Story by Sandra Davidson
Rob Levin is a glass artist and sculptor based in Burnsville, North Carolina. Like so many artists in the Toe River region of western North Carolina, Rob was drawn to the area by Penland School of Craft, where he first fell in love with glassmaking. He moved permanently to Burnsville nearly 40 years ago, and has since built a career of international renown that’s included two North Carolina Artist Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts Visual Arts Fellowship, and acceptance into a number of esteemed collections around the world (the Museum of American glass, the Contemporary Glass Museum in Madrid, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York). A longtime friend of the North Carolina Arts Council, Rob is one of many Toe River artists who contributed to the design and construction of the Burnsville SmART Community Gateway public art project. He created hundreds of colorful glass shapes that fill the very first piece installed for the SmART project.
What drew you to working with glass in the first place?
When I was in my early twenties, I came to Penland to take a clay class, and I saw people blowing glass and I was just fascinated with it. Somebody let me try it, and I just felt this immense connection with it. I came back to Penland the following year and took a glass class and then was able to go to graduate school at Southern Illinois University on the strength of my other artwork. They were just starting a glass program there, so I got in on the ground floor of that program and was able to make glass for two years and just found ways to keep doing it until, eventually, I was invited back to Penland in 1975 to teach and then stayed on as a resident. Things just kind of evolved from there. We moved here in 1980 and I’ve been here ever since.
What makes this a great place to do what you do?
There’s a great community of fellow artists and craftsmen in the area. There’s a history in the area of appreciating handmade work. It goes back to the people who used to make berry baskets and quilts. Also, the proximity to Penland School which brings in such a range of interesting artists. I also have to say one reason that it’s a very good, supportive area for the arts is because of our arts council. They’ve really started working on making this area a great destination for people because there are so many artists. That has snowballed somewhat in terms of making it a good place to do artwork. It’s a very attractive place to live. It gets a little hairy in the winter sometimes, but otherwise it’s[a] quite pleasant place to live and work.
“There’s a great community of fellow artists and craftsmen in the area. There’s a history in the area of appreciating handmade work.”
Tell me how you got involved in this gateway project.
I went to Jack [Mackie’s] first presentation where he was talking about public art. We just got to talking there, and I got more directly involved once he started thinking in terms of doing a project that involved glass. Originally Jack’s idea was to use solid glass chunks in the sculpture. I brought up the idea that it would weigh less and be more practical to make hollow glass. The idea developed from there because we have the resources here both in terms of people who know how to do it, and in terms of a source of available glass material. We were able to talk Penland School into providing the facility for it, and a team of us got together for several weeks over the course of a year and worked on making these pieces. As we started working on the project, we realized that they could be blown. They’re not thin. They’re not like Christmas balls, but they’re more air than glass. It was a great experience.
What did a day at Penland with the group look like?
We’d go in in the morning and, except for the first day of the week, we’d look at what we had done the day before, and we’d get a list from Jack as to what colors he would want us to do, and we’d pick up blowpipes and get to work. We were buying chips of colored glass from the Spruce Pine batch plant. The furnaces at Penland were just full of clear glass, so we would gather clear glass and roll it in these colored chips, heat them up, and start blowing our shapes. We’d do that for about three hours and take a lunch break and do it for four more hours and then limp home and start over the next day.
It’s almost inconceivable to me that you can make a durable piece of public art using blown glass. Can you tell me how it’s possible?
We thought about it from several angles. One was in terms of the weather. We knew we had to enclose each piece. We couldn’t have pieces that would be open on one end because water could get in and could freeze in the winter and perhaps crack the glass. In terms of durability aside from the elements, I think we’re just hoping that people like the piece and don’t want to do anything to break things apart.
You’ve made a life here and a career here…what does it mean to you to be a part of a project like this?
It’s a really great feeling because it’s become a community project. It’s not just bringing in an artist from outside who whatever committee liked the best and then that person does their thing. It’s become a true collaborative effort, and I think that’s been one of the real positives for me. Jack and the rest of the group envision these beacons that will welcome people to Burnsville and to Yancey County. It could be a wonderful thing symbolically as a kind of welcoming device but also a completely unique work of art that will put Burnsville and Yancey County on the map a little more.
Has being a part of this project taught you anything about Burnsville?
I’d say the answer is yes [through] hearing how Jack distilled the essence of the county and [by] taking different ideas from his observations of things that we hadn’t really focused on…like the statue in the middle of the square in Burnsville with the spyglass and transferring that into the idea of a telescope and seeing into the future and combining that with the dark skies initiative that’s going on with the observatory…and the use of materials here in the area. You could say glass [generally], but even on a more fundamental level there is silica mining [here] that [extracts] the main ingredient in glass. Then the human resources of the glass artists, and people in the town that are willing and interested to have a vision for what might happen in the town. Those are all things that I’ve learned or been able to refocus on a bit.
If you were making the case for why public funding for the arts matters, as you’ve seen it manifested in your own community, what would you tell people it does and makes possible?
One thing I hope people understand when they know that state arts council funding has gone to a community for a project like this is that I’ve seen a spin-off effect. It’s not only helping the artists. If a place is a destination like our area is becoming, people come, and they eat in the restaurants. They buy gas at the gas stations. They shop in the local stores. They stay in the motels, bed and breakfasts, and stuff like that. There’s a great spin-off effect. I see that most directly when we have our studio tours here because people do come from long distances to travel around to the studios on the studio tour. They’re all staying somewhere and eating somewhere. I think it’s good for the whole community, so I hope people realize that supporting the arts is not just supporting a few artists. It’s really a way for communities to have a more sustainable economy. Hopefully, there’s the aesthetic spin-off too. The more art you have around, the nicer your area becomes.
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.
Story & Interview by Sandra Davidson
It was big news when Tift Merritt returned to Raleigh, North Carolina last year. Born in Houston, T.X. but planted in the City of Oaks by the age of two, the Grammy-nominated songstress began making waves in the early 2000s with her dynamic voice and evocative song writing. Last year she and her daughter Jean moved back to her hometown after a nine-year stint in New York City, marking a new chapter of Tift’s career anchored in family, writing, and roots.
Tift, a 2019–20 N.C. Artist Fellowship Awardee, shared her thoughts on North Carolina arts in a 50 for 50 interview below.
Tell me about your creative process. How does the work come to be?
How does my work come to be? These days, because I’m a mom, it comes to be whenever it can, but I like to spend time with books and materials and my thoughts and start something and then I like to revise it and shine it and polish it and watch it walk away on its own.
What is your earliest memory of music?
Well my earliest memory of music and making music is spending time with my father. When he was home from work on the weekend, he would play piano and play guitar and harmonica and sing. I can remember sitting next to him on the piano bench and my feet not touching the floor. I think that music, at that point, was how I shared my love for my father with him, and that’s a very fundamental sense of expression. So, it started there.
How did you come to live in North Carolina?
My family moved here when I was two. My father was from Houston. My mother was not crazy about Houston. As families go, we ended up here. My mother’s family had been here, so my daughter Jean is fourth generation Raleigh.
When did you first started writing your own music?
I started writing and making my own music when I was a teenager. I think I felt very certain that I wanted to be a writer long before I thought that I could possibly be a musician. Music was this beautiful, strange language that was really powerful, and I felt lucky to be a part of it, but I never assumed that that would be what I was when I grew up. I still don’t take that for granted. But I think I’ve always felt very steady that I was a writer. So that was my door.
I grew up in Raleigh when it was a small town and when there was no internet and when finding a record that you loved was a huge secret revealed. My experience was of a sense of place, of a pocket of the world that was not like anywhere else.
What do you remember about the arts community in Raleigh from your childhood?
I grew up in Raleigh when it was a small town and when there was no internet and when finding a record that you loved was a huge secret revealed. My experience was of a sense of place, of a pocket of the world that was not like anywhere else, where accents were very strong and everybody knew your parents and there were all these crazy cousins in every Southern gothic family, and a lot of great stories. I remember in my teens finding books or movies that moved me. I remember my dad giving me Blonde on Blonde. [I remember] finding a Tom Waits record and an Emmylou Harris record. The doors to the world were opened in a wonderful way. I had much less access to information, and so information was more influential and more pivotal and more impactful. But I think the sense of place that I had in Raleigh was really special. It’s always been my frame of reference for home and also grounded me in the most lovely way so that I could go out in the world and do these interesting things.
I think arts education is really about teaching people to make their own way because usually people who are making really creative and unique work are having to make really creative and unique choices in their life. I don’t know that that is the strongest muscle in our societal body at this point.
As I understand it you had a great mentor in UNC - Chapel Hill’s creative writing program. Can you talk a little bit about how arts educators and mentors have touched your life?
I’m so fortunate that I have an amazing collection of mentors that have been touchstones for me. I think, first and foremost, Doris Betts at UNC was a huge influence on my life and my character. She was someone who was truly an artist but also truly of a family. Her family looked like mine, and she had an incredible work ethic and an incredible moral compass. For me, signing up for a bohemian life was at once very exciting and very different than what I had come from. So she gave me some foundations that felt like home, and she taught me to answer my own questions. Arts education is so important, and especially now with a daughter, I think about it. I think arts education is really about teaching people to make their own way because usually people who are making really creative and unique work are having to make really creative and unique choices in their life. I don’t know that that is the strongest muscle in our societal body at this point. I think making your own way comes with a lot of common problems that can feel very personal that actually are beneficial for people who are not artists. I think about Annie Dillard or Bob Dylan or Emerson or Thoreau. A lot of these great people forged their own path. I think that artists really have that in common. You have to fill a day with your own volition. You have to make choices that feel true to you, period. Those are really tough things to do that often isolate you and make you feel like you are an outsider. It takes a lot of faith to take that path. Arts education is thinking creatively but it’s also building a lot of strength and a lot of personal compass. I hope my daughter has those things.
You mentioned place really being your defining, driving creative force in terms of growing up in Raleigh. Will you talk about how that shows up in your process as a writer and a singer now?
I think sense of place runs through my work because it may be how I define authenticity—if it feels of something, of myself, of something unique. Sense of place is a really complicated idea because it has to do with having roots and being of something, but it also has to do with the ability to extend beyond and be equated with something greater. I think all of my heroes have a real sense of place. Eudora Welty is so of Jackson, Mississippi, and I always admired the fact that she didn’t have to go and invent drama in her life, that she never ran out of things to write about looking out the same window for her whole life. I think that’s beautiful and of depth. If you can be yourself in a small town, there’s nowhere to hide. If you are bumping into your neighbors and your family and you’re not anonymous somewhere, I think there’s a real beauty in showing up for that. I moved back here from being in New York City for nine years. That was hard. I loved being an artist in New York City. That’s the dream, right? But I realized that, for my daughter, my grandmother was buried just down the block, my mother is across town, and you can see the progress of human life. To give my daughter roots, it’s done. She knows just about everybody we walk by on the block. I think that’s amazing.
I know you first as Tift Merritt the musician, but you see yourself as a writer first and foremost?
I think that’s probably how most people think of me because that’s what I’ve made my career doing. But I’ve always been skeptical of that mechanism inside that wants to be in the spotlight. I’ve always been skeptical of the vanity of performance and the energy that is being in front of the camera. I’m always conscious of turning my eye back to the world. I wouldn’t pursue getting on stage if it weren’t for the feeling of having written something that I wanted to get up and say. I also just will probably always have more confidence as a writer than I will as a musician. I’ve played with virtuosos, and I know I’m not a virtuoso. I feel I’ve become fairly fluent as a musician, but there are a lot of people who speak with a lot more nuance than I do. I use the tools of music to be a storyteller. Words are my first language.
I know you collaborate with a lot of musicians around here. How would you describe the creative community in North Carolina now that you’re a part of?
I have to say that I think that my creative community here in North Carolina is everything. It’s saved me time and time again. I have such amazing lifelong friends here that I went to college with or played gigs with in my twenties. Sarah and Victor from Raleigh Denim lived in the same building with me in New York. We touch base with each other about having our own businesses and the struggles of independence. What is so striking about North Carolina now is the incredible caliber of people here that, actually, when I moved to New York City I felt odd that I was maybe one of the only people doing what I was doing. Now, I’m one of an amazing family of writers and filmmakers and poets and collaborators and designers. It’s a really fertile place.
Why do you think people are drawn to it?
Having the universities that we have and having a conglomeration of amazing, livable, beautiful cities is amazing. If you are going to be in the creative class at this point you need to have a place that is livable and friendly and somewhere that you want to raise your child and have a real life. London, San Francisco, New York, and Paris are very, very difficult places to do that. So, I think people are attracted to the space, the breathability, the possibility that can exist here. Plus, the fact that spring here is like nowhere else.
So, you have a lot of creative things in the works here. Are you able to talk about you have in the hopper?
I don’t know yet. No, I can’t…My projects right now have to do mostly with two decisions. One is the decision to not be on the road anymore for myself and my daughter. The second is the decision to really stay here, and so a lot of my projects are about North Carolina right now. I’m trying to rehab an old motel just down the street, the Gables on Old Wake Forest Road. I’m very interested in the Dorothea Dix Park reconstitution and exploring the hundred and seventy-five years of psychiatry that are embedded in that earth. I think there are some stories to be told, and I think music and art can be a way to metabolize and heal and proceed with a sense of peace into the future at that height. So, I’m really interested in that. Then of course I’m always sitting at this desk writing.
How do you think the state could better support artists?
I’d have to think about that for a long time because I think being an artist is a complicated thing right now. Immediately in terms of practical life, I think of how hard it is to get health insurance as a freelancer. I’m always a little concerned that we take our independent thinkers - which is this really foundational American principle - and isolate them in that way. I think that arts education is just important and valuable for everyone. Again, I think it’s about thinking for yourself and having the strength and clarity to think for yourself. Building those muscles takes time and practice. Any kind of general cheering we can do for our pioneers and the people who are willing to make their own way is really important, whether it’s health care support, financial support, calling attention to their work, or just helping the independent thinkers of tomorrow, but I think it’s really a fundamental thing to cheer pioneers and making your own road because it’s a tough way to go, but it’s really worth it. It’s worth it to have those people in your community.
If you'd like to learn more about Tift Merritt, visit her website here.
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.
The Hamiltones are a Grammy-nominated trio of North Carolina natives. The soul and R&B group first started as background vocalists for Grammy-winning soul singer Anthony Hamilton, who is from Charlotte, N.C. Known for their masterful harmonies and viral social media videos, The Hamiltones released their debut EP "Watch The Tone3s" this year. We spoke with the band about their special chemistry and North Carolina musical influences in an interview captured after their 2019 Art of Cool Festival performance. Watch below!
Raised in Newton, N.C., composer William Brittelle has built a career on breaking and merging musical boundaries. Described by the New Yorker as “a mercurial artist whose oeuvre embraces post-punk flamboyance, chamber music elegance, and much more,” Brittelle’s compositions combine elements of classical, pop, and other genres, and emphasize the beauty of collaboration between diverse artists. These collaborators have included the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, Son Lux, Bryce Dessner, and recently, the North Carolina Symphony. In 2018, the Symphony premiered the commissioned piece “Si Otsedoha (We’re Still Here)” alongside the Cherokee Chamber Singers. While Brittelle composed the music, the lyrics and spoken word passages were written entirely by middle and high school students of Cherokee heritage.
At the same time, Brittelle was working on Spiritual America, a project featuring Durham-based indie rock duo Wye Oak. The album was released this past summer, and described by Brian Howe of INDY Week as, “One of the most astonishing releases of 2019.” Brittelle describes Spiritual America as an attempt to bridge the divide between his Christian, rural upbringing in North Carolina and his current identity as an “agnostic Buddhist” living in New York City.
“I think the divides that classical music often makes between composed music and different kinds of music, they’re really artificial,” says Brittelle. “What matters to me is what resonates emotionally.”
The salsa music of Orquesta Mayor works like a magnet. Slowly but surely, the rhythms of their music pulled more and more people to the sidewalk by the River’s Edge Stage at Charlotte’s Confluence festival.
“People ask me for salsa, salsa, salsa,” band leader and trumpet player Helder Serralde said last August during the festival. He founded Orquesta Mayor in 2006 after immigrating from Mexico. Since then, the band has become one of the busiest and best-established groups in Charlotte’s Latin music community, constantly performing at both public and private events throughout the region. From Peru to Colombia to Puerto Rico, its members hail from all corners of Latin America and the USA, each adding their own musical “flavor” to the group’s collective sound. This sound is as diverse as the band itself, pulling from cumbia, merengue, bachata, and more.
“Salsa,” someone once told me, “couldn’t have been born anywhere else but here.” A beat in one direction, a tune in the other, fading, fusing, and flowing through the cracks in the rubble. “Where else could all those immigrants have met to make it?”
- Excerpt from "Sing Queen City Pain" by Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas for Oxford American's North Carolina Music Issue
As Orquesta Mayor continues to draw bigger crowds and more attention, so does the Latin music scene in Charlotte as a whole. Serralde was even interviewed alongside fellow Latin group Chócala in the Oxford American’s North Carolina music issue. It makes sense that salsa, a style born from an amalgamation of immigrant music in 1960s New York, would thrive with Charlotte’s increasingly global population. The music also seems to have a healing effect.
“I think that Latin music helps to get the people to unite,” Serralde says, “and not only [Hispanic] people…the American people. We feel them unify.”
Story by Laura Casteel
If you’ve walked through downtown Durham on a Monday evening this summer, you might have heard the beating of drums.
The community drumming group Oxente (pronounced oh-SHEN-chee) formed in early 2019. Their outdoor rehearsals in Durham Central Park are open to the public, as is the group itself—anyone can join Oxente, regardless of musical background, and members describe it as feeling like a family. They perform samba reggae, an Afro-Brazilian genre inspired by the American civil rights movement and the music of Bob Marley. The intricate rhythm patterns are created by four types of drums:
“When they play all the rhythms together, it’s incredibly beautiful,” says Caique Vidal, a multi-instrumentalist and educator who leads Oxente in addition to his band, Batuque.
“I see in Durham, especially in the community I’m around, a desire to learn, a desire to fight for better, for change, and a desire to include all…Oxente is part of that.”
Vidal grew up in the historic center of Salvador, a city in the Brazilian state of Bahia and the birthplace of samba reggae. Today, he strives to bring the openness and accessibility of his musical upbringing to North Carolina, by investing in local talent and encouraging the use of public spaces for the arts. In early September 2019, Oxente hosted Durham’s first-ever Brazilian Day festival in the Central Park district, which featured a variety of local artists.
Vidal believes that Oxente’s commitment to inclusivity, education, and authenticity embodies the spirit of its home city. “Durham is a perfect place for Oxente to thrive,” he says. “I see in Durham, especially in the community I’m around, a desire to learn, a desire to fight for better, for change, and a desire to include all…Oxente is part of that.”
From Arthur Smith to the Avett Brothers, the greater Charlotte metro area has long been a cradle of good music, and more specifically, great songwriters. David Childers is one of them. A renaissance man, Childers is a songwriter, painter, poet and former attorney. The Mt. Holly, N.C. native grew up watching the legendary Arthur Smith show – the first nationally syndicated country music television show – which he cites as a major influence on his love of music. He started playing guitar as a teenager and began releasing music in the mid-90s. Most recently, Childers has toured and worked with Kyle Petty and his newest record, Run Skeleton Run, features Scott Avett and Avett Brother bassist Bob Crawford as an executive producer. Meet David Childers.
Diali Keba Cissokho describes performing with his band, Kaira Ba, like cooking delicious food: “The sound check is the smell, and the eating is when we play.”
Born in Mbour, Senegal, Cissokho hails from a long line of Manding griots, or jalis. In West Africa, griots have served as historians, praise singers, advisors, and storytellers, carrying generations of tradition and culture. It was Cissokho’s family who inspired him to take up the kora, a twenty-one-stringed African instrument made from gourd, cow skin, and fishing line. His grandfather was famed korist Lalo Keba Drame, who toured internationally in the 1960s. Some describe the instrument’s sound as a mix of harp and banjo, a delicate balance of sweetness and twang.
Love led Cissokho to immigrate to the United States in 2010 after meeting his wife Hilary, a native of Pittsboro, N.C., where the couple currently live with their son. After landing in the Piedmont, he formed Kaira Ba with several local musicians. His wife introduced him to fellow Pittsboro native and guitarist John Westmoreland, along with drummer Austin McCall of Jonathan Byrd and the Pickup Cowboys. McCall then invited percussionist Will Ridenour and bassist Jonathan Henderson, and together they created Kaira Ba's unique sound. Combining the traditions of West Africa with a Southern American seasoning, the band includes influences from rock and roll to salsa. Cissokho has also formed a musical friendship with mandolin virtuoso and North Carolina Heritage Award Recipient Tony Williamson, who recently joined Kaira Ba for a performance at the Center Botanical Garden in Kernersville.
Cissokho has fully embraced his new home state, and hopes to bring positivity, equality, and community to North Carolina through music. Judging by the spontaneous dancing and cheering that happens at Kaira Ba shows, he seems to be meeting his goal.
Activism and music go hand and hand for Laila Nur, a founding member of The Muslims, a black/brown/queer punk band from Durham, North Carolina. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Laila Nur moved south after her family was priced out of the big city. Discrimination and gentrification are realities Laila understands as a queer, black, Muslim woman with working class roots. In the tradition of punk music, Laila and The Muslims channel anger, joy, and hope through the music they make about the place and time in which they live. She reflects on her feelings about North Carolina and our music in this new Come Hear NC story.
Kyle Petty likes to say, “We grew up in rural North Carolina where there were dairy farms and there were tobacco farms – we just happened to grow race cars.”
In recent years though, Kyle – the son of NASCAR legend Richard Petty and native of Randolph County – has proven there is another export crop from the area – songwriters.
This spring, Come Hear NC captured Kyle Petty performing with fellow North Carolina singer-songwriter David Childers at the Magnolia Roots Music Lounge in Wake Forest, N.C. The show took place a few days before he set off on the annual Kyle Petty Charity Ride, a cross country motorcycle trip raising money for Victory Junction, a children’s organization founded in honor of Kyle’s late son, Adam Petty. The audience was eclectic, with many folks wearing hats, t-shirts, or jackets adorned with Petty’s past racing numbers and sponsors. Once the music started, however, it was quickly apparent that Kyle Petty is as passionate and driven in his songwriting as he is about NASCAR. Borrowing equally from the Crash Craddock eight-tracks he listened to with his father and from James Taylor, who he discovered on his own, Petty extols North Carolina’s nurturing arts community for taking him in and helping him flourish. Though his racing days are behind him, we are happy to have him sharing his stories through song.