Dare Coulter celebrates black history and culture through her art

by Ilina Ewen | photography by Joshua Steadman

Dare Coulter is aptly named. She is daring in how she uses her platform, and her art dares us to think about everyday, accepted narratives in new ways.

When you meet Coulter, chances are she will greet you with a giant, earnest grin, arms outstretched, asking, “Can I give you a hug?” An electric energy fills her aura as she follows her guiding principle, “Artists do good.” Coulter credits her mother and two sisters for encouraging and supporting her as an artist, starting when she was a small child drawing on the whiteboards of her mother’s office in Washington, D.C. She grew up in Lorton, Virginia, and understands what it means to profoundly feel a sense of place and how it shapes you. Her years at the College of Design at N.C. State University further developed her sense of place in the years since she has called Raleigh home.

So it was fitting that Coulter wanted to meet for our interview at the historic Chavis Park carousel. Hearing Please Mr. Postman play on repeat on the organ sent the artist into laughing fits, and if you’ve had the pleasure of meeting her, you know that laugh is gloriously contagious. Coulter works to elevate black history, while ensuring it’s not erased, and her art itself is a form of storytelling. “There needs to be more storytelling about black Raleigh’s roots to impart knowledge and celebrate a rich, important history,” Coulter said as she told me the background of the whimsical setting we were in. She talked about how the Chavis Park carousel was offered to African Americans at a time when Raleigh was segregated, since they could not enjoy the similar carousel at nearby Pullen Park. Built in 1913 and installed in the park in 1937, the carousel was a highlight for African American families, who traveled from across the state to enjoy it. “Show up and patronize these places to honor those for whom this park was a refuge to experience joy and happiness,” Coulter says. It honors black history, both the good and the bad. “I’ve been learning about heritage, history, spaces and places to unearth their stories and the people who influenced them,” says Coulter. She is a font of information who can rattle off facts as if she’s auditioned for Jeopardy. Coulter is so focused that she says, in half jest, “I am in a relationship with art.” Her voice is her art, and her art is her platform, and she uses it thoughtfully and deftly in her own form of activism.

Coulter speaks of the everyday joy of black family life that she doesn’t see depicted in art or literature; her role is to elevate what she calls “black joy.” Painting black joy is a form of activism, she explains, because these works defy stereotypes and shift our thinking around imagery we are not used to seeing—namely, positive imagery of black people.

“I am moved by the fact that the things I am creating can change people’s perceptions of themselves and disrupt some deep-seated beliefs that are not positive,” says Coulter. “People feel that they can celebrate themselves by interacting with my work.” In both Coulter’s sculptures and her paintings, you will see tender father-and-baby moments, motherhood and childhood glee, all universally expressed and relatable. With her infectious grin and braids swinging as she gesticulates excitedly, she says, “It’s exciting to be a part of the story of joy because we all need to be reminded.” You might recall the Dare to Dissent mural on the Boylan Pearce building. The ACLU of North Carolina commissioned the mural, and it quickly became an iconic feature and popular selfie spot in downtown Raleigh. But in the summer of 2018, it was defaced with racist vandalism. In true Coulter form, she engaged the community to help repaint it, and it’s in this community support that she found the proverbial silver lining. Coulter has since painted a 143-foot-long mural in Fayetteville, the longest in town, on the back of The Capitol Encore Academy. On it, children’s imaginations come to life as they steer their own ship—an allegory for driving their own destiny.

Her most recent mural depicts black cowboys in Greensboro, another narrative she dares us to see differently. She painted a portrait of Nina Simone to support the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is working to restore the singer’s childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina. And she’s illustrated a book: her vibrant style will bring color and energy to My N.C. from A-Z, a children’s book available February 2020 through the N.C. Office of Archives and History & N.C. African American Heritage Commission. Conceived and written by Michelle Lanier, it celebrates pride of place, creates connections to North Carolina’s rich African American heritage and teaches about human equality and social justice.

Coulter’s next big project is a monumental sculpture, coming soon to Durham. “My passion is sculpture. I want to create memorialized depictions of our joy. I want to contribute things to make people believe that life will be good.” Coulter’s talent is unparalleled, yet she is brimming with humility. She describes her success as a kismet twist of “luck meets preparation.” Wise beyond her 26 years, she starts every project pondering, “What is it that I’ll leave behind? I want the work that I’ve left behind to have done something important.” Dare Coulter, through her art and her activism, is making her own name, for herself.