HB2 Squirrels shake up expectations of social norms, shine spotlight on LGBTQIA+ issues
HB2 Squirrels, a pair of gender-symbol-wielding squirrels covered in multicolored war paint greet visitors in the main entryway of Mint Museum Uptown. The squirrels, part of The Mint Museum collection, pose a striking opposition to expectations of social norms and what one expects to be met with in a museum.
The HB2 Squirrels were inspired by North Carolina’s House Bill 2, commonly referred to as the “bathroom bill.” HB2 required residents to use the bathroom in public facilities that matched the gender on their birth certificate, launching a national outcry over civil liberties. The bill was criticized for impeding the rights of transgender people and other people in the LGBTQIA+ community who do not identify strictly within the gender binary, and was later repealed by N.C. Governor Roy Cooper.
Artist Michelle Erickson, outraged, took to her potter’s wheel. The result: two salt-glazed stoneware squirrels, grasping the gender symbols—one drenched in the colors of the American flag, the other in the colors of the LGBTQIA+ rainbow flag. “Congressional acts are temporary,” she says “but art is forever.”
The composition of the squirrels also was crucial. The squirrels face each other, seemingly holding their assigned gender symbols as weapons used to fight one another. The female symbol, a circle with a cross stemming down, is inverted and held by the squirrel to mirror the way the male symbol is held. Erickson said inverting the symbol was a call to uprooting the traditional view of women as a shield.
The color of the squirrels is also indicative of the message being sent. Both have rainbow colored lines covering their face and body. Erickson said she wanted to use the rainbow motif instead of the colors of the transgender flag, to place a gentle reminder that transgender individuals are included as a part of the LGBTQIA+ community.
The squirrels also have different base bodies. The choice to make one black and one white was a conscious decision to ground it in societal tensions involving race, and to highlight the different viewpoints that stem from race within the LGBTQIA+ community.
When working with a new piece Erickson says she “allows the work to take [her.]” She starts with a design, but as the piece of clay is being shaped, it gradually takes on a new form. The overall product is as much a reflection of the process as it is the original idea.
HB2 Squirrels are a part of the past and present, she says, representing the processes of the Moravian potters, as well as speaking to the heightened political atmosphere surrounding LGBTQIA+ issues, and specifically the HB2 bill that was introduced in North Carolina in 2016. The resulting work of art challenged norms through revitalizing old processes and questioning societal implications.
The idea that became the HB2 Squirrels began as a study of a set of figural bottles from the 18th or 19th century. Erickson says the bottles originally intrigued her due to their lack of clear function and their unique construction. The bottles’ unglazed interior and overall shape indicated that they were made using a cast or mold. During her artist residency at STARworks, Erickson began using traditional techniques with salt-glazed stoneware to see if she could create a similar design. The original designs of the squirrels were modified to be reflective of the modern era.
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From war-torn Colombia to the Mint: how one staffer found her home away from home at the museum
We at the Mint were so excited about International Museum Day this Monday, May 18 that we decided to unroll a week of content for it. And how better to round out the week than to tell the story of this year’s theme—diversity—than through the story of one of the Mint’s crown jewels: Kurma Murrain.
A native of Colombia, South America, Murrain joined the Mint team as community programs coordinator in 2018, where she (alongside Rubie Britt-Height, director of community relations) helps organize some of the museum’s most dynamic programming catering to the region’s international audience and anyone who wants a taste of the world outside Charlotte. Murrain is also an award-winning poet, a talented performer (she was part of The Vagina Monologues at Queens University of Charlotte in 2016), and always ready with an easy laugh.
Here’s Murrain’s story, as told to Caroline Portillo. Lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
I grew up in Bogota, Colombia, in the mountains. I was always writing something — I started with little poems for my mom about how much I loved her. Then in my early teen years at school, I always wanted to share what I was writing with my friends. The teachers noticed and started calling on me to read my poems: in the classroom, on Mother’s Day, on Teacher’s Day. When I was taking physics in high school, I was so bad at it. Failing miserably, and there was no way I was going to pass that class. Then one day my physics teacher came in the classroom, after having read a poem I’d posted on the bulletin board at school. He said, “You don’t need to study physics. You have a talent. I’ll give you a passing grade.”
Escobar, narcos and ‘a good place to be’
We watch a lot of American TV and movies in Colombia. I grew up poor, and to watch those TV shows, I thought everybody in the United States lived an abundant life, and had beautiful houses. Plus, in my country, there was a lot of racism. My brother and I were usually the only black students in the school, and we were bullied because we were black. I didn’t see that on the TV shows in the United States, so I thought, “that’s a good place to be.”
I was also living in Colombia during the time of Pablo Escobar and the narco war. I experienced so many horrendous things. They were killing everybody—journalists, artists, important people from the government. They were kidnapping and putting car bombs everywhere. So, yes, I was dreaming about the United States, but I also had another motivation to get out of there.
[NOTE: I am happy to report that Colombia’s former president Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Prize for his efforts to bring the nation’s more than 50-year civil war to an end. Colombia is now a safer, more beautiful place.]
In 1998, a coworker told me the YMCA was recruiting summer camp counselors from other countries. I was hired to work at a special needs camp in New Jersey for three months. I had my first experience in the United States and wanted to come back. I came back in 2000 to work at another special needs camp in the Catskills in New York.
Afterward, I kept thinking “I want to go back, but I want to work in my field, education.” In Colombia, I was teaching English at several universities and teaching private classes at a bank, so my friend told me about a program called Visiting International Faculty, that hires teachers to come to the U.S. for three to five years.
I called them and told them about my experience, and they said I was the perfect candidate except for one little thing: I needed to have had a drivers’ license for at least two years. I didn’t drive. So I started taking classes, got my license. This was the thing I’d been dreaming of my whole life, so I was like, “OK, it’s only two years.”
I was 32 when I could finally apply to be a teacher in the US. I marked on my application that I wanted to work in California. That’s what I’d seen in the movies. But it was a school in Charlotte that wanted me, South Meck High School. And they wanted me to be there in two weeks. I had a mini panic attack, heart attack, and stroke at the same time. And when I saw the email, I said “Charlotte?”
I even considered not going because I’d fallen in love. And this man was gorgeous. But when I told him, “Hey I got this email and I may go to Charlotte in two weeks,” he started laughing. I said, “What the heck?”
And he said, “I’m laughing because my best friends live in Charlotte.”
It was amazing. The guy I was dating made introductions on email, and his friends said I could stay with them at their home off Carmel Road while I settled down. I didn’t even have a car, so they took me to school and picked me up in the afternoon. I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) at South Meck for three years.
In 2005, one of the Spanish teachers, Mr. Lopez, told me there was a poetry contest at the Mint Museum. You didn’t have to sign up for anything. Just show up and read your poem.
We went straight to the auditorium at Mint Museum Randolph. I didn’t win, but there were more contests at the Mint—four a year—and I won three consecutive times between 2005 and 2006.
I met Rubie Britt Height, the Mint’s director of community relations, in 2012. I was getting an award at the main library uptown and asked the audience if I could read a poem I’d written for my mother who had passed just three months earlier. After I read the poem, Rubie had her mouth open in awe. Then she started inviting me to events at the museum to read my poems, especially Mint to Move. Before everyone started dancing, I would read a poem.
In 2016, I went to teach English in China for a year. I love adventure. But even while I was there, Rubie asked me to send a video of a poem for the Mint’s Día de las Velitas (Day of the Candles) celebration, a Colombian tradition, that December. And a few months later, she had an event at
the museum while I was visiting a cousin in Thailand, and she asked me to read a poem I wrote while I was in China. Because of the time difference, I got up at 5 AM to get ready to connect to Charlotte via Skype.
When I came back to the U.S. I returned to teach Spanish at a school in South Carolina, but I wasn’t fulfilled. Then Rubie gave me a call. She said there was a position open at the Mint for a community programs coordinator and that I should apply.
When they hired me on April 30, 2018, I was ecstatic. The Mint was the best place in the world. Like Disneyland.
Called to be inspired
The Mint is the most beautiful place. It’s quiet. It calls you to meditate, to be inspired. And my coworkers are so kind. Before working at the Mint, I already had strong ties to the Latin community and the artistic community. I’d been on panels and shared poetry at places like Queens University and Johnson C. Smith University. But being at The Mint Museum now is a platform on which I can help others.
It’s exciting to plan for them, to talk to the performers, to see them and see the reaction of the people. It makes me feel accomplished, too. After each event I think, “Wow, this was great. And I was part of it.”
What I love about the Mint’s programming is I am able to see such a variety of artists, painters, musicians, dancers, poets. It’s such a great array. Every program is so unique and brings a different public.
The Mint is a big part of the Latin community. At Mint Música & Poesía Café—a biannual event that features talented poets, dancers and musicians from the region— we’ve had a salsa dancer who’s now dancing at an academy in New York. We’ve had a cellist from Colombia play while a PowerPoint of photos from Colombian landscapes played. We’ve had a poet from Puerto Rico share a powerful story about his father.
Before I worked at the Mint and heard about Mint to Move—our bimonthly cultural dance night that regularly draws 300 to 400 people—I was like “We can dance at the museum? And there’s a DJ and sometimes a live band playing? Oh my gosh.” So I started bringing all my friends.
Through Mint to Move, I’ve met black people from other Latin American areas and countries, such as Puerto Rico, Cuba. They understand the struggle. For instance, I teach with the Mint’s Grier Heights Youth Art Program on Wednesdays. The children think I’m black before I speak. And then once I speak, they just open their eyes and are like, “you’re not black.”
“But, wait,” I ask them. “Why does that change?” I have to explain to them that slavery came to North America, but also to all parts of America: Central America, South America, the Carribbean. They don’t teach that at school.
It’s very touching to be able to see and experience artists who are from your country or any Latin American country. It’s like bringing a little bit of home to the community. And the language—to be able to listen to poetry or music in Spanish. The older people especially get so emotional when they can listen to their language and talk to people like me. It’s a great way to stay connected to their community and their country.
Then I also work with people who just want to know more about Latin American culture. We had a group from UNC Charlotte and another at Johnson C. Smith University who started coming to Mint Música & Poesia Café and Mint to Move. They just love these events. Then there’s Bilingual Stories & Music, which draws Latin families, Asian families, African-American families, white families. And there are so many marriages with spouses from the U.S. who want to learn about their spouses’ cultures through our programs. It’s a beautiful connection they make because they have that special person next to them, and they’re experiencing the programs together. They can see through different eyes. And because of the Mint, I get to be a part of that.
BURN YOUR ASSUMPTIONS
Star Gallery | Spring-Summer 2020
Inspired by the Immersed In Light: Studio Drift at the Mint exhibition, Hough High School students worked to create pieces of art for the Star Gallery that explored the relationship between humanity, nature, and technology. Creating a dialogue about the in and out of body conversations we have with these relationships was our main focus. Throughout the work you can see that students worked with many materials, both tangible and digital. These works are from Katherine Allen’s Visual Art Honors and AP classes as well as Justin Pierce’s Media Arts Honors and AP classes