Walk into CAM Raleigh between now and late January, and you’ll enter a psychic cotton field.
Thomas Sayre’s White Gold is an installation of four large-scale works that transform the main gallery into a space for meditation upon Southern identity and the human and racial costs of the cotton economy. Two large, multi-panel works cover opposing walls with depictions of cotton fields: the forty-foot-wide “Row” and the fifty-six-foot-wide “Thicket.” “Barn,” a trio of pieces, recalls the doors and walls of barns upon a third wall. And bathed in individual pools of light, the eighteen earth castings of “Track” appear to float just above the floor.
I sat on that floor and talked with the accomplished Raleigh sculptor, designer, and architect about the remarkable White Gold, an exhibit that demands you sit a spell in reverent silence.
Is White Gold intended as a space that prompts visitors to think about their individual relationship to cotton and Southern history, or do you think of it as a group of artworks with specific meanings and messages?
Well, it’s an installation, but I wouldn’t call it “installation art,” which has become almost a genre. Installation artists come into spaces and transform them. I see this as four pieces that were very much designed for this space, although it’s also designed to tour, and that’s everyone’s strong desire.
These four works of art are close cousins, and they add up to a whole that’s greater than the sum of their parts. So in that regard, it’s an environment. But in that, any one of these pieces, and even subdivisions of them, are standalone works of art. You can just display one of the “Barn” pieces, and it works.
I see this installation very much as a whole thing. And I hadn’t experienced the whole until just two days before it opened. I hadn’t seen any of these intact. I’d seen them on the floor from a ladder, looking down on them.
You’ve worked on huge projects, earthworks that require excavation teams to install over several days, so I’m sure the scale here doesn’t make you uncomfortable. But what kinds of challenges do you face in the activity of making something that you’re not able to finally visualize until installation?
While I do work in large scales with big crowds of workers, I made this entire show by myself, often at night, without casts of thousands. So it’s more about my physical limitations of how much I could scrape in one night before my hands just couldn’t take it anymore. [We move close to “Row,” a forty-foot series of wall panels depicting a vast cotton field.]
Scraping as in applying tar and then removing it to make these diagonal lines between the planted areas? Or scraping to remove something to bring the white of the cotton out?
Both. It’s a white panel on Masonite. I first rub on dirt, having scratched up the surface. Then the stalks of the plants are made with a clear varnish. Then come the cotton blossoms, which are squirted out and whacked with sticks so they’re more explosive. And then the whole panel is covered with glistening, nasty, stinky roofing tar. And that’s removed to reveal the furrows. And then when it all gets really hard, the bolls are individually sculpted with a little knife. It cuts the white pigment off. It’s physically demanding.
These cotton boll shapes in “Row” are fascinating. They’re immediately recognizable, closely followed by the second thought that they look like skulls.
There are more than 10,000 cotton bolls in “Row.” It was a privilege to get to work so hard and stay so focused—working by myself, every day, on these shapes all summer. I did other things to make a living during the day, but every day from mid-afternoon into the evening, it was just one cotton boll after another in a kind of meditative space. It felt like a steelworker going to work every day with a lunch pail.
It sounds like there’s a compulsive component to this work.
Because of that there was a connection, I felt, with the workers who are all through this work, who are the skulls, the cotton pickers, who were buried or, more overtly, who touched the land. These four pieces are all touching the land in different ways.
Speaking of touching the land, let’s look at “Track,” the earth casts on the floor. I see a wide vocabulary of marks you’ve taken casts of: boot marks, fist marks from punching the ground, and a variety of tire treads and tractor treads. Then there are some that I don’t recognize.
That’s knees and elbows. And this other one, these are backhoe teeth. I got my backhoe guy to just touch the earth with the teeth. Still another one is made with cast-iron window weights, throwing them down into the dirt to make marks.
It’s pretty high-tech concrete—about twice as strong as a sidewalk, cast in the soil, and steel reinforced. All these little rocks and things were picked up from the dirt. Sitting on this low plinth, it makes them hover in this space.
Why did you pick this size and shape—flat, rectangular panels with a rough overall contour?
I wrestled with them a lot. I actually cast furrows in a real field. They’re much bigger and heavy, and they weren’t that interesting. They didn’t tell much of a story, and they were overpowering the other pieces because of their size.
It was [too literal]. I did a piece in Kinston, a furrow casting about a city block in length, and it really looks like a field has just been picked up and placed there. But these individual furrows were just not as interesting. It became clear that these needed to be smaller. Nothing in nature is a true plane. Everything’s twisted like this.
Then came the issue of expressing the touching of the ground. All of the “Track” castings do this. It’s not really about cotton; it’s about us humans and this land, in its broadest sense. And then you can zoom in on agriculture as an overall element of civilization, without which we wouldn’t be here.
Cotton was the first truly global commodity in the 1700s, and there were Bill Gates levels of riches. But the key was that it was all on the backs of slaves of various sorts, and most dramatically in this country.
The impetus for White Gold was a trip I took to Manteo two years ago. All the bolls were in bloom, and when I drove over a little rise, there was this shallow valley, though you don’t get much of a valley in eastern North Carolina. It just looked like snow—there were pieces of cotton blowing across the road. I’d seen it before, but it just took my breath away. So I pulled into a field, a long road as far as I could see, and I hid my car and just walked into the fields.
I was struck by two things, which then led to the real thing: the beauty of the bolls, and the four little spiked petals at the base of the bolls. I was thinking about jamming my hand in there. In fact, I picked a few and got nicked almost immediately. The physics of that fiber is unparalleled. Its strength and its properties. No mammal can digest it. If you eat it, it just comes out of you. And then those spikes. I heard these voices coming out of the land. The voices of those who made the riches and those on whose backs the riches were obtained, all coalescing in this innocent but chemically complicated material.
We’ve been talking about agriculture and economics and about the slaves that carried that on their backs and died for it. But are there positive notes in these works, too? Is there a personal history also present here?
I’m making no real statement about slavery. It’s more of a feeling of landscape. It doesn’t take long to get to there if you’re in the South. I didn’t see these furrows of “Track” as funeral things; I saw them as fragments of the land that had been touched by tools. I now see these pyres. Others have said that to me and I see it now, but that wasn’t the intent.
They really respond to the “Barn” panels in that way—dimensional rectangles, but like something’s trying to get out of the ground.
In a way, this started when I was a freshman at UNC in the 1970s. I’d never been to the South before; I was there on a scholarship. And I went to an early fiddler’s convention somewhere near Asheboro. It was on someone’s land. You camped. There was roots music happening all day. I was like 18 years old, and I wandered by myself into one of the adjacent fields. The moon was up, so I laid down in a furrow. The smell and the moonlight—I was just transported. Then, something startled me and I looked around and there were those barns, like sentinels, guarding the edge of the fields, looming over me. And that got me looking at rural structures—especially when they are falling down—as something beautifully complex.
There’s the overlay of being in the barn, looking out at the light coming through. And barns are where you hide your stash, where you lose your virginity. It’s not just for the storage of your crops. They’re powerful places. I didn’t grow up with that, but I do remember New England barns where I shot pigeons for my grandfather to keep them from pooping on his hay. Not a Southern scene, but I remember hunting around with this .22 short-barrel rifle. My heart was beating, and I was killing things. I would shoot through the barn, and there’d be a little hole letting the light in.
Do you feel connections to current events like the Black Lives Matter movement or other immediate race issues that shape our lives as Southerners now?
I didn’t set about to say anything about slavery, much less race. However, I did set about to visually describe a haunted landscape. And a lot of the haunt, what makes it haunted in the South, is clearly bound up in race. So to feel that hauntedness, feel the blood in the land, in these furrows, is to raise the question in you: “Where do I stand in this?” I think a lot about my own white privilege. For me, it’s hard to be in this room and not think about that.