Jonny Fung | A Thinker in the World of Music

Jonny Fung. Photo property of Sol Fusion BandBy Miranda Stryker

“I’m only getting one record, but definitely no more than three,” says Jonny Fung, beaming at the gospel and R&B vinyl section at Manifest Discs.  Holding up a Jesse Johnson record, he exclaims,  “Oh man, do you know who this is? This is D’Angelo’s guitarist right now. I opened for them in Aruba with Anthony [Hamilton]! It was so sick, I gotta get this!”

Charlotte-raised Fung has evolved from playing local venues and bars with friends as a youngun’ of the local rock scene to becoming a well-rounded, full-time professional musician. Fung is now recording with Grammy-winning producer Cedric Thompson, touring with neo-soul artists Tamia and Anthony Hamilton, and making his own way in the R&B and gospel world.  Lately he has been prepping for an upcoming live recording with gospel artist John P. Kee as well as headlining Charlotte’s uptown New Years Eve celebration, First Night, with the band Sol Fusion.

But Fung has never been your typical “artist,” and his path has been one of passion and dedication, one that’s been full of surprises.

Growing up, Fung was a short, skinny nerd who was socially awkward.  He was a good student and had friends but was an introvert by nature.  Generally, he just felt more comfortable keeping to himself—off stage, that is.  At Providence High School, he played a lot of heavy, progressive rock because that’s what he liked.  To add to his role as the shy, smart dude that shreds heavy metal guitar, “I had longer hair than anyone! It literally touched my waist,” he says, laughing and conceding that this may have magnified his social awkwardness.

For Fung, playing his guitar was a means to “get the demons out,” something he needed as much as he loved.  On stage, his other personality would emerge: the guitarist flinging his hair around, playing his instrument behind his head, making crazy stank faces, and taking his shirt off, among other show antics not exactly characteristic of a typical introvert. He loved the attention and couldn’t get enough.

From a young age, Fung has always had an intense curiosity for figuring out exactly how things worked.  It’s a trait he probably inherited from his engineer father, Raymond Fung. Music was the first thing that fascinated Jonny and gave him the urge to understand every aspect of it, probably subconsciously influence by his mother Jill Fung, a concert cellist.  Aside from his first clarinet at age seven, he took piano lessons for a couple of years until receiving a guitar for Christmas at age 10.

There wasn’t a particular band or music type that made him want to play—like any other 10-year-old boy he thought it would be “neat.”  Not long afterward, though, he was taking composition and improvisation lessons with critically acclaimed Charlotte-based jazz pianist and composer, Claire Ritter.  From then on he was completely hooked.  In high school, he would doodle compositions during class.  Every day after school he would go home, and while other kids were on AIM, riding bikes, or melting their brains with video games, Fung would practice for hours at a time.

Ritter had a major impact on Fung, ranging from his playing to his organization and thinking.  “I’m definitely a neat freak, and probably because of Claire,” he says.  “I just loved the way she had file cabinets with all the sheet music in it organized and labeled.  And all of her pencils were in the same place every time.”

He studied with Ritter for a little over four years, and though he refuses the prodigy label, Ritter says Fung was one of her creative prodigies.  “As a young student, Jonathan had a quiet, introspective disposition,” says Ritter. “He was intrigued with color and sound, multiple instruments, and was a natural performer, and I knew early that he had the aptitude to be a professional musician/composer.”  From his original compositions to the titles he gave them, he was a unique talent with a sharp ear.

Ritter had him learning the compositions of legendary jazz composer Thelonious Monk when he was in fifth grade, an artist she believed to be a sturdy foundation for young musicians to learn about “spice chords” and phrasing.  That influence must have really stuck because Fung and his now-wife, Tara, even named their puppy after him.

Still, like most pragmatic college graduates, Fung didn’t think he could make a living just playing music.  So he spent his first few months out of school as an administrative assistant at a local cemetery.  But he’d apparently discovered the key to taking music from a hobby to a vocation.

“A lot of kids get enraptured with the ‘coolness’ of the scene,” he says with a newfound wisdom referring to the local Charlotte rock scene.  He remembered seeing Scapegoat, an early millennium Charlotte hard rock band, releasing their album These Cards We’re Dealt in 2004 at Tremont Music Hall, and thinking they were the coolest dudes in the whole world.  But with age and experience and an ever-increasing knowledge of music, Fung realized there was so much more to it than just being the coolest dude in the room, and that instead he could be the best. The more he practiced and learned, the more he realized how much more there was to learn and practice.  Fung began keeping practice logs—up to about 1,200 pages at this point—to document his thoughts and what he’s been working on for later reflection and future interests.

The way Fung thinks about music is different from other musicians that talk about the emotions they feel when playing or writing. He speaks about it more methodically and mathematically, and about the pieces and parts of it—the fascination of its construction. Philosopher and educator Cornell West once said, “I am a jazz man in the world of ideas.”  Fung says, “I consider myself a thinker in the world of music.”

The music he was deciding to play became less about what he liked to play and what was cool, and more about what he should be playing to make himself the best musician he could be.  This mentality was instilled in him by his parents with the “no matter what you choose to do, strive to be the best at it” pep talk.  They have always been fully supportive of him, and set good examples with a solid work ethic and passions, never forcing things on him but instead allowing it to come naturally.

Though Fung—his hair now short and quaffed slightly to one side—dedicated so much to learning everything he could about his craft, he still attended UNC-Chapel Hill as a political science major fully intending to get a day job with his degree. But he continued practicing adamantly and playing jazz around Chapel Hill throughout his college years. He came home most weekends to play in local soul rock band Lucky Five with his best friends.  When he graduated in May 2011 and moved back to Charlotte, he continued playing jazz at spots around town, like The Mill in NoDa.  Through demonstrations of his skill and passion during these performances, he made acquaintances with another side of the scene—the R&B and gospel side.

He began exploring that side of the music scene and got a job playing guitar at Forest Hill church in Charlotte.  Soon after making acquaintances with the producer Cedric Thompson, he got asked to record on a couple of new friends’ tracks and eventually found himself playing Maya Angelou’s 85th birthday party in Winston-Salem.  There, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Common, and later D’Angelo and Pino Palladino, among others.  Before he knew it, he no longer needed his office job to sustain himself—so he quit the cemetery gig.

As his next phase in his musical career journey, this guitarist hopes to become a producer.  He’s also been doing some composing, which Ritter was elated to hear. Knowing how coveted the producer position is, he has already begun messing around regularly with producing tools on his own compositions.

In keeping with his mathematical music thinking, Fung left Manifest with five records because he likes odd numbers. He probably went home to shred over them immediately.

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Marek Ranis — Back from the Arctic

By Lauren Phillips
Marek1Marek Ranis has just returned from a two-month working trip in Alaska. Back at his Charlotte home, he unpacks a heavy winter coat, a headlamp, and camera equipment. His occupation may come as a surprise. Ranis is an artist, one of four chosen for an eight-week Rasmuson Foundation Artist in Residency stint after being nominated by the McColl Center, where he was a previous artist-in-residence from 1999-2001. Now that Ranis has returned, he’ll be finishing the artwork appropriately titled “Arctic Utopia” inspired by his Alaskan stay.

A native of Poland living in the United States, the 45-year-old Ranis has a unique perspective about his environment. Spend any amount of time around him and you sense his fervent energy, hear his insights, and become aware of his passion for artistic exploration. He teaches sculpture and installation art at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where he holds the position of assistant professor of art. In 1995, he received an MFA with honors from the Academy of Fine Arts in Wroclaw, Poland. There he met his wife, Maja Godlewska, who is a visual artist also based in Charlotte, N.C.

The relationship of scientists to their research is similar to that of artists and their observations. Ranis is foremost an artist but also an explorer, researcher, interpreter, activist, and conversationalist. This multi-talented artist does not limit himself to one particular medium or issue. He is a sculptor, image maker, videographer, painter, and whatever else he decides to be.

“The way I am working will be dealing with some issues and the content dictates the form,” Ranis says of his approach. Works he creates touch on social, political, environmental, and ecological issues. He does not intend to tackle the totality of an issue, as he acknowledges its complexity. Rather, his works present facets of larger conversations.

A common thread in his work is the engagement of political, social, and ecological conversations with viewers, especially in places that, he says, “are uncommon travel destinations” like the Arctic. Ranis isn’t exactly a novice when it comes to cold locales – in addition to growing up in Poland, he did a residency in Greenland in 2009 where he became interested in examining climate warming issues.

The focus of his current work examines a post-colonial relationship to global warming, like Americans’ romanticized notions of the Arctic as undeveloped land. In the photos, sublime landscape imagery is juxtaposed with romanticized forms. Ranis’ on-going series titled “Albedo” or Whiteness, began in 2004 with Ranis examining a post-colonial environment and global climate changes inspired by the 2002 Larsen Ice Shelf collapse in the north-western part of the Weddell Sea of the Antarctic Peninsula south of Chile. Albedo, the measurement of reflectivity of surface, shows the diminishing snow and ice to support the existence and reality of global warming.

Ranis is influenced by the notion of people maintaining an idealistic view of landscape. “Kunstwissenschaft,” an exhibition last year in CPCC’s Ross Gallery, show a series of mirrored and manipulated images from Greenland’s icebergs printed on aluminum. This work merges beautiful forms with sublime undertones presenting the uncomfortable reality of disappearing arctic environments.

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As far as residencies goes, Ranis’ view isn’t a static one – he doesn’t simply move his studio into another region and stay inside working from premeditated plans or his imagination. Instead, his approach to art-making includes miles and miles spent on foot, at sea on a ship, and driving the open roads. Action, adventure, and awareness navigate his conceptual practice. What satisfies this artist is not so much changing the opinion of his viewer as it is instigating conversation and constructing a moment of personal reflection through directly viewing the work.

As Ranis imbeds himself in a new community, the environment informs the work he creates. Speaking of his most current residency, he says, “I was surprised by many things. I never assume I know anything when I go places even if I spend half of the year reading or researching.”

Artist residencies provide Marek with an opportunity to explore a geographic region. The Rasmuson Foundation Artist in Residency program, launched in 2013, is designed to provide artists with a cultural experience that can spark new work to create more awareness of Alaska. Art organizations from the Lower 48 states such as Charlotte’s McColl Center, Zygote Press (Cleveland, OH), Djerassi Resident Artist Program (Woodside, CA), and Santa Fe Artist Institute (Santa Fe, NM) nominate candidates for the program.

For this particular residency, the time allotted for traveling the region produces experiential knowledge unparalleled to observations read in books. Little premeditated artwork plans are made beforehand. Upon landing in the Arctic, Ranis lets the people dictate, to a degree, what he chooses to make work about. In his process the content controls the medium. As an inter-disciplinarian artist, he chooses which medium would best work for his concept.

During the two-month residency his day-to-day activities varied. Travel is a critical component of the work he creates and this residency made it possible for him to visit many different places in the Arctic region. The Anchorage Museum gave him access to its Historical Collection so he could refer to the archives for research; he was also assigned five staff members to assist him. The museum is both a historical and contemporary museum housing old artefacts with new works of art made by Native people and contemporary artists. Ranis’ new work, “Arctic Utopia,” will feature pieces made from this Rasmuson Artist Residency program.

Ranis also attended the Arctic Energy Summit in Iceland focusing on energy policy in the Arctic region. There, he discovered that for the most part climate change refugees are well-covered subjects by the media in Alaska, but he also saw a lack of recognition in the continental U.S. about aggressive climate changes. Initially, his focus was on the people who were forced to relocate due to severe storm flooding. Then his project shifted, as he was interested in how people in native cultures perceive these changes in the context of thousands of years. Since the people of small geographic regions hunt on the land, they are keenly aware of changes — namely, the melting ice.

Ranis emphasizes that these changes will dramatically affect industrial activity and exploration of gas and oil. New commercial trade routes will be established. Paradoxically, this development could benefit the locals on a short-term basis by initiating a new economy and future opportunities. However, attention to the long-term effects on the environment’s resources will drastically diminish.

“They will pay a price for the industrial revolution,” he says. In Fairbanks, Ranis attended the three-day Alaska Federation of Natives conference where he was able to gather with the Native community to discuss political issues such as violence, education, energy development, and quality of life for Alaskans. There he interviewed one landowner of 30 years who told him so many things about the ways in which weather changes affected different animals.

Ranis had time to conduct interviews with a range of people, too. Initially, he thought the majority of interviews would come from local, native land owners who were effected by climate changes to their environment. However, his project exponentially grew. Through this he set up interviews with a variety of people including tribal leaders, lawyers, and politicians.

What struck him more than discussing issues with climate change refugees was the fact that the U.S. is largely behind other Arctic regions in both creating and implementing policies concerning the last colonial areas to be developed. “The U.S. in general, is unprepared in terms of how to deal with this new reality in the Arctic,” he says.

Ranis acknowledges the complexities of the international consequences of using the natural resources in the Arctic. While corporations are already tapping into these natural resources in the Arctic territory, according to Ranis the government has not taken any control. This issue will not only affect the land and displacement of the native population now, it will affect us on a global and long-term level.

Ranis was also chosen to be an “Artist in the Arctic” resident from Fall 2013 to Fall 2015, a pilot program aiming to create conversations about Alaska’s Arctic region through lectures, workshops, forums and publications in conjunction with the Institute of the North. The Anchorage Museum with whom Ranis closely worked during the Rasmuson Artist Residency chose him to be a part of this Northern Initiative Program after becoming more familiar with his work. While he was in the Arctic, he developed a number of relationships that will allow him to go back multiple times. Already he has been invited to London in February to speak for the Northern Initiative project at the University of Westminster.

“Our knowledge, understanding and perception of Alaska itself in the United States, the rest of the states, is so limited,” he says. “We have really no clue what is going on there. I am not talking about the energy and climate there. Native culture is extremely rich and it is so vibrant and fantastic. There are also a lot of issues related to social problems.”

As he creates work, Ranis hopes that people can understand how rich native history is and how interesting the culture is. “We have a tendency to see things from one side. I learned this many years ago when I was in Greenland,” he says. “Local communities decided that on some level this is a disaster but on another level this is opening up new opportunities and a new future for the country. I don’t think it is exactly the same way in Alaska, but on some level it is because people look at this as new opportunities for the environment which will allow new gas and energy development in the northern part of the country.”

Some artists don’t refrain from loudly declaring their opinion—Ranis does. He’d rather viewers form an opinion from the work he creates. Through his work in the Arctic, he brings awareness of climate changes by becoming an implanted native himself.

Sacrificial Poets – Teaching Youth how to Empower Themselves

By Kevin Grandos-Aguilar

In an age dominated by invisible marketing tricks, political puppeteers and capitalistic propaganda, silence is akin to surrender. There are only a few who give voice to social injustice, but they also speak of race and gender; of prejudice and laws; of social class and political status – challenging all the ideas by which we live every day. By this definition, some would call them anarchists, others idealists; in reality, they are simply poets.

More specifically, the Sacrificial Poets – the award-winning, nonprofit group of spoken word poets from North Carolina – who, according to their website, seek to “use the spoken and written word to activate, nurture and amplify youth voices through creative expression, self-exploration and the cultivation of safe spaces.” As with traditional spoken word poetry, they do not seek to empower youth, but instead teach youth how to empower themselves.

The Sacrificial Poets were first established in 2005 at UNC Chapel Hill, originally under the name Chapel Hill Slam Team. The group of eight later changed their name after the tragic murder of one of their founding members, Irina Yarmolenko, in May, 2008. Because the ‘sacrificial poet’ in a poetry slam is the one who first touches the stage and warms up the audience for the competition, Yarmolenko metaphorically became the ultimate sacrificial poet, having given a lot of her time and energy to the success of the team. To her fellow members, her tragically short life has become the sacrificial poem, inspiring all those around her.

Poetry has always offered a strong sense of inspiration as part of its allure. It actually predates literacy as a form of art, as it was used to memorize oral history, stories and laws. The beats and patterns of poetry facilitated this process, allowing those who learned these poems to mimic the pattern when passing the information to others. Modern slam poetry has roots in dub poetry, hip-hop and Jamaican toasting, having transformed from a combination of spoken word with rhymes and reggae beats. Some elements in spoken word poetry even resemble gospel music, with its emphasis on the interactive call-and-response experience between speaker and listener. In the same way an audience at a liturgy would respond to the speaker with an “Amen,” poetry audiences provide feedback in the form of snaps and “Mmm-mmm’s.”

As a series of poets or teams hit the stage successively to narrate their pieces, the audience’s feedback becomes an essential element in the performance. Not only do audience members judge and rate the poets, they also become a part of the recited piece, allowing the speaker to connect more deeply with the listeners. In that way, a safe space is created where the poet, like the preacher, establishes a welcoming environment where ideas can manifest in countless ways. This is the power of poetry and this is what the Sacrificial Poets specialize in: Teaching youth how to tap into this ability.

As the Artistic Director of the Sacrificial Poets, National Slam Poet Kane Smego is responsible for maintaining and operating the group’s YouTH ink curriculum. It is designed to teach youth how to use their differences and diversity as a strength. This is achieved through the workshops they hold in middle schools, high schools and colleges, where students are asked to write poems about anything they’d like and are then asked to share these poems with the class if so inclined.

In these workshops, ‘safe spaces’ are important because students can freely express themselves without fear of judgment, persecution or humiliation, as it’s all about understanding each other. The Sacrificial Poets educate these kids and young adults in understanding their differences and diversity to promote a more cohesive future. “All the people who are the leaders now, who are in power now, who are the doctors and the politicians and the lawyers,” Smego says, “those will be the people who are being born now, who are in middle school now, who are in high school now. We believe that our calling is to work with that young generation, to help them as they’re just beginning to blossom.”

The Sacrificial Poets believe that youth is the most marginalized of all demographics – that they are the ones whose voices most often go unheard. They do not have the power to make most of their own decisions and their interests are often not considered by those in control. That’s especially true in our culture, where commercialization is targeted at ‘brain-washed’ teens who fit into neat marketing categories defined by stereotypes in modern society. Will McInerney, executive director of the Sacrificial Poets, says the group aims to provide youth with the tools to let their authentic voices be heard. “One of the things that we try to do in this organization is to create a really intentional environment, where young people can empower themselves through their own story, with their own voice,” he says. “If you don’t tell your story, somebody else will.”

One of the most important things about the process is self-disclosure. On-stage, poets reveal a lot about themselves, who they are and what they believe, echoing the ‘safe zones’ the Sacrificial Poets’ workshops encourage. This was effectively demonstrated by youth poets in UNC-Charlotte’s Cone Center at an after-hours event during a presentation directed by the Sacrificial Poets in October, 2013.

Celeste McCants shared a piece about her internal struggles with her Christian faith. Her poem outlined a conversation in her head, effectively revealing a lot about herself in the process. Another poet, Jasmine Farmer, revealed her thoughts on a YouTube video that stereotyped blacks. According to Farmer, the video was a parody of Nicki Minaj’s “Beez in the Trap,” and the video’s creator was a Caucasian male that claimed to “Be’s with the blacks.” But Farmer questioned his understanding of black oppression and the battles they fought for equality – she assures the audience that this man does not know what it’s like to be with the blacks.

According to Farmer, the teaching artist with the Sacrificial Poets, the process of speaking your thoughts and feelings out loud is a healing process like no other. “Sometimes, things don’t become real until you say them, and you think, ‘Wow, this happened to me,’” she says. “Being able to get that weight off your shoulders allows you to move on and help other people with their emotions.” Farmer, who is also the group’s youth mentor at only 19 years old, also talked about poetry in the form of a natural conversation. She says that they’re very similar because the audience gives feedback and you can feel the community of people in the room supporting you. Much like a room full of sports fanatics or music fans, the room exploded with snaps of approval when Farmer walked off-stage after her piece.

“It’s hard, no one gets used to telling their deepest darkest secrets, but the healing that comes from that is well worth it,” says Farmer. Some might find it difficult to share personal stories this openly, but the idea is that if others in the audience have similar experiences, bonds will be made and fears overcome.

Poetry doesn’t always have to be a sad or depressing thing, however. McInerney performed an excellent piece on the complications involving his feet that turned a morbid moment into a comedic situation. “Humor has always been really hard for me,” admits McInerney, “I have a lot of respect for comedy and comedians. It’s strategic; it’s creative; it’s a manipulation of words to achieve a desired goal. In poetry, a lot of times, we’re trying to get you to see something in a different light.”

In his poem, McInerney analyzes the difficulties of living with abnormally large feet in sarcastic situations through humor, but also reveals it got so bad that the only solution was an experimental surgery that only had a 50 percent success rate – and if it failed, he would be unable to walk again. “With my feet, they’re a big part of my life because of the complexities going on there,” he says. “The idea came from the whole ‘9’ thing, she [the doctor] said I was a 9 out of 10 – that’s how bad it was.” McInerney expresses gratitude for the ability to walk in his poem, despite all the difficulties he faces, but he ends his poem with more humor – “She did say I was a 9 out of 10, after all.”

To the Sacrificial Poets, spoken and written word is more than just a powerful tool – it’s a way of life. It gives youth the power to stand up and speak up. It demands attention and is fearless in bringing forth matters of race, gender, social status, sexual orientation, religion and love. It lets youth put themselves out there, exposed for all to see, and in turn offers the opportunity to grow stronger after every experience. CJ Suitt, the youth outreach coordinator and co-author of the YouTH ink curriculum, put it best: “Spoken word does not happen in a vacuum. We bring it to each other, sitting down with it and letting someone else hear it, getting feedback from the folks you love and respect. That’s what it’s all about – community.”

Sharon Dowell — Capturing the Energy of Place in Paint

By Casey Smithling

If you’re familiar with the Merry Oaks neighborhood stretch of Central Avenue in Charlotte, you’re probably familiar with the bold, 20-foot long mural that contrasts layers of red and black architectural elements with the portrait of a ghostly female that serves as the subject of the composition. That’s the work of 33-year-old artist/teacher/gallery coordinator Sharon Dowell, who has recently been commissioned to create another large-format, site-specific piece in Charlotte, this time by CATS Transit at its new 25th Street light rail station in North Davidson.
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Dowell’s the ideal candidate in many respects. Her work, like the Central Avenue mural, is known for capturing the energy of a place via layers of figurative and architectural subjects — and who better to represent the people and energy of NoDa than a local artist and NoDa frequenter? Perhaps just as importantly, the murals serve notice of Dowell’s achievements and growing profile in the local arts scene.

Although the artistic gene runs on her mother’s side, Dowell is the first in her family to make a career out of the arts. From the age of 3, her parents noticed how taken their daughter was by the magic of crayons on paper. Despite her father being a logic-oriented safety engineer, he and his wife encouraged their daughter’s artistic inclination, even if she ran the risk of winding up a starving artist. Looking back, Dowell laughs at the acceptance her parents showed towards her interest in art as a career. “Maybe they thought I would marry well or something, be a trophy wife,” she jokes.

Luckily, Dowell was able to pursue her interests and make her passion a way of life. Normally light-hearted and joking in conversation, she turns into an equally energetic but more serious and passionate conversationalist when talking about the arts.

An original Texan, the modelesque, fashion-forward redhead graduated from UNC-Charlotte with a BFA in painting after moving here in 2000. Since graduation, she has been director at Center of the Earth Art Gallery in Charlotte, an arts editor for Seen uptown magazine, worked in corporate sales and social media for RedSky Gallery, and now serves as gallery coordinator and professor at UNC-Charlotte.

Her preferred medium hasn’t changed since those college days when she first discovered that she loved acrylics. Dowell’s ability to capture the energy of a place comes in part from using acrylics to create a dynamic scene of layers and textures, mirroring a city’s cultural fabric or political issues. She typically begins with an under painting taken from a de-saturated photograph. “I can build up physically, I can dig into it, paint back over it, see what that does, see where the paint gets caught up in the crevices,” she says.

Dowell has long had a fascination with figurative pieces, and the feelings and stories associated with people. She bashfully admits that back in her earlier days she painted candid street scene people. After graduating in 2003, the budding artist moved to the art capital of America, New York City, where she was inspired by the hustle and bustle of New Yorkers. Her concept of capturing the energy of place took a turn when she began thinking about architecture as a way to convey that.

“Architecture is a great way to capture that, especially with older buildings,” she says. “You think of all these windows and you think, well, ‘who’s lived there and what stories are held within the walls of those spaces?’” Since then, architectural facades and streetscapes have been the primary subjects of her work, abstracted and layered to reinforce the dynamism of our environments.

After spending a year in New York City, Dowell moved back to North Carolina where she was hired as assistant director in 2004 at the Center of the Earth Art Gallery owned by Ruth Ava Lyons. While the NoDa gallery is no more, Lyons says she admired Dowell’s “professionalism and friendly disposition.” Throughout Dowell’s Center of the Earth tenure, she managed to gain public recognition through exhibitions and awards, including Best New Artist and Best Local Artist issued by Creative Loafing.

Travel opportunities soon began to open up for Dowell, beginning in 2009 when she received an arts grant to travel to Iceland, a pristine landscape that she returned to in 2010 under the NES Art Residency. There, in paintings like Color Shift, she explored the idea of juxtaposing landscape and architecture, creating “a commentary on man’s relationship to nature,” she says.
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The following year, Dowell received a residency in Charlotte’s McColl Center. She was now able to work on projects that for a long time she’d been unable to. Charlotte magazine awarded Dowell Best Visual Artist in 2012. That same year, she received the Tyrone Guthrie Center Residency in Ireland, and more recently returned from a trip to San Jose, Costa Rica, where she observed beautiful landscapes amidst difficult third world conditions.

Those trips have ignited Dowell’s interest in struggling societies, which she translates into vibrant yet combative compositions. She says one piece, titled Usurpation, is about the Irish surviving famine, political divides, civil unrest, invasions, and the British Monarchy’s harsh imprint on the Irish.

In a recent exhibition at CPCC called Forged Landscapes, one large diptych titled They Never Saw the Ocean was inspired by a Netflix documentary on the history of gang violence in Los Angeles. At first glance They Never Saw the Ocean is clearly different from Dowell’s other works. The color palette is limited and the white space is used to show separation between the painted objects. The use of black is uncommon in Dowell’s vibrant palette, and seems to speak to the violence and self-destructive areas of L.A. Orange cubes are painted in groups, signifying the segmented ownership of gang territories.

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The new direction didn’t come without some trepidation, though. “I pulled back,” she says of the painting. “When you do something new and you put it out there you wonder what people think.”

Gallery coordinator at CPCC Grace Cote certainly liked it. She says Dowell’s paintings are a “bright, organic, vivid contrast, which, through their visual components of maps, streets, and¬ buildings, provide a wonderful visual echo.”

As much as her travels inspire her, Dowell loves Charlotte and sees herself staying put here in the future. In addition to introducing UNC-Charlotte students to art through Rowe Gallery, Dowell also partners with other departments at the university to arouse public interest. One of her initiatives has been to set up several gallery openings alongside other departments, like the architecture department, in order to help diversify and promote cross-disciplinary learning.

“There are still so many students within other departments and other majors that don’t even realize that we have an art gallery and don’t even know where the Rowe Arts Building is,” she says.

Outside the school environment, Dowell has worked with various public organizations including the YMCA, Freedom Partners, and the Shelter for Battered Women. “I’ve started to get more involved in different ways,” she says, “like giving back by donating pieces for auction or charities or being a mentor to younger artists.”

Her work on the 2009 Arts & Science Council/City of Charlotte commissioned mural has been the most impactful piece because it was designed alongside the community and people in the neighborhood. They got to voice what was important to their area, an idea that would intimidate a lot of artists but was welcomed by Dowell. She says, “The goal is to reflect the place where you’re creating the work and I really tend to enjoy that and the community interaction.”

As for her next public mural, Dowell is one of sixteen artists (from 383 proposals submitted to the LYNX Blue Line Extension) to create art for the new 9.3-mile transit line, which broke ground July 18, 2013. The projects submitted range from walls, bridges, parks, to the stations themselves. Despite the expected completion date being Spring 2017, Dowell’s mosaic mural is already well underway. Her role entails making a series of ceramic tile mosaic murals, designs for glass windscreens, column cladding for canopies, as well as railings and benches.

Normally a solo designer, Dowell is partnering with contractors, engineers, and architects to sort out budget, materials, and specifications. But her favorite part is working with the public to learn how it will resonate with the riders. “Over the past three years, we have already had several public meetings to show and discuss our early stage designs for the stations,” she says, adding that  “making a partnership” between the arts and the public is one of her goals.

Breaking the stereotype of a starving artist, Dowell’s made a life and career out of creating art that reflects a place’s energy. Charlotte is a vibrant, growing canvas for Dowell, a canvas that over time will reflect the energy of its artists, too. Like the city, Dowell has a lot to offer Charlotteans.

“It’s a feeling” – Local Charlotte Artist Amy Sullivan Describes Her Style

Crooked Lipstick

By Gabby DeMaria

Amy Sullivan is a little late. Her neighbor across the street knows her by name and says he doesn’t think she is home on this windy day in November. Leaves cover her lawn and white gravel driveway as she pulls up and apologizes for being late in her sweet Southern accent.

Sullivan, a local Charlotte painter, wears rolled up jeans and a grey sweater as she describes in detail her love of painting the “ancient” in barn portraits and the “serene” in ethereal landscapes, while focusing on the negative spatial aspects.

The rough wooden kitchen table where she sits doubles as a makeshift office desk with a thin Macbook Pro, a pile of papers to her left and an amusing antique pig lamp, just as her quaint ranch house doubles as her studio where she paints daily. Hanging on a white pegboard adjacent to the table are rows and rows of small mockups of her work, the size of a Polaroid or a postcard, where she starts her process with oil and wax. Sullivan doesn’t paint with paintbrushes and a palette, preferring to use a compact rectangle of plastic covered in past works while spreading her colors on an ironing board covered in parchment paper. The native North Carolinian has her works showcased in various galleries around the South and even in Florence, Italy.

“I have to say, as a subject, my barns strike me with their sense of anthropomorphism, something appearing as human,” she says. “When they fall down, they are gone with the wind. I try to capture them at the point where they are heading to the other side, well into the autumn of their life … Crumbling, but not defeated. The ability to see the beauty they once were.”

With a degree in Interior Design from the University of Tennessee, Sullivan pulls her inspiration from the classic design elements — drama, composition, rhythm, scale and form — which can manifest at any time. Whether it be a floor plan, a designer dress or a garden, she believes her background expanded her thinking while reinforcing the key concepts of design. She sees composition in everything; even while sitting at a stoplight, she finds herself lining up telephone poles with the edges of the cars around her. For Sullivan, inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere – potentially even from the small collection of Nancy Drew Mystery books she keeps in a red cabinet in her kitchen.

Her attraction to the calm landscapes and decaying barns come from a need for serenity in her own life and she finds, even if it’s for a short time, that peace while painting. When asked why she focuses on barns and landscapes instead of other subjects, she explains, “I like barns for their mortality and beauty issues, just like we humans, and the pull with the landscapes is perhaps that there is no mortality issue. The landscape is always there … Landscape, or the bones of it, seem to never change.”

She goes on to describe herself as a tonalist painter, an artistic style that emerged in the nineteenth century and focused on colored atmospheric landscapes. Sullivan’s pieces, as opposed to other tonalists, are more dreamlike and less focused. The subjects in her paintings range from vivid colors of fuchsia and sunset orange to muted off-white and beige realism, featuring subtle wood detailing that can only be seen upon close inspection.

Johns River I

From a distance, the paintings seem to fall into those two categories – striking hues or hushed colors. But when truly studied, the detailed and underlying colors of shadow and light come into clear focus, giving the viewer either a warm sense of comfort that comes from sitting by the fire with a cup of tea … or a cold sense of calm that comes from a long walk in the snow underneath layers of knitted sweaters.

In a short cover piece for Laurel Magazine, her process is expounded upon. Sullivan usually starts with the scientific challenge of temperature shifts in her oil and wax paints. “She spreads a coat of room-temperature beeswax on a gessoed birch board upon which she layers wax blended with oil paints … Hurry, heat, push the materials, pull them, heat them again, cool them, stabilize them, soften them, all the while manipulating the color, wet-into-wet, adjusting the opaqueness … It is a kinesthetic, Zen process, and for Sullivan, a very satisfying one in spite of its mercurial nature.”

Describing her work process as “ever elusive, always familiar,” she elaborates that “just the push and pull, it is the irony that something so familiar can seem so elusive. ‘I thought for a minute I had it, now I’m not so sure.’  To have to slow down because you know you should and at the same time feeling you want to hurry. Have you ever been somewhere, but would rather be elsewhere, only to get there and wish you hadn’t left? Like it’s a marsh you’ve seen a thousand times, but right now you can’t stop looking at it … It’s the push-pull, the feeling, and you hope it shows in the painting…It’s a feeling. That’s what you’re seeing.”

She explains that the difference between positive and negative spaces is one she utilizes constantly. “It’s one versus the other, this versus that, you have a big negative space, then beside it, just the opposite: a mark — positive, the one you see — right beside it. It sets up a tension that is appealing.”

When stepping slightly out of her thematic comfort zone, Sullivan enjoys “plein-aire” painting with her fellow artist friends. Meaning “outside,” plein-aire techniques, she says, are difficult to work with “because you have to react so quickly to the light changing, all your senses are on fire, you see, you hear the birds and the wind, it’s cold or hot, your shade is moving…all so different from painting in your studio where you have all the comforts of home.”

To be able to paint every day in her home studio, she says, drives her to research individual galleries to gauge their artistic aesthetic and make sure it’s a good fit for her work. “I count on art galleries to sell my work, and to be my face to the public. My work is there on consignment. Artists get 50 percent, gallery gets 50 percent,” she says.

As for young painters, she has simple advice: Paint, paint, paint! “Find your own voice, do ‘your’ art, do something different,” she says. “And remember: ‘Copy everyone, imitate no one’.”

Stanley Greaves – The Maker

By Dominica Nemec

Stanley Greaves
Stanley Greaves is an internationally acclaimed artist whose colorful surrealist paintings have made him one of the most recognized figures in the Caribbean art world. His influential work has been featured in the National Art Gallery of Guyana and exhibited in galleries from the UK to Brazil. But the acclaimed artist is just as proud of the soup he makes as he is of his art, and sees little difference in the processes for either.

“Making a pot of soup needs focused attention as does making a picture frame, a poem, a small box,” says Greaves, who adds that he tends to think of himself “as a maker rather than an artist.”

Greaves finds comfort and pleasure in the simplicity of “making” anything, but he has been studying, creating and teaching art for most of his 79 years. And it’s his art, not his soup, that’s currently on display at the UNC-Charlotte Center City gallery’s latest exhibit, Murmurs on the Other Side of Light. Running through January 3, the exhibit features a collection of the artist’s paintings and sculptures, and the Nov. 23 opening night ceremony included a performance artist disguised head-to-toe in black to highlight Greaves’ fascination with shadows, the common theme of the exhibition.

The skilled sculptor, guitarist, poet (he won the Guyana Prize for Literature for his collection of poems, Horizon) and painter is most famous for his brightly colored canvases featuring an array of everyday subjects, like forks, keys and shadows. It doesn’t matter what Greaves creates, whether it be a painting, a cupboard, or a hearty chicken noodle, his international experience in the world of art has made him a seasoned and well-respected professional. But contrary to what most may believe, his vision comes from his observant and accepting nature more so than his diverse and international background.

Perhaps that’s why the notion of shadows appeals to him. Along the left wall of the gallery hang a series of paintings depicting shadows in various colors and positions. These two-dimensional companions that never leave our side may be often ignored, but Greaves strived to remove the figure and make the shadow center stage. “Of all the things that you see, the shadow is the only thing that is truly two-dimensional,” he says, “but shadows move.”

A painting from the Shadows collection

His fascination with the darkened, two-dimensional images belies his three-dimensional presence. His tight, grey curls are disheveled and stand tall on his head. Behind his equally grey goatee is a serious yet calm face, reflecting a tender and passionate personality. While it may be because he does not see himself as an artist, his mild demeanor is humble and unpretentious, his speech gentle and calming.

Welcoming one with a soft smile and a firm handshake, talking to Greaves is like talking to an old friend or favorite teacher. This is not surprising, as Greaves enjoys teaching, and does so regularly. Like his attitude toward making anything and everything, Greaves teaches anything and everything, from art classes to a soccer team (a game which he has never really played). Although this may seem counter-intuitive, he finds “principles of transference” in everything we do, and applies this to his teachings. For example, while he’s never formally played soccer, he sees the game as a use of space and movement, a principle he often uses in his paintings.

That understanding may have come about in Georgetown, Guyana, where Greaves was born and studied under many influential Caribbean artists. Then, in 1963, he made the move to the UK to get his bachelor’s degree in Fine Art at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. After his time in England, Greaves moved once more to further his art education, this time as a Fulbright Scholar at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Like his ambivalence about his international status, Greaves does not consider himself a scholar, either, and sees education as an interest rather than a necessity. He credits his desire to learn to his constant curiosity, which he says leads him to strange places of enquiry. Once again, he is simply a maker, and a student to the concept of creation.

His colorful paintings may seem right at home with our stereotypical notions of Caribbean art, but Greaves sees his environments as mere backdrops to the work. “International experience has not been an influence in my work,” he says. “Yes, I do use bright colors, but this relates more to the colors themselves than what is observed in the environment.”

The artist doesn’t like the international label; “Studying in the UK and the USA made me realize that there was no way I could fit into the mainstream art environment,” he says. “It was a matter of following trends which I bypass. My vision comes first and not that of the trends of the day.”

Greaves says he doesn’t rely on his heritage and upbringing for inspiration, but his cultural influence cannot be ignored. “Stanley’s work is really profound at every level,” said Dr. David Gall, assistant professor of Art Education at UNC-Charlotte. “It is grounded in his experience as a Caribbean person, particularly an Afro-Caribbean person.” Gall, who is from Barbados, is responsible for bringing Greaves’ work to UNCC after he learned that the artist had moved to Fayetteville to live with his daughter.

Greaves’ deep love and connection to his family flows through his work. He says his upbringing in the Caribbean comes through on any canvas he choses to work with on that day, and whether intentional or not, it speaks loudly to his culture. Gall explained the importance of sharing the Caribbean culture with the world, saying, “we tend to forget that a region’s size alone does not determine its cultural production.”

You can see the importance of family in the Murmur paintings. On the other side of the gallery, separated by tall-standing wood sculptures, is a series of very small, surrealist paintings. Nearly all of them prominently feature either a loaf of bread or rope, a story Greaves tells through his brush. “Storytelling is very important,” he says. “Narration will always be there…we have narration in dance, in music, in writing,” and in art. Through the images of bread he tells the story of how his mother used to make bread on Saturdays and send him with the loaves to the bakery to have them baked. Through the images of rope he tells the story of how his father used to work on the waterfront and make nets to carry cargo. He says “any work that you do is biographical,” believing anything one creates is derived from an understanding of self.

 The artist is currently working on a new series of paintings, this time drawing inspiration from the written word. An admirer of Guyanese writer Sir Theodore Wilson Harris’ novels, Greaves plans to honor the retired novelist by creating a painting for each of his 24 written works. While he says he could easily create 24 paintings for each book, he will challenge himself and use his storytelling skills to symbolize each work on a single canvas.

Greaves may not refer to himself as an artist, but he creates beautiful things. Walking through an exhibition of his work is like walking through a story. At first glance it’s exciting chaos, but paintings begin to meld together to create a true narrative. The shadows run and chase each other, looking perhaps for bread, and the rope binds it all together. A maker, teacher and storyteller, Greaves has taught us to make anything and everything with the knowledge of ourselves: our stories.

Gretchen Alterowitz: Dancer, Choreographer, Teacher

Gretchen AlterowitzBy Steve Craton

Gretchen Alterowitz is working on a feminist approach to teaching ballet. She wonders what the effect of teaching ballet in this sort of “democratic” manner will be.  In a forthcoming article in 2014 for the Journal of Dance Education, she describes her approach to ballet pedagogy.  Her belief is that ballet has historically been taught in an authoritarian way: the teacher has all the power and is the one who talks; the docile students comply.

An assistant professor of Dance at UNC-Charlotte teaching ballet technique and dance history, she believes that “If we change the way we teach, we have the potential to change the kind of choreography that gets made or the way people think about ballet.” Ballet has been taught in a particular way since the beginning, she says, and has a direct bearing on the choreography that is made, thus “[affecting] the way we think about women, the way we think about men in ballet.“

The University of Iowa graduate (MFA from the Department of Dance) suggests that progressive ask teaching professionals to do things differently.  They are asked to bring in multiple viewpoints; to have students drive personal inquiry into the subject; to ask students to speak, and to make space for students to do just that.  “I do believe that there will always be some sort of power dynamic between teacher and student,” she says.  “I don’t know a way around it but I think we can work against it by implementing different approaches.”

One of those approaches is asking the students in the class what they think, feel, and believe, as well as asking them about their experiences.  She believes that if a young person is taught that their voice matters, and that what they have to say is important, it might change the choreography that is made and change how one thinks about dancing.

Alterowitz practices her concept of choreographer as well, so these are not just ideas left to theory.  In addition to her work, Holding Ground, having been performed by the Atlanta Ballet in 2012, her choreography has also been presented in San Francisco, Monterey, Durham, and Charlotte.  A member of the AGA Collaborative, she collaborates experimentally, creating research and performance.  Her partners in this trio are Alison Bory, an Assistant Professor at Davidson College, and Amanda Hamp, a Faculty Fellow at Colby College.  They recently performed their work, Like a turtle without a shell, or crow’s feet at Spoke the Hub in Brooklyn, Queens University in Belfast, UNC-Charlotte, and Luther College in Iowa.

Her concept of dance pedagogy shows in her dance-making as well.  According to Alterowitz, each members’ “really distinct” differences in training and individual backgrounds informs the trio’s choreography, resulting in choices made collaboratively.

Her choreography for dance students is also collaborative, though to what level is dependent on the experience level of the dancers with whom she is working.  If they’re inexperienced dancers who aren’t comfortable improvising, or who have never had someone ask them for their opinion, then the choreography is much more dependent upon her expertise and experience.

Her preferred method is to ask the dancers to participate in generating the movement material.  She asks them questions and has them improvise responses, or write or talk.  She’ll improvise a movement and ask the dancers to catch what they can and put it together into a dance phrase.  To her, choreography consists of shaping things and trying them on; of deciding whether they work or not, and then manipulating them and trying something else.

“My best and favorite way to work,” she says, “is recognizing the individuality of the dancer and making something that works with that person instead of coming in with a set thing we’re going to do regardless of who does it.”

Living in a small town in Montana, Alterowitz was first attracted to dance at the age of eight when a studio opened in her town.  The dance instructor visited her school to promote to the new studio.

“There was just something about it,” says Alterowitz. “I don’t know exactly what, but as soon as she said ‘I’m opening this studio and these are the classes,’ I just knew I wanted to do it, and I went home and told my parents that I wanted to sign up for dance.  I took everything she offered, which was ballet, tap, jazz, and gymnastics.”

Her earlier ballet training was influenced by the Vaganova method – a ballet technique and training system devised by the Russian dancer and pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova (1879-1951) – although like many Americans growing up, she experienced an amalgam of styles.  Though she says that her body was ready to receive ballet and that anatomically it was a good fit for her, she didn’t get to study seriously until she was about 14 years old.  Her family moved to a slightly larger town which gave her more access to training so she was able to start training in ballet up to six days a week.

”So even though I may have been inclined toward it and I really liked it,” she says, “once I had access to more consistent training and better teachers I started to improve a lot more rapidly.”

While her emphasis is on ballet, she is trained in Modern dance and loves it as well.  Though she states that she is not as well-versed in the history of Modern dance — considered to have begun with Isadora Duncan in the early twentieth century–  as she is in the history of ballet, her understanding is that there was a reaction to some of the things that ballet had been attempting to prioritize.  She thinks the two forms have been interested in exploring similar ideas such as the use of the body and stage, but from different aesthetics and entry points.  She finds elements of Modern useful in studying ballet, and believes that she became a much more grounded dancer through studying Modern.

Her choreography is refreshing and bold, whether presented within the works of the AGA Collaborative or as performed by her students.  A recent performance at UNCC included intensive stillness – that is, the performers literally standing still on stage while the music plays on.  If we do something for 30 seconds, she suggests, we have a certain experience with it, but if we do the same thing for a minute, we might have an experience that is different or enhanced or uncomfortable.  For Alterowitz, there’s a possibility to learn something in the difference, whether it’s about yourself or the people around you.  Alterowitz is aware that spectators have different reactions because she and the other performers are “so still for so long,” and she concedes that it demands something of an audience.  Smiling, she says that sometimes an audience will check out thinking ‘this isn’t dance’ — though to her it just feels full of possibilities.

Her democratic attitude extends to the more traditional world of ballet as well.  She would like to see women in positions of leadership such as artistic directors and choreographers – positions woefully understaffed by females — to make it representative of the form.  She believes that there is a disconnect that happens where women are allowed to progress a certain amount but then not allowed to go beyond that point; a dance ceiling, if you will.  She says that women need role models of other women having success as choreographers, directors, executive directors, and fundraisers.

However, in true democratic spirit, she is appreciative of the differences between people.  She doesn’t want to erase the differences between people.  She says that the world would be “really boring if we were all the same.  But also I’m a woman, I like being a woman; I don’t want to be a man.”

To Alterowitz, the differences that performers bring to the art and practice of dance – their gender, experiences, and viewpoints – are what make it that much more impactful.  It’s not hard to believe that society in general would benefit with the application of these concepts as well.

Fred Forte Jr. — A Swiss Army Knife of Production

By Cory Driscoll

Fred Forte Jr., a Charlotte native who’s made a career in the area as an acclaimed entrepreneur, screenwriter and director, can seemingly do it all. He doesn’t necessarily aspire for fame, but strives to leave a lasting impact on anyone who will listen. The leader of Fred Forte Jr. Productions, he has been responsible for a number of films and online series. But the attention he’s received for the 2012 film, Weight, surprised even him.

“As more and more people saw it, and they kept telling us how good it was, we started to realize how awesome it actually was,” the 27-year-old Forte says. “At the premiere we sold around 20 copies, and we were really surprised with its reception, but we didn’t expect the continued success it had.” After winning “Best Feature” at Charlotte’s Black Film Festival earlier this year, Forte has traveled around North and South Carolina accompanying his film’s screenings. He also plans to submit Weight to other film festivals around the nation in the coming months.

Weight knits together drama with a touch of comedy in a tale about the struggles of two newlyweds. But the introspective element the film presses upon its audience is what makes Forte’s work so distinct. Weight’s had multiple screenings since winning its CBFF awards earlier this year, and Forte usually attends these, taking questions and explaining the film’s purpose afterwards. When asked why he thought Weight garnered so much attention at the film festival, Forte said, “The film’s full of moments where the audience has to question what they would do in that situation.”

Weight’s two main characters Neecy (Shamelle Jackson) and Terrell (Neiko Debarge) both struggle with inner guilt, while they wait for Neecy’s HIV test results to come back. Forte further explained, “She was raped by a gentleman, who was HIV-positive, two months before her wedding. So the husband has the hard decision of whether to marry her or not. He went on to marry her because he loved her, but now he has this incredible weight on him.” Terrell has to contemplate the possibility that he may never be able to be intimate with his new wife. Neecy feels some sort of responsibility for the rape, as well as the thought that the test results could ruin both of their lives.

Forte will talk to anyone that’s interested in his art, and in just a short conversation his whole-hearted commitment to film is obvious. He’s fully involved in nearly every aspect of his works: conceptualizing his thoughts and putting them to paper, and directing his words to the actors and then onto film. But his involvement in marketing is perhaps the most impressive aspect of his efforts. “We won three awards for [Weight]; Best Director, Best Score and Best Feature. We realized its potential, and decided ‘let’s keep going,’” he says. He’s preparing to enter Weight into other out-of-state festivals, with his production company eyeing the Chicago or New Orleans’ International Film Festivals.

Forte will be the first to tell you he neglects his social life, dedicating as much time as possible to his films. With him in the interview was his producer and friend, Shelton Lewis, who helps gathering actors, finding sites to shoot at, and, as Lewis puts it, “facilitating everyone’s needs, all while keeping order.” Lewis and Forte love what they do for a living at Forte Jr. Productions, and happily admit their obsession to film making. Constantly around each other in and out of work, they note that on the occasions that they do partake in leisurely activities, conversation usually winds up back at the business of filmmaking. “He is, and we are really, a little bit consumed with our productions,” Lewis said, half-jokingly. “That’s what we do; we try to focus on how we’re going to get Forte Jr. Productions to be a major name in Charlotte. When we’re together we have fun, but (the) majority of the time it’s about our work.”

Forte grew up involved in a life of theater, directing plays for his church as an adolescent; his first play was written by hand at his kitchen table at age 15. “After that play, everyone was clapping,” he says, and “ever since that performance I knew what I wanted to do.”

Forte lights up with exuberance the moment theater is brought up. He talks faster, starts using hand-gestures and lets his guard down. He professes that no matter where his production company took him, the live-stage would always be a priority.

Family influence on Forte in his younger years tailored his adult image. His straight-edged and professional appearance, along with a driven personality, likely derives from having a minister for a father. Forte’s younger brother, currently serving in the Marine Corps, found his urge for art in music, with the piano. The passion for playwriting that Forte has was originally encouraged by his dad, as he was the first to advise his son to direct a production for their church. Through his years at Harding High School in Charlotte, his appetite for theater only grew, taking drama/theater classes from his freshman to senior year. It’s more rare these days to see someone’s childhood passion become their eventual livelihood, but Forte makes it appear a seamless transition because of his determination.

Because of his history with plays, Forte Jr. Productions has been involved in bringing a passion for theater to the youth of Charlotte. They have provided free acting programs to Charlotte’s Recreational Center, as well as the Boys and Girls Club and Salvation Army by performing plays and even creating a web series that, while following kids’ everyday lives, resembles the notorious faux-documentary show The Office. Forte finds it important to give kids a chance at acting, kids that would otherwise be deprived of the thrill theater offered him years ago.

Weight could be considered the first stepping stone in Forte Jr. Productions a couple of years from now, as Forte acknowledges that winning awards for his film allowed him to realize his niche for the time being. “The festivals are there for the independent film makers, to find the good short stories and feature films,” he says. “We know now, that’s our platform, that’s what we work towards. Because of Weight’s success, we know we can get there again.”

The newest work from Forte Jr. Productions is the film Petey. It’s in the finishing stages of production now and will be released for screenings later in 2013. It’s a romantic comedy of a “not so lady’s man” that suddenly obtains the power of seduction via a vacation-seeking cupid.

One striking quality of Forte work is the quality-over-quantity mentality he expresses through his business. For so many successful entrepreneurs in the arts, the chance to increase profit outweighs quality content. Audiences for Weight have clamored for a sequel, but Forte says, “Isn’t the story good enough to just leave it where it’s at? There’s a message behind [Weight], and it might be a classic if we just leave it alone.”

In the film-making community, where multi-million dollar companies keep dragging the integrity out of titles until all  interest in the market is lost, like Fast and the Furious or Transformers, it’s refreshing to see an independent film company care about something beyond profit. While striving to produce more award-winning films, Forte won’t abandon his love for theater (producing four plays in the three years the production company has been in existence), or his charity work that provides children acting programs.

Noel Freidline — Harmonizing the Practical and the Musical

By Torron Williams

“Sorry for being late, had to handle some Daddy duties,” says  UNC-Charlotte Instructor Noel Freidline, making it clear from the beginning that he’s a father first, and all the other facets that make him a modern Renaissance man, second. The tall and slender charismatic musician exudes substantial confidence without coming off arrogant. As a teacher, music director, and jazz pianist, Freidline has established himself in a variety of occupations, each focused on or around music. He also graciously uses music as a gateway to helping others establish their passion, and not solely to make a living.

Freidline grew up in Clearwater, KS, a rural, secluded town with a close-knit community. “Things were done on a handshake,” he says. “Everybody was neighbors; everyone helped out.” Raised as an only child in the middle of the countryside, he had to keep himself busy and music was his outlet. He began playing piano early, learning the fundamentals from his father, who was also a pianist. The core of his piano playing came from his piano teacher, an organist at his church who also taught him the ins and outs of the choir.

Freidline’s first exposure to jazz coincidently came from home. He stumbled across a random Dixieland jazz album that came out of a CD club catalog. “I didn’t have anyone to play with, and I was always trying to entertain myself. When I found the album and put it on, I thought it was cool, so I tried playing along with it,” he says. Friends from school ignited his interest in jazz even more, recommending piano legends Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, and Bill Evans for listening.

He spent his first two years of college at Wichita University, just to get his feet wet. But he realized that if he really wanted to make moves with music, he’d have to transfer to a much more musically inclined area. “There wasn’t anything waiting for me in Wichita, it’s not a big jazz mecca or music mecca,” he says. “At Wichita, I learned a great deal of discipline, and I learned how to practice daily. I felt confident that I was ready.”

Freidline went on to transfer to The University of North Florida. The school was the perfect fit for him as it was kicking off a new music program and provided him with a lot of playing experience. “I played in three combos and two big bands; anything that came along had my name on it,” he says.

Freidline uses his college experiences as a touring musician to inspire musically gifted students to go after their dreams —but wisely. After graduating college with a Bachelor of Arts in Music, Freidline formed a jazz trio in 1992 with help from vocalist Renée Dickerson. His first album, One for Maxcene, was released in 1994. The trio recorded 27 songs in two days, and narrowed it down to 11 for the album. “It’s been the last couple of years that I’ve started feeling comfortable in the recording studio, enjoying the recording process,” he says. “I always hated it because I’m much more of a working player than a recording musician.”

Six albums later, Freidline is still playing music locally, now with his quintet, and traveling across the states playing at festivals and weddings. But, he’s conquered another level of spreading music to inspire people with his teaching. In addition to his UNCC courses, Freidline became the Upper School Music Director of Davidson Day School in 2012. In an interview with davidsonnews.net, Bonnie Cutter, Head of School at the time, expressed how essential Freidline’s efforts were to the school. “We need to do for the instrumental program what Glee has done for choral music,” she says, “and he’s just the man for the job.” He sees this opportunity as a chance to give grade school kids (including his own) a chance to grow up with the music education of his dreams. It means a lot to him to teach two of his own kids especially. “I knew what I wanted them to have, so I said, ‘okay, I want to be the one that does this’.”

Although he’s raised his three children on music, he makes it apparent that music isn’t necessarily a given for them. “I’m not necessarily pushing them to become musicians, they have a knack for it and if they want to do it that’s great, but I don’t want them to think they have to,” he says. “They should do what they love.” Freidline revealed that next year he’d be introducing his students to GarageBand and other new digital recording elements of today’s music.

Freidline’s teaching career began at the UNCC, directing an array of jazz combos held on the campus. While directing, he went to the music department to inquire about its course offerings. “They didn’t offer Music Business at UNCC, and I had been doing some clinics at colleges on music business, so I created the course from scratch myself,” he says. “I didn’t have a Music Business class growing up, and I feel like it allows me a chance to pass on some information to music students that might make the road a little easier for them. If you want to keep what you have, you’ve got to give it away, and it’s a privilege to help my students.”

Jazz music may not be the forefront of today’s music, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t done great things for Freidline. Throughout 2008 and 2009, Freidline found himself composing original pieces for the sports network ESPN. But, re-envisioning is Freidline’s specialty. “I’m much more of an arranger than a composer for sure,” he says. “I love taking what someone’s done and dressing it up or taking it in such a different direction.”

Despite his success with writing compositions for ESPN, and serving as the pianist for a Charlotte stint of the Broadway play, Jersey Boys, Freidline is clear on jazz’s position in music today. “There’s so much cross-over in music, and jazz will never be mainstream again. Art is always more difficult to sell, and entertainment is easier to sell,” he says. “Many jazz artists feel like they’re selling out if their music becomes more entertaining.” Regardless of his statements, Freidline insists that jazz maintains influence on hip-hop, Celtic, and some subgenres of electronica. “It’s just the elements of jazz being very cleverly incorporated into more popular genres.”

Freidline continues to spread his love for music and make a career out of it. With a successful 19-year marriage and three children, Freidline merges the unordinary music world with the traditional world. He recommends perseverance to those with musical ambitions. “Don’t quit. Keep trying, and keep learning” he says. “There will be moments where you have to step away from it, but do get back to it. I’m not the most talented musician out there, and I’ve had a little more success than others just because I just wouldn’t quit.”

 

Leydy Bonilla – The Lady of Bachata

By Aurelio Morel

Artists are often asked about that one key moment when they knew they wanted to pursue music as a career. For Charlotte-based Leydy Bonilla, that epiphany came at the age of 13 when she finally mustered up enough courage to sing in a local talent show in her hometown of Nagua, in the Dominican Republic. From there, this tan-skinned Dominican girl with a radiant smile was hooked.

Bonilla was born in Nagua, but when she was 16 her family relocated to the Bronx, in New York City, where she took her senior year in high school. Initially, the language barrier was tough for Bonilla. But with the help of family, friends, and ESL classes, she was able to overcome it. “My favorite subject was math because it was universal,” Bonilla jokes.

While attending school, she performed in venues throughout the city, working all the while on her debut production. After graduating in 1997, she began honing her craft at a local music school and working part-time at a clothing store. With her money, she would help finance her production and pay for dance lessons, too. Her father, Carlos, began an independent label, where he packaged and distributed his daughter’s 1997 debut Nada Sin Ti, an eclectic mix of tropical Latin rhythms. “My father has always been the driving force behind my career,” says Bonilla. With his help, Bonilla began creating a local buzz. It would be several more years before she finally got her big break, though.  After a performance at a local club, she was discovered by a record producer for a label based in Spain and officially started her professional career.

Two records, one son, a marriage, and 13 years later, Bonilla is now balancing two careers; that of a family woman and that of an entertainer. “It’s been tough balancing out both roles, but I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world; I love being a family woman,” says Bonilla. A dedicated fitness guru, her days usually begin at 6 a.m. with a 5-mile run accompanied by friends. From there, she takes her 7-year-old son to school while her husband goes to work. After a healthy breakfast, she unwinds for a while before doing a 2-hour rehearsal. “I do my rehearsals as if they were the real show, complete with singing and choreography,” she says, adding that this routine has been an integral part of her success and physical fitness.

A singer of the male-dominated bachata genre, Bonilla always felt she had to work twice as hard to get her due respect. “Many times I was dismissed as a gimmick trying to sell sex appeal, which is why I had to work hard to change that perception,” she says.

Considered a staple of Dominican heritage, bachata originated in the rural areas of the island-country in the 1970s. Eventually the style would achieve regional popularity in the United States and throughout Latin America during the 1990s, until the emergence of urban bachata. Popularized at the turn of the millennium, this hybrid subgenre combined English lyrics and a softer singing style with elements of hip hop and R&B, eventually creating a global phenomenon. Today urban bachata artists such as Prince Royce and Romeo Santos are selling records in the millions.

But Bonilla couldn’t cash in then. She recalls the major falling out she had with her record label over which direction to take on her second record with them, entitled Buenos Dias Mi Amor. After the relative success of her Spanish-label debut, Estoy Enamorada, which sold 50,000 units, the label wanted to enhance her sexuality for the second production. But Bonilla vehemently rejected the idea. This caused internal strife between label and artist on what would be her last complete production to date.

“They wanted to go in a certain direction but I rejected it because I wanted to be judged based on my musical merits,” says Bonilla. With the exception of her bachata rendition of Mariah Carey’s “My All,” which she chose, Bonilla dismisses most of the material, saying it was pretty much forced on her.

After Buenos Dias Mi Amor failed to make significant buzz, a disillusioned Bonilla returned home to live with her parents, now living in Charlotte. “I just needed a break from the industry,” says Bonilla. This was the first and only time she seriously considered giving up music to pursue other endeavors.  But after meeting her future husband, she once again regained her passion for music. A fellow musician, he encouraged her not to give up. “God has a great way of working, when I was at my lowest point he sent me someone to pick me up,” says Bonilla. A year after the birth of her son, Bonilla returned to the stage and felt as if she never left.

Since then she has released two singles. One is a Spanglish version of Rihanna’s “Unfaithful,” and the other, “Pienso en Ti,” is a song written for her by renowned bachata composer Daniel Moncion (who has also written for the likes of Frank Reyes and Yoskar Sarante, amongst others). Having recorded a video clip for the latter, Bonilla incorporated her own unique choreography into the video. “The video was a blast, you don’t usually see choreography in bachata videos, which is why I wanted to do something uncommon,” she says.

These days Bonilla is working on her first cross-over production, a fusion of R&B and dance music. “With this record I hope to show a different side of me and display my versatility,” Bonilla says. She also stays busy by performing regularly and by teaching voice lessons in her spare time.

On this day, Bonilla is recording a video for YouTube, a female version of “When I Was Your Man,” the popular Bruno Mars song. Wearing an all black ensemble, she meticulously practices her notes on the piano, trying to find the perfect key. A self-described perfectionist, it is not uncommon for one of these sessions to take several hours. Her biggest fear is complacency, which is why she is always striving to continue working hard. “One of my favorite quotes is that the saddest thing in life is wasted talent, which is why I try to make the most of mine,” she says.

Bonilla praised many of the emerging bachata acts, particularly Leslie Grace, for being one of the few women of prominence in the genre. As for her opinion on the future of the genre, she said that the name of her upcoming single best sums up her sentiments. Bonilla, a fervent supporter of female empowerment, believes that women will begin to become the leaders of the genre soon. “A Woman’s Universe,” she says, “is more than just the name of my next single; it represents my core belief that women will continue to break barriers and navigate uncharted territories.”

Fun Facts

1. Favorite color — Purple

2. Favorite singers — Milly Quezada, Celine Dion, Alicia Keys, Selena, Rocia Durcal, Maridalia Hernandez.

3. Favorite food — Pasta

4. Favorite movie — Titanic

5. Other interests — Fashion, shopping, cooking, spending time with family.

6. Favorite Book — All You Need To Know About the Music Industry