Spotlight: Thomas Sayre, White Gold


Art Howard Photography

by Liza Roberts

On October 7, acclaimed artist Thomas Sayre will transform CAM Raleigh into a multi-layered, multi-media exploration of cotton: the people, land, industry, beauty, violence, and history behind the lucrative, complicated crop.

The museum expects record attendance for the commissioned work, White Gold, which incorporates three massive wall-covering paintings and 18 concrete earthcasts – the kind of work Sayre is best known for – to create an enveloping environment, a work of art a viewer can enter and experience.

Sayre’s inspiration for White Gold came to him one day in October 2014 on a drive to Manteo. He came upon a field, “a snowfield, as far as the eye could see, of cotton.” He pulled over and walked through it. “I’d never been immersed in cotton,” he says. “I heard murmurings coming from those fields. Similar murmurings that I hear and see when I read William Faulkner: Powerful beauty, all intertwined with the haunting moaning of human history and human tragedy and human joy and human invention … all of this crazy human stuff that’s intertwined with our Southern landscape.”

It wasn’t long after, he recalls, that he heard author Sven Beckert discussing his book Empire of Cotton: A Global History on NPR, and learned more about “the unbelievable story” of the crop. It didn’t take long before Sayre was considering ways to make art out of his fascination, in part through the medium of earthcasting, “which I love, and is such a soulful way of working,” he says. “Implicit in it are the issues of agriculture and ecology and how we humans interact with our planet, our Mother Earth. We do that sensitively, and also do it insensitively, and we have done that for centuries. Touching the earth is inherent to being human.”

Sayre made the earthcasts that will line the floor of the museum by touching the earth himself, pouring concrete into tractor treads and other impressions made by agricultural equipment in the clay-rich soil of a field in Henderson. Then he decided he needed to show the impact of human hands on the earth as well, and went back to create several more earthcasts to represent “touchings” of the earth: knees and elbows, fists and feet. “It’s about humans touching the earth,” he says, “not about cotton per se.”


Art Howard Photography

To see Sayre’s work in progress is to gain some small understanding of the depth of thought, worksmanship, and feeling he has put into each piece of the exhibit. In the photo on the opposite page, he can be seen working on a single panel of one of three massive paintings. Made of tar, paint, clear floor finish, and  mud (“good Piedmont red clay dirt,” he says, collected in part from the excavation at a recent renovation at Hayes Barton Methodist church), the canvases depict fields of cotton extending to a distant, off-center horizon. His process is one of building up layers of paint, mud, and tar, weeks of curing, and then scraping away to unveil ghostly cotton bolls – more than 10,000 in all.

The monumental work has taken him many hundreds of hours to complete, he says, work he feels “privileged” to have done. It began in March and filled every single one of his days, and many nights, between June 29 and Sept. 11.

Though Sayre says he expects White Gold to bring up issues of slavery, corporate greed, and injustice for many viewers, his goal is not to make a stand. “I am not raising those issues, except aesthetically,” he says. “I’m not grinding any political axe here. There are people who are going to want to see it that way, but I’m not going to be complicit with that. I’m a maker.”

CAM is publishing a 120-page, hardcover, full-color catalogue of the exhibit, which features White Gold as well as several other Sayre works, including the recent Flue, an open-air sculptural homage to tobacco barns he installed in Kinston. The catalog also features writing by acclaimed poet David Dominguez, playwright Howard Craft, critic Deidre Greben, and filmmaker David Burris.

White Gold will be on display until Jan 22. Also currently on display at CAM this month are The Ties That Bind, works by Precious Lovell, and Oppressive Architecture by Gesche Würfel.