Art Walk at the Plant
Welcome to the Art Walk at the Plant. There are about 30 pieces of locally made art on display. Wander about. Check them out. Grab a seat. Take a picture. Enjoy.
My name is Lyle, and I will be your tour guide today. Tami and I own the Plant. In the fifties it was a flower farm. Then it became an alloys factory. Then it became an eco-industrial park anchored by Piedmont Biofuels (me) and Abundance NC (Tami). I like to think of the Plant's aesthetic as "Distressed Industrial Chic."
We’ve been making art, buying art, selling art, and engaged in the artistic life of Chatham County for 30 years. Tami used to be an art broker. I used to be a scrap metal sculptor, operating out of our place in Moncure called Summer Shop, and out of the now defunct Moncure Chessworks. Together Tami and I have accidentally accumulated an eclectic collection. We are happy to share some of our pieces with you here at the Plant…
I’ve never met Kimberli Matin. She was commissioned to create Pond Scene by a retirement community in Winston Salem. It was to be assembled in the middle of a pond. Before she could install it the whole project fell apart. The year was 2008--when the world fell off a cliff. The retirement community was never built. She called me up before she moved away. It was in storage in Burlington. She wanted it to see the light of day. I bought it from her, rounded up a box truck and some muscle, and brought it to the plant. I hired Jim Nitsch (Handyman Jim), to install it on the hill.
Stone Planter/Pizza Oven
Joe Kenlan is a legendary stonemason who lives next door to us in Moncure. He built the Planter as a workshop for Abundance NC. I was one of the participants. We all worked together for a few days—with Joe teaching us how to break rock, mix mortar, fit pieces etc.
Joe is a founding member of The Stone Foundation, an organization of stonemasons, architects, quarries and others dedicated to the celebration and preservation of the ancient craft of building with stone.
My friend Gary brought his son Giles--who I have known for most of his life. Giles was complaining that he was “paying to build a planter for Lyle and Tami.” I was working along side him at the time and said, “You know Giles, this Joe Kenlan Workshop sold out. Do you know what that means?”
“No,” he said sheepishly.
“It means we didn’t charge enough" was my reply.
Joe also did the stone wall in the Fair Game Tasting Room and built the Petanque court at the Plant. He's a Petanque enthusiast, and you will occasionally see him tossing stainless balls in the yard.
Mike Roig is the guy in Carrboro with all of the kinetic pieces in the yard—sort of across from the Carrboro Farmer’s Market. Mike lays down the prettiest welds on the eastern seaboard. I used to work for Mike; cutting lotus leaves for his torches. Mike used to work for me, welding up chess sets. He is a mentor and old friend of mine. Together we rolled around the sculpture circuit--which we occasionally referred to as "Excercises in Hauling."
I bought Wonder Beast from Mike when I had a couple of boys in diapers. It’s been ridden, beat upon, and loved to death as a playground object. I moved it to Summer Shop, got the boy damage repaired, and brought it to the Plant.
I made my first Spool Gates around 2002 for Edible Earthscapes in Moncure. I also had some made for my place in Moncure. And I have been getting spool gates made ever since—mostly by Joe Ezzel and Rick Kondracki at New Earth Fabrication. Fiber optic lines are frequently delivered on giant carbon steel spools, when you liberate the middle; you get the material to make two gates.
I have never found a source for spent spools. I snag them at the scrap yard when I can, and I frequently want to steal spent spools when I see them on the side of the road, because I think they make great gates…
Solar Turbines/Scrap Metal
Lee Iron and Metal
When I first met Poly Cohen at Lee Iron and Metal, he had a sign on his parking space that read: “Parking for Poly Cohen. All others will be crushed.”
I sold tons of scrap metal to Poly. And I bought tons from him. He also “gave” me truckloads of materials to use for art. Sometimes when the press would run pictures of my work that the folks at Lee Iron and Metal recognized, they would clip the photo and hang it on the wall in the office. I used to joke that I was their “PR Department.” Poly used to joke, “I sold that to you for .50/pound and you sold it for 100.00? I’m in the wrong business…”
By the time I encountered these two turbines I had made a solemn oath to myself to never buy scrap metal again. My sculptor days were behind me--but I couldn't believe the seashell shape--stainless steel discolored by heat to look like copper. I had never seen anything like it.
Poly’s son in law Scot sold me the turbines. They came with giant stainless “axles” attached, and when he sold them to me, he said, “You know those are like jet engines, and you’re not going to be able to get them apart.”
I scoffed. It’s not like I was building a jet engine. I merely had to dismantle a couple to liberate these pieces. At the time I was the shop teacher for Dimensions Home School. I figured I would unleash my shop class to break them down.
I was wrong. Getting the turbines off their axles was high on impossible. Many skinned knuckles, frustrated students, failed attempt after failed attempt. I threw everything I had at getting these turbines free to position them in a garden scene. Plasma cutter. Backhoe. Chain hoist. Torch. Angle grinder. I think it took about a year—and when I was done, Scot bought the axles back at the same price I paid for them!
Scot and Robyn's son Jonathan has been extremely generous
to the Chatham Beverage District. Every now and then a load of scrap metal will be dumped in our yard. Jonathan picks it out for us. It takes us awhile, but eventually we metabolize his gifts and they become wonderful additions to the landscape.
I kinda feel like Lee Iron and Metal has been my secret backstop over the years. Poly died in 2020--when the pandemic was sweeping the land. Sanford, NC lost a father.
I continue to bother Scot for help when my Rolodex gets thin, and
Jonathan texts me when he spots a treasure that I need to have. It's been nice having three generations of scrap traders in my corner...
Megan Toben gave this chair to me. It’s ungodly heavy. I think she was tired of moving it. I’ve never met Callie Warner, but she was a legendary Carrboro artist, who has since moved to Asheville. Meeting her is on my bucket list.
Tractor Chair lived on the dam of our pond in Moncure for many years. It is made from the conveyor belt of an industrial dishwasher. “Treads,” added by the artist. So cool. Have a seat. It’s comfortable (it’s hard to make a comfortable chair), and it has a bit of a rock to it.
When I moved this piece to the Plant I became worried that it was not actually made by Callie Warner, because I discovered the initials “CMD” welded to its base. I found Callie on the Internet and she confirmed that she made this chair. She used to sign her work “CMD” as Callie Metal Design.
Christian is an architect from Ecuador. He built this gazebo for Abundance NC with grant money from Burt’s Bees as part of their commitment to increasing public understanding of pollinators and the importance of honeybees in our food shed. Apparently one in every seven bites of food we take is dependent on the work of the honeybee.
Beside the Gazebo is a line of tulip poplars that were planted on behalf of Burt’s Bees. Tulip Poplars flower at exactly the right time for the honey flow in North Carolina, which means that a high percentage of our local honey comes from tulip poplar blossoms.
We acquired this piece from Laura Baldwin when she was wrapping up Reba’s and Rose’s, the famous garden art center in Hillsborough. Laura threw in the towel after a successful career as an art dealer and moved to Mexico (allegedly taking a load of giant garden art with her).
LaNelle and Virginia did the “Southern Ladies” collection of giant concrete and mosaic women—some of which you see around Carrboro. The collection is based on actual women from Virginia’s life. We have enjoyed their “Mrs. Robinson” at our house in Moncure for years.
I once made a chess set for an exhibit in Southern Pines. The pieces were super top heavy and dangerous. A photographer from the News and Observer set up the pieces wrong, and the picture made the front page of the weekend section. I looked like a chess idiot.
The set was later broken up into individual pieces—some of which made it into the collection of Jim Massey, the outsider art collector in Haywood who backstopped the Small Museum of Art at Small B+B. Some of them went to Lenoir, NC to an installation called “Inmates Working.” That was a series of black figures guarded by white figures with shotguns welded to their sides.
We’ll cement these pieces in to make them safe. I like their distant stare…
Tuesday and I used to work at Moncure Chessworks together. She was trained as an x-ray welder when Shearon Harris, our local nuke plant, was being built. If Robinson Crusoe had all of his work done by “Friday,” most of my work was done by Tuesday.
Tuesday made the Banana, a giant tomato, and some carrots that served as the original “sign” for Chatham Marketplace. We scored the banana—sure wish I knew what happened to those carrots…
She made her first Praying Mantis with me at Chessworks, and pushed on with the design for years after Chessworks vanished. Together we made 15 large chess sets, and about a million other pieces…
She also did a fair bit of the welding for Piedmont Biofuels, when it inhabited this campus.
One of my rules of thumb is that if a piece is going to get into my collection, it has to be something I cannot do. My children frequently send me photos of sculptures from their travels and ask me, “Would you buy this?” If the answer comes back “Yes,” it is because I could never pull off a piece like that.
That’s how I feel about this lizard. I have about a half ton of cogs that I rescued from Chatham Mills decades ago, and I have never been able to integrate them into anything like this!
Paul VanNess had exactly one art show at Michael Mosca’s gallery in Pittsboro. He sold every piece in the show, but he never pursued the “exhibiting artist” tract. Prior to his show, he traveled the land selling wire wrapped lizards—of which he has made hundreds—no wonder he was able to nail this lizard nature so well.
3D Book Cover
Tuesday gave me this piece on the occasion of the publication of my first book. I consider it one of the sweetest
gifts I have ever received. She likes to say that I saved her life by hiring her to help me at Moncure Chessworks.
I'm suspicious. I think it might be the other way around.
Tuesday Fletcher and Lyle Estill
There’s one on both sides of the street. We can’t tell if they are drawn to one another or keeping their distance. The female praying mantis apparently eats her lover after insemination. Might be good to keep your distance...
This chess set is made from underwater swimming pool lights that were discarded by Pentair in Sanford. We would collect them, pound out the resins, cut out the wiring harnesses and weld them up. We developed a chemical burn which turned stainless steel black so that customers could tell the pieces apart.
Over the years Chessworks shipped 15 giant chess sets
to public gardens, museums and customers up and down the east coast.
Dinner Bell/Tea Pot
Joe Ezzell worked for a time at Piedmont Biofuels. He went on to create New Earth Fabrication. An expert with boilers, electricity, tools, and generally “how things work,” he also has an artistic streak. He made this bell that would signal us to lunch for Local Food Fridays during the Piedmont Biofuels era. You can ring it. But beware. If you do it will make some of us hungry.
He also created the tea pot bird feeder across the street.
Lyle Estill/Tuesday Fletcher
If you whisper a secret into one end, you can hear it at the other. Your secrets are safe with us.
We made these with scraps of pipe that we cut out of the alloys plant. Both were inspired by items abandoned at the Plant.
Principles of Permaculture: Use What You Got.
Nowadays rabbits have taken up residence in the hollow tubes that surround our planters.
I hate sculptures that need paint.
But Tami loves to paint...
Key to My Heart
Tami and I are not good with keys. As the Plant has changed from an
eco-industrial park to a Beverage District, it has undergone a million key changes. Neither one of us can ever seem to find a key. I once saw a sweet piece at the Chatham Arts Council made with new, uncut keys. It made me think we should glue spent keys to a door—and Tami made it happen. I found the lone keyhole at Summer Shop.
These beasts come from local rock quarries. Our local gravel is called “crusher run,” frequently called “Crush and Run” by local driveway owners. When they are doing a “crusher run” at the quarry, they drop rock into these giant manganese bowls. They act as pestles. A mortar then grinds the rock into pieces suitable for gravel roads.
When they wear out they are sold for scrap.
I have always loved these things. I feel they are "sculptural" right out of their molds. I used to buy them by the truckload and sell them as planters "as is."
These frogs came from Reba’s and Rose’s.
I admired them for years. Everybody did. They were so remarkable people started selling knockoffs of them.
Daniel Mathewson was an artist in Orange County. Devoted family guy. From what I have heard he lived life wide open as an artist and a father.
Apparently he spotted a choice piece of scrap metal in the median on the highway. Apparently he was killed by a car as he tried to retrieve it. Maybe there was something in its shape that inspired him.
47 years old. Left a family behind. These frogs greet me everyday as I come in to work. We are honored to be their stewards, for now.
Shore Stones, Actuators, Cogs
I did these with help from Marlee, Uki, Giovanna, and Nathan “Stack’o’Dimes” Davis. I saw a piece that was similar in the Hamptons one summer, and have been making them ever since. Shore stones were smuggled to Pittsboro from Lake Superior and Georgian Bay by my brother Glen.
It is interesting the hear the response they elicit. Some call them "choirs." Others refer to them as "lollipops." I've also heard them referred to as "armies." One day as I was loading my grand daughter into the car I overheard her talking to them as if they were a listening crowd.
Dino Diesel Dispenser
Leon and Julie gave me this diesel dispenser. It was left over from Williams Oil in Pittsboro that is now home to Dias Automotive.
It once stood next to a biodiesel dispensing station as a dinosaur relic of a by gone era. We probably need to move it out front to take its place next to the electric car chargers.
Leon and Julie now run Blossom—where everyone in town gets their flowers…
Enrique Vega and friends made these pieces. Enrique ran a forge on the other side of Jordan Lake for many years. He was a mentor of mine as I entered the world of studio art production. One year, when I needed some coal to put in my boys Christmas stockings, Enrique hooked me up. He powered his forges with coal and propane.
The Cherub piece was given to us by Selbe Bartlett. Enrique was her Dad.