McColl Center visiting artist Dustin Farnsworth has some weighty concerns about the world being left to future generations, and that’s increasingly reflected in his artwork.
In the past five years, Farnsworth has sculpted a series of busts of youth wearing elaborate headdresses influenced by historic architectural forms. The headdresses represent the weight today’s youth will inherit: cultural, societal, familial, he said.
Several of his works-in-progress at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation speak to the current clime of police shootings and protests across the country. He arrived in Charlotte shortly after the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott sparked protests. Incidentally, he had also been in Madison, WI., where similar protests broke out after the shooting death of 19-year-old Tony Robinson.
His current project — a 6-foot sculpture modeled on a 10-year-old Charlotte youth — will incorporate audio for the first time. The goal is to capture the hopes and fears of local youth and add them to the “provocative conversation in this town,” he said.
I spoke with Farnsworth about his latest work, some of which will be on display in an exhibition April 14, at the McColl Center. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. How has living in two cities in the aftermath of police shooting deaths and community protests influenced your recent artworks?
My work leading up to my time spent in Madison and Charlotte was based on projections of what I felt youth were experiencing and the weight associated with the world they are inheriting.
Witnessing communities in strife – seeing protest movements demanding change castrated, edited and overlooked by national reporting – is appalling. Being present in these communities and seeing this firsthand was a call to make my work more specific. To join hands in that protest. To use specific skills and collaboration to help strengthen these communities and build awareness to those outside of them.
My collaborator on the piece WAKE II, sign painter Timothy Maddox of Asheville, has been working on the front lines of protests, helping people get their messages seen. He’s experienced the protests in Charlotte, Asheville, and Portland firsthand. Conversations about his experiences and the vast disparity between what happened and what was reported in the newspapers were the foundation for this collaboration.
Q. Tell me more about your collaboration with Maddox.
My original piece, WAKE, was an arrangement of 287 cast masks, wall-mounted and overlaying a black graphic chevron of two reversed American flags (without stars). WAKE evolved during a dense period of U.S. school shootings and mass abductions carried out by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram in Africa.
As these events were reported in the news, the response was sedated. WAKE was used for its dual meaning – to hold a vigil beside someone who has died or to emerge or cause to emerge from a state of sleep. The piece was intended as a memorial and as a call to action.
Timothy and I discussed the intentions of the original piece, and although the protests covered a lot of ground, they also boiled down to the same “call to action” to a public remaining largely silent.
I provided the canvas and creative space to let Timothy approach the project however he saw fit. He really challenged himself by painting protest signs in miniature, photographing them billowing in the wind, and then projected them onto the canvas with much more dimensionality than a hand-painted sign would have alone. The specific slogans of the banners and their arrangement are all 100% Timothy. It looked nothing like I had imagined, and all the better for it.
Q. One of the messages from the protests movement is to stay “woke.” Is it coincidental that your mask installation is titled WAKE?
This inception of this piece came before these current protests, but this speaks of solidarity of those demanding justice and change. Equal rights. Equal treatment. Equal protection.This piece is just one of the many blood cells in the pulse of these movements.
Q. In your studio, there was a funerary vessel with several hundred black dipped carnations. Tell me more about that project.
In 2015, I shared a residency in Wisconsin with Eric Adjetey Anang, a third-generation coffin carver from Ghana. Eric’s grandfather, Seth Kane Kwei, is credited with beginning the tradition of fantasy coffins, called Abebuu Adekai by the Ga people. Eric and I spent a great deal of time discussing the different ways our cultures mourned or celebrated death while working through the killing of Tony Robinson. The contrast of a typically somber, black-clad U.S. funeral versus the paraded fantasy coffins of the Ghanaian people is stark.
We both set out to honor Tony and other youth lost to police violence in our own ways. I created a funerary vessel that borrows from a number of different cultural traditions involving death. The structure borrows from nature, a maple seed pod, for its grace of form reminiscent of vertical headdresses. The construction of that form borrows from boat-building and aeronautical design to create a surreal vehicle that would protect its passengers while traversing the air or water, crossing the river Styx.
The passenger was the most difficult component – one that has been evolving for several months. It was important for the figure to remain anonymous and universal. Recently, I returned to an idea from a previous piece from 2012. In The Bones Of, an elderly man sits on an abandoned and deteriorated stage dipping hundreds of flowers into black paint. The duality of that act, death and preservation, fit in place of the figure in the piece I titled styx / vodun. Although the version of the piece exhibited at the McColl will not include the actual dipping of the flowers, the sarcophagus-shaped stretcher inside the piece will carry the preserved flowers.
Q. Your Charlotte project, unlike other sculptures in the series, will not have an architectural headdress. Why is that?
As I began to have conversations with local residents, I became aware that most of the historic architecture in Charlotte was destroyed and that many of the neighborhoods were gentrified. The absence of a headdress, as compared to the other works in the series, became a more powerful statement. The result is a nearly 6′ high portrait of a youth with the top of the head truncated where a headdress or crown would have sat. Evidence of concrete footings, a vital part of foundation construction, will be incised around the head below the truncation. Remnants of that structure, including ash, will wash down the face from above.
The finished portrait of a contemporary African American youth will allude to and draw parallels to ancient Roman statuary as it exists today, with holes in the marble surface, stained with verdigris where we imagine a bronze laurel wreath would have sat.
Q. What do you want to leave behind when you leave Charlotte?
My goal is to add to the record of provocative conversation in this town, in hopes that the conversation continues to churn and build on those notes played. For me, the long-term goal is to create work that operates like jazz. Visual communication is the medium and some of the collaborators are craft, process, materials, concept, research, and narrative. Right now I’m trying to work with the pulse of culture through recordings of youth. The other tools soften while that new player begins a solo.
That thing I hope to leave is an image that is hard to erase. Something that begs more questions and keeps us from becoming complacent in our missteps.
About the Exhibition
“Tell Me More” showcases Dustin Farnsworth and two other McColl Center artists — Joyce J. Scott and Mary Tuma. Free admission, lively music and cash bar.
When: Friday, April 14, 6-9 p.m.
Where: McColl Center for Art + Innovation, 721 N. Tryon St.
About Dustin Farnsworth:
Farnsworth, 33, was born in Lansing, MI., and graduated with a BFA from Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, MI. He and his partner Erika Adams, have 5 1/2-month-old twin boys.