NC State alum Dare Coulter uses her art -- like a mural of protesters in downtown Raleigh -- to show people of color that they matter, too.
Above, passersby stop to look as artist Dare Coulter, on lift, paints a mural of protestors as part of an ACLU commission on the back of a building on Salisbury Street in Raleigh. Photo by Chris Seward for the News & Observer.
Growing up in Lorton, Virginia, just south of Washington, D.C., Dare Coulter loved reading, rock ‘n’ roll and drawing. But the other kids in her elementary school called her “white girl” and “Oreo” for liking what she liked.
The people she drew were purple, green and blue — no brown, tan or peach. Her art stayed like that for over a decade, until Coulter, now 24, started drawing political cartoons for the school newspaper at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where her sister attended. Coulter’s cartoon figures needed ironic realism, not wishful fantasy. So she started reaching for those skin tones again.
By 2016, she was painting canvas upon canvas of black men, women and children sleeping, dreaming and just being, some of them surrounded by a glowing light.
“The objective became to create positive and magical imagery of people of color,” Coulter said. “I’m not good at yelling about things. What I am good at is making art. What I can do with that art is try to get to the people who are hurting … and say, ‘Look, you matter too.'”
Coulter studied at N.C. State’s College of Design from 2011 to 2015 and was commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union state chapter to paint a downtown Raleigh mural featuring famous (and controversial) protests.
She painted images of this year’s Women’s March on Washington, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute and more in the roughly 30-feet-by-20-feet mural on the side of an empty building on Salisbury Street.
In January, Coulter was contacted by Jessica Turner, community engagement coordinator for the N.C. American Civil Liberties Union, and Jedidiah Gant of the Raleigh Murals Project, the chapter’s partner in the project.
They wanted a mural but didn’t have a building. Then Dean Debnam, owner of the Boylan-Pearce building and founder of a Democratic polling firm based in Raleigh, gave them the OK.
The mural’s central figure is “woke baby,” the toddler whose image went viral after she attended the Women’s March on Washington perched on her dad’s shoulders while carrying a sign she had scribbled herself.
“Quite obviously, we can’t read it, but that baby is like, ‘This is what I’m trying to say!'” Coulter said. “As an artist, it spoke to me because of the idea of people saying find your own message, and whatever it is, just say it.”
This isn’t Coulter’s first mural. While she was creating sketches for the ACLU mural, Coulter completed “Colors of the Nile,” an indoor mural at the N.C. State Crafts Center.
At N.C. State, Coulter found friends who accepted her as she was. That ultimately led her to start creating more realistic people.
“I didn’t think that I had the right to talk about things that were happening as far as being black was concerned, because all the black people around me were like, ‘You’re not even black anyway,'” Coulter said, referencing her childhood. “I am black, and no one gets to determine what that looks like for me.”
Recent events, including the deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Philando Castile in 2016, changed her attitude from thinking of herself as a person who didn’t define herself according to race at all.
“The things that are happening right now, I can’t just be like, ‘Race doesn’t exist,'” Coulter said. “I have friends on Facebook who say there needs to be an ‘us versus them’ war. I’m like, ‘Hold on, who’s the them?'”
Inspired by her newfound desire to paint people whose skin wasn’t blue or green, and remembering a painting that used to hang in her grandfather’s house before a fire destroyed it, she painted a black Madonna and child for “Black on Black,” a show in 2016.
A black Mary clothed in a golden robe and wearing dramatic, dark lipstick holds a sleeping Jesus. Her crown is huge and shining.
Also in “Black on Black” is Coulter’s sculpture of a black man wearing a dark hoodie. Men who look like this — like Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile — are often thought to be criminals. But in Coulter’s work, the man is carrying flowers, not a weapon.
Coulter’s return to color included paintings for a children’s book she wanted to publish consisting of scenes illustrating the poem “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.” Parents and children slumber in muted colors.
“They’re positive depictions of families of color,” Coulter said. “It’s a way of getting to these kids and saying, ‘Hey, you matter too. Your family unit is not a myth.'”
She tried to fund the book on Kickstarter but wasn’t able to get funding. Life as an artist has been both rewarding and frustrating for Coulter.
“I used to say when I was a kid, if I had to live in a cardboard box and I could make art, I’d be happy, but that’s not fair,” she said.
She’s living in Fuquay Varina and says her mother, Alnita Coulter, is her biggest supporter.
“My mom is my best friend,” Coulter said. “She’s my team.”
While Coulter was painting the downtown Raleigh mural, her mother visited her every night to help, even painting parts of the mural, like some of the protesters’ blue hats.
The Salisbury Street mural is done now, and Coulter and her mother are keeping an eye out for her next big project. Her goal is to paint a mural in every continent. One down, six to go.