In the back corner of Amy Bagwell’s art studio, beneath pictures she clipped from old Fortune magazines, a blonde wig rests on top of a table saw. Beneath that is a bottle of Buffalo Trace whiskey, Bagwell’s drink of choice when she wants to transition from a day of teaching English at Central Piedmont Community College to an evening of creating art at the Goodyear Arts building uptown. This cramped room, with its concrete floors and Bagwell’s collection of dead insects on the desk, is one of the few places she can concentrate on her own work.
A native of Columbus, Georgia, Bagwell moved to Charlotte 15 years ago with her husband, Brent. After receiving her MFA in poetry from Queens University in 2009, she quietly began transforming the city’s cultural scene.
She’s co-chair of literary events at CPCC’s Sensoria arts festival (the 2017 edition begins March 31, with author George Saunders as a star attraction) and she teaches at the college full-time. When she’s not teaching, she creates mixed-media collages— often with light boxes, found objects, and poetry — to display at galleries around the state. Her poem “Now is Fireworks” became a mural and public art installation in Elizabeth last April.
All I ever wanted to do was read and think about words.
In 2013, Bagwell and a former student of hers, artist Graham Carew, launched Wall Poems of Charlotte — a nonprofit that covers the sides of buildings with giant murals and poetry. Two years later, officials at Crescent Communities wondered what to do with the former Goodyear tire center on East Stonewall Street. They eventually planned to demolish it to make room for an office tower, but wanted to give it a new life in the meantime. When they asked Bagwell, Carew and fellow artist Amy Herman for advice, an unusual plan emerged: Give artists temporary residencies and space to show their work. The program was so successful it lasted until January 2016.
Developer Daniel Levine soon offered up a second building: the former Comedy Zone on North College Street. Goodyear Arts now provides residencies and performance space there for visual artists, filmmakers, fiction writers, photographers, musicians, actors and dancers. Bagwell and her colleagues’ lease (now from owner Lennar) extends into June, and they are in the final steps of securing a third location that Goodyear hopes to move into as soon as possible, she says. Meanwhile, three new Wall Poems are slated to go up in South End by fall.
Here, Bagwell, 45, talks about how she started pairing words with images, finding space for art in Charlotte, and her mission to bring poetry to the people. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Q. Which was your first love, visual art or poetry?
The words always come first for me, I’m a word person. I have no art training. All my education is in English and literature. Making the art came as a way to give the poems context and give them environments. I wanted to share my writing with people but … I didn’t like to read in front of people. So I was trying to figure out another way to communicate the work to an audience. And so I started showing them on gallery walls with an artist friend of mine. Then it wasn’t very long before I started thinking of those things as not just poems on walls, but as art.
Every time I make a construction, you know, a box, it’s something that if I could, I would live in.
It’s like a dreamworld where the poem would live or could live maybe, or where it exists.
Q. When you say “poems on walls” it makes me think of the Wall Poems.
Right. I’m a total one-trick pony. Everything, it’s all the same for me. The Wall Poems were an extension of that. If I can put poems on a wall in a gallery and have people see them, it only makes sense to take that bigger and broader. I didn’t make up the idea. I learned about the 101 [Wall] Poems in Leiden, Holland – I learned about that in graduate school. When I first saw them I said “Well, we have to do that here.”
Q. What made you want to put the poems on abandoned buildings?
It wasn’t our intention to put them in places where the walls were – necessarily abandoned buildings or derelict buildings – but where there is space. And especially where there are the most people and the largest variety of people. Because people don’t have access to poetry and that’s a problem – which is why we do what we do with the Wall Poems. The mission is to get poetry to people because all of the poems belong to all of the people.
Q. When did you know that you wanted to be a poet?
All I ever wanted to do was read and think about words. I remember writing poems first in about the third grade. What took me a long time to realize was that I wanted to teach. I didn’t figure that out until my last – literally my last day of graduate school – when we had to teach a seminar to our classmates. And I was so nervous. And I taught it on getting poetry to people ... and it ended up being the road map for all of these things that we’ve been doing.
Q. You’re teaching full-time and you’re involved in so many different projects in the community. What’s driving that?
The reason I’m a teacher is because of the students. The reason that I’m doing this – I like having studio space, but we didn’t have that at the old [Goodyear tire] building. The reason I do this is because these artists are so incredible. And I get to be around fellow artists – people I love and respect and admire and who challenge each other and make me want to work harder.
Is there a big literary scene here? There’s not. But there are people writing and it’s growing.
Q. Do you think this is a good city in which to be a poet?
(Laughter). I’m not sure there is a good city in which to be a poet. That’s a really good question. God, can I be a poet in Paris in the 1920s? (More laughter). Nobody cares about poetry anymore. I mean that’s just the fact. And it’s not anybody’s fault. It’s in the margins, because just like jazz … it’s been taken over by the elite and the academic. And it’s really frustrating because those are both, at the core, people’s expressions.
Charlotte is a great city to be in as me. ... Is there a big literary scene here? There’s not. But there are people writing and it’s growing.
Q. What are you working on next?
I’m always writing and I’m working on having a show of my own work, a duo show with Renee Cloud. And we’re hoping to open later this year. And we haven’t planned it yet, it’s very much in the works. I’ve applied to some residency programs because I’d like to do some of that myself – go places and do stuff. But that is the challenge. I’ve got to carve that time out to work on my own.
Q. What would you tell artists who say it’s a real struggle to get their work shown and to make a living here?
I know a lot of artists who abandon Charlotte and move to other places because they can’t find an audience, or they can’t find places to show or perform. And part of the reason that we exist is that there was that sort of gap between where [you do your] first show and when you’re in a museum – like what’s in between those two things. So we’re kind of trying to fill that space.
We lost so many of our art galleries in the recession and before, during the development boom. And it’s really expensive to run an art gallery and it’s really hard to keep it going, because you’re depending on art sales to stay open. Well, luckily, we have other sources of funding so that we can operate as an art gallery and a studio space but not have to be worried about, “Oh my God, if we don’t sell x amount of art we’re gonna have to shut down.”
Q. Now you’re putting art in buildings that are going to be torn down.
We’re not doing this as protest. We’re doing this because artists need – our mission comes down to the truth that artists need space, time, money and community. But we loved the fact that in the first building, in particular, we could alter the building. Because we were giving something a send-off. You know, by putting murals all over it and taking parts of it down, and Matt Steele ramming his 70-foot steel sculpture through the wall. It was a way to really commemorate – like it was a wake. I always says it’s like a Viking funeral. And then they demolish the building with all of that art on it, and that was the intention all along: We’re gonna put this stuff on this building and then it’s all gonna go down...
Lisa Rab is a Charlotte-based journalist whose work has appeared in Mother Jones, Politico Magazine, and The Washington Post. Reach her at email@example.com.