Local artist paints little-remembered history on unlikely canvas

MecDec commemorated in Will Puckett’s Matheson Bridge mural

by Dee Grano

Will Puckett works on the mural honoring the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence under NoDa’s Matheson Bridge. Photo courtesy of Lauren Puckett

You drive under a bridge and see an overpass, but artist Will Puckett sees a canvas. The area under NoDa’s Matheson Bridge that was once overgrown and graffiti-covered is now a mural inspired by the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.

There will be an official unveiling Saturday, May 19, from 4 to 6 p.m. The event will feature live bluegrass music by The Lemonds Family Band and The Tin Kitchen gourmet food truck, as Olde Mecklenburg Brewery debuts Captain James Jack pilsner with a limited edition label. More information is available at www.mathesonbridge.com.

“I’ve always been one for alternative surfaces,” said Puckett, who has painted murals on floors and buildings including a 1,200-square-foot community “paint-by-number” for Trips for Kids and another in NoDa that features 271 real neighborhood residents and regulars. Puckett has spent the last year, and roughly 100 gallons of paint, covering the embankments and columns underneath Matheson Bridge that carries traffic over North Davidson Street leading into the NoDa Arts District.

The Matheson Bridge project was conceived four years ago by NoDaRioty, the aptly named arts committee of the Historic North Charlotte Neighborhood Association.

In support of their objective “to promote art and artists in NoDa,” NoDaRioty gave Puckett a grant to transform the cement eyesore into “a memorable artistic presence.” With additional funding from the Arts & Science Council and the city’s Neighborhood Matching Grants Program, the project was born.

“The mural has turned this bridge into a vibrant gateway to NoDa – a neighborhood that is rapidly transforming itself into one of our city’s most happening sections,” Mayor Anthony Foxx said.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Puckett

Little known history

Puckett’s work on Matheson Bridge depicts North Carolina’s role in the Revolutionary War and the disputed events surrounding “MecDec,” the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. “Will called me interested to make sure the history was right,” said Scott Syfert, who co-founded the May 20th Society and sits on its board of directors.

According to the May 20th Society: “On May 20, 1775, more than 25 civic leaders from Mecklenburg County approved and unanimously adopted the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence – the first declaration of independence from Great Britain in the American colonies.” Though the original document was destroyed by fire and several copies were lost, the MecDec date is referred to throughout state history, most noticeably on North Carolina’s state flag.

“What happened over 150 years ago can’t be proven or disproved,” said Syfert, quick to keep MecDec in context. “But as Charlotte has grown, people have lost interest and it’s morphed into a fairytale.” Both Syfert and Puckett are Charlotte natives but never remember hearing the history.

“The Matheson Street Bridge mural is a visual celebration of one of the most important events in Charlotte’s past,” Foxx said. “For newcomers, it provides a window into Charlotte’s rich history.  For residents, it offers a proud salute to our cultural heritage.”

Photo courtesy of Lauren Puckett

The work speaks for itself

The concrete embankments underneath the Matheson Bridge feature the events leading up to the writing of the MecDec, a convention called in response to outrage over the British massacre of colonists at Lexington. Puckett’s artwork depicts Britain’s refusal to acknowledge Queen’s College, and extrapolates scenes from the Mecklenburg Resolves, a second document that outlines new governance guidelines.

The columns that hold up Matheson Bridge depict main players like King George III and Queen Charlotte, James Jack who delivered the original MecDec to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia and loyalist Gov. Josiah Martin. Inside the columns are other men, women and children painted in relief, like statues void of color. “These are not specific people but the faces of those affected,” Puckett said. Presenting a perspective other than wealthy landowners pays tribute to the independent spirit and strong work ethic of ordinary citizens.

Puckett’s use of the columns and framing suggests a classic structure, like windows in a chapel. Each brightly colored chapter radiates from the pavement as light would through a stained-glass window. Underneath the mural is a basecoat of “cathedral grey” paint.

Trees separate the scenes whose roots reveal a few unearthed bones and skulls. One could interpret a new nation springing forth from spilled colonial blood, but the artist doesn’t take himself too seriously. “I like to paint them,” Puckett says simply. “Sometimes a paint brush isn’t much different than a shovel.”

Photo courtesy of Lauren Puckett

Public funding and support for art

“The Matheson Street Bridge is the first such project in Charlotte,” said Charlotte City Councilwoman Patsy Kinsey, a direct descendent of Matthew McClure, one of the MecDec signers.  “I think it is a terrific idea and hope that it is a catalyst for other similar art projects.”

Both the city and county dedicate 1 percent of construction costs of public projects to public art. This fund is administered by the Public Art Commission, made up of appointed citizens who facilitate and oversee artist selection and design. In partnership with the commission, the Arts & Science Council administers these public art programs.

Nicole Bartlett is the program manger for public art at the council. “Overall public art enhances the community’s fabric by creating more livable cities, enhancing neighborhood identity, strengthening economic development and tourism, helping to educate children and adults and enriching the spirit and pride of its citizens,” she said.

“Instead of bridges being barriers, they will open doors and connect communities,” former Mayor Pat McCrory said. “The Matheson Street Bridge will be a great piece of public art for Charlotte.”

As the Matheson Bridge website says, “Hazzah.”

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