Lara Americo (left) and artist Sharon Dowell with the ‘A City On Its Side’ mural.

CHARLOTTE, N.C.— Sharon Dowell unveiled her “A City On Its Side” mural on Sept. 16 at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte Center City Campus as part of the “Heightened Perspectives” exhibition.

The piece can be seen through a window from the street at the corner of Brevard and 9th Sts. Its model was Lara Americo, a transgender activist.

Dowell used the opportunity to use art as a “response to HB2, equality and the political turmoil in our state and country,” she said.

During the unveiling, Dowell shared her thoughts on the underlying reason she chose the subject on which to focus. She said that she is white and straight and that means that she has privilege. However, with all of that she still feels and sees great injustice and bias around her. The full script of her speech follows below.

I am white and that inherently means I have privilege. I have never worried when I am pulled over about where to place my hands or thought that I need to stay stay extremely, extremely calm. I can raise my voice or even act a little crazy without the fear that my life may be taken because of it. People smile at me when I walk down the street; they don’t clutch their purses closer to them. I have never had a gun to my head or even had one drawn in my presence. No one has ever assumed that I am thief, a drugdealer, or just really up to no good.

I am straight and that inherently means I have privilege. Growing up, I never worried about who I could marry. I have never been fired or not landed a job because I am straight. I’ve never worried that I would be beat me up, stabbed, or shot if chose to wear clothing that does not fit my gender identity. I’ve never been forced to use a bathroom in which I feel unsafe and demeaned. Suicide has never crossed my mind because as a straight person, life has become so unbearable due to people calling me names, disowning me, or assaulting me.

Yes, I believe there has been much improvement. Happily, LGBT couples can marry who they wish and make decisions for loved ones if they become ill or pass away. Happily, it is much less likely that my fiancee will be found dead and swinging from a tree because of the mere fact that I am white, he is black, and we are in love. But believe me, we still endure racist cat calls and sideeyed looks of hatred.

I believe our country still grapples with these terrible legacies because we have not healed from times of slavery (and before that, Native genocide). I think there has not been enough time for people of color to have the same opportunities as white people, to build up wealth, and pass it down to the next generation.

I feel there has not been enough time for the changing of hearts and minds for LGBT people to come out without fear of repercussions affecting their relationships, careers and their lives.

My mural, A City On It’s Side, speaks of this. It is my response to HB2, civil rights and the general political turmoil in our state & country. Two Charlotte skylines are incorporated into the mural, both turned on their sides; Charlotte in the early 1900’s and behind it, the current skyline. Red dripping cubes symbolize how people label and box each other in…people that don’t look like them, believe like them, or share the same cultural background. It’s also about their desire to stay within their own boxes or bubble. I am honored that Lara Americo agreed to be my model; I admire her courage as an activist in the LGBT community and her leadership in making a difference in the lives of people. In the mural, her mouth is absent, as many in the LGBT community and people of color are still kept from speaking their truth, being themselves, and must still fight for equal rights. Lastly, the mural’s vibrant color expresses redeeming hope, as we have come so far but still have so much more to fight for.

I believe there has not yet been a sea change in growth, in people teaching their peers and children to love ALL.

Racism, hatred, and stereotyping still loom large. It is so easy, especially as a straight white person, to be unaware of the privilege we have, to be unaware of the systemic racism and bigotry in our society. Or to ignore it & sit in silence. Because we can. We can avoid it, we have privilege to live our lives in complacency, in our bubble worlds, and not concern ourselves with others who face it every single day.

I feel that conversation is a game changer. Things will improve if people talk to and befriend people that don’t look like them. They will hear their stories and they will begin to understand. We must not stand silent. We must have the uncomfortable conversations, the attempts at healthy dialogue, the constant hope for increased awareness, understanding, and above all EMPATHY.

This is summarized by my mural’s inclusion of lyrics…”Nature Boy,” by Nat King Cole: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

Sharon Dowell, Artist Talk. Heightened Perspectives Art Reception. Sept 16, 2016, UNC Charlotte Center City Campus, Charlotte, NC


Lainey Millen

Lainey Millen was formerly QNotes' associate editor, special assignments writer, N.C. and U.S./World News Notes columnist and production director from 2001-2019 when she retired.