CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Queens University honor student Bree Stallings wanted to make an impact, so she used her senior thesis to do just that. She titled her project Modern Poverty: An Introspective Art Show. Through this exhibit, Stallings was able to do what she loves – art – while also making a positive impact and discussing the problem of poverty. The exhibit even raised money for art-community schools and an AIDS orphanage in Cape Town.
1. Tell me about the events that inspired you to choose poverty as a topic to confront in your thesis. What moment really hit you hard enough to make you think that you had to do something?
I travelled to South Africa with a school group and we went to an AIDS orphanage in a suburb of Cape Town, a place called Khayelitsha. The interactions with the children altered my life, and on the bus ride home I decided there must be something I need to do to help them. It got the gears turning in my head. Not only did these children not have homes, they had no promises for a better life. Still, they were radiant, warm, welcoming beings and it altered how I thought about everything. I no longer wanted to attend my own pity party, and I wanted to help those who had no resources. For our Senior Honors Thesis course, we could choose between a thesis paper or a creative project, and I decided to branch out and do something big. I organized, curated and presented an art show and invited local and national artists to show art that expressed their response to being exposed to poverty. I also included my own art dealing with my experiences with poverty.
2. Explain the title of the series, “Foreclosed But Not Forever.”
In my sophomore year of college, my family lost my childhood home to foreclosure. My family never had much money growing up and the tension of living paycheck to paycheck was a large weight over a lot of my childhood memories. My parents are wonderfully supportive and innovative parents, but the strain was definitely something hard to experience. My dad lost his job after the recession hit, and missed one house payment. Within a few months, we were kicked out of the house I grew up in the only home I knew. We were less than two years away from paying off the mortgage and owning it for good. It was really hard on me moving all our things out during exams, and I felt like I was losing a large part of my identity. I left a lot of who I thought I was in that house. The express amount of time we had to move out, throw away all my childhood belongings and memories was hard, but ultimately, cleansing. “Foreclosed But Not Forever,” to me, means that sometimes our dreams shatter around us, but it is never permanent. Homes are fluid and that, even though we may lose our belongings, it’s pertinent to not lose yourself in the process.
3. You asked other artists in the area to join you for this show. Name some of those artists and pieces that really brought out the things you were looking to highlight.
I had the support of a lot of great local artists and national artists.
Nico Amortegui, who hails from Cali, Colombia, paints about his experiences growing up in a mafia-run city that skewed his perception of right and wrong, as many of the mobsters were children just trying to provide for their families.
Christina Welsh, a local photographer and artist who displayed pieces from her “Metal Men” series of black and white photography featuring local homeless men on their daily treks to and from the metal scrap yards.
Lori Penland, a Charlotte-based collage artist who deals with the delusion of the American dream and its never-ending conquest for money.
Martin Shirley, a local abstract artist who does insanely detailed and psychedelic drawings based around his emotional reactions to growing into a money-crazed society.
Me (Bree Stallings), the first two from “Foreclosed But Not Forever,” the last from my old series “What Are Your Flies?”
4. How was the night of the show? What was it like?
The night of the show was fantastic! As you can see, the full title was Modern Poverty: An Introspective Art Show. I curated the show so that international and local poverty issues were juxtaposed, which caused people to slow down and think about the huge, global but still very present reality of poverty. Since I was raising money for AIDS orphans, I filled the room with HIV/AIDS facts that were framed and hung in every window and in-between paintings. I had a few people come to me and say it forced them to not rush through the show and they kept bouncing between pieces and walking in a different direction to get a different reaction. It was a delight to see so many people I didn’t recognize that had heard about it through local news media and were interested in hearing what it was all about. At one point, we had to keep people from coming in because we were at fire capacity (which I think is like 250 people in this small gallery). It got a lot of people talking and that was the whole goal. I know not everyone can give money, but to have a conscious, meditated thought about poverty and the small actions we can take to tackle a large problem.
5. This project raised money for an AIDS orphanage and students in Cape Town wanting to pursue art or music. How exactly did you raise this money and how much was raised overall?
The artists agreed to show their pieces with a hefty 50 percent commission that would go to the fundraiser. We sold two pieces and got a lot of donations, raising over a $1,000 that has gone to the owner of the orphanage, a kind, gentle woman who likes to be referred to as MaMa. We speak regularly through e-mail and she says she has enough tuberculosis medicine for all the children for three months, and the electricity bill is paid for a while, which is a huge weight off her shoulders.
6. What are some comments you received regarding the show from others?
Many people were excited and eager to get involved. It was amazing getting to hand pick artists and their pieces and then seeing the reactions. So many people had personal stories they shared with me, too, about their childhood or recent experiences. I believe it shed some light on the fact that all of us interact with poverty and see it on many levels in our daily lives. The challenge is to turn that into something expressively beautiful and to get people to introspectively decide they want to not only uplift themselves, but empower others, too.
7. Tell me about your upcoming efforts. I know you said you are hosting something similar soon. Give me some details on that project.
I am the Program Director for a local non-profit, Project Art Aid, and we give micro-grants to artists in the community that want to use their creativity to enhance the Charlotte scene. From hearing the many proposals we’ve gone through, I’ve come to realize that locally, we have a huge problem, too. The difference in a low-end and a high-end school here is outrageous, some schools notably having no windows in their classrooms or holes in the cafeteria floors. We have a huge homeless population, and an increasingly large group of people living at or near the poverty line. Again, growing up, our power would get turned off often. Just because sometimes, we didn’t have the money, and cold, dark showers in the morning before school became easier as time went on. We always got it turned back on, but with lots of love and support from our extended family.
Likewise, I began thinking of those who don’t have immediate help. I reached out to the energy powerhouse corporation here in the Carolinas, Duke Energy, and have obtained a list of people who are struggling to pay their electricity bills and would be interested in being “sponsored” for my art show. Those who are picked, after a short essay and interview, will be who we are fundraising for to pay their past due bills. The show will be called “Lights Out,” and the only restriction this time is that the work must light itself up somehow. Glow in the dark paint, neon backlight, candles, whatever. I want the venue to be pretty dark (lights out) so that the work really pops off the wall. I’m having a local performance group come and do a projection-based dance number, too, and hopefully will have some live music performances, too. Again, the commission will be split 50/50 (to the artist, to the fundraiser), and I expect another large turn-out. Admission will be $5, or an energy efficient bulb. The goal with that is to collect a large amount of bulbs to give to these families in need of help, and those who maybe didn’t get picked to be sponsored, so at least we can effectively lower their future energy bills.
– Samantha Davis