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Arts & Culture

Art Is Her Response To Inequity And Invisibility: Meet Cortina Jenelle Caldwell

A woman in a colorful head scarf holding yellow flowers in front of brightly-colored art.
Courtesy of Cortina Jenelle Caldwell
Cortina Jenelle Caldwell

The world of artistic expression called to Cortina Jenelle Caldwell at a young age. As a child she dreamed of becoming an architect, spent a lot of time journaling and loved losing herself in a good book. Her early life was characterized by hard work and perseverance, but it was also marked by trauma. 

Raised in western North Carolina, Cortina identifies as queer with African, Indigenous and Southern roots. She bore the full brunt of systemic inequality and poverty it often breeds, and that pushed her away from creative pursuits and toward a more “practical” career choice: nurse practitioner. After years of studying at UNC Greensboro, she decided to take some time off. Through the process of resting and confronting childhood traumas, she rediscovered the power of art.

Today she is the founder and creative community organizer for Artists Designing Evolution, or adé PROJECT. Her organization brings together artists, students, organizers, entrepreneurs and community leaders in a cooperative model to create equity and opportunities for excellence.

Host Frank Stasio learns more about Caldwell’s childhood and how her personal experience with systemic oppression informs her work today. They also discuss her spiritual journey, how she grappled with her sexuality and about adé PROJECT's upcoming event this Friday, Black STARSEED.

Interview Highlights

A woman smiling, wearing an animal print scarf with a bright red jacket
Credit Courtesy of Cortina Jenelle Caldwell
Cortina Jenelle Caldwell

On the work of adé PROJECT:

We have a couple of permanent art installations here in Asheville that we've project managed. We are currently in a process around the Confederate monuments here in Asheville. We've done public education programs for youth. We do panels and film discussions and just — it can look so many different ways. And that's one of the beautiful things of being rooted in art and creativity is we're having these difficult conversations and moving the work forward but also doing it in a way that engages our imagination which is really important when we're trying to dismantle anything. We have to create the thing that we will put in its place.

On her maternal grandmother:

She was the first Black woman entrepreneur that I knew. She hired me at age 12. And I was relentless in my desperation to get her approval and make her proud. And my siblings and my cousins didn't make the cut. But I ended up sticking with it, because she didn't treat us any different than the adults she had working for her. She had a catering business and did a lot of festivals and events, so I learned a lot from her. And I think it has influenced my entrepreneurship and my beliefs in the intersection of entrepreneurship and community today. I really saw her do it first.

On her decision to go to Liberty University:

I needed to know for myself whether or not I was Christian. ... Because of what I had been told growing up but then always feeling really rejected by Christianity, because I knew that I was at least lesbian or queer or whatever label I would land on … I was told that I wasn't welcome in the kingdom of heaven, right? So there were these conflicting truths. So it was like me going to Liberty with this opportunity to grapple face first with: Am I Christian? Do I believe this? How can I be this and also be myself? And just needing those answers.


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