Some people move to Charlotte for the weather, others for opportunity. Renowned sculptor and stone artist, Paul Sires, moved for health insurance.
“Right out of grad school I started having back issues and the doctors told me I needed a bone fusion,” Sires recalled.
Knowing the surgery would be expensive, Sires and his wife, Ruth Ava Lyons, agreed they would take the first appropriate job available that offered medical coverage. The first art-related position was an artist-in-residency at Spirit Square, at that time its own art-generating entity and cultural center. They moved from Michigan in 1983.
In addition to a good physical therapist, Sires and Lyons found an arts scene that, “kept getting evicted.” They discovered a building on North Davidson between 35th and 36th streets that was, “neglected but interesting and surrounded by nice people.” They rented space to other artists and in the early 1990s opened the space as a gallery with a show called “Eyeball Witness.”
“We did what we felt we were supposed to do to make something happen,” Sires said.
They chose the name “Center of the Earth” for the gallery, which they never intended to be a business. “It was a community thing,” Sires said. He and Lyons bought a house in the surrounding neighborhood and became activists for the burgeoning arts district, lobbying the city of Charlotte for rezoning to bring new life to more than 14 old structures.
Sires and Lyon’s friend, Wendy Fishman, lived in NoDa during this time and has flipped a few properties of her own. “Paul’s sculptural skill is his most valuable asset,” she said. “With his construction know-how, he renovated the original buildings on 36th Street that formed the artistic core of NoDa.”
Through graduate school and the 1980s, Sires’s ceramic work was exhibited throughout the Midwest, New York and North Carolina. He received several grants, including a Fellowship grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (1988-89).
That year, he landed his first commissioned work including a major public art project in Reedy Creek Park, where his fascination with granite as a medium began.
Sires’s career continued to flourish. He exhibited more extensively and landed his work in the collections of private institutions like Bank of America, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Federal Reserve. As more people came to NoDa and business took off in the mid-1990s, Lyons took over running Center of the Earth.
The pressures of being neighborhood activists, small business owners, working artists and parents grew. “It was getting too crazy,” Sires said.
Their friends told them about contemporary houses in south Charlotte, where they found a mid-century modern very similar to something they would have built. “I like the trees and that it’s secluded and quiet,” Sires said. They moved from NoDa in 1999.
In 2010, Sires and Lyons decided to close Center of the Earth gallery and take time off from having so many commitments.
“I wanted to focus on my own work and family,” said Lyons, an artist in her own right with a show currently up in New York and work on display locally in Hidell Brooks Gallery. She still purveys artwork under the moniker Lyons Fine Art Consulting, through which she places original artworks in residential and corporate environments. (Learn more about Lyons’ work at www.ruthavalyons.com.)
Today, Sires creates art full-time for show and commission. A self-proclaimed workaholic, he has learned to maximize the efficiency of his workflow to allow for hobbies. He enjoys playing music and working on motorcycles with his daughter in addition to running his “mini-real estate empire.”
Lyons and Sires do their best to stay involved in the affairs of NoDa and arts advocacy in Charlotte. When city council voted to redevelop the long-defunct Johnson and Mecklenburg Mills last month, Sires regretted missing the meeting. In the past, Sires and Lyons would not only have gone, but would have recruited friends (and strangers) to join. For this they both received the Governor’s Business Award in the Arts and Humanities (1995), as well as the 2003 Preservation Award from Historic Charlotte.
“I did an interview 20 years ago and the reporter asked me what success was for me,” Sires recalled. “I said, ‘When this place is self-sustaining, it won’t matter if we’re here or not.’”
To see what success looks like for Paul Sires: www.centeroftheearth.com/main/art-2/sculpture/paul-sires/.