Decay + Rebirth in Charlotte: Artist-in-Residence Dustin Farnsworth

By Amy Rogers  

The model of a giant human head, nearly five feet tall and with its face upturned, is dripping with liquid silicone. McColl Center for Art + Innovation artist-in-residence Dustin Farnsworth is pouring and painting the peach-colored goo on his Styrofoam fabrication to create the mold from which he will cast his most massive work to date. 

Farnsworth is well known for his figurative sculptures that often incorporate sophisticated, highly engineered head-gear that pay tribute to industrial architecture and ask the viewer to consider the ways in which it is decaying and placing burdens upon us.

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The artist came to his residency at McColl Center (which was supported in partnership with the Windgate Foundation) in January with a plan to create a work that would reflect upon Charlotte's history and architecture. It was only after he arrived that he witnessed how much of the city’s built environment had been lost, razed in redevelopment efforts. 

Now he is modifying his design to reflect that realization. Rather than directly evoking elements of Charlotte's rapidly disappearing structures, Farnsworth plans to vastly truncate the previously planned head-piece that is so emblematic of his work, and make a different type of statement instead.

He explains the fabrication process: “I carved a small maquette first, just as a ‘road map,’ sliced up the maquette into two-inch pieces, and projected them onto [large] foam pieces, then cut all those and shaped the pieces.” 

Dustin Farnsworth’s maquette (Photo by Amy Rogers for McColl Center for Art + Innovation)

With several more layers the mold will be complete. Farnsworth will cast the figure in resin, then paint and embellish it. But this time, he says, “There won’t be a head-dress, due in part to all the gentrification in town.” Expect “ash, detritus, and rust,” to appear as signifiers.  

While Farnsworth works, 287 mask-like heads seem to peer down from the wall of his work space. Arranged in rhythmic rows against bands of brightly-colored paint, their collective gaze produces an effect that is eerie yet still somehow inviting.  

Dustin Farnsworth at work in his studio at McColl Center for Art + Innovation

Representing a new component of this narrative that looks forward to a future that will unfold rather than to a past that has elapsed, Farnsworth is adding vocal elements to the work-in-progress. 

In a small studio at McColl Center, he prompts visiting school groups to articulate their hopes and fears, and as children whisper into a standing microphone, Farnsworth records their anonymous voices. These will be played back when the completed work is installed. The process requires finesse. 

“They get nervous,” he explains. “The younger kids are sometimes less inhibited than the older high-schoolers. It’s interesting to see.” Several dozen recordings have been made and more are being added.

Dustin Farnsworth applies liquid silicone to his Styrofoam fabrication (Photo by Amy Rogers for McColl Center for Art + Innovation)

Farnsworth’s tenure at McColl was extended through May, and the extra time proved doubly helpful, since the artist just recently became a father of twins and has had to split his time between work and family. 

It seems that even for those whose art explores our relationship with decay, there is rebirth. The same could truthfully be said about this city, Charlotte itself.

Amy Rogers is a Charlotte-based journalist who writes about arts, culture, and history for many media outlets.