Interview and video by Sandra Davidson | Photos courtesy Thomas Sayre
Thomas Sayre came to North Carolina for college, but he stayed because of our state’s preternatural creative appeal. Part sculptor, part visual artist, part architect, Raleigh’s Thomas Sayre built his career from the ground up. From “Gyre,” the three large rings that adorn the North Carolina Museum of Art’s fantastic art park, to “Shimmer Wall,” a glittering homage to the City of Oaks mounted on the side of the Raleigh Convention Center, Sayre’s large-scale earth-castings and sculptures speckle landscapes across the state and the world. A long-time advocate for public funding for the arts, Sayre’s has served on the North Carolina Arts Council board for well over a decade and is a champion of thoughtful, place-driven public art projects.
What are your earliest memories of making things?
I grew up in the shadow of the Washington Cathedral. We lived on the grounds of the cathedral, and that was an amazing place to grow up. My father made cherry cabinets in the basement. That was his way of not being an Episcopal minister, and he was very skilled. So, I made stuff in his shop, but the earliest things that I [made that I] still have are little lead soldiers that I cast on the family stove. The lead came from the roof. I would climb 200 feet up the scaffolding and find little snippings of lead on the floor of the scaffolding. I would gather them in my backpack, scamper back down and cook them on the family stove to make lead soldiers. Can you imagine lead? All my siblings are okay. They’re not damaged (laughs).
Why were you drawn to working with your hands in that way?
Well, through the cathedral came a lot of personages. Some very famous people…presidential candidates, Martin Luther King, and famous artists. They were held in a certain reverence, but I noticed the workers, the laborers, the stone carvers, the masons, [and] the carpenters who were building the cathedral were held in this magical light by my parents and by everybody. I saw that this reverence had to do with [how] they were getting the spirit of the place there through their hands – not through fancy words or great elocution – but by every day sweating away working with their hands…with materials. I saw magic enter the cathedral from that. At an early age, I knew that space was capable of expressing deep human emotion and meaning, and I think that meaning got there through the many hands that made that place.
When did you decide you were going to pursue creating art for your career?
I very timidly stuck my toe in the art world so to speak at college [in] the Art Department at UNC. I didn’t regard myself as an artist at that point. I made things, and I loved making things, so I quietly took classes and majored in English. When I graduated from UNC in the Vietnam era, it wasn’t cool to get a job because that was working for “the man,” so I just proclaimed I was an artist and I worked for myself. I’ve never had a real job.
What did “I’m an artist” mean for you in terms of how you spent your time and what you did?
I didn’t want to teach. I wanted to make. The obvious place to do that would have been New York City, and that just seemed scary and daunting to me. I sensed that I needed to live life a bit, so I moved to Western North Carolina to the lawless northern part of Rutherford County and bought a farm which one could do for practically nothing, and I built a house from scratch with my own hands knowing nothing about that. It was the first time I put a shovel into our wonderful dirt here in North Carolina. That began my making in North Carolina. First a dwelling, then a studio, and it wasn’t too long after that I started making things out of concrete.
Concrete is a great material. You don’t buy it at the art store, but it’s everywhere, and it’s been around for thousands of years. We make sidewalks out of it and driveways and buildings. I like that kind of common man quality to that material. It’s pretty inexpensive and if you work it right it can be very, very strong, so I started using concrete to make outdoor things. I was interested in things that work in the landscape [but] don’t take over the landscape.
Eventually the molds got looser and looser and rougher and rougher, [and] the older I got, the more I could take imprecision. I started thinking, “Well what if I dug a hole in the ground and filled it up with concrete?” Which is an odd thing to do, but I now know why I thought about it…it’s because there’s an inherent interaction between the human hand and the hand of nature…or the hand of God depending upon how you want to look at. Nature pushes back and the exact contours and the exact color and the exact way the castings come out have everything to do with what lives in the earth. That interaction of control and not control is of great interest to me. I’m attracted to art that asserts itself but listens to the world and actively collaborates with what’s in the world, rather than trying to control everything.
So, an underlying value and philosophy that drives that your work is a curiosity about and an investment in the notion of place. Why place? Many people are drawn to your work because you are drawing from the physical soil in which it is created. Why is that important to you?
Whether we like it or not, part of our role as humans on the planet is to make places. We need shelter. We need towns. Maybe we need cities…and we fashion our spaces accordingly. I think that we could do a better job of balancing what is already here on the planet with what our needs are, so the way I create place is to do that in concert with the physical place. I sometimes work in urban spaces, and there it’s a matter of injecting the human…the handmade…the quirkiness of who we are as people into those often-sterile cityscapes. When I work out in nature, it’s very different. There [I’m] trying to create place in a humble insertional way where there’s a little bit of humanness inserted into the landscape to help us understand that landscape…like the beauty mark was said to do on the face of a Victorian woman.
What has made this state a good place to do what you do?
Well, I didn’t set foot in North Carolina until I was 17 or 18. I show up in Chapel Hill and lived in the rural community right around Chapel Hill…and here I was in the agricultural south which I knew nothing about! I realized there was a richness here. It’s not surprising that richness has produced art here for 2500 years, starting with the Native Americans. [It’s] produced unbelievable music, pottery, [and] storytelling. It is a very rich place. I have learned that our Arts Council has done an amazing job in fostering and encouraging the art that comes from the richness that lives in the land of this state. It’s done a surprisingly good job in all 100 counties of saying, “This part of our state is important. Our culture of makers and players and singers is really important to the spirt of this state.” The arts council has said that through thick and thin and [they’ve] encouraged, in a way that a lot of other states have not, our own culture and held it up high.
Why do you believe in public funding for the arts?
The arts feed the soul of the public in so many different ways, so why shouldn’t the public pay for art? I mean it doesn’t pay for all of it! Art is going to happen no matter what. Artists will make art no matter what – funding or not. But with funding magical things will happen more often, more fully, for more people to consume and enjoy and be uplifted by.
How can the North Carolina Arts Council better support artists?
I think the North Carolina Arts Council does an amazing job connecting to the whole state. It’s in all 100 counties, and it’s very aware of the differences across our state of what arts groups need what kind of support. I think younger artists are under-supported because they’re riskier. Supporting the arts is risky business in general, but I think we all need to get more conversant with how technology is intersecting with the arts. I think we need to take more risks in how we support these younger artists and enterprises that are not just individuals. Not all of them succeed! That’s the risk part, but that’s okay. Real art is inherently risky, and we all need to understand that. Great things come from that, but so do nonstarters and so do things that don’t blossom. One has to go through times of failures to reach success.