A post-pandemic explosion of culture can be seen all over Charlotte these days. From outdoor sculpture displays and museums to our vibrant wall and street murals. Openly-gay painter Jamil Dyair Steele is one of those enriching the Queen City with his art.
An elementary art teacher by day, a muralist and brush painter by night, we sat down at Devil’s Logic Brewery in Midtown and chatted up his Black Lives Matter street mural, his art in the Mint Museum, upcoming projects and even touched on upward mobility of the African-American community and his love life.
So how long have you been painting?
I’ve been painting all my life. My dad was a singer [and] jack of all trades, so I got a desire to paint from him. He painted a picture of my mom, and it looked just like her! I think that sparked an interest in art.
When did you first remember developing a love for art?
Elementary school. If I had a book report to do I would always draw or doodle. I think I became very passionate maybe in middle school, and it spiraled from there.
Did you get in trouble for doodling in class?
No, no, no. Actually my teacher kinda’ enjoyed it because I would draw characters with speech bubbles that had the little facts that supported my research and what not [laughs]. So she enjoyed it, and it helped me become stronger in my writing and literacy.
What are your inspirations when you paint?
I draw from my life experience. I’m a gay Black male and most of the time if my work is not about my racial identity it’s about my sexual identity. But I explore other things too, I’m an illustrator at heart, so any of my work is going to be a narrative of nature, I’m going to tell a story with the visuals. So, most of it deals with that. Here lately I’ve been exploring my racial identity more than my sexual identity. Both go hand-in-hand.
You have a BLM piece that is part of the Mint Museum permanent collection here in Uptown, I understand. Can you tell us about that and how it came about?
Well, I definitely was not expecting it to become a part of [the] Mint’s permanent collection. We did it last year, about a year ago. They were painting the BLM street mural. I found out on the news and rushed down. I had already wanted to be part of something like that, so I went down and introduced myself to some of the artists — some of the artists I already knew — I helped Georgie with the M and I was told they were painting the wooden panels in the storefront windows the next day. They were using aerosol paint and I’m not much of an aerosol painter, so I said, “I’ll bring my brushes and I’ll jump on the wall.” And so I did, I took the design I already sketched and painted it in two days, and while I was painting people came up to take pics and ask questions and it just became a focal point. I think it really complemented the street mural. Most of the panels found a home, but the Mint was interested in buying mine. So I’m excited about that.
Was the current street mural movement developed from the Black Lives Mural or prior to that?
I believe it developed out of the BLM movement. I do know that the Charlotte Art League is the organization that sponsored the painting of the panels. My cousin, Chandler Snipes, she works for them and was responsible to make sure that each panel got placed somewhere.
So Jen Edwards, she really, really was interested in buying my piece for the Mint collection.
I didn’t know it would be in the permanent collection. In fact I found out when everyone else found out (laughs). But she did tell me it would be up for at least six months.
Was there any pushback when you first started that piece?
No, most people were receptive. It seems like it brought people together. It was a place where people could go and reflect, and that’s what we need. I think we as gay people understand the inclusiveness of everybody. But I don’t think everyone has that mindset, and I think the street mural and the BLM panels really gave a place for people to go and reflect and say, “ok, we are all humans. There’s really no such thing as race. We make that up.”
So now you’re commissioned to paint a wall mural on the West Trade Street tunnel. That’s exciting! Tell us more about that.
It is exciting. I answered a call for artists in January and they were looking for someone to paint the underpass wall of I-77 and W. Trade St. There are two projects currently happening. Stacy Utley is doing the sculptures, and there’s a light show displayed underneath the bridge. So I’ll be painting either end of the underpass wall on both sides. One side is 68 feet in length and the other is 113. So my design has two figures. A male figure that is a profile, and his eyes are closed and he’s reflecting on the current atmosphere of the corridor [and] the things that make the West End recognizable, like Johnson C. Smith and West Charlotte Marching Band, and the new street car. The girl is reflecting on the history of the corridor. In the redesign I added a lot of history about the corridor, so I added Fred Alexander, Julius Chambers, the Sit-In Movement, Chatty Hattie, who was a Black female broadcaster in the 1960s, Romare Bearden. So it chronicles the history. There are over 20 figures in the piece, so it might take two to three months to complete. I think Charlotte needs to do a better job preserving its history, especially African-American history, because we’re a part of the community, just like everyone else.
Will you be painting all this solo?
I’m going to solicit help. I’ll do all the figurative work in the main pieces of the project but getting help with the background and the wave. I have a few people in mind that I would like to ask to help.
Would you ever consider creating an LGBTQ-themed wall mural?
Oh absolutely, absolutely. Many of my paintings have to do with LGBTQ themes. Chasers is looking to have someone paint their wall, so they asked. I’m very interested. I’m trying to time it because I have other projects that I have right now, so I’m trying not to put too much on my plate. I just found out I was just selected to design two bus shelters on West Blvd. So I have to [get] that done. I’m trying to pace myself and not overload myself. So, absolutely. I’m very much a supporter of my people, my community.
Where do you think a good place for a LGBTQ-themed wall mural would be?
I’ve always admired the White Rabbit mural. I love that mural. But just anywhere in our city. I think we really need that. I see other cities really have — I know in Atlanta they have a plaza where the crosswalk is a rainbow flag. So anything like that in Charlotte, I would welcome that. I think we need a space here dedicated to us. I think it’s coming, but we are not quite there yet [laughs]. But anyway I could be a part of it, I’m definitely there.
So you’re an openly gay educator.
Educator, openly gay, there’s no secret that I’m gay. Even though I’m very proud of my sexuality, it doesn’t define me. It’s a part of me. I don’t hide it, there’s no reason to.
Has your artistry crossed into your classroom?
It definitely has, especially since [I’m doing] the mural. My students are able to see the murals I’m doing around the city. I did the mural on Montford. I did the sidewalk murals at the end of 2018. I did one in front of Carmela’s Pizza and Good Food. I did the Shamrock mural in front of the school and then also the Amaze apartment complex. I did four murals there. The kids enjoy seeing it. I tell them art is a process. You have to find your voice. You may not know what your voice is for a while. But as long as you keep creating you’ll find it.
Are you working on anything right now that we could see?
I’m doing a landscape/cityscape for an Indian restaurant in Charlotte. It’s on a wooden panel that is four feet by six feet. It’s the mountains in Nepal and in front of it is the skyline of Charlotte and the Taj Mahal. He wants it to be like a melting pot. He’s from there, and he’s been here for 17 years. He’s having a grand opening in University right across from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
I love the direction Charlotte is going in with art and murals and what not. Just a few years ago that wasn’t here. It’s more cultural and I’m glad that I’m here to experience and be a part of that.
Upward mobility within the Black community. Belonging, a safe space, affordable housing, thriving in equitable education settings, contributing to society in good health. Have you thought about addressing any of those issues within your art?
Absolutely. I haven’t really focused on a lot of it yet. But it’s definitely something I wouldn’t shy away from. I think it’s important to reflect that in art because you need to reflect what’s happening in society. Social change starts a lot from viewing art, having conversation about it and how to solve [the] issue. We definitely have an affordable housing crisis in Charlotte. A place like Tent City, it’s awful seeing that. I know people who’ve been there, and I feel for them and I feel that we as a community need to do more, including myself.
Let’s mention your website.
Dyairart.com. Same on Instagram. I have art for sale and prints. I have some pieces on display at the 9189 Studio Gallery, a house that’s being converted into a gallery in Matthews. I have three pieces there, and it’s a fabulous group show.
Lastly, tell us, are you single?
I am [laughs].
Is there anybody special on the horizon?
I am letting whatever comes my way, come my way. Right now I’m just enjoying the fact that I’m getting a lot of new commissions. You know, it will come when it comes. Looking for love will drive you crazy [laughs].
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