Wyatt Closs has always believed that art could inspire change and action, even as a kid when he ran for president of his Raleigh middle school.
“I remember then how powerful art could be,” he said. “I think just these little moments that you encounter, for me, a lot of them do go back to art.”
Closs no longer lives in Raleigh, but he’s hoping a colorful mural installed in his home state — a piece of work that promotes equality for Black people — will inspire people to vote.
The 12-by-16-foot mural on the side of the Cortez restaurant on Glenwood Avenue depicts a Black man staring into the distance in vibrant shades of pink, black, blue, white and gold. It’s accompanied by the words “I am a man” and “Voting rights are human rights.”
“Dynamic, vibrant murals like this one, and others that we produce around the country, can do a better job in exciting young people in particular about voting and participating in democracy than five direct-mail pieces to their house would,” said Closs, 55, a Raleigh native and UNC graduate now living in Los Angeles.
The mural was created by Shepard Fairey, a street artist and activist known for his blue and red painting of President Barack Obama, then a candidate, accompanied by the word “hope.” The print was an iconic symbol of the 2008 presidential campaign.
The Raleigh art is part of a bigger Black Lives project that put eight murals in cities across the country. In addition to Raleigh, the company installed murals by other artists in Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, Las Vegas and Memphis.
“I had talked with Shepard Fairey about the prospect of Raleigh, which he was excited about because he’s from South Carolina originally,” said Closs, the principal and owner of Big Bowl of Ideas, a Los-Angeles based creative company. “He also said to me, ‘You know, I’ve never had a work in Raleigh, so that would be really cool.’”
The project is meant to amplify the voices of Black people and allies fighting for equality, Closs said.
Fairey’s mural is based on a 1965 picture taken in Selma, Ala., by photographer Steve Schapiro, Fairey wrote on his website. Schapiro documented protests during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
“Part of Shepard’s process involves lots of layering of other iconography, patterns, news clips,” Closs said. “If you really zoom in on the details around the subject, you’ll see a rendering of the iconic ‘I am a man’ sign in the corner, and, somewhere else, a news clipping about voting rights.”
Closs coordinated the temporary art display with the Raleigh Murals Project collective and Branded Arts, a public art company. Local artists Taylor White and Sarahlaine Calva installed the mural Saturday ahead of the nationwide Strike for Black Lives Monday.
The mural, made of wheatpaste, will stay up for at least a month, or until the material can no longer withstand the North Carolina heat, said Jedidiah Gant, the co-director of the Raleigh Murals Project collective.
Gant said the collective plans to install a permanent mural on the side of The Cortez restaurant sometime in the future.
“(Fairey) is essentially putting the Black man’s face massive on the side of the building. I wouldn’t say (it’s) rare, but it’s not very regular,” Gant said. “Especially in Raleigh, we don’t have anything like this at this scale. Especially post- all the Confederate monuments coming down.”
Closs said it’s important to install this mural in Raleigh to encourage voter turnout for the November presidential election.
How Closs’ political history inspired this mural
Closs grew up in Raleigh, graduating from Sanderson High School, and worked in state and national politics. He said his time as student body president of West Millbrook Junior High School inspired him to serve the community. (The school is now West Millbrook Middle.)
“I was actually joking with someone a couple months ago about how part of the reason I ran for student body president at West Millbrook Junior High was because that was the person who also got to make the decisions about what the assemblies were going to be,” Closs said.
Closs said this mural, and his work creating art for political change, was inspired by his time working on Harvey Gantt’s 1990 Senate campaign against incumbent Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. Gantt was Charlotte’s first African American mayor, and Helms was a controversial conservative.
“Because Helms also took a lot of positions around censorship of the arts and trying to cut funding, it inspired a group of artists to form a political action committee,” Closs said. “It always stuck with me even though I wouldn’t start doing that kind of work until 10 years later.”
He now lives in Los Angeles, but he still wants to inspire cultural change in his home state.
“When I go back home and talk to friends, there’s tremendous growth that has happened in Raleigh in all kinds of ways … (Raleigh) is … trying to embrace a number of progressive ideas,” Closs said.
“Who better than Raleigh to be a beacon of hope for the state? In terms of how it embraces democracy and participation, that’s where it happens. No disrespect to Charlotte.”
(Article written by Alyssa Lukpat)