Creative Crossroads: Remembering our past
Posted on 15 Jul 2009 by James Willamor
photo: Bill Fehr; view this photo on his blog
This is the sixth in a series titled “Creative Crossroads” — where we take a look at the current state of arts and creativity in the city.
As the city of Charlotte looks to the future of the arts, we should also take a moment to remember our history. It often seems our grassroots art and artists fall through the cracks, overlooked as the city is ever focused on building bigger, newer, and higher — always looking forward to the next big multi-million dollar cultural project that we think will define us. Justice for one local street artist in particular would have fell through the cracks as well, had it not been for the involvement of an unlikely friend. The story of David Ray Chisholm after the break:
David Ray Chisholm worked as a wielder at his father’s scrap medal business until an explosion in 1989 took his left arm and sent him into a coma for several months. After his life changing ordeal, and while still recovering the following year, David found a passion for art and began painting and studying art at Central Piedmont Community College.
As years passed, David was frequently spotted around the city, from Albemarle Road to Freedom Drive, easily identifiable by his red art cart full of supplies and paintings. David found contentment wandering the streets, making art from scraps discarded by local residents. Pieces of tile and ceramics were often combined with painting to show a Biblical reference or to give an insight into the human condition. He would refuse to accept money for his artwork; instead giving it away to those he befriended along the way. It was a raw, urban art that spoke truth in non-verbal form. It expressed the beliefs that David had discovered while walking the streets of Charlotte. Over the years many came to know and greet him as Brother Ray or The Good Spirit, and he would return their greeting with his slow, signature wave from behind his art cart.
On October 26, 2006, David passed away at the age of 60. He was struck and killed by a drunk driver as he pushed his cart across South Boulevard. Both friends and those who had only seen David in passing donated money so he could have a proper funeral — a funeral that was attended by a former CEO, homeless men, and everyone in between.
Shortly after his burial, mishandled paperwork meant the driver of the vehicle that killed David could have gotten off with just a simple DUI charge, had it not been for the involvement of Bill Fehr. Bill, a Charlotte bicycle messenger, had known David for eight years, and with the two frequently running into each other as they made their way about the city. Several weeks after David’s death, Bill and David’s sister, Debra, sat in disbelief at the administrative court proceeding of the accused. The prosecutor called her name and announced only the charge of misdemeanor DUI on the morning docket, with no record of anyone being killed in the accident. After announcing the docket, the prosecutor asked any witnesses to line up in the back of the room and she would speak to them individually. As Bill recalls:
“I took the print out and told Deb, ‘This is my chance.’ When the Prosecutor stood in front of me I was holding Ray’s portrait against my chest facing her, she said, ‘How may I help you?’ My response was rehearsed but trembling, ‘My name is Bill Fehr, you and the judge are about to prosecute Ms. Aren McCoy for DUI having no knowledge that anyone was killed that night.’ She looked down, saw Ray, then instantly made eye contact with me again and asked, ‘How did he die?’ I did my best to repeat the words of the summarized police report…”
The prosecutor immediately filed an extension. Bill enlisted the help of a lawyer friend, and even briefly met with Mayor Pat McCrory in his quest to make sure justice was served.
Finally, on October 11, 2007, a remorseful and emotional Aren McCoy pled guilty to Felony Death by Vehicle. A year-long ordeal had come to a conclusion. David’s sister, Debra, was quoted as saying, “I’m glad to know that she pled guilty today, and I have released everything and I have forgiven her and I can live on with my life.” Bill recalls, “David would have never sought anything vindictive against Aren McCoy for killing him. It was just not in him. I don’t remember vengeance being a motivation [for me] either. All I remember was truth, which was one of the things David taught me about.” Bill continues, “I just remember being driven by the truth, and wanting the truth to come out.”
After the sentencing, Debra said of her brother, “His painting was a ministry for him. He would paint things and tell people stories about the Bible,” she said. “He would not take anything for them, no money, he would say, ‘With these pieces that you have, you have a piece of me and remember the story I told you.’”
While David’s art is more likely to be seen in an area homeless shelter instead of a state-of-the-art cultural center, his life and art undeniably made an impact on many Charlotteans. I hope we will choose to remember and honor the lives, creativity, and art of David and those like him who deserve to be remembered as a part of our city’s cultural history. Maybe one day future residents will have a statue or mural of David to help them remember that art is sometimes its most real and sincere when it comes from the streets without a price tag.
Below is an interview recently recorded with Bill Fehr, as he recounts his part in the story of David Ray Chisholm. Also, you can read Bill’s story in his own words on his blog, Where on Earth is Bill?
video: James Willamor; view this video on Vimeo