The commission that Charlotte real estate developer Lincoln Harris gave to New York artist Summer Wheat wasn’t related to COVID-19. But because she worked on it during the lockdown of 2020, the pandemic seeped into her work.
The brilliant-hued “Waterfalls” — part painting and part sculpture — covers two walls in the central lobby of Legacy Union’s 650 S. Tryon St. building, an 18-story tower anchored by Deloitte’s Charlotte headquarters.
“This painting was made from a drawing I did over the summer next to a waterfall in Woodstock, New York,” she said. “I found this beautiful little place to find refuge during COVID. I became really connected to this particular waterfall. It offered a very soothing sound that gave me a lot of comfort during that moment of isolation.”
The painting, which Wheat said is the largest one she’s ever made, stands nearly 21 feet tall and 20 feet wide.
“I felt so honored that Lincoln Harris trusted me to take on such an enormous space that would be a core part of your experience walking into their new building,” she said.
A tribute to NC women
”Waterfalls” is an homage to North Carolina’s history of makers in furniture and textiles, and crafts such as basket weaving and quilting.
Much of Wheat’s work celebrates female empowerment, and “Waterfalls” is no exception. Look closely and you’ll see an abstracted figure inspired by America’s first manufacturer of overalls — Abigail Carter of Clinton.
This isn’t Wheat’s only large-scale installation in Charlotte.
Her four-story, 3,720-square-feet “Foragers” appears just a few blocks away in the atrium of the Mint Museum Uptown. It, too, honors female makers. If you’ve seen what appears to be a giant stained-glass mural, you’ve seen the work. It’s actually colored vinyl on Mylar.
With such prominent work in town, you might think Wheat has close ties to Charlotte.
In fact, she had only driven through town before she began working with Chandra Johnson’s SOCO Gallery in Eastover. (She met Johnson through Jen Sudul Edwards, the Mint’s chief curator and curator of contemporary art.)
“Chandra and I both grew up in Oklahoma,” Wheat said. “She’s the only person in my life who grew up where I did who’s also part of the New York art world… It’s really special to work with somebody who understands where you’re coming from, geographically, and then also understands where you are today.”
SOCO held a solo show, “Lather, Rinse, Repeat” — featuring works of bathers, baths and grooming — for Wheat last September. That show coincided with the “Foragers” installation at the Mint.
Wheat, who has a master of fine arts from the Savannah College of Art and Design, has work in the permanent collections of the Dallas Museum of Art, the de Young Museum in San Francisco and the Peréz Art Museum Miami.
Banking history, personal history
Wheat knew Charlotte’s reputation as a banking center and included a piggy bank as a tribute.
“I connected Charlotte’s banking history with something from my personal history,” she said. “My grandfather was vice president of a bank in Oklahoma City. A lot of my Christmas presents, the things I was given growing up, were things a banker would have — like those cylinders that hold coins. I always thought of coins as toys when I was a kid.”
“My grandfather saw banking as an exchange,” she said. “And so, when I was making this painting, I included a lot of back and forth and weaving in and out of these figures that fit together like a puzzle.”
Wheat is known for her heavily textured work that’s two-dimensional but has a 3-D quality. To achieve that look, she pushes acrylic paint through a wire mesh.
“Waterfalls” was created for the space at 650 S. Tryon St., although it was just a construction site when Wheat first saw it. She knew there would ultimately be Italian marble on the walls and floors.
“That’s a really powerful, beautiful material,” she said. “I liked the combination of marble with the texture of my painting. The marble is very cool and crisp and gives the right contrast to the work. In my mind, it’s the perfect combination.”
What’s in a name?
If you’re wondering about Wheat’s lyrical name — as she said most people do — it is the name her parents gave her.
“I get asked (about my name) like four times a day,” she said. “My mom was going to name me Angela, but when she was in the recovery room after having me, she saw a soap opera actress’s name — Summer — scrolling down the credits.
“I think my life would’ve been much different had I been named Angela,” she said. “I do think our names have something to do with the outcome of our lives somehow. I think your name kind of dictates a little bit of what your path will be.”
Wheat seems destined to have been an artist — and someone who loves nature.
“That Woodstock waterfall gave me this space of peace,” Wheat said. “And just the idea of this constant pouring of water and this beautiful sound — I wanted to create a visual that connects people to that feeling I had.”
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