“The Art of the State” offers a vital and sprawling survey of North Carolina’s rich artistic heritage


Lisa Roberts: Art of the State: Celebrating North Carolina’s Visual Art | University of North Carolina Press; November 2022

From the start, the ambitions of Art of the State: Celebrating North Carolina’s Visual Art are clear. Written by Raleigh resident Liza Roberts, with photographs by Durham photographer Lissa Gotwals and published by UNC Press, the 272-page book offers a sprawling and vital survey of current North Carolina art. As Larry Wheeler, the renowned former director of the North Carolina Museum of Art writes in the foreword, “[This is] the first contemporary and comprehensive look at the rich diversity – people, places, and materials – that characterizes North Carolina art.

state art is organized by region. Like taking a slow trip down I-40, it starts in the mountains and heads east, with dips all the way 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 showcases the region’s internationally recognized handcrafted pottery heritage; and in the Triangle area, the NC Museum of Art, vibrant local college museums, and prominent artists like Beverly McIver and Thomas Sayre are highlighted.

The book itself is impressively designed and rich in captivating art images that are often associated with artist and collector profiles. These cutaway sections—separate but interspersed with the main text—give the book the feel of a well-organized gallery, with individual pieces hanging on the wall and coalescing around a holistic theme. As Roberts told me via email, his intention with these profiles was to showcase “not only a wide range of art in terms of media, message, technique and style, but also a wide range of human stories”.

It is obvious that Roberts did a great deal of research for the book.

Journalist and founding editor of WALTER magazine, Roberts notes that for her research, she conducted more than 200 interviews, which spanned more than three years. Gotwals’ photographs are a remarkable addition, documenting the artists and their art with grateful and joyful sincerity. Many artists are at work in their photographs; seeing ladders, ovens, sewing needles and shears reminds the reader of the deep physics of even the most ethereal pieces of creative labor.

As Seagrove-based glass artist Sarah Band points out in the book, “art is just blessed with limitlessness.” But his support is much more tied to tangible concerns. Why has North Carolina cultivated such an artistic community, worth celebrating in books and museums? “The state itself fuels this art, with its extraordinary natural beauty, affordability and quality of life,” Roberts writes in the introduction. This may all be true, but it could explain why a biotech company moved here as much as a sculptor.

Later, Roberts comes closer to the distinction when she notes the investments made by community institutions and the ideals to which the state is committed. Prominent local institutions, such as the GreenHill Center in Greensboro, which exclusively presents contemporary art from North Carolina; the North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove which maintains a traditional form of craft making that dates back to the founding of the state; and the influential Light Factory Photo Arts Center in Charlotte, which has trained Queen City photographers since 1973 and exhibited the work of Diane Arbus and Sally Mann, serves as a cultural backbone providing vital forums and support networks for local artists.

Although a number of individual collectors are featured, there is also a quiet but essential focus on the role of public and governmental 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. UNC’s higher education system, with its MFA degree programs, affiliated museums, and cultural programming, has seeded creative outposts throughout the state.

Whereas state art is (rightly) complimentary of it all, what happens outside of its pages might leave a reader in despair. Could you imagine the North Carolina legislature establishing a conservatory like the UNC School of the Arts today? Does such creative foresight fit into the cruel and cramped vision of so many reactionary Tar Heel leaders?

As a survey of North Carolina’s distinctive contemporary art scene, state art succeeds as a thoughtful visual record of where we are now. The remaining question is the future. Durham artist Stacy Lynn Waddell is quoted in the book as talking about representation, a concept that resonates in artistic expression as well as aspects of identity: “Who can be represented and how? Why is representation important, and who decides that? »

In state art, readers will find a well-researched celebration of this state’s artistic heritage. With this legacy in the rearview mirror, Waddell’s questions take on a broader form, for artists and art lovers alike.

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