Food Feature: Easy-access Uptown art?

You can bank on it in Charlotte

Charlotte's distinctive feature used to be that it had the greatest concentration of textile mills in the Carolinas. Now it is the country's second-largest banking center, and — like Atlanta — a sprawling Sunbelt boom town.
Charlotte seems to be managing its boom a little better than we are. It's been named one of "America's Most Livable Communities," based on commitment to things like regional collaboration and "smart-growth" policies. And — also unlike Atlanta — it has a vibrant, inviting, art-filled downtown.

Just so you won't embarrass yourself when you go, you should know that in Charlotte, they call downtown "Uptown."

You first glimpse Uptown's cluster of towers from far across the rolling piedmont landscape. They express the city's achievement in business, but still have a glassy, generic, slightly forbidding look from a distance.

So it's a surprise to discover how agreeable Uptown is to explore on foot. The streets are intimate in scale, but most of the new skyscrapers have generous public plazas. Their plazas and lobbies serve as showcases for commissioned art, some of it sensationally good. Municipal buildings and arts institutions provide many more venues for the display of visual works. And thoughtful amenities like plantings, benches and fountains further civilize the streetscapes.

In the garden outside the Carillon office tower, for example, there's a lighthearted abstract depiction of plants and flowers in soaring loops of colored aluminum by Jerry Peart. If you've seen his sculpture on Peachtree Street, in front of the Hyatt Regency, you'll recognize this one instantly as from the same hand.

Inside the Carillon lobby, there's a big, ricketing, ticking, splashing, whack-you-on-the-funny-bone kinetic sculpture by Jean Tinguely.

You might see Peart's, Tinguely's and works by some other artists whose pieces are on display in Uptown in any major city. But Charlotte is the rare place where you can view Ben Long's frescoes.

Long, a North Carolina native, is one of the few Americans working in the authentic fresco technique, which he studied in Italy. The artist brushes mineral pigments directly onto a damp lime-plaster wall or ceiling. As the plaster dries, the lime and pigment oxidize, and glow like translucent stone.

Long's pieces are accessibly realistic but deeply symbolic. One is a monumental triptych in the lobby of the Bank of America Corporate Center, "making/building," "chaos/ creativity" and "planning/ knowledge." Another is the whirling, vertiginous mural overhead in the dome of the entry to Transamerica Square. Nobody will think you strange if you feel compelled to lie down on your back and stare up at it.

Two other Long frescoes are in walking distance. Locate them on the Public Art Walking Tour map, available from Charlotte's Arts & Science Council. Alternatively, you can borrow an audio tour CD from the Visit Charlotte welcome center in Uptown. These will lead you to the public library — where Romare Bearden's "Before Dawn," in its original form, a collage, is rendered as a mural in glass mosaic tile — and to a range of other accessible art installations in Uptown.

One of those you may have already been right inside of — if you stashed your car in the parking garage known as Bank of America Seventh Street Station. Christopher Janney's environmental sculpture "Touch My Building" uses glass, neon and paint, as well as sound. Put a hand on one of the colorful fins on the building's facade, and listen up. This interactive piece is engaging in its own right — and also shows what's possible to achieve with an otherwise ugly, utilitarian structure. Atlanta parking deck designers, please take note.

If you are beginning to get the feeling that corporations, in general, and Bank of America, in particular, are the principal hosts of this visual feast, you are not so wrong. It was a Bank of America gift, of a former department store building plus the cost of its renovation, that provided a home for the Mint Museum of Craft + Design.

This Uptown branch of Charlotte's Mint Museum of Art (which is not located in the city center) is dedicated to the work of artist-fabricators who work in the media of clay, fiber, glass, metal and wood. Given that North Carolina is especially rich in both traditional and contemporary crafts, such a facility makes tons of sense for Charlotte. From Sept. 7-April 6, the MMC+D is showing recent additions to its permanent collection.

More Bank of America, anyone? The McColl Center for Visual Art, located in Spirit Square (primarily a performing arts complex) is named for the bank's CEO. The center runs an artist-in-residence program, and mounts exhibitions of their work.

A few blocks away, the Afro-American Cultural Center occupies a beautifully converted former church. Its collection includes works by black Americans such as Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden and John Biggers, as well as African art. From Sept. 6-Nov. 30, the center will host a concurrent theater piece and exhibition, Negras Eros, about the sexuality of women in the African Diaspora (recommended for adults only).

That last experience excepted, Uptown's ambience might come to feel just a bit too squeaky clean and corporate. If so, head to the former mill district now known as "NoDa," or North Davidson. Here, along the street of that name around 35th Street, are galleries, restaurants, theater spaces, shops and bars.

Comedy workshops, poetry readings or loud expressive strangers may be encountered in NoDa nearly any time. But there's art for certain on the first and third Friday evening of each month, when everything is flung wide open for the "gallery crawl" that has become one of Charlotte's most popular events.

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