Why This Matters: The “Sedgefield Totem” brings more neighborhood-based public art to Charlotte.
By Bernie Petit
For Central Piedmont Community College instructor Paula Smith, creating “Sedgefield Totem” for Charlotte’s Sedgefield neighborhood was akin to a master’s class in public art.
The artwork, dedicated in June, is a result of the Neighborhoods in Creative pARTnership initiative launched by the City of Charlotte, the Public Art Commission and ASC to bring more neighborhood-based public art to the city.
The project required Smith to incorporate feedback she received throughout the creative process – from neighborhood representatives, city and ASC staff and the Public Art Commission – into her work.
It was a learning experience for the ceramic artist.
“As an artist, I have made many different types of sculpture and functional art,” she said. “This piece involved many voices, opinions, safety requirements. These are part of the process.
“I tried to take in all of these parts of the process and come to a final design that I hope makes everyone happy.”
Smith knew Sedgefield residents wanted the artwork to be vertical and whimsical, with bright primary colors artist reminiscent of those found in many of the sculptures created by Niki de Saint Phalle (best known locally as the creator of the “Firebird” in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art at Levine Center for the Arts).
Residents also wanted to see important elements of the neighborhood’s history represented in the piece.
The idea of a totem made sense to Smith. Historically, the traditional Native American artworks tell stories visually. And here, “Sedgefield Totem” tells the story of a neighborhood from the base up.
The tree tiles reference the early families that farmed the land. Floral imagery references the first Charlotte Garden Club, which originated in Sedgefield.
“Selfie” tiles of animals, faces and object mementos were created at a neighborhood workshop that allowed residents to create clay tiles of imagery meaningful to them. The 13-foot totem is topped with a stylized pineapple, a welcoming symbol signifying hospitality.
“It was a unique situation of stepping back and looking at how do I put all of these things together in a piece of sculpture and make it successful?” she said. “It’s really an accumulation of all of these different voices coming together and through the blender of Paula.”
That’s evident through Smith’s inclusion of a tile depicting a farmer floating over his farm – which reminded her of the predicament encountered by the protagonist of the song “And She Was” by ’80s pop band the Talking Heads.
“It’s about bringing your own personality and your own life experiences into the piece and going, ‘That song inspired the piece,’” she said, “but again, nobody would walk up and say ‘Talking Heads.’”
Some people will have questions upon seeing the totem. That’s exactly what Smith wants.
“I want people to stop their cars and say ‘What the heck is that?’” she said. “When they get out of the car, I want them to see all of the little elements in the mosaic. I want to engage people’s curiosity.”
Through the Neighborhoods in Creative pARTnership initiative, the Charlotte neighborhoods of Grove Park, Reid Park and Elizabeth have also received public artwork. The Shamrock Drive corridor will receive public artwork in the future.