Transforming Our Community with Art: Affiliate Artist Scott Gardner

By Elizabeth Delaney

Scott Gardner wraps up his nine-month residency here at McColl Center for Art + Innovation in May, leaving a legacy of empathy, and underscoring the power of art to unify and exact change in the broader community. 

His social justice project, About Face Charlotte, pulls back the curtain on impoverished and marginalized populations throughout the city, exposing an existence filled with peril, but also rife with hope and humanity. To do this, Gardner combines fine art and storytelling with opportunities for civic engagement, to “inspire, create connections, and get people involved.” 

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“Give what you’re good at,” says Gardner, who worked for years as a documentary cinematographer before realizing that he wanted to contribute more to society. He soon found the vehicle in his art.

The fine art component of Gardner’s project consists of large-scale, black-and-white photographs featuring impoverished and/or disenfranchised Charlotteans. The striking, poignant portraits personalize the struggles many face with homelessness, addiction, and mental health. 

Scott Gardner at work in his studio at McColl Center for Art + Innovation

At the same time, the works remind viewers that we’re all part of the human condition. They invite us to recognize need, and to make changes as individuals that, in turn, might improve conditions across the board. The 40” x 60” prints capture the unique beauty and charisma of each subject, but perhaps more than that, they restore dignity to those who have routinely been written off and forgotten. With only a soft white background, the images are absent of geographic or social reference. 

“They celebrate people,” says Gardner, who also took time to interview and record the stories of his subjects in their own voices. He fervently believes that if people learn about and listen to each other, they will inevitably act with more compassion.

McColl Center has served as a launch pad for the About Face Charlotte movement, providing Gardner with physical as well as mental space to conceive and execute his work. It has allowed him to work not only in the middle of, but also as part of, the community—to fully and freely invest his talent, time, and drive. 

Likewise, he has formed valuable collegial relationships within the walls of his studio. Support from fellow artists in residence such as Rebecca Kamen buoyed Gardner throughout his McColl Center tenure, providing a constant reminder of his core belief that art has a duty “to uplift humanity, to make people realize the miracle within, and inspire them to live full and generous lives.”

Scott Gardner assembling Blessing Boxes in his studio at McColl Center for Art + Innovation

The community-based facet of Gardner’s residency, the Blessing Box Campaign, is the manifestation of Gardner’s call to action. He and his team distributed 2,500 small cardboard boxes, mostly from his studio at McColl Center. Each box contained 100 strips of brightly colored paper on which to record acts of kindness performed by the recipients. Once returned, the filled boxes and their contents will be used to construct a “wall of compassion” measuring about 40 feet in length and boasting a graphic that reads Love Your Neighbor. As Gardner describes it, the assemblage will become a “physical representation of the commitment we have within our community to engage with and eradicate poverty and injustice in our town.” 

Gardner will display his photographs and the Blessing Boxes in local public spaces, including an April 27th installation at Grace AME Zion church, and another on June 9th at Romare Bearden Park. After the installations, the strips of paper will be part of a collaboration between artists and citizens to make a new work of art. In this manner, the Blessing Box contents can exist in perpetuity as a reminder of Charlotte’s capacity for good.

About Face Charlotte is already making a positive impact in the community. Some have been inspired to donate or volunteer at social agencies. Still others have invited Gardner and his colleagues to present their work to various groups. In addition, eight other cities have expressed interest in mounting their own Blessing Box campaigns. Gardner plans to continue About Face Charlotte, eventually growing his fledgling movement into a self-sustaining organization.