By Jonathan McFadden
At first blush, you might not guess that Unique Patton and Tom Stanley have much in common.
Unique is a 20-year-old Black design student at N.C. State University. Tom is a 71-year-old white retired college professor living in Rock Hill, S.C. Unique’s career is just taking off; Tom jokes that his is in a cargo container floating out to sea. Unique graduated high school with her diploma and an engineering certificate. Tom has exhibited paintings at galleries in Germany, Switzerland, France and Portugal.
But for all their differences, there is one significant similarity between the two: They’ve got a penchant for public art projects that inspire communities.
Next year, two new bus shelters will be installed in the mostly minority Hidden Valley neighborhood in northeast Charlotte. Both will feature side panels designed by Unique and Tom, who ASC commissioned to design elements that would enhance safety and walkability along Tom Hunter Road. Funding is provided through the City of Charlotte ordinance that appropriates 1 percent of eligible capital improvement project funds for public art.
While the duo initially planned to create directional signage, they pivoted once they realized neighbors in Hidden Valley had a more immediate need.
“When Unique and I did a walking tour of Tom Hunter Road together, we noticed two bus stops with just a sign,” Tom said. “There’s no bus shelter. We’d see people sitting on rocks and trash cans waiting for a bus. One thing led to another” and they decided to make designs for bus shelters instead.
“If I hadn’t visited Unique and her family…I wouldn’t have realized this,” he said. “It’s really important to connect with the voice of the community.”
For Tom, Unique has provided a conduit to that voice. Since middle school, Unique and her family have lived in Hidden Valley, which she says has been unfairly stereotyped as dangerous. That hasn’t been her experience, but she uses those perceptions to fuel her passions.
“There’s a really big contrast between the people who live here (and how they feel about Hidden Valley) versus the stories from people on the outside looking in,” Unique said. “I want to be able to make art that shares people’s voices and shows their experiences.”
A friendship forms
Consider the bus shelters Phase Two of a years-long collaboration between Unique and Tom.
In 2012, Tom partnered with the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) to produce art that beautified the Tom Hunter light rail station on the LYNX Blue Line. Realizing that residents might be skeptical, he enlisted help from elementary and middle school students who shared with him the best things about living in their neighborhood.
The middle school students wrote poems about their community, and Tom incorporated their words into his design. One of those young authors was Unique, who penned words like “peace in the community like a hug from your mother…” and “…the sound of a bird’s song, the taste of a sweet potato pie…that is peace in the community.”
Those words inspired the text that appears on the platform shelter columns at the Tom Hunter Road rail station and include expressions like “Familia” and “Live.”
Some years later, ASC commissioned Tom to create more public art for the City of Charlotte’s $5.2 million plan to improve Tom Hunter Road’s streetscape. Along with adding wider sidewalks, street trees and decorative lighting, the city aims to give residents easier access to Hidden Valley, North Tryon Street and the light rail.
“We want the community to take pride in the project in a way that they feel like they positively contributed,” said Chris Lange, the art in transit program administrator for CATS, which is responsible for maintaining the bus shelters once they’re installed. “Art has been part of transportation-related infrastructure projects since the 1970s. (Public art) encourages ridership, improves perception of transit, conveys customer care and value and enhances the customer experience.”
When he joined the project, Tom looked for someone in Hidden Valley who could help him get community buy-in. He remembered Unique after watching a video chronicling the earlier light rail project. “She was very enthusiastic and very sharp,” Tom recalled. “She said, ‘Maybe I can be an artist, too.’ She had this creative drive that I found intriguing.”
After finding her senior project, “The Aesthetic Effect on Infrastructure,” he knew the two had to work together.
A team is born
In August 2019, Unique and Tom got to work. Unique collected stories and quotes from Hidden Valley neighbors; their words will be featured on the shelters’ panels. Tom leveraged his administrative expertise as Winthrop University’s former chair of the Department of Fine Arts to wrangle together various stakeholders and keep the project moving.
They finished their designs in less than a year, in spite of the pandemic preventing them from meeting in person. As they await the shelters’ installation, they’ve reflected on the nature of their partnership, which has evolved into a bond between mentee and mentor.
“One of our next major goals is to identify the best possible internship for Unique this summer that’s going to take her to another level,” Tom said. “I’ll do everything I can to try to help her.”
Lashona Byrd, Unique’s mother, is grateful for Tom’s help, calling his friendship with her daughter “honorable.”
“It’s like they feed off each other’s work,” she said. Though grateful and proud, Lashona’s not surprised that her daughter has already wowed people with her art.
“When Unique was 3 or 5, she was already trying to make stuff for me,” Lashona said. “I always say that she’s my miracle child. When I didn’t think I’d be able to have any kids, God blessed me with Unique. I knew I had something special.
“She wants to give the world a gift. A gift of love. Her art is her love.”
Talk to the young artist, and it’s clear that she pours heart and soul into her work.
“It’s always in my heart to help minority communities,” Unique said. “I’m super blessed to, in a sense, record my community’s voice in a visual piece that other people can see.”