Art to please and tease in downtown Raleigh

Public is asked to tell the story

Staff WriterJuly 9, 2011 

— For now, Wake County's new parking deck in downtown Raleigh is a cinderblock facade - a stark reminder of an ambitious plan thwarted by recession.

But over the next two weeks an enormous piece of artwork composed of 15 fantasy-themed banners will color the walls that now face Davie and McDowell streets. The gray will be transformed into a scene of roaring oceans, violet clouds, a polar bear, a dragon and a slew of characters chasing each other through the sky.

The original plan from developer Greg Hatem's Empire Properties was for an L-shaped building with ground-level retail and office space to shield the parking deck. But the economic downturn stalled that idea. In October, Hatem asked Wake commissioners to extend the starting date of the $30 million project to November 2013.

Andrew Stewart, a spokesman for Empire Properties, said the company hopes to start the "L-Building" before 2013.

"The condition is we have to secure enough leasing. That's what we are working on now," Stewart said.

So, with a less-than-attractive shell just sitting there, Hatem and commissioners held a contest that asked art and design students at N.C. State University to create banners to adorn the naked walls.

A team of rising seniors - Jordan Deva, Joe Lawson and Justin T. Philips - won the $2,500 prize for their design, "The Fantastic Sky Race."

"We wanted to have a scene of adventure, colorful and exotic characters," said Philips, 21, of Charlotte. "We just wanted to have lots of fun with it."

They melded fantasy with familiar symbols of North Carolina: acorns, Sir Walter Raleigh, dogwood trees, the dome of the Capitol building.

When their design was chosen, the three worked hard to complete the banners amid their full-time academic work and part-time jobs.

Yvonne Allen, branch manager at the Wake Forest Community Library, said she thought the whimsical theme of the art worked perfectly with libraries - a place where imagination is nurtured.

The artists purposely left out a narrative for their work. The Wake County library system will invite residents to create their own stories for what happens between the bear and the dragon.

Libraries will hold writing workshops and a poetry contest. They will introduce the artwork to residents by giving out coloring books and bookmarks.

"It'll be fun to see how people start recognizing the themes," Allen said.

As for the neighbors of the county's parking deck, they said they will be relieved to see the eyesore transformed into a piece of art.

"It's a Band-Aid, but I love the idea to make the city look better," said Matt Fern, manager of nearby Poole's Diner.

regina.wang@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4918

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