Tolerance is on the ballot. Democracy is on the ballot. Justice is on the ballot. Good schools are on the ballot. Ending mass incarceration is on the ballot… There’s no such thing as a vote that doesn’t matter…
it all matters. Hope is on the ballot. And fear is on the ballot, too.

President Barack Obama, Congressional Black Caucus Dinner, September 18, 2016

This year, it is especially important to examine the historic struggles for voting rights and the consequences when laws are passed to restrict and limit them.

In the spring of 2020, The School of Good Citizenship launched an artist call, asking local artists to submit works of art that explored what voting rights mean to them.


Counting UP: What’s on Your Ballot features the work of seventeen artists sharing what voting means to them. Levine Museum of the New South’s commitment to connecting the past to the future to realize the promises of a New South made them a natural partner for this exhibition. 

Exhibiting Artists:

  • Christina Aiken
  • Chalice Bartsch
  • Mel Chin
  • Renee Cloud
  • Owens Daniels
  • Joseph Fronsee
  • Natalie Jones
  • Jinna Kim
  • Ken Knudtsen
  • Peri Law
  • Rebecca Lipp
  • Ruth Ava Lyons
  • Trey Miles
  • Varsha Pradhan
  • Veda Saravanan
  • Tara Spil
  • Hector Vaca


  • Suzanne Fetscher, McColl Center President Emerita, the jury chair
  • Delores Johnson Hurt, President, League of Women Voters of Charlotte Mecklenburg
  • Kama Pierce, Levine Museum of the New South Chief Operating Officer
  • Nora Ligorano, The School of Good Citizenship Co-Artistic Director

Special Thanks to Carla Hanzal and Erin Taylor, Arts and Science Council for hosting the call.

Voting Matters: A Brief History of the Struggle for Voting Rights in North Carolina

Voting has long been viewed by many Americans as one of the most essential rights and privileges of our democratic society. However, gaining the right to vote for every American citizen has been a complicated and protracted struggle. Even now, efforts to suppress the right to vote in many communities across the country persists.

In many ways, this protracted fight for voting, representation, and, ultimately, independence in this country began in Mecklenburg County. In 1775, residents officially resolved to reject the British Parliament's unchecked authority over citizens of the colonies. The sentiments of Mecklenburg citizens spread and ultimately led to the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and the creation of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, one of the most important documents in America. The idea that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights” was indeed revolutionary. Unfortunately, in practice the rights outlined in this great document excluded over half the country's residents, including white women and black people, majority of whom were enslaved.

White women began organizing for the right to vote in 1848. After the Civil War (1861-1865), four million newly emancipated black people renewed and joined the fight for voting rights. However, the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 only granted the vote to African American men. From 1870 until Union forces withdrew from the South in 1877, African American men had equal voting rights with white men. The withdrawal of the Union resulted in the systematic reestablishment of white male dominance and disenfranchisement of African American men across the South. Voting suppression through poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and violent intimidation prevented blacks from voting and decimated black representation in state and federal politics.

In North Carolina, despite the obstacles, a handful of African Americans continued to exercise their right to vote and were able to consistently keep black Charlotteans like John Schenck and J. T. Williams in political office between 1868 and 1896. Black women formed clubs in the 1890s that advocated for suffrage to bolster the work of their white counterparts. Local black women such as Mary Lynch and Mary Jackson-McCrorey worked tirelessly in Charlotte and across the state to help get the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, which granted black and white women the right to vote. In the early 1930s, African Americans used their voting power to press for access to improved educational facilities. In 1937, Jackson-McCrorey became the first black woman candidate to seek a political office in North Carolina. Martha Evans became the first white woman elected to City Council in 1954.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act significantly increased the number of voters among local African Americans which resulted in the elections of Fred Alexander to City Council that year, Sarah Stevenson to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board in 1980, and Harvey Gantt as mayor of Charlotte in 1983.

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key component of the Voting Rights Act, which has led to more challenges to voting rights. Voter ID laws, partisan gerrymandered legislative maps, and the COVID-19 pandemic are just a few of the issues influencing access to the ballot in our time. The struggle to protect our essential right and privilege continues.

Read 'The Struggle for Voting Rights in North Carolina Continues'A Statement from Common Cause by Trey Gibson


I Voted Mixed
Media on Canvas
12 x 24


This is What Democracy Looks Like
Mixed Media on Canvas
24 x 30

Voting has always been key to equity and inclusion in our history. The current racial climate in our country and in Charlotte has challenged me to truly consider what I could specifically do as a direct action in the fight against systemic racism. As Black woman in architecture, a non-traditional field, I see the barriers to entry literally, socially and economically into spaces. The ballot box is one such political space that has been a battle ground hard fought through the Women's Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. I can not take it for granted since it laid the ground work for access into my profession. Besides architecture, I am a hobby painter but I've begun to understand art as activism. My past work usually consists of scenes that inspire me or reimagining pictures I have taken. I tend to use textures and layers to build the visual story. My hope is that people will see themselves or the places they have been in my work.

Christina Aiken


Hindsight, 2020
Home Made Ballot
Work on paper 38" x 46"

Hindsite manifests my personal subjective core values as they relate to the USA ballot. I observe and report in order to see if we can make something else, hopefully more sustainable. I firmly believe that from this viral pandemic in 2020, we will emerge with a different understanding of 'respect'.

Chalice Bartsch


Flag of America: 2020
2020 Hacked and reassembled Imported American Flags,
Oxford weave 300 denier 100% polyester,
2 Brass plated metal grommets,
58” x 34” Artist Proof I/IV

This flag with anemic stars, representing our America of 2020, was put together just as the country was about to be ripped apart. It’s happening. The construction of democracy sounds so good we believe it and fall uncritically under its spell, blind to never ending hideous transgressions. It is a contract signed onto with hope, that is enforced by “law and order” and it is a cruel con. In fact, it is a societal contract nurturing an enforcement of privileges and protections that excludes Black lives and mutes their voices.

Here we are, under a viral infection that is not a hoax. While here we are, witnessing not riots but the writhing, thrashing, seething pain brought by a perversion of democracy that is a hoax, that is a disease of institutionalized injustice, white supremacy and privilege. Our system is not broken, it has been fixed from the beginning against a fair struggle for justice. This is a fabricated sham to be ripped into shreds. If the means, climate, and methods to build a liberty that actually matters are not there, we must join a mission to create them, guided by and with those who have endured and survived this oppression.

Mel Chin


It is My Right to Exist, 2020
Plastic sequins, 17”

The only thing I know for certain is the story of me. I am enamored with the power of the written word and use it to convey the narrative within me. As an artist and a human being, I aim to bring people closer together though shared experiences while using my personal experiences as a platform.

Language is my medium and the semiotics embodied by written words fascinates me. Our literate brains cannot ignore words; we see them as a string of letters that convey a meaning, and never just a series of characters. We are always reading, always consuming information without pause. My work capitalizes on the consumption of language. Text is a direct line of communication and I use it in my work to establish a secure connection with the viewer. While interpretations of the words can vary, it is fact that they are words, none the less.

Renee Cloud


American Girl, 2019
Digital Image on Canvas


Uncle Sam Wants Your Vote G.O.A.T., 2019
Digital Image on Canvas

I use photography to communicate and express my interpretation of the world around me, for as an artist I want my work to be a voice that can be free to speak to the issues of the day, their reflections, impact as well as influences on our culture and communities. My camera opens unexplored spaces between the subject matter and myself, a world of interesting people, relationships, opportunities, experiences and life's little stories that the viewer, subject and I can share.

“American Girl and Uncle Sam Wants Your Vote commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Right to Vote. The goal of both works is to build community and bring attention to women’s suffrage, rights, empowerment, and general voting.

Owens Daniels


Joseph Fronsee
Who You Elect Counts, 2001
Gouache on Watercolor Paper, 24" x 18"


American Girl, 2019
Digital Image on Canvas


Uncle Sam Wants Your Vote G.O.A.T., 2019
Digital Image on Canvas

I have been a victim of voter suppression and witnessed how it primarily affects people of color. When I was growing up, my dad was the president of our local NAACP chapter and I always heard about the importance of intentionally exercising your right to vote. During the last couple of years, my work has focused on the Black family, social justice art and voter rights. As an art historian, it is important for me to use my voice and art to help shape the narrative and tell the stories of events that are going on in my community. Heir to Freedom and I Am What I Am specifically speak to civil liberties and voter rights. I like to incorporate historical elements in my mixed media pieces that are specific to different historical events. I have been a victim of voter suppression and witnessed how it primarily affects people of color.

“During the last couple of years, my work has focused on the Black family, social justice art and voter rights. …It is important for me to use my voice and art to help shape the narrative and tell the stories of events that are going on in my community.”

Natalie Jones


Choose, 2020
Digital image, paint, oil bar and razor blade,
16 x 22

Art has the power not only to reflect the world in which we live, but to influence and change it as well. This is where we are right now.

Ken Knudsten

Chinese Girl Wants Vote
Video, 5mins
Edited by Tim Jameson
Original Music by Jessica Arce-Larreta, Jennifer Kallend & Cristina "Trinity" Vélez

Chinese Girl Wants Vote is a documentary-style short film created about lesser-known suffragist Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee. The project was conceived in response to a growing anti-Asian sentiment since COVID-19 and in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage centennial of the passage of the 19th amendment in the constitution for American women’s right to vote. Jinna's 5-minute docu-film is a successful example of inclusive showcasing diverse faces, about issues relevant today. Jinna captures key themes of voter rights, and immigration, in a powerful way.

Jinna Kim


November 8th, 2016
District 4, 2020
Pencil, relief print and pochair on paper
16” x 20”


November 8th, 2016
District 12, 2020
Pencil, relief print and pochair on paper
16” x 20”

“My art primarily focuses on my struggles with my identity as a mixed race woman, but it is harmful for me to not interrogate  my relationship with discriminatory  practices that are detrimental to BIPOC and to social justice. While Cooper v. Harris (2017) forced a restructuring of congressional districts, North Carolina's gerrymandering  continues to bury Black votes and manipulate the democratic process.”

Peri Law

To Affiliate, or not to Affiliate, 2020


To Affiliate, or not to Affiliate, 2020Linocut, graphite
8 x 10

I grew up in a household that dynamically voted toward one United States political party; as a teenager, I developed a curiosity of the other political party's views. I continue to have difficulty choosing one political party as, I still felt that both parties represent me. These works represent a reflection of my irresolute decisions, with indecisive marking and erasing of the choice to vote Republican or Democratic.

Rebecca Lipps


Vote for The Environment, 2020
Mixed Media 
32" x 48" x 2"


Let Your Voice Be Heard, Verse #17
Mixed Media
12" x 12" x 1"

These works explore environmental issues resulting from human impact on the natural world. I have been working with the Monarch Butterfly image for several years, calling attention to the decline and threat to the North American Monarch and its annual migration. When HB2 became an issue in North Carolina, my Monarchs anthropomorphized into the Changeling Series as a metaphor for the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ individuals are somewhat like the endangered Monarch Butterfly, in that they face obstacles in their life cycle. They are all richly colorful and patterned to speak of individuality and beauty. Vote For The Environment butterflies represent all of us across the U.S.who need to be vocal about the future of our natural environment and climate change. The future of the environment is in crisis and for me this is what is foremost on my ballot.

Ruth Ava Lyons


Let My People Vote

Collage has become a lost art form over the years. Romare Bearden brought it too light during the Harlem Renaissance and I am bringing it back to light today. I want the world to understand that collage is not just cutting and pasting pictures on a page: it's more like taking puzzle pieces that were never meant to fit together and forcing them to not only fit, but also to make an aesthetically pleasing image during the long tedious the process.

Trey Miles
(John R. Miles III)


Are You Talking To Me I, 2019
Found acrylic on canvas
12 x 12


Are You Talking To Me II, 2019
Found acrylic on canvas
12 x 12


Are You Talking To Me III, 2019
Found acrylic on canvas
12 x 12

In my work paint and scraps from the palette form faces which could be anybody - people of different colors, different cultures who want to be counted, no matter what they look like as citizens of this country. Discarded materials and dried up paint are put to use as a metaphor for counting people and their opinions as ordinary citizens because they contribute so much to society and their vote should count.

Varsha Pradhan


My abstract representation of people in crowds examines issues in American society such as domestic violence, social justice, poverty and more. Through history, data, and current events, I use bold colors to represent individuals and groups. My purpose is to emphasize people in our communities who may not be represented or seen by the majority. Each mark represents a person who has a life and a story.

He Can't Breathe is a response to the current climate our communities face and the history that informs it. In 1870, African American men were given the right to vote by the ratification of the 15th amendment. After that, our government prevented African American men from voting during Jim Crow through things like poll taxes and literacy tests. Following the successes of the civil rights movement, we have continued to prevent African American males from voting through the war on drugs and mass incarceration. The letters in my painting represent the black and brown men who are victims of generational and systemic racism. Their lives have been made unequal and their voices silenced in our country with great intention. The masses of red and blue figures represent our political parties marching towards and on top of African American men. The white figures at the top are choking them.

Tara Spill


He Can’t Breathe, 2020
Acrylic on Canvas


Rights, 2020
Acrylic on canvas
12 x 36

Responding to the theme for Counting UP I knew I wanted to portray my interpretation of voting rights in my work. Rights responds by asserting the importance of voting as well as who has the right to vote, no matter the race, ethnicity, gender, color, sexual orientation, age, occupation, or even what income group to which you belong, voting is your right and privilege.

Veda Saravanan


Digital Photograph


Lower Drug Prices
Digital Photograph


Don't Destory Dreams
Digital Photograph

This series of photos is based on my personal motto, “open your mouth, if you want to be heard.”

As the son of immigrants living in the south, I remember growing up always feeling different, like I did not fit in. I felt less valued than my white friends, many of whom came from upper middle class and rich families. I felt like I did not have a voice.

Through photography, I explore the themes of privilege, immigration, racism, nationalism, colorism, classism, and identity. I make my images, to spark dialogue, in order to better understand these issues and find solutions. More importantly, my photos give a voice to those who have been stifled by society based on privilege and oppression.

My photos in this series add to this dialogue. The continued murders of Black and Brown people at the hands of the police, attacks on immigrants, the ever-rising cost of healthcare, and the handling of the COVID-19 crisis are issues on people’s minds, as we prepare to vote in November on who we are as a nation.

With the 2020 elections only months away, we are at a crucial moment in history when we are all exploring our national identity. We are all figuring out what it means to be human beings deserving of dignity and the right to exist and pursue happiness.

Hector Vaca