here is thriving now.” But, she says, artists still need a steady paycheck. “People are hanging on in Charlotte, but it’s tough.”
She herself is in the midst of editing a short film for a local director and will head to the Malaysian rainforest for more documentary work in October. But she is most excited about what the new doors the ASC grant has opened. “Ideally one of my scripts is turned into a movie,” she says. “That would be a great next step.”
Tyrone Jefferson takes pride in knowing he is one of the few people who ever stood up to legendary musician James Brown. “I got fired a lot,” Jefferson says, laughing. “We had an interesting relationship. I think he enjoyed someone who disagreed with him.”
Jefferson, who was born in Harlem and raised in Charlotte, worked with Brown as his trombone player and band director off and on from 1979 until Brown died in 2006. But get Jefferson talking and you realize that’s not the work of which the 64-year old father of three is most proud. Jefferson is the executive director of A Sign Of The Times of the Carolinas—a nonprofit dedicated to improving Charlotte through cultural productions and educational programs that reflect the heritage of African-Americans.
Back in 1999, he formed a band and created the music the group performs—music that tells a story from the African-American experience and is meant to be both educational and entertaining. “People don’t know their history, and my goal every time we play ‘A Sign of the Times’ is that it will make you want to dance,” Jefferson says. “Maybe it will make you cry but it will also challenge your concept of the world. My goal is to play music that helps people—mostly black people.”
This spring A Sign of the Times partnered with the Charlotte Symphony to present two free community concerts tackling issues of social injustice and bringing people together through music. Now Jefferson says he’s hoping to reach a younger demographic. And he’s getting advice from his daughter: “She told me to bring in a DJ.”
Bruce LaRowe may be only a few months into his stint as the interim CEO at the Mint Museum, but he’s been around the Charlotte arts scene for decades. The 64-year old avid bicyclist moved to the Queen City from New York 34 years ago to work with the Arts & Science Council. “I saw the skyline change and the interstates change,” he says about his three decades in a growing city.
He says the same can be said for the arts scene. “I think the arts scene is exploding with activity, just like the city itself,” says LaRowe. “We have a number of fabulous facilities and great programs, and the arts scene is really diversifying.”
LaRowe should know. After his stint at the ASC, he worked for 20 years as the executive director of the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. During his time there, he partnered with the library to help create ImaginOn, one of the city’s most popular cultural attractions for kids.
The father of two now-grown kids says he plans to spend his time as the interim director at the Mint working to implement the newly approved strategic plan for both of the museums facilities. “We’re going to very much focus on audience feedback and customer engagement,” says LaRowe. “We’ll be looking at audience participation and making sure, moving forward, that we’re serving the broader community at both facilities.”
Photography by Justin Driscoll