Celebrated textile designer Wesley Mancini took his passion for fiber art and turned it into a successful career marked by achievements including a National Endowment for the Arts grant for woven fabric design.
As a local civic leader and a connoisseur of the arts, Mancini has been on the board of the Arts & Science Council for more than two years and just completed the Leadership Development Initiative, a year-long program that transforms leadership teams through training and local action.
Mancini grew up in a small farming community in Connecticut, where he found inspiration from a local art teacher that led him to pursue art education at Philadelphia College of Art. However, upon realizing that teaching wasn’t the right fit, he took his affinity for fiber art and forged the path for his current career, where he designs for Valdese Weavers in North Carolina, the third-largest mill in the world.
Mancini answered five questions about his success, his participation in the local arts and advice for the LGBTQ+ community in Charlotte. The answers have been edited for length and clarity.
(1) You’re incredibly successful in the world of textile design. What inspired you to pursue this career path?
“In studying art ed, I took all of the media and in doing so found myself with an affinity toward the Fiber Art Department. Fiber was (and is) the most high aesthetic of mediums to me. Every aspect of weaving relies on a refined sensibility. This goes from the yarn type, size, the color, what the weave structure will be and how to create it, putting it together to make something visually pleasing, functional and with a soft yet durable hand. Weaving uses both the right and left brain (from creating a mathematical weave structure to constant aesthetic judgments).
“I ended up getting a MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. At that time, I was creating fiber art. It took me 6 months to finish one piece, with 12 hour days weaving a maximum of one to one and half inches on it. Even though this piece got me into the “Young American Exhibition: wood, glass, metal, clay & fiber” at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in NYC for craftsmen under the age of 30 whose careers were ones to watch, and the North Carolina Museum of History purchased it, I realized I couldn’t make a living doing this. That’s when I decided to become a ‘fabric designer’ and not a ‘fiber artist.’
“I studied an additional year at Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science to learn what I needed to for the textile industry. With seven years of higher education, six of those in art school, I had a heads up on other designers because at that time aesthetics were not taught — just technology — to designers. I was able to merge aesthetics with technology for that ideal union for industry. I am the only recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant for woven fabric design and the inaugural lifetime achievement recipient from the International Textile Alliance given at their 50th anniversary gala.”
(2) How are you involved with the arts here in Charlotte?
“Outside of Charlotte, I was on the advisory boards of Savannah College of Art & Design, NC State (Wilson College) School of Textiles, and Jefferson University (formerly Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science).”
(3) You’re a prominent advocate for the arts and for human rights. What opportunities do you recommend of others who want to get involved?
“There’s a great deal of art organizations throughout Charlotte with fewer human rights ones, yet volunteers are always welcome in all. Once you volunteer and find out if this organization is a fit for you, you can focus more time on this organization and seek to join their board. Being involved is the act of ‘doing’ and not sitting on the sidelines.
“As far as a need in this city for our community, we need an LGBTQ+ center, as well as organizations that focus on the LGBTQ+ elders. Both of these are opportunities for startups in Charlotte.”
(4) What civic leaders have you partnered with in Charlotte?
“My hero in town is and always has been Tom Warshauer. He is brilliant and has represented the LGBTQ+ community throughout his career with the city. I also have great admiration for Bishop Tonyia Rawls, who founded The Freedom Center for Social Justice. She was on my board for The Wesley Mancini Foundation, which is when we worked together. I really enjoyed working with Suzanne Fetcher, who was the president and CEO of the McColl Center for Visual Art. She has since retired, but in her day had a great vision for the artist-in-residence program at McColl.”
(5) What advice would you give to LGBTQ+ youth in Charlotte?
“First, to pursue your dream to become whomever you want personally and professionally. If you give up on yourself, no one else will pick up the pieces and get you on the path you desire.
“Second, while the world has evolved into a better place than when I was young (remember that it was only 1973 when homosexuality was removed from the list of ‘being mentally ill’ from the American Psychiatric Association), it is still legal to discriminate against the LGBTQ community in the state of NC. (You can be fired for being gay in 19 states, and NC is one of them). We are also not protected under ‘hate crimes’ in this state. Not only is there a great deal of work that still needs to be done, we need to watch out for ourselves against people who seek to physically harm us for no other reason than being different from them.
“As an LGBTQ+ member, live life as a role model not only within our community but the non-LGBTQ+ community, as well.
“Charlotte is a very segregated society, and if one does not intentionally pursue diversity in the household, it won’t happen. By this, I mean asking people who are different from you to dinner in your home or include various nationalities/races to your parties. If we stick to people like us, we are part of the problem. We have to be better than that.
“Lastly, don’t sit back and complain about a situation in our community. An example would be, ‘Why don’t we currently have an LGBTQ+ center?’ Instead ‘do,’ make it happen, make our society better. This is where leadership comes into play. Nothing gets handed to you in this world, especially for ‘us’. Make it happen, get motivated, be an activist or civic leader.”