by Liza Roberts
photographs by Jimmy Williams
You might not know it, but you’ve probably seen Thomas Sayre’s art. It’s big, it’s bold, and it’s public.
In Raleigh, his three gigantic earthen ellipses spool across a field at the North Carolina Museum of Art. His comet-inspired, curvilinear patio at Broughton High School is packed with kids. His undulating oak tree shimmers on the exterior of the Raleigh Convention Center, and his wall clad with 1.1 million marbles at Marbles Kids Museum glows in the night.
Other cities in other states have the Sayre touch as well: Nashville’s Public Square is dominated by his towering glass human figure; at the University of Colorado Denver’s medical school campus, a quarter-mile promenade is dedicated to his orbs. Sayre’s works also define public spaces in cities like Oklahoma City, Clearwater, Fla., and Calgary, Alberta.
The maker of this art that grabs your attention and makes you look, even if you’re whizzing past by car or on foot, is a man of human dimensions and modest demeanor.
“I work hard, which is what I do. I work really hard,” he says. Sayre’s work is both conceptual and physical, requiring the metaphoric skills of a poet, the grit of a backhoe driver, and the ingenuity of an inventor. He learned to make his earthscapes – concrete sculptures cast in freshly dug earth that incorporate the soil – by experimenting repeatedly in a friend’s field. He got the public-art-spooked City of Raleigh to approve his Convention Center shimmer wall in part by referring to it, in plans, as a “louver,” since, in fact, it is just that: Behind its fluttering pieces lie the building’s giant vents.
“I like to know when I’m making art, and when I’m being entrepreneurial,” he says, but he often combines the two successfully. “My wife has a theory that I have a really large corpus callosum,” that fibrous tissue that connects left and right sides of the brain.
Sayre’s base of operations, the art and architecture firm Clearscapes, which he founded with architect Steve Schuster, is a physical manifestation of just that. Tucked in former warehouse space downtown, where it sprawls, the outfit designs both buildings and art, and each side helps the other. Clearscapes’ hushed, tidy, high-ceilinged offices with rolling-ladder bookcases give way to the noise and mess of chainsaws, steel and welding next door on one side, and Sayre’s home on the other, where he lives with his wife, Joan-Ellen Deck, and their teenage daughter. An older daughter is at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Now 61, Sayre moved to this spot 22 years ago. “Coming from 50 acres in Rutherford County, this was like a big city,” he says. “And it’s become much more of a big city since then.”
His work has become bigger as well, both in size and in impact. One reflection of that is the North Carolina Award he will receive at the end of October from the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. It is known as one of the highest civilian honors bestowed by the state.
Hippie with ambition
“I was sort of a hippie, a hippie that had some ambition, I guess,” Sayre says of his younger self. A Morehead Scholar at UNC Chapel Hill, Sayre spent his childhood in the rarified surroundings of Washington National Cathedral, where his father served as dean. The cathedral was under construction when the Sayre family arrived in 1950, and was completed under his father’s direction. Sayre befriended the carvers and workers whose ancient skills finished the majestic space around them.
“From the age of 6 or 8, I realized that three-dimensional space and what expresses it – walls, windows, art – is capable of transmitting deep human meaning and emotion. I had greatest respect for the guys who carved, made stained glass, and mixed the mortar.” The pings and clinks of their hammers and tools punctuated the Sayre family’s daily life.
It was an enriching place in other ways, too. Guests at the cathedral dinner table could include a presidential candidate one evening and a homeless person the next. “I learned the bell curve of distribution of good folk and not good folk is the same on the street as it is in the U.S. Congress,” Sayre says. When Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at the cathedral and had “the traditional Sunday dinner preceded by sherry” at the Sayre house afterward, “I regarded him as just another human being I could connect to.” Four nights later, King was dead. Sayre sat on top of the cathedral to see the fire of riots across Rock Creek Park.
If home provided a rare education, actual school was a mess. Dyslexic in an era when the condition was little-understood, Sayre says he was “an academic disaster” in his early school years. But he adapted, through unfashionable methods like rote memorization, as well as practical ones like listening to Shakespeare’s plays on 78 rpm records instead of reading them.
He also found success in art, which buoyed him. Part-time work with a welder in high school taught him enough that he could create figures in the style of Giacometti, which he sold. Hard work meant that his grades were eventually good enough to get him that Morehead Scholarship.
These days, Sayre’s inspirations come from all kinds of places.
The marble-dazzled wall at Marbles (which was then the museum Exploris) was inspired by an old-fashioned Lite-Brite toy he found at a friend’s house. When the museum merged and grew, it didn’t have to look far for its new name.
When the University of Colorado Denver sought a monumental piece of art for a quarter-mile stretch between campuses, Sayre’s inspiration for two 14-foot-diameter spheres (one a grid of steel, one of earthcast concrete) on either end of a series of “outdoor rooms” came from the idea that science, represented by the steel orb, connects to life, represented by the earthcast orb, through a series of conversations and negotiations that take place between people and ideas. The inspiration is made clear in the piece’s title, one close to Sayre’s heart: Corpus Callosum.
The question of balance – between science and life, between intent and serendipity, between art and nature – intrigues him. In his earthscapes, “there is always a place where the earth ends and the manmade concrete begins.” That line of demarcation, “the balance between nature-made and human-made,” fascinates him.
“The earth took hundreds of thousands of years to build,” he says, “and we come along with diesel-powered human tools and drawing ability and say, ‘I’m gonna make a sphere.’ But the sphere you get is not that sphere that you plan, it is this sphere that emerges.”
To Sayre, that’s where the beauty lies. “That’s more like life itself, as I know life to be.”
And real life also requires logistics, so once that nature-riddled sphere is complete in a field eight miles from downtown Raleigh, it needs to get to Denver, along with its steel twin, made in Sayre’s studio. A caravan of six trucks, including one 48-foot-flatbed, toted the whole thing, plus the terrazzo “rooms” that connect them, to its destination, where Sayre took two weeks and three different kinds of cranes to get it installed. The trip alone was a risk; so was finding crew members on site. Sayre had faith.
“I know artists who think they can control everything,” he says. “I don’t want to work that way. The older I get, the more faith I have to take risks.”