24 Hours in the Life of Mike Wirth
By Page Leggett
Mike Wirth, associate professor of graphic design at Queens University of Charlotte, is probably best known locally for his murals. He is a founding member of the Talking Walls Festival, Charlotte’s first annual, citywide mural and public art festival. He’s known way beyond the city limits, too. His art has been exhibited in New York, Miami, Croatia, Poland and Germany. Social justice is a frequent Wirth theme, as is his identity as a Southern, Jewish American. He participated — virtually — in Contemporary Art Week in Paris during the last week in October 2022 where he exhibited with a group called Jada Art (jadaart.org), or Jewish Dada. “They’re creating platforms and international art spaces for Jewish artists, which is amazing,” Wirth said. “I was part of their digital exhibition. It was great to be selected from among international applicants.”
He is one of 15 local artists participating in The Mint Museum’s Picasso mural project. It’s a local tie-in for the Mint’s blockbuster exhibition, Picasso Landscapes: Out of Bounds, organized by the American Federation of Arts Wirth’s mural is a landscape scene from Freedom Park. “I chose it because every Yom Kippur, hundreds from the Jewish community come out for a ritual called tashlich,” he says. “You toss bread into the water and speak your transgressions at the same time. That’s how you release sin.” When Wirth is in a creative or emotional low, he’ll wander. “I just go for a walk with no agenda. I don’t have any destination in mind. I’ll just throw myself to chance. And I find that it’s a tremendous way to reset when the need arises.” He’s a “girl dad” whose oldest daughter, a student at North-west School of the Arts, is already a budding artist and wants to be an illustrator. His youngest also loves to draw. Artistic talent runs in this family. Wirth’s days revolve around his daughters, his students, and his art.
5 OR 5:30 AM I wake up on my own — no need for an alarm. That’s when my internal body clock dictates that I get up. I say my morning prayers, and have a bagel and coffee.
5:30–6 AM I spend a little time every morning reading on my couch or my porch. I love Jewish folklore and the daily lessons I can take from it. I’ll get some wisdom from the Oracle, so to speak. All these stories are allegories, so they unpack a lot for me. If I can spend 30 minutes reading in the morning, it’s a miracle. But that’s what I aim for.
6 OR 6:30 AM I wake my daughters up — they’re 13 and 10 — and make them breakfast and get them ready for school. We have to be at the bus stop by 7 AM.
7:15 AM I drive to campus where I teach in the graphic design department — illustration, typography, ideation, animation, and web design. I’ve taught at Queens University for 14 years. When I’m not teaching, I have office hours. The seniors working on their capstone projects often need to consult with me then. During the day, I try to carve out a little time for my scholarship. As a professor, I have an obligation to stay current in my field and to accrue a certain amount of scholastic achievements. I’m either applying for shows or hunting for the next opportunities and conferences.
4:30 PM I meet the kids at the school bus, get them home and settled with a snack and help them get started on their homework.
5:30ish PM Dinnertime. I’m a one-pot-meal type of cook. My kids know my famous chickens, vegetables and rice dish — one of my go-to’s. Once the kids are fed, clean and educated, we all have our free time. AFTER DINNER I head to my studio, which is in our garage. Art projects have a way of expanding, and I can’t currently get my car in the garage. When the weather’s colder, I have to scale back the amount of space I have dedicated to art so I can use my garage for its intended purpose. I turn on some music; get a cold beverage. My cat, Garfield, will come hang out with me. I digitally paint, illustrate, and animate and make my interactive projects. I’ve been concocting a giant interactive installation that explores the “big bang” moment in the Jewish creation story as described in the Zohar — The Book of Radiance. The story describes the moment HaShem (God) poured their essence into a series of glass spheres that then shattered due to being overwhelmed with power. The broken shards of glass then spread across the universe. My vision is that viewers will enter a room filled with panoramic wall and floor video projections of shards of broken glass that, over many minutes, will spread outward from a center point in the room and then rewind back into a singular sphere. Viewers can interact with the shards while exploring the space.
I don’t have a home yet for that interactive installation. It requires funding because it needs projection, sensors and a larger space. I also get commissions from individuals or institutions. I’ve been creating a lot of custom hamsas. Those are hand forms that originated in the ancient Middle East. Once the client has commissioned me, we’ll talk through their wants and needs, the purpose of it — is it purely for aesthetics, or is there a spiritual purpose to it? Then, I’ll send them a mockup and we’ll proceed after they give me the OK. I design each one digitally and then paint the final version with acrylic, spray paint or paint markers. My girls and I aren’t big TV watchers, and we definitely try to avoid it on the Sabbath, but we will occasionally watch a show together. We also like playing image-based board games. Usually, free time lasts until it’s bedtime for everybody. 8:30 PM Bedtime for all of us. I’m not very exciting.
Page Leggett is a Charlotte-based freelance writer. Her stories have appeared in The Charlotte Observer, The Biscuit, Charlotte magazine and many other regional publications.
Romanticizing the American Landscape
A conversation with artist Stacy Lynn Waddell about her work Landscape with Rainbow as the Sun Blasts the Sky (for R.S.D.) 1859/2022, part of the Mint’s collection.
In 2021, Art Papers published an article about a new series of works by Durham-based artist Stacy Lynn Waddell in which she examines the history of landscape through the work of 19th-century English American painter Thomas Cole and self-taught Black Pittsburgh-based sculptor Thaddeus Mosley. The Mint’s Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary Art Jen Sudul Edwards, PhD, took notice. As an extension of the series influenced by Cole and Mosley, Waddell created Landscape with Rainbow as the Sun Blasts the Sky (for R.S.D.) 1859/2022: an homage to American artist Robert S. Duncanson’s 1859 painting Landscape with Rainbow, which is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and was displayed in the United States Capitol Rotunda in 2021 in honor of the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden.
Duncanson was one of the most important Black artists of the 19th century. This event brought significant national attention to Duncanson, who remains little known beyond art history circles. The Mint Museum is pleased to have acquired Waddell’s tribute to Duncanson: Landscape with Rainbow as the Sun Blasts the Sky (for R.S.D.) 1859/2022, which will be a part of an upcoming reinstallation of the American galleries at Mint Museum Uptown in 2023. Mint curators Jonathan Stuhlman, PhD, and Jennifer Sudul Edwards, PhD, caught up with Waddell to discuss her inspiration behind the work. Lightly edited for brevity and clarity by Michele Huggins.
Jonathan Stuhlman, PhD: We are doing a rotation in the Mint’s permanent collection galleries next summer, shifting focus from different approaches to portraiture to different approaches in landscape. I am really looking forward to including Landscape with Rainbow as Sun Blasts the Sky (for R.S.D.) 1859/2022 in that. There are earlier works in this series dedicated to Thomas Cole and Thaddeus Mosley. What made you decide to extend it beyond them to Duncanson and to this painting in particular?
Stacy Lynn Waddell: I was given an opportunity to show work in a four-page spread in the publication Art Papers. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to examine the core of the romantic idea of how we have come to be as a country. We know there are holes in all of that — it is moth-eaten— but thinking about Thomas Cole and Thaddeus Mosley was really about access. How do I reconfigure or have people take another look at some of Cole’s most important paintings by inserting Mosley and his works into the scene and drawing parallels between the lives of the two men as naturalists.
The other thing was to bring forward an interest in landscape. One of the things that I have thought a lot about, especially during 2020, was access. You couldn’t go places. Once we realized that outside was a safe space to convene, then I feel like the doors were blown off in terms of how people thought about being outside.
JS: Suddenly, everyone is an outdoorsman.
SLW: Everybody! So, I was thinking about that, too: how we do not necessarily consider the space
that we have. We do not consider our dependency upon nature and how we have disrespected that
JS: Then you shift from the Cole/Mosley series to Duncanson. Was it because of his importance as the first and best-known Black American landscape painter?
SLW: Yes. When the painting was rededicated, I thought, “yeah, this is the moment.” Think of the biblical significance around a rainbow and the promise just this idea of a promise. Another thing that the pandemic did was push us to keenly focus on political discourse. To have this painting emerge during the inauguration as a kind of promise, it just struck me as something that seemed important.
Also, the fact that here is a Black man (Duncanson) at a time when Black people had no access. This painting was made in 1859, American slavery was still the order of the day, yet Duncanson was able to access and occupy spaces in America and abroad. I found that to be fascinating. It stood as an emblem of possibility for the onlooker and me as a Black woman from the South functioning as an artist.
JS: Duncanson’s painting, and the rainbow’s landing on the cabin in the wilderness, has been interpreted as symbolizing divine blessing on westward expansion, yet we were doing so at the expense of all the people who originally lived on the land. There is an irony there as he was a Black artist painting on the eve of the Civil War. Duncanson soon thereafter just got the heck out and went to England by way of Canada and left the country for several years. So, to me, it is a painting that is loaded with so many tensions and ironies. What led you to pick the tondo (circular) format for these works and the details in the way that you have done — piecing in the panels in the sky with the rounded swirl. To me, it calls to mind the arc of the rainbow, but I’d love to know more about how you landed on the bit of the picture you chose and the way that you put it together.
SLW: I started thinking about how I would intervene upon the original painting. What would make the most sense for me, someone who loves to appropriate. I do a lot of that in my art. I find photographs and other images that I take and insert a different meaning or myself into the work. Tondos are typically formats of paintings that we ascribe to religious works. The circle points to an internal way of connecting to something. My pieces are works on handmade paper made in India that is very irregular with deckled edges, but still round. So, you still fall into that place.
My drawings are created by burning paper. I am burning paper and then I am adding gilded (gold) material. I love surface texture. I thought, “why don’t you just reinterpret paintings in your materials that are all about surface interest?”
The paintings I am referencing in this also call attention to the environment. Gold leaf is tough on the environment. It is metal. It is gold pounded into sheets with a decorative pattern inlaid. All the alchemy and all the gathering of metals happen before I get the material to use it. So, when I’m using this material, I’m thinking about science, the environment, and the optical illusion of seeing a rainbow.
It is interesting to me to overlay a lot of our contemporary concerns onto a painting that was about an ironic look at a promise. What is it that we really stand for as a country? What is it? What direction are we really going in? It is natural for me to take what I do and lay it on top of something else and then hope that someone gathers something from it.
Hopefully, what the viewer can extract from looking at this series is going well beyond looking at a landscape and even beyond the Duncanson references. The materials may lead them back to some of the concerns: the environment, the landscape, their relationship to it, and what, if anything, are they doing to protect these spaces.
Jen Sudul Edwards, PhD: One of the things that I find so interesting about Duncanson is that with romanticism over the last 100 years, we have been much more critical about it as a practice, of it being nostalgic to avoid reality, whitewashing history to erase crimes against humanity that were going on at the time. You mention the irony that is embedded in Duncanson’s treatment of it, but I also find a kernel of a reminder in Duncanson, and in your series, that romanticism was also created because of a need for hope. Was that a consideration of your series, which was started during the pandemic and has the need for a rainbow at the end.
SLW: Artists are romantics, especially the idea of romanticism as a longing or looking at something lovingly or looking back at something and thinking that there is always hope. It is what we do every day in the making of the work. To be an artist, you are pulling things out of thin air with the hope that someone will come along and find interest in it — just to create a relationship with it through the eye and through the gut. But then also, to maybe buy it and show it and talk about it and write about it. I think that at the heart of all of us, we are all romantics.
I mean, for me, I grew up in the rural South. I ran through fields and grew up on a farm and have a clear relationship to the out of doors, to the land, to owning land. It is not a foreign idea for me to know that people can own land and own large parts of it. My great grandfather, Zollie Coffey Massenburg, owned hundreds of acres at a time when a Black man in rural North Carolina, did not. When he passed, his 14 children all got large plots of land, one of them being my maternal grandmother. When I pass an open field, immediately, there is something that is pricked in me about remembering, longing, and wanting that to be kept whole. No one’s going to buy this and build on it. If we could just have green spaces. The idea of romanticism is deeply embedded in me.
I think when people stand in front of work, there is a romantic gesture that is happening internally with whatever work they are looking at. You bond with it. You are creating a relationship. Whether you realize it or not, you are siphoning through your personal and psychic experiences. It is a romantic way of engaging with something.
So yes, I come to everything as a romantic, as someone who has a longing. I think my interest in appropriation is a romantic gesture to see something and want to make it not better, but to make conditions better and add my voice to that, to envision a better world. The only way that I know how to do that is just with the materials and things that I love working with.
Q&A with legendary fashion icon André Leon Talley
The curator of the Mint’s exhibition The Glamour and Romance of Oscar de la Renta and star of the fashion world spoke to the Mint’s director of public relations and publications in 2018 just before the opening of the exhibition. Following is the article that published in the Winter 2018 INSPIRED member magazine.
By Leigh Dyer
CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW YOU GOT TO KNOW OSCAR DE LA RENTA?
My first meeting with Oscar was in December 1975, when he and his first wife, the late Francoise de la Renta, invited me at the last minute to their table for two at the annual Met Costume Institute dinner. It was held in December in those days, and it was a very small, intimate society dinner and celebrity-filled. Diana Vreeland had spoken so highly of me to the de la Rentas that he simply made space for me at his already seated table.
WHAT WERE YOUR IMPRESSIONS OF HIM?
My first impression and my lasting impression, was he was a great man of impeccability, elegance, well-groomed, and polite. He also had a wonderful charm and smile. His whole being simply exuded a natural nobility of goodness and sunshine, warmth, laughter, and generosity. All the real things that matter. I miss him every day and his second wife, Annette, was also a close friend of the first Mrs. de la Renta. They both love beauty and comfort, nothing over the top, as the late Bunny Mellon said, “nothing should be noticed.”
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE MEMORY OF HIM?
I loved watching Oscar dance and sing. He was the best dancer and did the best merengue. He was so soigné, even dancing. And swimming, in his native Dominican Republic. He also had a voice that was as rich and warm as his heart. He was kind, but he also had a wicked sense of humor, loved telling the anecdotal historical narrative of French high society in fashion-for example he went to some of the famous Paris society balls. And I loved him telling the narrative of those glamorous women.
WHY DO YOU THINK HIS DESIGNS WERE SO SUCCESSFUL AT CONNECTING WITH THE PUBLIC AND POPULAR CULTURE?
His designs impact everyone, from the 8-year-old girl to the 80-year-old grand dame. I fondly remember a young girl being brought by her parents to de Young in San Francisco for the retrospective on Oscar, and she was so impressed by the pale pink tulle dress and hat and veil, inspired by Madame Bovary. It was actually a wedding dress in a Pierre Balmain collection in Paris, designed beautifully by Oscar. So romantic, so rich in romantic history. Oscar always wanted to make women beautiful; he didn’t care about being an artist, he wanted to make dresses that were worn and admired by the women who loved them. Embedded in every bow and every nuance of taffeta flourish, every flounce of velvet edged in sable and embroidery, was his sense of romance. The body of work from his beginnings at Lanvin Castillo to his early youth in Spain anchor him in the historical context of romantic and glamorous design. He loved so much to realize clothes that were exuberantly baroque in surface, yet weighted in elegant simplicity.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS HIS MOST IMPORTANT LEGACY IN THE FASHION WORLD?
There are three designers I think of who have left a lasting mark in the realm of modern fashion that is romantic: Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, and Yves Saint Laurent. All three of these titans of talent, I know or knew personally. In the hands of each, a dress, a coat, or a suit became a poem!
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH LONGTIME MINT SUPPORTER MARIANNA SHERIDAN?
I worked closely with Marianna and she was quiet, yet fiercely passionate about Oscar de la Renta. She loved the designer so much, she had a family home built in the Dominican Republic. I always looked forward to her e-mails with another glorious find. She frequently would seek my advice on if she should or should not acquire certain looks, but she was somehow drawn to the glorious pieces that always reflected the best of Oscar’s designs. Under her direction, the de la Renta archives became a wonderful resource, a literal goldmine of offerings in every category. We were friends, and I had a deep respect for her dedication and her work. She had a love of beauty, luxury, and elegance.
WHAT ARE YOU HOPING THAT VISITORS TO THE EXHIBITION WILL COME AWAY WITH?
I hope visitors wi11 take away a breathtaking sense of Oscar’s love of texture and fabric, color, and complex layerings of details of the world of couture conceits. Romantic ruffles and the glory of Spain’s culture in the arts, and flamenco, the bullring, and the idea of the warmth of the sun in Sevilla on a beautiful day is somehow in the very cut of the cloth. More than anything, he was a true romantic and loved life, and he showed that in his love of gardens, garden motifs, flowers.
THIS EXHIBITION HAS COINCIDED WITH THE PREMIERE OF YOUR NEW DOCUMENTARY, “THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANDRE.”
I am proud the documentary opens at the same period this spring as the exhibit. Kate Novack, director, narrates brilliantly my humble beginnings in Durham, N.C. and how I soldiered through the “chiffon trenches” for decades to arrive at the heights of my career, landing at Vogue for nearly two decades. I am still aligned to Vogue as a contributing editor and consider Dame Anna Wintour a close friend. She has supported me throughout my career and I am blessed to have her [in my life]. The documentary received the Whistler prize last December at the Whistler Film Festival, as World Documentary.
It’s a great honor to curate this, my third exhibition since Oscar de la Renta died. I considered Oscar one of my close friends and I think of him every day as I do so many wonderful people who have passed away: Yves Saint Laurent, Diana Vreeland, Andy Warhol (who gave me my first job in fashion in 1975), and Azzedine Alaia. I am also proud of the books I published in collaboration with SCAD in Savannah, Georgia, published by Rizzoli, Little Black Dress and Oscar de la Renta: His Legendary World of Style.