The McColl Center offers urban residencies to socially-conscious artists

What is “environmental art”? Specifically, environmental art is public art that mitigates some sort of environmental issue at its location site. But in a more general sense, environmental art contributes to the environment around it, enriching its community and fostering a relationship between the people and the place, and the people in the place.

In an equally general sense, this is a large part of the mission of the McColl Center and its artist residency programs.

The McColl Center for Art + Innovation has had an environmental artist residency program since 2009, but a $400,000 grant from ArtPlace America last summer is enabling the Center to create an artist-led Arts & Ecology Community Campus in alliance with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership to be completed in 2015 in the Brightwalk community at historic Double Oaks.

Environmental artist residents at McColl have led projects like the creation of a wet garden to alleviate a problem with storm water drainage in a neighborhood park. This project was conceptualized and installed in collaboration with community residents, who in turn became the stewards of the garden.

The work of these environmental artists is all done in collaboration with the residents in the community based on their feedback of what environmental needs most need to be addressed, and the projects in turn create safe, inviting outdoor gathering spaces for the community.

The McColl Center has been working with community partner, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, in this area of Brightwalk.

“They’re incredible partners,” says Lisa Hoffman, Associate Director of the McColl Center who also spearheaded the Environmental Art and Community Engagement department. “They have identified a number of the environmental issues and social issues of integrating a new neighborhood into [this] historic area.”

The environmental art in this area is used as much to address ecologic concerns as it is designed to bridge the socioeconomic divide between the new and historic parts of the neighborhood.

Resident artists learn to engage the community, work collaboratively on the design and construction of environmental art installations, and also mentor students from local universities and high schools who are interested in pursuing careers in art, ecology, engineering, or design.

But the environmental artist-in-residence is just one facet of the Center’s residency program.

Last year, after a long-term strategic planning process spanning several years that examined how the Center can be of the most value to both the artists and the Charlotte community, the Center announced a new focus in their renowned residency programs with the introduction of ten different “spheres of impact,” which they identified as being key to the future of Charlotte: beauty, business innovation, craft, design and architecture, education, environment, health, international, technology, and social justice. Artists are curated throughout the year within these domains. The focus for the artists-in-residence is ultimately one of social consciousness and community engagement.

The McColl Center hosts residents year-round for three to eleven months, during which time they receive an honorarium, travel and living accommodations, their own studio, a stipend for materials, technical advice, and labor to assist them.

Artists can come in from anywhere in the world. They are vetted by the organizational team at McColl on whether or not they’re a good fit for the program through extensive Skype conversations followed by site visits. “It’s about getting to know who they are and being good, creative listeners,” says Hoffman.

The artist is then paired with the right community partner who “is looking for this injection of creative talent to help solve an issue – something they have identified as a need for them.” Once the artist and community partner are paired, McColl helps shepherd them through the process of exploring one of those spheres of impact. “This is really a co-construction collaborative effort [with both the artist’s and the partner’s] goals and mission so aligned to make it a perfect fit in order to get to the desired outcome.”

There is a prerequisite that artists be interested in community engagement, though they can be residents at any point in their careers. “Artists might already have an engagement model that they need to mold and adapt, or we might help them develop an engagement model of their own,” Hoffman says.

The artists also have time in their studios to develop their practice. The residency is an evolution of their studio practice with community engagement, and all artists have the opportunity to exhibit in the first floor gallery of the 30,000-square-foot neo-Gothic church built in 1901 that is home to the McColl Center and its artist residents.

Whether or not the artist is specifically environmental in nature, the artists-in-residence at the McColl Center each contribute to the fabric of the community around them in their own unique, positively impactful ways.