50 for 50: Thomas Sayre

Interview and video by Sandra Davidson | Photos courtesy Thomas Sayre

Monday, June 25, 2018

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.



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

50 for 50: Beverly McIver

Interview by Sandra Davidson

Friday, September 15, 2017

Beverly McIver is an acclaimed contemporary visual artist from Greensboro, N.C. She received the Rome Prize Fellowship in 2017, and is currently on sabbatical from her position as the Ebenshade Professor of the Practice in Studio Arts at Duke University. Her relationship with the North Carolina Arts Council spans decades, and began in 1994 when she received the North Carolina Arts Council’s Artist Fellowship.





When did you first start painting?

I actually didn’t start painting until my second year at North Carolina Central University [when] I took a painting class as an elective. I had a really great teacher there, Elizabeth, and she believed in me in a really nice way. She told me if I worked hard at painting then I could be good at it. So I started painting, and I’ve been painting ever since.

What about it clicked with you?

I think the biggest thing is having Elizabeth believe in me and say, “You can do this. You have talent. You can make a living as an artist.” That was the first time I had ever heard that because [of] the stereotype [that] artists are poor. I totally didn’t want to be poor because I had come from poverty and wasn’t interested in repeating that.

You received the North Carolina Arts Council Artist Fellowship in 1994. What was going on for you as a painter then?

I was working [as an] adjunct, and I was renting out a little condo in Durham. I had the second bedroom as my studio, and I was constantly painting. I was making portraits of my sister Renee, who is mentally disabled, [that explored] the struggle of having someone with special needs in your life.  She is 57 years old, but she has the mindset of a third grader, and she has epilepsy. When I got the grant, it was such an honor and a confirmation for me about my skills as an artist, about my voice as an artist, and [about] how important it was that I was saying something that was fairly personal but universal at the same time.

How quickly did you gravitate to painting about your family and subjects that are very personal to you?

I started making paintings of my sister Renee [when] I started having dreams about how violent Renee was when we were growing up as children, and how she would throw me down the steps or hit me. My mother would always say, “She can’t help it, and you shouldn’t hit her back.” I was out of school at the time, and I was terrified. I was feeling really angry and sad and guilty, and just a real mixed bag of emotions, but my teacher Elizabeth was like, “Just keep painting them. Just keep making them.” So that’s what I did. That’s how it started. I ruined several brushes. Made maybe 15 paintings about what it was like to grow up with Renee and be in Renee’s shadow.

Once I had let that voice come through, the voice that guides me and tells me what to paint next has just gotten stronger and stronger over the years. Now I listen to it, and I don’t feel like I have too much of a say in what comes up. It just comes out.













How else has the North Carolina Arts Council supported your career?

There used to be a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts where the North Carolina Arts Council would send two artists to Sausalito, California for three months to paint. I was fortunate enough to get that, and it was fantastic. One of my favorite artists is Richard Diebenkorn, and I was able to see and understand that work so much better at a time when I was just learning and experimenting about paint color and overlay by going to Northern California where he mostly painted. There was a project grant that I received from the North Carolina Arts Council. There was a Fellowship Grant that I received. Those programs, those experiences really, really changed my life.

I’m just eternally grateful to the North Carolina Arts Council for supporting me as a young artist.

You now teach workshops for the North Carolina Arts Council at the annual Creative Capital gatherings. Will you talk about what that means to you?

One of the great things that the North Carolina Arts Council does every year is invite Creative Capital, an organization out of New York City, to teach North Carolina artists the business of being an artist. I’ve been fortunate to teach that workshop every year. Thank God for Jeff Pettus who understands and really sees the importance of that workshop for North Carolina artists.

Because I am from North Carolina, I feel especially proud that I actually get to come back each year and stand in front of 27 artists from all parts of North Carolina and say, “You can be successful. You can make money at this. This is how you organize your business as an artist so that you can be successful...whatever that means to you.” For some people it means having a lovely studio space, [to] other people it means showing and exhibiting their work beyond North Carolina. We talk to a lot of different artists, not just visual artists, but writers and musicians— the whole gamut. We teach them how to write a business plan, and how to be a professional artist.

How did you sort through and figure that out for yourself...how to be a successful artist?

 The work is first. It’s important to do your work and not let naysayers, or people in the community, or your gallery dealer, or whoever, influence what your intuition is telling you [to] be painting. If I painted flowers or something more aesthetically pleasing, I could probably make more money, but it would not make it possible, perhaps, for me to get the Guggenheim Award or the Rome Prize because they want very strong conceptual ideas about things that are happening in the world.

Then [I’d say] to organize yourself in a way. Keep a mailing list of people who are curators and relevant in the field of art, so that they know what you’re doing.  I’ve always had to-do lists, but now I prioritize those lists and [the] things that are important, and [I] figure out action plans to move to the next step. What do I need to do now? How do I keep my name out there? What's available grant-wise that I can apply for? Who’s curating? It’s a combination of all those things. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around some good savvy business people who have taught me those things, and I love passing it on to younger artists.

How can North Carolina better support artists?

North Carolina has done a really good job of supporting artists over the years, [and] how lovely it would be if North Carolina could support artists more by providing cheaper housing for artists, by creating studio spaces that are affordable. Imagine if we had more gallery spaces that actually showed and sold artist's’ work, and [more] programs like Creative Capital coming to North Carolina to teach artists the business so they can be sustainable. It would just be lovely to have that kind of support.







Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.

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