Art’s vitality

People The Arts

June 1, 2020

As the new executive director of Charlotte Art League, Jim Dukes aims to use art to improve communication.  

by Vanessa Infanzon

Jim Dukes never considered a career in art. His left-brain skills led him to a job as a bomb technician. Spending four years in Iraq disarming bombs for a defense contractor, he suffered five brain injuries from the blasts, causing post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety as well as permanent blindness in one eye and hearing loss.

After he returned from Iraq in 1996, Dukes worked at an engineering design and construction-management firm in Charlotte and Raleigh until 2013. He struggled with substance abuse, getting sober in 2016.

Dukes turned to photography to heal from his experiences and find a way to support himself. He served as an artist in residence at Tapp’s Outpost, an incubator for entrepreneurs in Columbia, S.C., and as director of healing art programs at the Big Red Barn Retreat, a center in Blythewood, S.C., that provides programs for active-duty military and veterans. On June 1, Dukes succeeds Cindy Connelly as executive director of Charlotte Art League.

CAL opened in 1965 as a nonprofit organization to support emerging and professional regional artists. Today, CAL occupies 9,500 square feet in a renovated warehouse across from the Sugar Creek Station in northeast Charlotte. The location has 30 artist studios and event and classroom space. There are more than 200 members, with interests in assemblage, mixed media, jewelry- and quilt-making, painting, photography, and spoken word.

Comments were edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you become interested in photography?

I realized I needed a creative outlet. I saw a thing where veterans were doing music, and I can’t sing or dance or play an instrument. I was broke. I was living with my mom and going to rehab. I realized I had my cell phone. It had a camera and it allowed me to take pictures and see the world through a different lens. Instead of seeing all the things around me that could kill me, I was able to focus on the beauty around me and get out of my head. 

How will Charlotte Art League grow under your leadership?

Exhibits are going to be more fun, more socially conscious and discussion-oriented. Exhibit openings are going to be more event-related, panel discussions based on the issues that we’re bringing up. We should be using art to facilitate communication. Artists want that opportunity, and we have a lot to talk about in this community.

How will Charlotte’s art community bounce back after shelter-in-place restrictions?

I know that we are rallying together to form a stronger bond and voice. Experiencing life without art may be an interesting thing — an absence of something may make your heart grow fonder for it. How often did you sit around during [stay-at-home orders] wanting to go to the opera? Or go to a play, or go to your favorite bar and hear your favorite guy play the guitar? Or check out some art? All of these are components to our activities and, whether we know it or not, it’s wired into how we do things. We’re trying to make these connections and collaborations to prove to the community that we are vital. SP

photographs by Amanda Hendly & Jim Dukes

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