Veteran textile designer Wesley Mancini began to see the world differently when he turned 60 this past Christmas Day. He says his time here seems more finite now. The self-professed ruminator wonders if he's done enough as we chat in his South End studio surrounded by creations from his 30-plus-year career and projects still in progress. He chuckles as he tells me he can't remember names like he used to and pretend-talks more often to his plants, asking them if they need to be watered.
But the biggest change has been passing the torch as an advocate in the local LGBT community. After 13 years, the openly gay Mancini is shutting down the Wesley Mancini Foundation, which awarded grants to local nonprofit organizations supporting LGBT rights and freedom of speech in Charlotte. The foundation recently gave its final grant — $30,000 — to the McColl Center for Visual Art as seed money for a new permanent artist-in-residence, who will focus on advancing LGBT rights and freedom of speech. This is the first time the McColl Center will feature an artist with this specific focus, although the recipient doesn't have to be gay, lesbian or transgender themselves. The foundation closes on June 30.
"Not only will they reach more [people than me], but I can also step back," says Mancini.
Mancini decided to end the foundation's run because he felt he accomplished its goals. He started the nonprofit in 2000 in response to the controversy of the Charlotte Repertory Theatre presenting Angels in America in 1996. The 1993 Pulitzer-Pride-winning play confronted the HIV/AIDS epidemic and featured full-frontal male nudity. Some Charlotteans protested the show and, in 1997, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners cut all funding to the Arts & Science Council. That's when Mancini felt the need to fund organizations working toward LGBT-inclusion and visibility. The Human Rights Campaign later recognized his work, in 2002.
The Charlotte Lesbian and Gay Fund received a start-up grant from the foundation in 2004 and 2005. As the fund progressed, it became apparent that the same organizations were applying for grants from both it and Mancini's foundation, even though there were differences between the nonprofits — the foundation funded project-specific grants while the fund supplied general operating costs. In 2010, to differentiate his organization Mancini started asking applicants to target a specific need in the LGBT community on their grant forms. The foundation sought projects that were deemed controversial at the time, like anti-bullying and establishing gay/straight alliances in schools. Mancini started receiving hate phone calls.
While Mancini has been both celebrated and attacked for his advocacy efforts, he feels the foundation was mostly invisible to the local community. He felt the involvement of others didn't always match what he personally invested — which was often his own money. Although Mancini's goal was to give back without fanfare, he at least hoped for more long-lasting, positive support to stay motivated as an advocate into his later years.
"Even though the foundation would announce the [grant] winners and there'd be a little snippet, there was never anything really about it," says Mancini. "[That's when I thought] it's time for me to get out of this because I don't want to feel bitter about any of it."
Moving on without feeling bitter has been a major part of Mancini's life. Growing up in a small town in Connecticut with his divorced mom and two older half-sisters, he never really knew his father, a dairy farmer. He only briefly married Mancini's mother to give their son a last name. In his early '40s, Mancini tracked down his father in Florida, where he lived with another woman and seven children. He then discovered his dad had fathered 19 children with different women.
"He was just an Italian inseminator," he says.
Mancini's design career started when he went to Philadelphia College of Art (now The University of the Arts). He took courses in three years and spent the fourth year getting a master of fine arts in fabric design at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He later received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in fabric design and started his current company 30 years ago. Last October, the Arts & Science Council honored him with a bronze medallion for a Lifetime Achievement Award in Design.
Although he's resigning from social advocacy and receiving lifetime achievement accolades, Mancini is not retiring from design anytime soon. He is negotiating work contracts up through 2020. Furniture stores will buy his fabric designs in October and the public will see the new fabrics at furniture and fabric stores in one year. The new line features skulls, the Hindu deity Ganesh, and Mancini's dogs, Dexter, Diesel and Winky. He stopped reading news long ago because he feels like he's paid enough dues to avoid it.
"My life is very insular and the people I've surrounded myself with are really good people, so I live in the world of my world," he says. "I don't think it will change much [by ending the foundation]. I just think it's time for me to hang up my gloves."