50 for 50: Chuck Davis

Story by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Raleigh native Charles R. “Chuck” Davis, who became one of the world’s foremost teachers and choreographers of African dance, passed away in 2017. A distinguished teacher, choreographer, and ambassador for dance, Davis is remembered across North Carolina and the country for his artistry, his contributions to American dance and his ability to use art to promote peace and healing.

Last spring, Davis was interviewed by Arts Council staff for its 50 for 50 project. Here’s Davis on Arts Across NC, reflecting on his time on the North Carolina Arts Council Board:



Chuck Davis founded the Chuck Davis Dance Company in New York in 1968 and, in 1982, returned to his native North Carolina to create the African American Dance Ensemble.



Davis received the North Carolina Award for Fine Arts in 1992, the state's highest honor. Davis has received many other awards and other recognition for his accomplishments, including an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the City University of New York in 1998 and Dance Heritage Coalition recognition as one of the first 100 Irreplaceable Dance Treasures in the US in 2000.

Learn more about the legacy of Chuck Davis in this UNC-TV feature







Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: David Sedaris

Story by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

David Sedaris moved from Binghamton, NY to Raleigh, NC right before he started the third grade, and one of the first words he learned here was Yankee. Adjusting to life in North Carolina wasn't easy, but David found his place in the arts.





In an exclusive interview for the North Carolina Arts Council's 50 for 50 Project, best-selling author David Sedaris shares his North Carolina Arts story on our podcast Arts Across NC.


Arts Across NC is a podcast by and about the North Carolina Arts Council. The show is produced and hosted by Sandra Davidson. Our original score was created by Phil Cook. 



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Helena Price

Photos by Helena Price | Interview by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Helena Price may have photographed a U.S. President, professional athletes, and Silicon Valley CEOs, but her journey to photography began with a disposable camera from a Walmart in North Carolina. In 2009, Helena, a New Bern native, moved to San Francisco with $40 in her pocket after graduating from N.C. State to pursue a public relations job in tech. Her life took a turn in 2013 when she quit a position at a startup to pursue photography full-time. Since then, she’s built a career as an editorial, commercial and portrait photographer and been dubbed Silicon Valley's most wanted photographer. To date, her work has been featured in Time, Glamour, and Elle magazines, The Guardian and NPR.

Helena reflects on her artistic journey, the interdisciplinary value of the arts, and her North Carolina roots in our 50 for 50 interview.*

When did your passion for photography begin?

When I was about 6-years-old, my dad gave me a disposable camera from Walmart. My first subjects were my stuffed animals, my pets, [and] my little brother. By high school I would photograph everything. I didn’t even think about it as a creative thing...it was just more of this compulsion to capture and save these things, these memories, which I think is a pretty common thing now, but no one else was really doing that when I was growing up.

It did take me a really long time to think of photography as something that I could do for a living...or even as a creative endeavor. I just knew that I liked taking pictures. I’m from a smaller town, and at the time our arts education was a bit limited. We were told that if you liked art, then your one choice was to be an art teacher and to paint and to draw, and so that’s what I thought creative or artistic work was. As I got older I started to encounter the idea that people made photos for a purpose, but honestly it just didn’t even feel like a realistic option for me until halfway through my 20s.





You started pursuing photography full-time at 25, and quickly found your niche in Silicon Valley. Why you were drawn to tech?

I was living in New York at the time, and there were lots and lots of photographers trying to make it there, and there were a lot of people who were trying to quit their jobs to become a photographer because of Instagram. So I felt like I really needed to think hard about how I was going to find a sustainable business as a photographer.

I’ve worked in technology for years, and I love technology. I know it like the back of my hand, and when I first started in tech people almost shunned design altogether. It was very much about building a product quickly and getting it to market, but I had a hunch that Silicon Valley was just starting to become interested in branding and visual outlets. So I had a hunch that tech was starting to care about photos, but no photographers cared about tech, except for me. That felt like an opportunity, so I decided to move back to Silicon Valley from New York and really dig into a market that I wasn’t sure existed yet, but I had a hunch existed. Very quickly it became obvious that I tapped into a very large market that no one else was looking at.






Helena created Techies, a large-scale photo/storytelling project sharing 100 stories of underrepresented tech employees in Silicon Valley, over the course of three months in 2016. The project had two main goals: to show the outside world a more comprehensive picture of people who work in tech, and to bring a bit of attention to folks in the industry whose stories have never been heard, considered or celebrated. Since its launch, the Techies Project has been profiled on ABC, CNN, Newsweek, NPR, Fortune, Fast Company, The Guardian, Elle and more.







Helena created Banned, a multimedia project showcasing unique stories of Silicon Valley employees affected by new federal immigration policies. The project received recognition on CNN, Glamour, TIME, and more.






You are commissioned to do a variety of projects - editorial, commercial and portraiture, but you’ve said you particularly love portrait photography. Why is that?

I’ve always loved combining disciplines, and to me portraiture is this combination of technical skill...making the perfect photo that is perfectly lit, balanced, and exposed properly...and then you’ve got the other side which is psychological. You have a person coming into your studio, and they’ve probably never met you before. Sometimes they don’t even want to be photographed. [Maybe] it’s their assistant or their branding director who commissioned the photograph. They have their own insecurities as we all do. They have things they hate about themselves. They don’t want to have their picture taken because they don’t know me, because they don’t trust me. It’s a very scary thing, and they’re supposed to just stand in front of a plain background and let me do whatever I want with their image.

For me, it’s a really interesting and rewarding challenge. I have 30 seconds to take this stranger and make them into my friend, and make them feel comfortable, and make them trust me. Before they know it, it’s done, and they have a photograph of themselves where they look comfortable, where they look their best. That combination of technical perfection and psychological improvisation satisfies every bit of my brain. It's the perfect left brain, right brain combination. It’s such a challenge and so rewarding every single time/

So much of your work has taken place in the world of tech. What do the arts bring to that universe?

There are a lot of folks who think creativity is just something that artists have and that only artists need.

Being creative is good. Being creative is valuable no matter what you’re doing, whether you're a mathematician, or a teacher, or a doctor, or a painter.

Any of those careers would benefit immensely from creative thinking, and thinking outside the box. In reality, creativity is part of what makes something like Silicon Valley so successful. It’s not, ‘Can you paint something beautiful?’ It’s, ‘Can you problem solve quickly? Can you adapt to industries that are constantly changing? Can you market yourself in a way that’s really compelling to audiences that you want to connect with?’ All of the skills that are tied up in creative thinking have helped me immensely in my career, but could actually just help anyone — no matter what career they are in. These ways of thinking are going to help people survive in industries that are changing over the next 100 years.

When you are experiencing self-doubt or uncertainty in you work, what pushes you through?

I feel uncertainty with every single job that I do. The process is the same every time. It’s me being excited that I got the job, then freaking out wondering if I’m going to be able to do it. Then I go deep into a hole of despair where I question all of my work, and I feel bad about myself, and I think that I’m horrible, and I worry that it’s just for some reason going to be horrible this time. But then I just have to say, ‘You have to do this. You have a job to do. You need to do the job.’ I psych myself back into it, and I do the job, and it’s always fine. It’s just a funny cycle every time.

I think every artist goes through lows, constantly, of doubting yourself and feeling bad about your work and wondering if you’re actually capable of doing something, but then you just do it because you have no choice, and you prove to yourself time and time again that you actually can. It’s a roller coaster.

You seem very rooted in California, so where does North Carolina fit in you story?

Being from North Carolina makes me different from most people where I live. For a long time I supressed my southerness and where I came from because I wanted so badly to fit in in Silicon Valley, but once you are a business owner or your own kind of craft person trying to make a name for yourself, it’s all about being different. It’s all about how you can take your background and the things and the environments that shaped you as a person and feed that into your work to create this holistic picture that is genuinely you. I’ve become a lot more proud of where I come from, and how that has shaped me as a person. There are just parts of being southern that I’m really glad that I adopted...always being kind and very open to people, knowing how to relax,  knowing how to enjoy just sitting on a porch or sitting by a fire or being outside. I feel these things really have balanced me out as a person, and I think will continue to benefit me for the rest of my life.



*This interview has been transcribed, edited and condensed



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Vivian Howard

Story by Sandra Davidson

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Chef, author, and television personality Vivian Howard believes the arts matter, especially in rural North Carolina. In a special multimedia interview* for the North Carolina Arts Council's 50th Anniversary, she reflects on her creative voice, why the award-winning docu-series "A Chef's Life," is "television that improves people's lives," and why access to the arts can transform communities. 

Do you remember the first story you wrote about North Carolina?

The first story I ever wrote about North Carolina was a blog post about making collard kraut with my neighbors in Jones County. I had grown up always wanting to be a writer, but [I] kind of lost my way, and found my way in the kitchen. This blog post about making collard kraut was the first time that I ever blended my love of cooking with my love of storytelling.

Why did you want to be a writer?

I wrote at home and I wrote at school. I was known for being a good writer, and I was known as being a good storyteller. I think you want to do things that you’re good at, so I think that’s why I wanted to be a writer. As a kid it was the way that I expressed myself and often times how I would get out of trouble or how I would get attention. If I wasn’t getting attention at home or if I was in trouble, I would go to my room and write an account of what had happened but embellished quite a bit, and then I’d go out in the kitchen and throw my story on the table and stomp off. Inevitably my parents or my sisters would read it and giggle, and everything would just kind of be smoothed over. 

Tell me about how your first book came to be? 

After the first little bit of our show aired, agents and publishers started contacting me about doing a cookbook. At the time I was being called a cross between Paula Deen and Julia Child, so when I set out to write a cookbook I thought I should write a cookbook that represented what those two people might do if they had a baby. I wrote this proposal that reflected that…and sent it to my agent. I was not thrilled about it, but I was just doing what I thought everybody thought I should do. I couldn’t sleep that night, and the next morning I emailed my agent and said, "Don’t send that proposal to anybody. It’s not the book that I want to write." So I went about writing another proposal that was really lead by the stories of my childhood shaped by food.

I made a list of all the ingredients that I thought represented the food and the larder of Eastern North Carolina, and I chose ingredients based on whether or not I had a story that related to them. I set about writing all those stories first, and then I treated the rest of the chapter like its own book. Every chapter would have a story that represented my connection to that ingredient or Eastern North Carolina's history of that ingredient and a slew of recipes that represent every kind of skill level in the kitchen. 





What was your creative process like for the cookbook, and does it differ from your approach to creating new dishes in your restaurants? 

I did not have any experience as a professional writer, and with that lack of experience comes a lack of confidence. A lot of publishers loved and went to the mat for the proposal I had written, and that gave me some confidence, but I didn’t have enough confidence to share what I was doing until it was done. I didn’t share it with my editor until I had 10 chapters because I didn’t want them to squash my dreams. I just wrote the stories. In many cases the stories are just in my  voice...not my writing voice but my voice. I think it sounds like you’re having a conversation with me.

[I use] the same process [while] cooking and developing dishes at Chef and The Farmer. I think a dish is so much more successful when there’s a story behind it. When I am playing with new ideas for a dish, I always try to root it in something that I know. I try to make sure there’s a reason for everything on the plate and that reason is generally rooted in some story.

You've cultivated a creative voice through your food, through your television show and through your book. How has your voice evolved over time?

When we first opened Chef and The Farmer, I was still very shameful of this place and where I came from and very keen on the idea of educating the people of Eastern North Carolina on the finer points of service and on sophisticated food. That’s what I set out to do. I was not succeeding at that.

About a year-and-a-half in my dad brought me 500 pounds of blueberries, and I did not have time to do anything meaningful with them over the weekend, and so they sat and started to rot. The only thing I could do to save them was make vinegar, so I made a blueberry vinegar and turned that blueberry vinegar into a barbecue sauce that represented Eastern North Carolina vinegar based barbecue sauce. Then I made barbecue chicken with it which was actually the thing that I grew up eating far more often than whole hog barbecue which Eastern North Carolina is known for.  That night we sold ten times more barbecue than anything else, and I felt like for the first time I had made something that was in my own voice. I'd taken my chef sensibilities of knowing how to make vinegar with fruit, and applied it to a dish that Eastern North Carolina is known for and made it personal with the twist of using chicken.

I may be slow but I’m not dense, so I realized that I was on to something and I started paying attention to the people and the food around me. I went to buffets which I would never have dreamt of studying before. I paid attention to the covered dish lunches at my mom’s church. I read every spiral bound church cookbook from Eastern North Carolina I could get my hands on, and I tried to incorporate what I had learned into my cooking at the restaurant and it really transformed our business. People from other parts of the state started traveling here far before the show because we were doing something rooted in something real and rooted in this place that is very rarely celebrated. The people of Eastern North Carolina responded to it because it was familiar but different. It didn’t compete with their grandmother’s banana pudding, but it was approachable and exciting. People from elsewhere responded to it for the same reason. I really credit the steam tables of Eastern North Carolina with unveilng what my professional and artistic voice is.  







Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Beverly McIver

Interview by Sandra Davidson

Friday, September 15, 2017

Beverly McIver is an acclaimed contemporary visual artist from Greensboro, N.C. She received the Rome Prize Fellowship in 2017, and is currently on sabbatical from her position as the Ebenshade Professor of the Practice in Studio Arts at Duke University. Her relationship with the North Carolina Arts Council spans decades, and began in 1994 when she received the North Carolina Arts Council’s Artist Fellowship.





When did you first start painting?

I actually didn’t start painting until my second year at North Carolina Central University [when] I took a painting class as an elective. I had a really great teacher there, Elizabeth, and she believed in me in a really nice way. She told me if I worked hard at painting then I could be good at it. So I started painting, and I’ve been painting ever since.

What about it clicked with you?

I think the biggest thing is having Elizabeth believe in me and say, “You can do this. You have talent. You can make a living as an artist.” That was the first time I had ever heard that because [of] the stereotype [that] artists are poor. I totally didn’t want to be poor because I had come from poverty and wasn’t interested in repeating that.

You received the North Carolina Arts Council Artist Fellowship in 1994. What was going on for you as a painter then?

I was working [as an] adjunct, and I was renting out a little condo in Durham. I had the second bedroom as my studio, and I was constantly painting. I was making portraits of my sister Renee, who is mentally disabled, [that explored] the struggle of having someone with special needs in your life.  She is 57 years old, but she has the mindset of a third grader, and she has epilepsy. When I got the grant, it was such an honor and a confirmation for me about my skills as an artist, about my voice as an artist, and [about] how important it was that I was saying something that was fairly personal but universal at the same time.

How quickly did you gravitate to painting about your family and subjects that are very personal to you?

I started making paintings of my sister Renee [when] I started having dreams about how violent Renee was when we were growing up as children, and how she would throw me down the steps or hit me. My mother would always say, “She can’t help it, and you shouldn’t hit her back.” I was out of school at the time, and I was terrified. I was feeling really angry and sad and guilty, and just a real mixed bag of emotions, but my teacher Elizabeth was like, “Just keep painting them. Just keep making them.” So that’s what I did. That’s how it started. I ruined several brushes. Made maybe 15 paintings about what it was like to grow up with Renee and be in Renee’s shadow.

Once I had let that voice come through, the voice that guides me and tells me what to paint next has just gotten stronger and stronger over the years. Now I listen to it, and I don’t feel like I have too much of a say in what comes up. It just comes out.













How else has the North Carolina Arts Council supported your career?

There used to be a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts where the North Carolina Arts Council would send two artists to Sausalito, California for three months to paint. I was fortunate enough to get that, and it was fantastic. One of my favorite artists is Richard Diebenkorn, and I was able to see and understand that work so much better at a time when I was just learning and experimenting about paint color and overlay by going to Northern California where he mostly painted. There was a project grant that I received from the North Carolina Arts Council. There was a Fellowship Grant that I received. Those programs, those experiences really, really changed my life.

I’m just eternally grateful to the North Carolina Arts Council for supporting me as a young artist.

You now teach workshops for the North Carolina Arts Council at the annual Creative Capital gatherings. Will you talk about what that means to you?

One of the great things that the North Carolina Arts Council does every year is invite Creative Capital, an organization out of New York City, to teach North Carolina artists the business of being an artist. I’ve been fortunate to teach that workshop every year. Thank God for Jeff Pettus who understands and really sees the importance of that workshop for North Carolina artists.

Because I am from North Carolina, I feel especially proud that I actually get to come back each year and stand in front of 27 artists from all parts of North Carolina and say, “You can be successful. You can make money at this. This is how you organize your business as an artist so that you can be successful...whatever that means to you.” For some people it means having a lovely studio space, [to] other people it means showing and exhibiting their work beyond North Carolina. We talk to a lot of different artists, not just visual artists, but writers and musicians— the whole gamut. We teach them how to write a business plan, and how to be a professional artist.

How did you sort through and figure that out for yourself...how to be a successful artist?

 The work is first. It’s important to do your work and not let naysayers, or people in the community, or your gallery dealer, or whoever, influence what your intuition is telling you [to] be painting. If I painted flowers or something more aesthetically pleasing, I could probably make more money, but it would not make it possible, perhaps, for me to get the Guggenheim Award or the Rome Prize because they want very strong conceptual ideas about things that are happening in the world.

Then [I’d say] to organize yourself in a way. Keep a mailing list of people who are curators and relevant in the field of art, so that they know what you’re doing.  I’ve always had to-do lists, but now I prioritize those lists and [the] things that are important, and [I] figure out action plans to move to the next step. What do I need to do now? How do I keep my name out there? What's available grant-wise that I can apply for? Who’s curating? It’s a combination of all those things. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around some good savvy business people who have taught me those things, and I love passing it on to younger artists.

How can North Carolina better support artists?

North Carolina has done a really good job of supporting artists over the years, [and] how lovely it would be if North Carolina could support artists more by providing cheaper housing for artists, by creating studio spaces that are affordable. Imagine if we had more gallery spaces that actually showed and sold artist's’ work, and [more] programs like Creative Capital coming to North Carolina to teach artists the business so they can be sustainable. It would just be lovely to have that kind of support.







Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Daniel Wallace

Story, Photo and Video by Sandra Davidson | Illustrations by Daniel Wallace

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Back in 1991, Daniel Wallace was struggling to catch a break. None of the novels he'd written during the previous eight years had been published, and his support network was openly questioning the merit of him continuing to pursue writing as a career. 

"A number of people asked me, 'Why would you continue doing this if you really gave it all, and it wasn't working out?'" remembers Wallace.  "I don't know why...but one of the things that kept me going were these incremental successes that I had...these things that happened that made me feel like something is happening. Maybe not the big thing is happening, but I'm publishing these stories in little magazines...good magazines, and they're picking my work out of all the work to publish." 

One of those successes came that year, when the North Carolina Arts Council awarded Daniel Wallace an Artist Fellowship. Wallace shares what that fellowship meant to him here:





"When you receive a grant, it's not just for the work you've done, but it's for the work you're going to do. So they see promise," says Wallace. "I think that the grant that I received was a lifeline in a way." 

Wallace has authored six novels and written and illustrated a children's book since receiving the North Carolina Arts Council Artist Fellowship. All have been published. His work has been published in dozens of languages, and his illustrations have appeared in national newspapers, magazines and books.

Today, he's the the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he directs the Creative Writing Program, and his work as an illustrator has taken on a life of its own.

Catch Daniel Wallace at the The ArtsCenter in Carrboro on Thursday October 5 at 5:30 pm. He will share a reading at the State of the Arts of Orange County and North Carolina, an event hosted by the Orange County Arts Commission and the North Carolina Arts Council. 



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Shirlette Ammons

Story by Sandra Davidson

Monday, October 16, 2017

Shirlette Ammons may currently live and create in Durham, but the musician, poet, and producer says her childhood in Beautancus, a tiny town in eastern North Carolina, deeply shaped her artistry.

"We didn't have a lot of money but we had a lot of space, and we were really imaginative," says Shirlette, who grew up singing in church and performing to fields of corn with her twin Shorlette. "I was always inclined to be creative and was always encouraged to be outside. So I grew up with a wonderful backdrop for being a creative person."

Because of her experiences in rural North Carolina, Shirlette is a passionate advocate for rural arts education. She explains why here:





Shirlette is no stranger to public funding for the arts. The N.C. Arts Council awarded Shirlette an Artist Fellowship in 2014, and she's received grants from the Durham Arts Council and the United Arts Council. She reflected on her N.C. Arts Council Fellowship in this episode of Arts Across NC:


Learn more about Shirlette here.



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: The Duffer Brothers

Interview* by Sandra Davidson | Photos courtesy the Duffer Brothers

Monday, October 23, 2017

The wait is almost over. On Friday, October 27th Netflix will premiere the second season of Stranger Things, the Spielberg-esque series that took the world by storm in the summer of 2016. Matt and Ross Duffer, the 33-year-old identical twins who created and directed the hit show, are excited and a bit anxious about the impending premiere. 

“It’s weird,” says Ross Duffer. “We have expectations now. We also know people will watch…which is a new sensation.”

The Duffer Brothers grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and whether they know it or not, North Carolinians are proud to claim the filmmakers. When I caught up with the Duffers for their 50 for 50 interview, I wanted to know how their life in Durham shaped their craft and whether we could ever hope to see a Duffer Brothers project filmed in North Carolina. The answers lie below.





Where did you grow up?

Matt: We grew up in the suburbs of Durham, kind of in the middle of nowhere by a tobacco farm. We had woods and creeks, tobacco fields [and] train tracks. It was beautiful.

When did you start making movies?

Ross: I think we got a video camera in fourth grade. In fifth grade we made our first “feature-length film” which was an adaptation of this card game called Magic: The Gathering. Our best friend lived right next door to us, so he was our partner in making all these movies. Every summer as soon as we got off from school we would all start brainstorming the next movie to make, and we would spend all summer making it. We never went to camp. We just stuck around the neighborhood and wandered around and made these movies. All we’re trying to do with our lives is just capture that feeling again. That’s really what it is.

I hope you still have that old footage!

Matt: We do. I mean it’s a little embarrassing…you don’t want to show it to people publicly, but it’s nice that we have it because it’s a document of the greatest times of our lives. 

Ross: It’s interesting to watch the progression year-by-year. It starts out very crude and becomes a little more sophisticated as we started to learn, and then [our] equipment got better.



Ross Duffer remembers how Durham embraced filmmaking



What drew you both to film?

Matt: I think it was Tim Burton’s Batman. I remember seeing a TV commercial for it and going, ‘I want to see that.’ It was dark for that age and it took a little convincing, but eventually our mom let us see it, and then we fell in love with Tim Burton. He has such a signature style that even at a very young age – like first grade – we were able to track [from] film to film. We started to learn what it meant to be a director, [and] we started to find other directors we liked…obviously, Steven Spielberg being one of the main ones. From that our love for movies grew. Also, our dad was a big movie goer. He’s not in the arts himself, and none of his friends liked going to the movies particularly, so we were his movie-going partners. We just went to every movie regardless of whether it was appropriate or not for children. We went to everything.

I think by early middle school we were pretty determined that this was something we were going to pursue. Aside from our neighbor Tristan, who did everything with us, we were the only ones really into movies as much as we were. We were weird in that sense. We were certainly the only people making movies, so it felt unique until [we moved] out to Los Angeles.

Ross: We had this plan mapped out very early on. We knew that we were going to go to film school, that we were going to California.

Were there early mentors who helped you figure out how to manifest that dream?

Matt: We went to Duke School for elementary and middle school. The teachers found out I loved making movies, and they were very encouraging. No one was like, ‘Let’s be realistic, maybe you should also study to be a lawyer.’ People said, ‘You can do whatever you want to do.’ No one told us how difficult it was going to be. If anything, we were very deluded when we came out here, but I think that was actually good because I think you have to be a little insane.

That’s where we went to school with Charles Frazier’s daughter, and I saw Cold Mountain become a big phenomenon, and that showed me it was possible. We were from this small city in North Carolina, but [we] can still make a cultural impact! That was unbelievable to me.

We [also] had an amazing drama teacher – Hope Hynes (at Jordan High School). She was incredible. She more than anyone influenced us. We’re terrible actors, but I just wanted to be part of the drama department because she is an incredible director. She was fantastic with kids, and fantastic with people who hadn’t acted much. She was brilliant, and I still pull from the lessons I learned from her. 

They were doing a big musical [our] junior year. Ross and I cannot sing, so we weren’t really going to be able to be part of it, and we asked her if she would let us do a documentary on her and the process of putting together this musical, and she let us. We really got into documentary films because there was a documentary film festival at the Carolina Theater…Full Frame, and the whole goal was to get into Full Frame. They didn’t let us in.

Ross: No.

Matt: We got about 100 rejections. It was only good in the sense that it prepared me for all the rejections that were to come, but it was an amazing experience putting the documentary together. That was when we learned how to edit.





I think Full Frame still really motivates a lot of people locally. There’s a big documentary filmmaker presence here now.

Ross: We loved going.

Matt: We volunteered there. We worked there, and I saw so many documentaries and discovered so many documentary filmmakers through that festival. And now I boycott it because they rejected me (laughs). I’m still very childish about it. I’ll get over it eventually.

I think they might take a film from you now! But let’s back up…when you were growing up, North Carolina’s film industry was booming. Were you aware of that?

Matt: Oh yeah. [It] must’ve been early middle school…this is clearly the most important part of my life…but we went to these studios in Wilmington. It was the first time I’d ever seen a movie set. I remember [seeing] a house for this new show called Dawson’s Creek, and then I became an obsessive Dawson’s Creek fan because I knew they shot it here [and] it was about a kid from North Carolina who wanted to be a filmmaker. That was my first real experience with the North Carolina film industry. Honestly it would’ve been great to film in North Carolina.

That would have been awesome. I hope we get a Duffer brothers story set here one day.

Matt: I know! We need some better tax cuts. I love Georgia, but it’d be more fun if the industry were in North Carolina. It’d make it easier for my parents to come to visit. Our first movie was Vancouver doubling for North Carolina, and it just bothered me the whole time because it did not look anything like North Carolina to me. I’m convinced that at some point we’re going to come home and make something.

Ross: Hopefully now that we’ve had a little more success it will be easier to figure out a way to film in North Carolina again.

Matt: Remember when we were [first] doing Stranger Things it was a miracle that anyone was letting us do anything at all.



Matt Duffer says he and Ross had a wonderful childhood in Durham



Do you ever make it back to North Carolina?

Matt: We still get to come to North Carolina. I get my barbecue fix and my Bojangles fix once a year. Realizing there were no Bojangles in California was a big deal for me. It took a lot for me to come to terms with that.

How do you think North Carolina shaped the work you are making today?

Matt: What we wanted to do with the show was to take what it felt like growing up as a kid in North Carolina and translate that onto a screen. I don’t know what it would have felt like growing up in the 90s in any other area, but I just know we had a wonderful childhood. We are the last generation to grow up without cell phones, so in the summer we would just wander off with our friends, and you felt completely disconnected from your parents in a very good way. It felt like you were very much on your own, and [that] anything could happen to you. The possibilities were endless.

There’s a particular feeling that I experienced in those summers in North Carolina that we are attempting to recapture because they were the best times of our lives. The work that really meant a lot to us when we were growing up captured that feeling. The reason something like The Goonies resonated as much as it did with us is because it really felt like us and our friends.

As much as Stranger Things is a love letter to these films and books we grew up loving – it’s just as much a love letter to our own childhood in North Carolina.

Ross: The other thing [I think about] is how supportive and friendly everyone was. I remember just wandering around being able to shoot in basically any restaurant or property we wanted to. Everyone loved the idea of us making movies. I remember we did one movie where the opening was shot in an abandoned mall, and we just asked this mall to let us in before it opened at like 5 in the morning, and they said sure. It was just this incredible experience. You can’t go and ask ‘Can I film in a mall before it opens?’ in L.A. That won’t go over very well. We learned that very quickly when we went to film school in California. Everyone in L.A. is jaded about film, but there was just an excitement about it in North Carolina.





You are firmly in the commercial side of the industry, but I wonder has your life and career intersected at all with public funding for the arts?

Ross: You know what’s funny…one of our mom’s friends loved that documentary about the Jordan Drama Department so much that they did a fundraiser using our documentary as a centerpiece to raise money for the Durham Arts Council. It was great for us because that was the first thing we’d done where there was actually a screening that people other than our parents and a few friends attended.

The North Carolina Arts Council’s founding mission was driven by the idea of “arts for all.” Why does that matter?

Ross: I think what inspired us the most about Hope Hynes was seeing how the arts brought everyone together. Everyone in that department was from very different backgrounds. It wasn’t really like that at the rest of the school. That’s the reason we made that documentary. It was so inspiring back then, and it still is. 

Matt: Cinema and the arts in general are very powerful. Cinema in particular because of the number of people it can reach on a global scale.

Ross: I think that’s why you want the mass number of voices and the most diverse number of voices watching and communicating with [art]. It’s a very, very powerful tool. 

Matt: And if used correctly it can do incredible things. The most powerful thing about art is it can be very relatable. It can reveal things about yourself that you don’t know, but it can also reveal things about other people. It can do a lot in terms of improving general empathy for others. It can certainly bring everyone closer together. That is why it’s so important for the world. That’s why it’s always been a part of every society throughout human history. I think we need it. I think it’s like water. It’s necessary for our own survival.

*This interview was edited and condensed



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Phil and Pierce Freelon

Story by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Creativity is at the heart of the Freelon family. In an intimate conversation, Phil Freelon, best known for leading the design team of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and his son Pierce Freelon, Durham-based hip-hop artist and professor, open up about how the arts define their family. Catch the podcast version of this conversation below.


I know you both wear many hats, so why don’t we begin with you sharing a bit about what you do?

Phil Freelon: I’m an architect. I’m the design director for Perkins + Will in N.C., which is a large architectural and design firm. Prior to that I ran my own firm called the Freelon Group. I’m on the faculty of the school of Architecture and Planning at MIT. I’m on leave this semester, but I’ve been doing that for nine years. Prior I taught at NC State University at the College of Design. Teaching has always been part-time. I’ve been a full-time practitioner with a hand in education all throughout my career

Pierce Freelon: I’m a musician and professor, and I run a community space called Blackspace. We provide youth programming in the digital arts for kids here in Durham and Chapel Hill. 

What are your earliest memories of creativity?

Pierce: My earliest memories of creativity would probably be conducting a play that I dreamed up about a kid who was in a tree [that] lightning struck. I must’ve been 3. I remember switching the light switch on and off to create the lightning effect and assembling the family for this theatrical production. I don’t know that I would have called that creativity at the time, but later in life I began to realize that was creative expression. I say that to say [creativity] was as much a part of our household as playing basketball in the yard. It was part of the fabric of our upbringing.

Phil: It’s very similar for me. Arts were part of daily conversation and activities when I grew up in Philadelphia. My parents would take us to museums and exhibits and performances. My grandfather was a painter of some note during the Harlem Renaissance period. I particularly remember a moment when I was 6 or 7 with my grandfather who had taken me for a walk through the woods. It was just him and me. He asked me to sit down and be quiet and close my eyes and listen to the environment. It was my first memory of being aware of my surroundings in a conscious way. As a professional designer and architect, that’s what I do for a living now, so it’s almost a direct connection back to my childhood.

What led you each to your work?

Pierce: I think mine started in school when I performed improv at Durham School of the Arts for the first time. It was amazing to me that I could work a room and have people laugh and react. There was this crazy exchange of energy that was really rich. I got to join the DSA Players - the top tier Durham School of the Arts theater troop – and I was the only 7th grader to get into the troop. To be acknowledged by my peers and teachers was affirming. I’m more into music now, but everything I’ve learned in theater is a part of every performance [and] every recording [I do].

Phil: Similar for me. In school, you figure out what you’re good at and what excites you. I was interested in drawing and sketching and painting, but I was good at math and I enjoyed the sciences, particularly geometry and physics. When I stumbled upon the design and drafting class in high school I said, “Wow I can combine the artistic side and the technical side and maybe architecture would be a good thing.” Architecture turned out to be the right thing.

What artistic moments are you most proud of?

Phil: Well my proudest moments have to do with family. I’m living my proudest moments now as I see our children and grandchildren [grow]. I think Nneena would say the same thing. Watching Nneena’s career and knowing that we did it together and [that] she feels the same way about my career is just incredibly fulfilling. My career has been great, but those are the things that resonate with me.

Pierce: I feel what dad’s saying.

One of my proudest moments has nothing to do with my art. It was being in D.C. at the opening of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. That’s pride. That was beautiful.

Performing at the Shakori Hills Festival of Grassroots Music and Dance with my grandmother and my mom was [also] really cool. I called her Granny Franny, but everyone else knew her as Queen Mother Francis Pierce. She sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.” She belted it out, and it was just bananas.

Phil: It was great. 



Phil Freelon loves creating spaces for everyday people



What have you each learned from the other about creativity?

Pierce: There are many things I’ve learned from my father, [but] the one that I’ll give is chess. Chess is a good metaphor for how you approach things with foresight and thoughtful, methodical precision. I’m more impulsive. We’ve been playing chess for 30 years, and I’ve only beat my dad once. The time that I beat him I was paying so much attention, and I was visualizing several moves ahead. I do think aspects of that have influenced the business side of my creative entrepreneurship. Dad is also a business man, so he’s not just in the office all day making sketches and doing the fun stuff. He also owns the building and cuts the check. He runs the business. That has always been a part of my observing you.

Phil: Well I’ve learned a lot from Pierce aside from the arts. Watching how he engages young people is really inspirational. I think he felt like he wanted to be an example and a leader from the time he was small. My father was in sales and marketing, so he had the outgoing personality. It was very natural to him as it is for Pierce to have that charisma. I remember looking up at my dad and thinking, “Gosh am I ever going to be able to communicate with people like that?” A lot of my job is convincing clients that they ought to hire me to do these incredible things, and most of the time the client—whether it’s an institution or an individual or a CEO—is about to expend more financial resources than any other time in their lives, so you have to garner that confidence and build a relationship. I learned that from my dad, and I see similarities in Pierce’s personality. Folks are drawn to him. They can see integrity.

Phil you are known for these massive public architectural projects. Why are you drawn to architecture for public spaces?

Phil: I really enjoy the aspect of architecture that I’ve focused on my whole career: creating spaces for everyday people; whether it’s a bus station or the human services complex down the street where everyday people who may not be able to afford healthcare in the traditional way can go…or a school that’s open to the public.

What’s at the root of this is the belief that everybody should be able to experience beauty in their environment, not just those who can afford to hire an architect to design a $2 million home or the business that can build up a sprawling corporate headquarters because they have the resources.

[I think of] someone who bought a bus ticket to come here from New York and rode on the bus all night. When they get off that bus and come into the terminal, why shouldn’t that be as beautiful as the museum or as the corporate headquarters? That drives me because I think that public spaces can have an impact on how you feel, how you work, how you play, [and on] whether you’re comfortable or not in a space with other people, or alone, or in a hospital where there’s tremendous stress and anguish. That environment needs to be just as inviting and inclusive and beautiful as someone’s private home with artwork hanging in it. 

Pierce do you see a connection between that belief and your work at Blackspace?

Pierce: The Woke Shops at Blackspace are modules for pouring positive energy into the minds and hearts of young people. We could be sitting there just talking, and that mentorship…that bond…that creation…that family vibration is what makes the work that we do special. I came up surrounded by beauty and love [from] both my parents and my grandparents. I’ve been lucky to [be] surrounded by people who love me unconditionally. You can’t say [that’s] a human right, but it should be. I think my art is a manifestation of that love. I feel like if I had a superpower it would be [that] I have an overabundance of love to give and share through my art. I feel like that’s part of my purpose on this planet. It’s not like I have an unusual capacity out of nowhere…it’s because I was filled with it. There’s an abundance here, so I’m more than happy to pay that forward. 

Phil: I love what you said about love. Because the more you give, the more there is. It isn’t a finite thing, and that’s what Pierce does. We’re so proud.

Pierce: I think everyone has their own superpower, and our purpose on this planet is to identify what it is and to manifest it in its fullness. I think that’s something my dad has done. I mean Da Vinci, Imhotep…Phil Freelon. Maybe that sounds a little extreme…Imhotep did the pyramids in Egypt, but damnit but the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture will be around for centuries, and it is in the most powerful country in the world. [It’s] the landmark that is the birthright of black people in this country. That’s huge. It’s as significant for Americans as the Louvre is in France or any other structure of social cultural significance.



Phil Freelon believes everyone has their own superpower



That museum is a huge public institution, and I would love for you both to reflect on why public funding for the arts matters.

Phil: That’s a really important topic right now as we see funding of things like art and physical education and theater and music in our schools disappearing. It’s tragic. Just from a practical perspective we know that children perform better when they have those outlets and they’re exposed to the arts. Our family is an example of how the arts can impact not only the individual directly, but the community as that affect is compounded out and others are brought into it and enjoy that moment of discovery in themselves and others. It really is important. It’s so very vital and important.

Pierce: I think dad just nailed it. The arts are what make life vivid, more livable and vibrant and beautiful.

How have your lives intersected with the North Carolina Arts Council?

Pierce: I’m the youngest ever board member to serve on the North Carolina Arts Council’s Board of Directors. The person who recommended me for that board appointment was Baba Chuck Davis. I had been doing work with the Durham Arts Council through the CAPS program and cARTwheels program, and I had applied for several grants through the Grassroots Artists program. My mom was a CAPS artist and an artist in residence for a year in Brunswick County when I was in Kindergarten. 

Phil: That was a great family decision. Nneena had been at home for 10 years raising the children, but had started singing locally, and we thought it was great. We rented our house to med students at Duke and packed up and moved to the beach. It was a tremendous adventure. It’s a year we’ll never forget as a family, and the Arts Council was the impetus for it. I had my first photography show in the Blue Dolphin Gallery in Shallotte. That was fun. 

What makes North Carolina’s artistic community unique? 

Phil: This incredible mix of people who were born and raised here and folks who came here from other places like me and Nnenna [who] have embraced North Carolina as our home.

Pierce: North Carolina poured a lot into higher education. Those educational institutions are a big draw that [have] a ripple effect for other aspects of the culture to grow and develop. There’s historic black wealth here. I think all those things are important. Diversity would be the word that I would use to characterize North Carolina.

Phil: And legacy also. I’ll just pick music. Thelonious Monk is from here. John Coltrane. Roberta Flack.

Pierce: Nina Simone.

Phil: Grady Tate. You can go down the list in terms of literary excellence and education, medicine. I suppose every state has its heroes, but it seems likes North Carolina is rich with that heritage of excellence, particularly [from] African American folks rooted here [who] went off to do incredible things internationally. It’s remarkable. 



Phil and PIerce Freelon wish the North Carolina Arts Council a happy 50th Anniversary





Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: M.C. Taylor and Phil Cook

Story by Sandra Davidson

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

M.C. Taylor and Phil Cook are anchors of Durham's indie music community. Phil is known for making music with his band Megafaun and The Guitarheels and for playing in M.C.'s American folk band Hiss Golden Messenger, an outfit widely praised for its genre-blending soul-searching music. 

Both M.C. and Phil transplanted to North Carolina in the mid 2000s, and they met each other in 2012 at a Hiss Golden Messenger album release show in Chapel Hill. They started working together the following week.

Collaboration, community, and a deep appreciation for southern music bind Phil and M.C. together, and last summer they reflected on all those things in an interview recorded at Brad Cook's (Phil's brother and M.C.'s manager) studio, where they've recorded many Hiss Golden Messenger songs. Listen to the interview on the latest episode of the podcast Arts Across NC or read an edited extended transcript of the conversation below.


This episode featured original music created by Phil Cook for the 50 for 50 project, and excerpts from two Hiss Golden Messenger songs: Caledonia and Heart Like a Levee.

You're both North Carolina transplants. What brought you here...and what makes this a good place to be a working artist?

M.C. Taylor: First of all there is a deep musical history here that I’m interested in that has been important to me to my formation as a musician. The thing that drew me to this place at the very beginning was that I wanted to live in the South because I love southern cultures, and I knew that if I had any hope of understanding it on a deeper level I had to be here. 

Phil Cook: Same. Same. Same. 

M.C.: Yeah. But you know [even] with having this musical foundation here people are also willing to push at it and stretch it and grow it and evolve it, and that’s also important. I and Phil and everybody in the band recognizes and understands the debt that we owe to all kinds of American music that was born here in the South especially in the Piedmont region, but also we live in the 21st Century and we’re doing our own thing. I feel like I can walk out my front door and be in touch with all of that. Someone was here doing an interview with me a couple of years ago from England, and I was able to drive them down Pettigrew Street and show them where Blind Boy Fuller would have played outside of the tobacco warehouse on payday. If you’re into American music, that’s a marker of American music. You could go find where Reverend Gary Davis lived. You can listen to an Etta Baker recording and know that she was doing her thing just a couple hours from here. Having that foundation to me as an artist is really important. 

Phil: My favorite thing about this place that I keep taking away from it is we all recognize the journey in each other.

I love seeing all these different artists and songwriters and producers and people that have these common goals of making great records [and] making great music.

We have a big opportunity in front of us to just coalesce all of that and realize we’re all on that same path and all on that same mission. It doesn’t matter what scene we’re talking about ...if we’re talking about the jazz and the hip-hop scene which is so vital and living in Durham [or] if we’re talking about our songwriters scene and things that are more folk-based [or] things that are more bluegrass-based like Mandolin Orange and Mipso...we all have started to recognize and see each other in the last five years. I think that's a great foundation to build community on: the artists all finding each other in the night and the evening and the dawns of our existences and just realizing we’re on that same path together. We’re all trying to do that same thing. 

How has your creative collaboration impacted your individual work?

Phil: Finding Mike and meeting Mike made me realize all these things that had been true about myself since the beginning of my musical journey that were just there all along. He opened up my own permission to realize how many skills I wasn’t using that have been there the whole time that are the most familiar to me. The most sacred things to me ended up actually becoming the focal point of how I was in a band and understood how to really be in a band for real. It was like working in my first kitchen. That gave me the confidence to open up my own kitchen because I see the formula and the ingredients for making something that is meaningful and something that speaks to people especially because it just has to speak from you. It has to speak from exactly where you’re at in an honest way with integrity and vulnerability, and that’s I think Mike’s biggest strength as a songwriter. He’s able to just open himself up and talk about his kids and his family and his wife and also just talk about where he’s at with his relationship with the universe. 

M.C.: I mean here’s a crazy thing to think about...before Phil started playing in Hiss, he wasn’t playing piano in Megafaun. I mean come to a Hiss Golden Messenger show and watch Phil play and just remember that when he started playing in Hiss, he had put his piano playing on the shelf. Now he’s also one of the great guitar players of our time in my opinion.

Phil: That is so nice.

M.C.: [And] people see that more. But it’s really been transformative to what we do in Hiss. I guess I kind of forced you to do it but...

Phil: ...That’s great. It’s still the thing that’s my favorite go to...realizing how comfortable I am sitting in a piano bench and sitting in front of your music. I realize over and over again this is exactly where I need to be.



Durham-based musician Phil Cook, who moved to North Carolina from Wisconsin in the early 2000s, reflects on why he loves living and working here.









Musician and folklorist M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, a widely praised American folk band based in Durham, says the best job he had outside of playing music was working for the North Carolina Arts Council. Learn more at www.ncarts50.org.



How does a song come together for you guys? 

M.C.: I spend a lot of time alone when I’m writing a song. Phil and Brad his brother can read music. They have a pretty serious understanding of theory which I don’t have, so it takes me a long time when I’m writing a song to understand what the landscape is in terms of the harmonic content of a tune and melodically. So I usually sit with a guitar and do my thing [and] get the lyrical idea down. Then I bring it to Phil and he helps me understand what’s happening in the song. The most important thing for me at that stage is that I can show Phil what part of the song I really like and feel we need to emphasize because it pulls at the heart in a way, and then Phil can say, “Oh well that’s because there is this happening in the song...because there is this interval that is pulling right there."

Phil: It’s a burden of knowledge. I’m thankful for my burden of theory knowledge. So he’ll come to us with a pocket of songs. He’ll write in these really great cycles. I’ve written 10 songs [total as a solo artist], so it's a longer trajectory for me. The last thing that happens is I write lyrics. I’ve got probably 300 to 400 thirty second voice memo clips on my phone that are just me screwing around and playing guitar for 10 minutes. Then in the tour van if I see a long drive ahead of us I just scroll through them all, and I name them something like “Noodle Boy 1A” [or] “Sub noodlist 7B” or if it’s really good I’ll just put a thumbs up emojicon next to it. Then I have to somehow turn those thirty second things into a three minute song with the others sorts of ideas that I have. That’s our process for writing separately and together.

M.C.: Yeah I tend to just throw songs out and not everything is perfect. A lot of the stuff is junk and this would be stuff nobody’s ever heard except for me. Phil…if you hear Southland Mission (Phil's first solo record) that’s just a meticulously crafted album. It’s pretty watertight in a really beautiful way. It’s like a really beautifully cut gem. Hiss Golden Messenger...sometimes that vessel is a little leaky. But that’s okay. I’m okay with that. I think there’s a place in art to be really exacting and just follow the vision to the very, very end. Then there’s also a place to leave imperfections alone.

Phil: Absolutely.

M.C.: For me those are the things that I learn from. If I hear something on an old record, and I’m like "I wish that I would have fixed that," that’s always going to be a thing that lives for me as a reminder like a little flag that says remember that you can do again. Remember that you can do it better or remember to leave the imperfections in because it’s going to be a thing that gives you your bearings as you make art.

Why does public funding for the arts matter?

M.C.: I think public funding for the arts matters if you value culture and art.

I think that art is an important reflection of the places that we live and the things that we think are important.

I think on a cosmic level, the world is a lot less interesting of a place without place-specific artwork. There is less of that now than there once as. The way that we communicate with each other around the world now has sort of flattened culture. There was a time when you could hear a gospel quartet in North Carolina and you could tell what county they were from by what song they were singing [and] the way that their harmonies were working together. There’s less of that now. I personally think that's a beautiful thing, and I think that art doesn’t come free. It just doesn’t. If you want vibrant, progressive, rich art it’s gotta be paid for in someway. I think every little bit helps, but you have to figure a way to communicate that culture is important even when you can’t quantify it in the same way that you can a car. Culture is important because it tells other people who we are in the most beautiful way. That to me is something of value.

Phil: I think Mike speaks really beautifully about it. Since moving to North Carolina, I’ve had a pretty fair amount of experience teaching kids about art. I’ve taught rock band camps in both Raleigh and in Durham for about 10 years now, and making kids work together through music...I’ve just seen over and over again how many other things are at play there and how many other little pieces and little seeds are planted. Ten years later I'm able to run into those same kids and see [that] some of those camps really unlocked something for them because we weren’t just learning a rigid form of something that they needed to only recreate off of a staff paper. We were learning about how to play with something...how to actually manipulate sound, and how to work together with other people towards a common goal in a way that’s not a science project...in a way that they can add something to. I love seeing music be with somebody through their whole life. You’re just planting seeds when you’re helping kids [through the arts] and you don’t know what they’re going to sprout like, but they’re rarely not beautiful things when they blossom. 



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.


Subscribe to #50for50