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Kinston's earthcast artscape takes shape above ground

Sarah Finch

Construction broke ground in December in Kinston on a new art installation celebrating the rich tradition of tobacco farming in the state.  World renowned sculptor Thomas Sayre has designed a seven-piece sculpture that spans an entire city block. Sarah Finch brings us an update on this unique project.

Credit Sarah Finch
Crane and crews carefully set each sculpture in a row

If you’ve driven through downtown Kinston recently, you may have noticed an exceptionally high crane and all the hustle and sounds of a construction site. But it’s not a new building that’s going up! Instead of four walls and a roof, this unique space in the heart of the city now has seven walls, or tobacco barn-facades to be exact.   

These giant concrete structures are part of a unique art-installation designed by Thomas Sayre, a world-renowned artist based out of Raleigh.

“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.”

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, Thailand and the United States 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.”

Credit Sarah Finch
Barn fronts were supported by rods after they were placed in their grooves

In preparation for the week of installation, Sayre worked with local farmers and construction crews to form the seven concrete barn fronts in the ground. This process allows the local environment, such as dirt and weather patterns to take part in creating his sculptures. Sayre says it’s a very inexpensive way to make very large things.

“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.”

Credit Sarah Finch
Reinforced with steel rods to support the massive sculpture, before they pour concrete in the hole

Once they were ready, an enormous 120 thousand pound crane lifted the pieces out of their molds and placed them in each of their spaces. It took a couple days and a full crew of hard workers to set up each of the tobacco barn silhouettes. All together, these sculptures create a row or tunnel of seven doorways which span about 300 feet.

Kinston Community Art Council Executive Director Sandy Landis says this giant, outdoor art-scape has been strategically placed to honor the heritage of tobacco farming in Lenoir County.

“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. 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.”

Even though the Brooks Tobacco Warehouse is no longer standing, this vacant corner is now home to a kindred structure. This creative art-scape provides an interactive experience, as visitors are able to walk around through the barn doors and between the facades. According to Sayre, these seven pieces 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.”

Sayre has created 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.

Credit Sarah Finch
From across the street, onlookers enjoyed watching the construction

Art Council Director Landis said the community was 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.”

Credit Thomas Sayre
Rendering of completed tobacco barn project

The tobacco barn project comes from a collaboration between SmART Kinston City Project Foundation and the Kinston Community Council for the Arts. This project is nearing completion and will be finished and open to the public by early March.

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