Meet the recipients of the 2023 North Carolina Heritage Awards

Zoe Van Buren

Monday, October 17, 2022
Since 1989, the North Carolina Heritage Awards have honored artists across the state for their contributions to the cultural life of their communities. The Folklife program of the North Carolina Arts Council has announced that six artists will receive a Heritage Award on May 31, 2023, at a public ceremony in Raleigh. Details and tickets are available on the Heritage Award event page
The 2023 North Carolina Arts Council Heritage Award recipients are muralist Cornelio Campos, white oak basket maker Neal Thomas, Southern gospel and bluegrass musician Rhonda Gouge, champion old-time fiddler Richard Bowman, and Cherokee white-oak basket maker Louise Goings and her husband, the carver Butch Goings. Recipients are nominated by their communities and selected through a panel process. Learn more about the artists below. 

Cornelio Campos, Durham

Cornelio Campos is one of the state’s most celebrated traditional painters and muralists. Hailing from Cherán, Michoacán, Mexico, Campos is a Purepecha, an officially recognized indigenous people with their own language. As a child, Campos absorbed his community’s rich cultural traditions, working as an apprentice with a local artist into his teenage years. Following family and better opportunity to the United States, he developed as an artist while living in Los Angeles, and then settled permanently in North Carolina. For the first 10 years here, Campos labored as a farmworker and was unable to paint. The opportunity to begin a career as an electrician allowed him to paint again, and Campos found new purpose and joy. He drew on both the centuries-old traditions of Michoacán and his new life in the United States to develop his own visual language as a painter and public muralist, becoming part of a long heritage of Mexican American muralism in the United States. Now Campos is celebrated as visual storyteller of the experiences of immigrants in North Carolina.
Rhonda Gouge, Bakersville
Gospel and Bluegrass
Rhonda Gouge lives in the small community of Ledger, in Mitchell County, where she has been teaching music for more than 50 years. Gouge’s earliest musical mentor was the fiddle and banjo player Oscar “Red” Wilson, her great-uncle by marriage, who received a Heritage Award in 2003. He taught her the traditional fiddle tunes of the area and helped her with her first recording, which was done in his home studio. Gouge worked with Wilson for many years as a recording session musician; as a member of his band, the Toe River Valley Boys; and performing with him as a duo in churches and at community functions. Although Gouge worked full-time at a local factory for almost two decades, she continued to teach an increasing number of students and remained musically active, playing in church and at community events, and recording with and traveling with gospel groups on weekends to events, where she was often a groundbreaking presence as a female musician. Gouge eventually was able to teach music full-time and went on to work with more than 1,000 students, some of whom would travel for miles to learn from her. She has spent her life in Ledger, where she has been both an innovator and tradition-bearer of western North Carolina’s sacred and secular music.
Neal Thomas, Wendell
White Oak Basketmaking
When he was about 20 years old, Neal Thomas and his brothers learned the craft of split white-oak basketmaking from an older man in Johnston County who made and sold baskets. He learned the process one step at a time—first by watching, then by doing. Basketmaking traditions in North Carolina have Native American, European, and African origins, each culture influencing the others, but the sturdy, utilitarian, split-oak baskets that Thomas learned to make have been undervalued because they are the “workhorse” of baskets, used to hold everything from livestock to home goods. White oak grows abundantly in the North Carolina Piedmont, but it is laborious to process and increasingly hard for Thomas to source as land around his Wake County home is clear-cut for development. Making a basket in the traditional way requires the knowledge and the physical stamina to identify a good tree, harvest it, and hand-draw it into splits, all before the weaving can begin. The result is a basket so strong that it can hold the weight of an adult human being. Without glue, written plans, or pre-made forms, Thomas makes baskets that last a lifetime.
Richard Bowman, Mount Airy
Old-Time Fiddle
Richard was born and raised on the North Carolina/Virginia border in Ararat, Virginia, and now lives in Mount Airy, North Carolina, where he is at the heart of the region’s old-time music and dance community. Bowman learned to play the autoharp from his mother, and later learned from some of the most influential musicians in the area to play the fiddle. He has been a member of several significant local groups: the Pine River Boys with Maybelle Lewis; the Slate Mountain Ramblers; and the Round Peak Band, which was instrumental in popularizing and spreading the “round peak” string-band sound specific to Surry County and its surrounding communities in North Carolina and Virginia. The region has produced many iconic musicians, and the old-time music they play is especially important in the community as dance music. Bowman has played for dancers all his musical life, honing a plain long-bow style that is especially enjoyable to dance to. He has won awards at fiddler’s conventions throughout the region. He continues to play for square dances and community events with the Slate Mountain Ramblers, now a family band that includes his wife Barbara Bowman and daughter Marsha Todd, who are also talented dancers. Bowman is a resource to other musicians, who value him as a luthier, instrument repairer, and teacher in the traditional manner: by ear and demonstration.
Butch and Louise Goings, Cherokee
Wood and Soapstone Carving, White Oak Basketmaking
Butch and Louise Goings are master Cherokee artisans: Louise in basketmaking and Butch in carving, among other crafts. Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, they are known in their community as keepers of many Cherokee traditions and cultural and historical knowledge. They continue to pass that knowledge on both informally and through cultural events, community workshops, and youth programs. Butch was a student of the carver Amanda Crowe, who won a Heritage Award in 2000; Louise learned to harvest white oak and make baskets from her mother, the 1989 Heritage Award recipient Emma Taylor. Working with natural dyes and oak she harvests herself, Louise gained an understanding of the plants, places, and ecosystems of the southern Appalachians that enabled her to be self-sufficient as a basketmaker. Together, the couple are widely known as resources on Cherokee language, dance, cooking, gardening, and the traditional values of mutual support and sharing. For more than 20 years, Butch has participated in the Gadugi Free Labor Group, a group of men who offer free work to families in need. The Goings are also active in the oldest and leading Native American arts and crafts cooperative in the country: the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, for which Butch has served as board president for many years.


Zoe van Buren

ZOE VAN BUREN is the folklife director for the North Carolina Arts Council, where she administers programs that support the practice and transmission of living traditions across the state. She is the co-author of Hanging Tree Guitars (2020).

Artist Spotlight: Meet Hip Hop and Breakdance Instructor José Velasquez

Kyesha Jennings

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

The North Carolina Arts Council celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month. This national celebration, which runs September 15–October 15t, honors the history, culture, and influence of past generations that came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. The N.C. Arts Council remains committed to uplifting and supporting the inclusion of North Carolina's diverse Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx communities and their equitable access to resources. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we are shining a spotlight on the talented Hispanic/Latinx artists who help to make our state’s arts community dynamic.

Meet Hip Hop and Breakdance Instructor José Velasquez

José Velasquez is a hip hop and breakdance instructor based in Durham. He has been teaching dance for more than 15 years at Duke University, N.C. State University, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, the American Dance Festival (ADF), and Carolina Ballet. His organization and dance company, Soul Struck, performs and teaches the foundation and techniques of hip hop dance, history, and culture. This past June, Unwanted Heroes, Jose’s choreographed piece commissioned by ADF, received a five-star review from Chatham Life and Style magazine. “Unwanted Heroes was the perfect note to end the night. The piece displayed the most impressive physical feats while expressing a storyline that was both mythological in its scope, and deeply personal in its delivery,” said staff writer Serayah Silver.

The North Carolina Arts Council spoke with José to learn more about his identity as a dancer and how his culture influences his work.

What inspires you?

Many things have inspired me at different points in my life, but the one thing that has remained consistent is the music. Music has a way that makes people want to take action, whether that is a dance step or a call to unite for a greater purpose. Music has always moved me to want to do better, not only for myself but also for those around me.

What is your most important artistic tool?

This is a tough one because, as a dancer, you need quite a few things. I think once you have acquired the basics in any art form, the next thing is finding your own style. That requires a certain amount of vulnerability, because it takes courage to be you. Style is nothing more than how you do something. It's the reason we can all learn the same step and look different doing it. Now, how you put it together is where your creativity stands out. The combination of these two, if executed well, will start to get you noticed.

When did you start dancing?

I started dancing as a very young kid. It started with my dad randomly showing me "the robot" dance one day. He put on “Let's Groove,” by Earth, Wind & Fire, and just started doing the robot. I didn't know him ever to dance and that was the first and last time I saw him do it, but it was enough for me to want to learn and continue with the dance. I love dancing. Being able to illustrate the music with your body is one of the greatest feelings in the world.

What does your dance style/choreography represent?

My good friend Tyler "Blaqlestat" McNeil once said, "It's not about the movements; it's about what the MOVES MEANT." As a street dancer, I can only hope to represent myself to the fullest. We dance to express, not impress. The importance of finding yourself is so important that we should be able to tell who you are from far away, just by the way you're dancing. I am a combination of all the knowledge acquired and passed on to me. From my Latin influences of salsa, merengue, bachata, and cumbia to the breakin’, poppin’, and party dances that stem from hip hop. My anger, my sadness, my love, my happiness, my struggles, my ups and downs, my failures, and my success—I am a representation of all these when I dance.

Artist Spotlight: Meet Afro-Latino Artist Jose Manuel Cruz

Kyesha Jennings

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

The North Carolina Arts Council celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month. This national celebration, which runs September 15–October 15, honors the history, culture, and influence of past generations that came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. The Arts Council is committed to uplifting and supporting the inclusion of North Carolina's diverse Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx communities and their equitable access to resources. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we are shining a spotlight on the talented Hispanic/Latinx artists who help to make our state’s arts community dynamic.

Meet Afro-Latino Artist José Manuel Cruz

Born to Colombian and Puerto Rican parents, José enjoys working with bright colors and experimenting with different media. He says, "I try to stay as versatile as I can with my work. I believe that my culture is embedded in my work and I love when others get the opportunity to embrace it." He is the art educator at James E. Shepard International Baccalaureate Middle School, in Durham.

The Arts Council spoke with José to learn more about his identity as an artist and how his culture influences his work.

What inspires you?

I believe that cultural life inspires me. I embrace all the colors that my Columbian and Puerto Rican heritage brings to the world. Teaching and having the opportunity to share my art inspires me even more.

What is your most important artistic tool?

It is to have a mindset of openness and growth. This allows me to take in as much as I can, not only from my cultures but also from the people who I surround myself with every day, and to integrate what I see or hear into my work.

How did you start making art?

I started making art in third grade, when my elementary art school teacher and mentor, Professor Bernard, allowed me to use his Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph pens to draw a still life in class. After that, he took me under his wing and taught me everything, from pencil and pen and ink drawing to watercolor painting.

I make art to share my God-given talent, to share the culture that lives within me, and to inspire others to do the same.

What does your artwork represent?

My artwork represents all of my experiences from my life and my culture. I take all of my experiences and try to bring them to life on canvas or any other surface.

Building things from his imagination: A conversation with found object sculpture artist, Jeff Bell

Story by Kyesha Jennings

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Jeff Bell, our new executive director, is an accomplished found object sculptor who has exhibited his mixed-media installations statewide. His approach to art involves deconstructing everyday objects that invoke his own memories or popular culture.

Bell was introduced to the arts at a young age and says a local arts council was one of the first spaces to validate his identity as an artist. He describes his method this way: “I just start making objects, realizing that I will make mistakes and have to rework things, but it keeps me engaged and thinking throughout the build. I enjoy the surprises that happen and the unexpected directions that the process can take.”

As a child, Bell was most influenced by the craftsmanship of his father and grandfather. He spent a lot of time watching both men saw, glue, and nail objects in their workshop. “I never thought about their work as art at the time. I now see how important observing what they did is to what I do.”

Before joining the Arts Council, Bell had early, direct professional involvement in the Nasher Museum of Art, at Duke University; the art collection at 21c Museum Hotel, in Durham; and the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum, in Wilson. He has worked in and with a wide variety of art museums, galleries, organizations, and university departments, both as an arts administrator and as an artist.

In a recent interview, Bell talked about his work as an artist. 

What inspires Jeff

I wanted to create an entire show out of one source object and I decided to use a piano. I had taken apart a piano while in graduate school and marveled at all of the different materials and shapes. There were 12 objects in the exhibition at Spectre Arts, Durham, NC and I called the show RePiano. The Nautilus was in the center and the other sculptures lived around it. The shape of the cast-iron plate inside the piano reminded me of the fin of the submarine in the Disney movie 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. I decided to make a sculpture that mimicked the form of that ship. I built a frame around the metal plate and cut down wood that I steamed and bent into strips. The Nautilus was also exhibited at the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, and at SECCA, Winston-Salem, NC.

This small object was one of my favorites from this group. It came together quickly but I felt like it was a complete idea. The form is kind of reminiscent of an old radio but quite a bit smaller.

This was a fun sculpture to make. I had been reworking two different sculptures for a long time and finally decided to cut them up and combine them. As with Nautilus, the Mountain King was the central figure for a show I created at Spectre Arts, Durham NC. All of the work in that grouping—called Within/Without (Very Metal)—was responding to things that interested me as a teenager—the music, books, and pop culture that I grew up on.

This was in the same exhibition with the Mountain King and is very much about the type of music I listened to in high school. The drag racer is made up of parts from old playground equipment and a bicycle. The stave church is made of parts from a sewing table and drawers from an office desk. The Mountain King and Top Fuel Stave were also exhibited at SECCA, Winston-Salem, NC.

Who are your biggest artistic influences?

There are lots. I always really liked the work of Bill Woodrow. In the seventies, he would cut out sections from found materials in order to make objects. The new form was connected to the old. That way of being aware of how the artist physically created the new sculpture has always been important in my mind.

Also, the sculptor Al Frega has been a big artistic influence. I was fortunate to do an internship with him when I was at UNC Wilmington, and I continued to work with him after we both moved to Durham. In addition to learning metalworking skills and understanding how carefully he considered materials and forms, I really saw what it looked like to be a professional artist.

How do you define success as an artist?

This is difficult. For me, it’s about feeling that I’ve said something in the finished work. I try to create very quickly, without a lot of planning, and the result is never something I could have initially envisioned. I hope that there is something undefinable and surprising in the resulting sculpture or drawing.

Kyesha Jennings

Kyesha Jennings is the content director for the North Carolina Arts Council where as a part of the marketing and communications team, she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. An award-winning hip-hop scholar, Kyesha is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where her research primarily focuses on Black women writers, hip-hop feminism, and popular culture. Her writing has been published in both academic and non-academic outlets such as LifeHacker, HotNewHipHop, Vulture, Indy Week, CLTure, and Scalawag Magazine.

From Anthony Hamilton's Background Singers to Viral Superstars: Meet the Hamiltones

Come Hear North Carolina
December 6, 2019


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!


William Brittelle Has Built a Career on Breaking and Merging Musical Boundaries

November 16, 2019

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 Cherokee Chamber Singers will perform “Si Otsedoha: We’re Still Here,” at the N.C. State Capitol on Friday, November 22 from 6-7 p.m. Learn more here

50 for 50: Rob Levin

Story by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

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.



If you'd like to learn more about Rob Levin, visit his website 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: Tift Merritt

Story & Interview by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

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.


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.

Orquesta Mayor Channels Charlotte's Bustling Latin Music Scene

September 25, 2019

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.” 


Oxente Brings the Beats of Brazil to the Bull City

September 23, 2019

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:

  • Surdo: A heavy bass drum and the “heartbeat” of the rhythm. One drum is played on the first and third beats of a measure, the other on the second and fourth.
  • Dobra: A smaller version of the surdo played between the four beats.
  • Repique: A high-pitched drum that keeps the “clave,” the rhythm pattern that cues the start and end of each measure.
  • Snare: The drum that “sews” the other drums together, played on mostly eighth and sixteenth notes. 

“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.”


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