Note: Authored by David Menconi, this piece has been produced in partnership with Raleigh Arts. Menconi's latest book, "Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk," was published in Oct. by University of North Carolina Press.



With massive transformations underway at Raleigh's Dorothea Dix Park, visitors might find it helpful to have a centralized gathering spot within the park—a place to get a sense of the size, scope and history of the 306-acre outdoor venue just south of downtown. A new mural provides something like that, and you’ll find it in the lobby of the Greg Poole Jr. All Faiths Chapel (1030 Richardson Dr., near the Western Blvd. entrance to the Dix campus).

[Editor's note: Built in 1955, the newly renovated chapel has just announced it's opening as the first public indoor space in Dorothea Dix Park. Visitors are welcome Tues. and Thurs., 6-9pm; Sat., 10am-4pm; and Sun., noon-5pm. Concerts, lectures, art exhibits and more are expected to be held here in the near future.]

Painted by Asheville artist Christopher Holt on silver-leaf foil plate, the mural depicts different people, places and things from four phases of Dix—native land, pre-Civil War plantation, state-run mental health facility and the major urban park the space is now transitioning into (housing website Curbed called the Dix Park "the nation's most exciting park project"). It’s a complicated and not entirely happy history, which Holt is well aware of. A recent afternoon found him putting the finishing touches on the mural to the sounds of Piedmont blues guitarist Etta Baker on his Bluetooth speaker.

“I think of this as park headquarters,” Holt said while painting. “A spot any new person coming here might start at to get their bearings. This park is the future, a great opportunity for the city. What city this size gets 300 acres like this? I liked the whole idea of the thing, and having the opportunity to be a part of it.”

Musical accompaniment is part of the mural itself, in the form of an eight-minute instrumental composed and recorded by Graham Sharp, banjo player of Grammy-winning bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers. It features Sharp’s banjo accented by percussion effects from his Rangers bandmate Mike Ashworth. Holt has been friends with the Rangers since the late 1990s, when he met them at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (one of their earliest gigs was at his 21st birthday party).

The mural project began with the Dix Park Conservancy putting out a call to artists for proposals last year. Holt was one of 30 artists to submit proposals, and his work is drawing raves.

“As this was our first building project, it was important for us to address the full and long history of place there,” said Kate Pearce, planning supervisor for City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. “The mural does a good job of reflecting that and speaks to Dix’s long history.”

Holt, who had an acclaimed 2020-21 show at the North Carolina Museum of Art, had to do some reading up on Dix’s history, as well as controversy over its sale to the city to become a park, a contentious process that went on for many years.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Dorothea Dix Park (@dixpark)

“I knew a little about the hospital, but not about what a battle it was to turn Dix into a park,” he said. “I guess you’d say that information did not go ‘over the mountain.’ But I caught up quick.”

Getting the mural onto the chapel lobby’s walls was a highly labor-intensive process, starting with 40 hours of work to apply the foil onto the walls. Once word got out about the project, Holt had quite a few visitors come in to watch while he did the work at the end of April.

For background material as well as models to paint, Holt relied on Marjorie O’Rorke’s 2009 book “Haven on the Hill: The History of North Carolina’s Dorothea Dix Hospital,” the Dix Park masterplan and a cache of images by the legendary North Carolina photographer Hugh Mangum. One such image (which was rescued from a barn before it was to be destroyed) served as Holt’s model for a soon-to-be-iconic winged portrait over the entrance to the chapel.

“There are so many stories to tell here,” said Holt. “They’ll be able to do so many more artistic residencies in this park. I think that’s the best way to move forward, keep talking about and seeing how different folks interpret things. It’s also the way to heal a hard legacy.”

Opening ceremony for Christopher Holt’s lobby mural at Greg Poole Jr. All Faiths Chapel, 1030 Richardson Dr., will be on May 26. Until then, it is open for viewing during the chapel’s regular hours (or by appointment). You can follow Christopher Holt on Instagram at @christopherholtfineart.

 

Header photo by David Menconi

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