Zoë Charlton: Exploratory Time

by Elizabeth L. Delaney

A sense of self, of belonging, of the ancestral foundations that preceded us, all contribute to how we develop as individuals. They form the facets of identity that ground us. Likewise, they anchor the recent work of McColl Center for Art + Innovation artist-in-residence Zoë Charlton (2017).

During the three months already spent in her Uptown Charlotte studio at McColl Center, Charlton has utilized the dedicated time and space to delve deeply into the culturally motivated thoughts and subsequent creative realizations that constantly percolate in her head. 

Currently associate professor and chair of the art department at American University, Charlton welcomed the opportunity to add a McColl Center artist residency to her professional repertoire. During her stint, she has profoundly valued what she refers to as “exploratory time,” which allows her to conceive and flesh out new ideas and processes. 

Charlton’s studio swells with energy and activity, and she can be found working on at least three different series at any given time. Cut-out photographs and other images pepper the walls and floor to map out fledgling ideas, while wet plaster casts referencing historical African masks rest on a table to dry. Larger-than-life graphite drawings line the walls, elegant yet edgy depictions of African American women.

Zoë Charlton at work in her studio at McColl Center, October 2017. Photo by Chris Edwards for McColl Center for Art + Innovation.

Charlton likes working with people, and employs live models for her figure studies. One of her Charlotte-based series consists of large-scale drawings featuring female African American bodybuilders. 

For Charlton, bodybuilders embody a convergence of strength, confidence, and beauty not often represented in popular culture and the media. They challenge cultural norms and expectations to reveal more complex concepts than what stereotypes suggest about power and femininity, within the African American community, in particular. 

Proudly looking out over the room, the figures are powerful and feminine—poised and coiffed, but not overtly sexualized. With these drawings, Charlton asks us to consider what the terms “masculine” and “feminine” really mean.

Zoë Charlton at work in her studio at McColl Center, October 2017. Photo by Chris Edwards for McColl Center for Art + Innovation.

Another new series features large figurative drawings of African American women wearing ancestral masks from the Loma, Bembe, and Fang cultures. Charlton refers to these drawings as “abstractions of identity,” as the masks allow subjects to obscure their own faces and try on an alternate character—to adopt a persona directly related to ancestry and experience the world through a different lens.

These subjects reflect notions of the African American everywoman, looking to and reconciling a stolen and convoluted collective past to secure an individual foothold in contemporary culture. The masks let each woman experience aspects of her primitive identity, while also shedding layers of characterizations imposed by society and self. 

“It’s a complicated way of understanding yourself,” says Charlton, who has researched her own genealogy to connect with her ancestry, and to dissect the many threads that weave together her own identity.

Ultimately, Charlton’s time at McColl Center has provided her with the fulfillment and pure joy of just making art. 

Moreover, it has given her a platform to inspire reflection and continue the dialogue about gender and race in a society that often marginalizes populations based on stereotypes.