When Neighbor is a Verb

By Lisa Rubenson

The chipped, white concrete wall that forms a right angle at the corner of Charlotte’s North Tryon Street and Phifer Avenue has been an unofficial gathering place for neighbors experiencing homelessness for years. People go there for many reasons—to be close to outreach services, to connect with others, to rest. If you live in Charlotte, you’ve gone by it a hundred times, maybe wondering what was “going on over there,” as surely as those sitting on the wall were wondering the same about you.

Across the street, on the front lawn of McColl Center for Art + Innovation, there’s a new wall made of freshly cut plywood wrapped in colorful, weather-resistant parachute cloth. It sits on a 23’ by 4’ frame with four, double-sided, rectangular panels arranged left-right-left-right, accordion style. Hand-painted flowers in shades of red and green share space with bright vertical stripes and oversized prints of hand-written poems about what it means to be homeless, but not without hope.


Marion Wilson's Greening the Redline, north side view, on the front lawn at McColl Center for Art + Innovation

The second wall, inspired by the first, is the result of a 2018 public art project led by two-time McColl Center artist-in-residence, Marion Wilson. Marion and her team of neighbors from the Urban Ministry Center’s ArtWorks 945 art studio created the wall at the invitation of McColl Center leadership, after the original proposal to paint the wall at North Tryon and Phifer was rejected by the county. 

The McColl Center wall, titled Greening the Redline, will be officially introduced to the public on June 7, 2018. 

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In early 2018, Marion Wilson left Philadelphia for Charlotte to begin her second residency at McColl Center for Art + Innovation, bringing along her paintbrushes, paints, and a fresh supply of creative ideas for putting them to good use. 

Formally trained as a painter, Marion now considers herself an environmental artist. Her highly regarded, site-specific installations and community-centric projects are designed to connect people to each other and to their surroundings. 

She describes the collaborative nature of her art as a kind of “social sculpture” that allows her to “look at what it means to be human.” She’s interested in micro-environments and the proximal relationships formed when disparate groups share space. She even turns the noun “neighbor” into the friendlier, action-packed verb “neighboring,” to describe what happens when people work together to solve common problems.

Marion was returning to McColl Center to build on the work she did in her 2016 residency, which included community outreach via a mobile ecology lab and a research collaboration with the Urban Ministry Center. There, Marion had engaged a group of Charlotte neighbors experiencing homelessness to discuss issues of economic disparity, such as the impact of urban development on their daily lives and on the environment. 


Marion Wilson (left) meets with neighbors during her 2016 artist residency at McColl Center for Art + Innovation

They also talked about historic barriers to social mobility, such as the practice of redlining, wherein banks used to refuse loans to people in certain zip codes. Marion had the idea to plant colorful, overlooked plant species, such as crimson and clover, along the old redline boundaries. While the project was cost-prohibitive at the time, she hoped to return to Charlotte and revisit the idea of “greening the redline,” in the future. 

A year-and-a-half later, she was invited to return to McColl Center for a second residency that would once again pair Marion with neighbors at the Urban Ministry Center. This time, her residency would be funded by part of a grant awarded to McColl Center by ArtPlace America for an initiative called “A Tale of Two Cities: McColl Center + The North Tryon Corridor.” The grant-funded initiative challenged artists to do what Marion had already begun in Charlotte: address how rapid urban development was affecting the most vulnerable populations. 

Marion shifted her attention from planting to painting. Though she had spent most of her career engaged in other kinds of art, painting only in private for her own pleasure, she wanted to return to the medium and discover how she could use it in some yet-to-be-determined act of creative placemaking.  

“I knew I wanted to work at the ArtWorks 945 studio,” says Marion. “It’s a phenomenal space where neighbors can come in several times a week to work on their art practice.” Marion started with a series of clinics—some focused on drawing, others on painting basics and color mixing.  

“Instead of fronting the experience of being homeless,” she says, “I wanted to focus on something creative that the neighbors could incorporate into their existing studio practices. Art is work, work gives us purpose, and work can help us forget our difficulties. We bonded on that front, as fellow artists.” 

After a few weeks of talking to the neighbors about their experiences, Marion suggested they work on a public art project—something permanent that others could enjoy. The neighbors had often talked about the concrete wall at North Tryon and Phifer as a kind of hub, and she had remembered it from her first visit to McColl Center. Why not see if they could paint the wall, and give it a new life? 

Marion sent the proposal to the county. While she waited for a response, she continued teaching, painting, and trying to build trust with the neighbors.


Neighbors from ArtWorks 945 at work on the panels for Greening the Redline

Danielle Arthur was a program director at ArtWorks 945 at the time and knew how important it would be for Marion to approach people in just the right way about a collaboration.

“Homelessness can represent a range of situations,” she says. “Marion was intent on meeting neighbors right where they were. Everyone had a chance to consider the same question: What is our place in the community?” 

The county decided against the project, citing concerns about highlighting the wall as a go-to space. Marion didn’t miss a beat and moved on to the next idea: build a new wall with their own original art and writings created in the ArtWorks 945 studio. Noting that people experiencing homelessness are most often on the receiving end of assistance, Marion says she liked the idea of turning things around.

“Some of the people who used that wall on the corner would now have a role in creating a new place, to make choices about what would happen there.” 

Marion credits McColl Center’s new president and CEO, Alli Celebron-Brown, for stepping in and offering the space on the front lawn for the installation. Marion was able to hire five neighbors to help bring the project to fruition and, after three weeks of long hours and short fuses, the wall was finished.


Marion Wilson's Greening the Redline, south side view, on the front lawn at McColl Center for Art + Innovation

“It’s still about the wall on Phifer,” says Marion. “They’ll always be connected.”

When asked if there’s a third social sculpture on Charlotte’s horizon, Marion doesn’t rule it out. She says she was struck by the resilience of the neighbors she met at ArtWorks 945—especially in terms of their dedication to their studio practices.

“Even in the midst of housing insecurity, art remained a passion and priority for them,” she says. “I had started photographing some of their artistic practices, and I’d love to return and go deeper with that, maybe help them enter the art world of Charlotte and beyond.”

Given that the new wall is just steps away from McColl Center’s front door, a threshold many of these neighbor-artists crossed several times a day en route to Marion’s studio, the path is already clear. 

Marion Wilson’s residency is part of “A Tale of Two Cities,” an initiative that seeks to elevate the voices of our neighbors experiencing homelessness in the North Tryon planning and development process. The initiative is generously supported by ArtPlace America and National Endowment for the Arts.