Charleston Artist Captures a Moment in History

Article by Miranda Woody

An antiquated alleyway stands where Capitol Street meets Quarrier Street in Charleston, West Virginia. For years, the alleyway has been an empty canvas comprised of old brick buildings and bare concrete; now, the alleyway has taken on a life all its own thanks to local artist Jesse Corlis.

Jesse Corlis is an artist and graphic designer who lives in Charleston, West Virginia. He was trained in painting and drawing at West Virginia Wesleyan College, and he has done a plethora of work for different businesses (Pies & Pints, Mi Cocina De Amor, etc.), city governments (the City of Charleston, West Virginia), and many private clients. By day, Corlis works as a graphic designer for the Charleston DMV. After hours, Corlis creates paintings and murals that engage spectators, drawing them into the scene he has portrayed; that is Corlis’s goal for his newest mural, located in the alleyway where Capitol Street meets Quarrier.

As I come upon Corlis on a sunny Thursday afternoon to engage him in a brief interview about the new mural, he is working tirelessly away. The mural is almost complete, and Corlis tells me he has already put over one hundred hours of work into it. As I gaze up and down the side of an old brick building (owned by Tom Flaherty, the man who commissioned Corlis to create the mural), I see an antiquated streetcar, a little boy with a bicycle, two men chatting gingerly amongst themselves, and a gentleman helping an African American woman into the streetcar come to life before my eyes. All of these images are part of Corlis’s newest creation, which captures a moment from a previous life; a picture of a long-gone era in Charleston, West Virginia.

Corlis’s Mural Portrays an Imagined Scene in Antiquated Charleston, WV

Corlis stops working for a moment and shakes my hand. We chat about the mural, and I begin taking notes. Corlis hosts a wealth of information about his piece, and it becomes clear to me that we will only be able to scratch the surface of the mural’s true depth and intensity in our brief interview. I ask Corlis to explain his inspiration (or rationale, in a way) behind the piece, and he tells me, “I love this great old brick”. He pauses to look at his work, and goes on to say, “I wanted to capture a moment from another time. Not a specific moment, but an ephemeral sort of moment from a time gone-by. I went online and found photographs of this very spot from the early 1900s, mostly from the 1910s. I saw street-cars running through the city and people engaging in everyday life. I wanted to recreate that here; I wanted to capture that ephemeral sort of moment in history.” corlis mural 7

Corlis shows me some old, antique photographs of Capitol Street and the city of Charleston at large that inspired him, along with his original sketch material for the mural. Corlis’s main focus was the old streetcars he had seen in the photographs, which is evident when one looks at the mural. As he had told me, the old photos capture snapshots of streetcars lining Capitol Street, transporting people in old-fashioned clothing to-and-fro about the city. Each streetcar is labeled “CIRRCo”, which Corlis tells me stands for “Charleston Inter-Urban Railroad Company”. The photos are mostly sepia tone, which is the color scheme that Corlis chose for the mural. He shows me more photos, and we come upon a snapshot of the very spot in which we (and the mural) are standing; it is a photograph of the long-gone Charleston National Bank, and two men stand out front not quite smiling but not quite frowning, either. They look natural, going about their business, trapped in a moment. As we finish looking through the photographs Corlis tells me, “I should say that, again, this isn’t based on a single photo. It’s based on many photos of Capitol Street in the early twentieth century, so it’s an imagined scene. The way I’m doing this piece though, in this style and muted color, is me attempting to make it more of a memory than an illustration. There’s such a romance to old photos— almost an eeriness to it. I wanted to capture that ephemeral effect in this piece. Time is so fleeting; the detail and the color is fading, like time, like a memory.” I notice, then, that the people Corlis has painted in the mural lack specific features; they have faces but not distinct ones, and mere silhouettes of people are all that can be seen in the windows of the streetcar. The vague, nondescript portrayal of time and people in the mural reinforces Corlis’s central point; time is fleeting, and the present is haunted by the past. Corlis tells me, “I like the slightly creepy stuff. I was born on Halloween. It’s a theme I like to go with.”

As we discuss the painted scene before us, one of Corlis’s friends walks by. He stops and comes over to us, introducing himself to me. His name is Willy, and he has been watching Corlis paint for some time. Corlis tells me that he first met Willy when he was painting a piece on Lee Street, and they have been friends ever since. I learn that Corlis has recently helped Willy get a new job and a current I.D. after a period of hard-times on Willy’s part. Corlis tells me, “He just watches. He listens to me talk and explain things. It’s refreshing. He’s become my assistant in a way; he used to paint commercially. In fact, he was my inspiration for one of the gentlemen in this piece.” Corlis points to the painted gentleman he is speaking of, which is the gentleman helping the African-American woman onto a streetcar in the mural. Corlis tells me that this part of the scene is a sort of dedication to “caring and kindness”, inspired by his friendship with Willy and the current state of the world. He says, “I dedicate all my pieces. It’s usually written in the signature somewhere. Then again, I also like to leave things open to interpretation.”

We begin to wrap up our interview with a brief discussion of the technical work that goes into such a piece. Corlis tells me of his difficulties with the surface material, which is the side of an old, uneven brick building, “I had to straighten out the perspective of the piece to work with the surface. The old brick is beautiful and I love the look of it, but it’s so uneven. You have to compensate and correct for that. The hardest part, though, is just getting into the groove of it. Coming out here and painting every day, despite the weather. Also, it’s hard to stay focused sometimes. You get a lot of interruptions.”

corlis mural 5Then, as if Corlis’s statement had summoned him, a young man walks up to us and exclaims, “Dude! This is awesome!” The young man introduces himself as Donovan, and he tells us that he, too, is an artist who paints murals for local restaurants. Donovan takes a closer look at the mural, studying it with care, and gushes about his appreciation for Corlis’s piece. “It sneaks up on you, almost” Donovan says. A litany of technical questions follow: “Did you use acrylics for this? What kind of primer did you purchase for this project? How many hours have you put into this? How do you keep the lines so straight on this surface?”

As they discuss the technicalities, I am lost in a myriad of artistic jargon. Despite my ignorance, I enjoy their conversation; even if I am not as versed in the artistic world as the two men in front of me, I can truly feel the passion for Corlis’s piece, and for art in general, pouring from them both. The moment is heart-warming. As Corlis mentors the younger, enthusiastic artist, I feel that it perfectly reflects Corlis’s intended, thematic representation of kindness and caring.

Before the young man (Donovan) leaves, he turns to me, stating, “I just think it’s so cool. He’s bringing out the good aspects of our town. It’s rustic, yet beautiful.” On that note, I begin to head out as well. Corlis has plenty of work ahead if he wants to debut the piece by the end of the month, and I decide to let him work uninterrupted. He and I shake hands, and I leave him to it. As I leave, though, my boyfriend (who has accompanied me to the interview with Corlis) says, “You know, it kind of brings people together.” That is the best summation one could think of as we walk down Quarrier Street, away from the mural peeking out from an alleyway in the distance.

For more information, visit Corlis Creative online: https://www.facebook.com/CorlisCreative/

All photos from Corlis Creative’s Facebook.

Miranda WoodyMiranda Woody

Miranda Woody is a Concord University student originally from Beckley, West Virginia. She is pursuing a degree in English. She spent the summer of 2016 living in Brooklyn, New York, and has visited seven countries in her lifetime. She is twenty-one years old, and plans to graduate from Concord in December, 2017. She enjoys writing poetry, rock climbing, and traveling. Check out her other work on goodmorningmiranda.com.