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Sculptures In Downtown Kinston Celebrate ENC's Tobacco Heritage

Thomas Sayer

Once known for its tobacco history, Kinston is trying to transition into a destination for art and culture.  Today, we hear learn about a new seven-piece installation by famous sculptor Thomas Sayre.

Kinston has undergone a bit of a renaissance in recent years. The area is now home to a thriving art community, a craft brewery, award-winning restaurants, and a rich history. Much of that history goes back to the early 1900’s when tobacco farming here was a way of life. Kinston Community Art Council Executive Director Sandy Landis.

"As many of the towns in rural eastern North Carolina, tobacco was certainly one of the crops that helped to build the economy and sustain it for many, many years.”

Landis says they hope to honor that heritage in a unique way with a giant, outdoor art-scape, strategically placed in the downtown area. By the end of the year, Kinston’s landscape will reflect this new art and history focus with a row of sculptures between the arts & cultural district and the business district.

“With the tobacco barn project, it’s on a little bit of a hallowed ground, Blount and Mitchel streets, the site of a tobacco warehouse. And these were very dynamic places.”

Credit Google Maps

In the heart of Lenoir County, the Brooks Tobacco Warehouse was once a hub of activity for farmers growing the “golden leaf.”

Even though the warehouse is no longer standing, this vacant corner lot will be home to a kindred structure. The new installation of seven tobacco barn facades will be made of concrete.

“The shape is a silhouette of the classic and iconic tobacco barns that are all over eastern North Carolina. They look like kind of a monopoly house, although taller.”

Thomas Sayre is a world-renowned artist based out of Raleigh. He was commissioned to design and build this massive project.

“These are just under 30 feet tall and weigh over 40,000 pounds each. So, these forms are structurally engineered to meet North Carolina Building code.”

Sayre’s particular method of creating art with the help of mother-nature, made him a perfect fit for this rich, agricultural piece. His massive sculptures, in Canada, Asia, Istanbul, Turkey, involve a rare technique called Earthcasting.

“So we use the earth itself as a mold for fairly high-tech concrete castings, which are reinforced with steel. We dig a hole in the ground, and then either fill them with concrete or spray the concrete on the walls.”

This process allows the local environment, such as dirt and weather patterns to take part in creating his sculptures. The concrete can further be colored with iron oxide to match the color of the dirt in which it was cast. Another variation allows Sayre to create textures within the mold, giving the final product a natural characteristic.

“It’s a very inexpensive way to make very large things. But most of all, it’s a way of working that inherently balances human intention with the grain of nature, what’s in nature itself.”

Credit Thomas Sayer
Earthcast sculpture being installed

This technique allows harmony between eco-friendly fabrication and developing a piece that has meaning for the community. The form and content of these barn-fronts capitalize on Kinston’s unique tobacco heritage while leaving almost no construction waste. Sayre says work is already underway.

“We have already made rows, as tobacco farmers call them, that we will cast up over. So these forms will be corrugated just as a furrowed field. That’s been done using local farming expertise and equipment.”

Concrete is expected to be poured in October and the facades raised and installed in November. Art Council Director Landis says the public is welcome and invited to watch the piece come to life.

“Public art isn’t just about plopping a piece of art down, at least it’s not for us. What it’s about is actually connecting it to our community. Using it to really place-make and create a very special environment. You want them to touch it, you want them to walk up to it and enjoy it and be a part of it.”

This creative art-scape provides an interactive experience, as visitors will be able to walk through the barn doors and between the facades.  According to Sayre, the seven doorways, which span about 300 feet, make a convenient colonnade parallel to the sidewalk.

“I hope that people will feel life coming back to that street and think about the long agricultural tradition. That people will contemplate these surfaces that came from the earth.”

The tobacco barn project comes from a collaboration between SmART Kinston City Project Foundation and the Kinston Community Council for the Arts. Funding for the project comes from the Arts Council’s public fund.

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.