Rayford Kissler whiled away part of an afternoon sitting on a bench in downtown Lenoir. Across West Avenue, an abstract sculpture in metal soaked up the burning sunlight, one of dozens of public sculptures tucked into the hills and hollers of Caldwell County.
The out-of-work truck driver had noticed the piece, but it barely caused a ripple in his mind.
"Everybody got their own taste. I wait for something you recognize, but that's just me," he said. "I don't ever pay it no attention."
Many here would call Kissler's perspective an artistic triumph: Public art has become such a normal part of daily life in Caldwell County that most people here take it for granted.
A rural spot at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and 70 miles northwest of Charlotte, Caldwell has an unusually large collection of public sculptures for a county with its population.
The artwork, which spans a wide range of quality, spun off of an annual sculpture contest each September in J.E. Broyhill Park in Lenoir. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the nonjuried event draws entrants from up and down the East Coast, some seasoned, professional artists, others young students testing their skills, still others untrained sculptors not intimidated by a contest that has gained notoriety in the art world.
The 77 pieces placed on street corners, schoolyards, business properties, in public parks and along highways are about as common as the furniture factories used to be.
The celebration and the public sculpture collection are all the more remarkable since they've attracted little of the controversy that has at times bogged down public art programs in cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh. No public money pays for the acquisition of sculptures, and citizen committees made up mostly of nonartists choose the pieces.
While there is more than a grain of truth to the stereotype of a provincial rural community where people could care less about serious art - inevitably, some grumble about what they consider junk - all of that sculpture seems to fit Caldwell. In fact, it appears to have tapped into and expanded the community's creative energy.
"In terms of the public art world, we've done this all wrong," said Lee Carol Giduz, executive director of the Caldwell Arts Council, which has shepherded the contest and sculpture acquisitions since the projects started in 1985.
"A lot of that is because we were a little community doing this naively, and we didn't have any models," she said. "There were no little towns collecting art, and they certainly weren't paying $5,000 a year to collect art."
A big attraction
Since art is such a personal experience, it's fitting that Caldwell's sculptures largely reflect its personality. Many pieces draw on its cultural and natural histories and collective values. Animals and plant life figure largely, including "Shrine to Roadkill," acquired in 1991 and placed at William Lenoir Middle School.
Other sculptures address universal existential questions that leave some people scratching their heads.
Mayor David Barlow confesses to being one of the sometimes confused, though he has grown to see the value of the sculptures.
"I was not raised on it," he said. " My background wasn't in the arts. I did not have an appreciation for it. But whether or not you look at a sculpture and don't know what you're looking at, you recognize that a well-rounded community needs public art. It's a big attraction for us."
The sculpture programs helped Lenoir win an All-America City designation for the first time in 2008.
Born of controversy
The projects that have given Caldwell a statewide reputation of a community that embraces art resulted from a public nuisance issue with racial overtones.
In the mid-1980s, J.E. Broyhill Park had become a gathering place on Sunday afternoons for partiers, some of whom used illegal drugs, said Sam Sturgis, then parks and recreation director.
Since the park was in the traditionally black Freedman community, the crowds were largely made up of black people, and many white people stopped frequenting the park, Sturgis said. He said some black people also stayed away because of rough elements.
Sturgis and the police clamped down, and Sturgis said he "constantly had to tell the black community that the park was not closed, but certain things would not be tolerated."
Then Sturgis worked with the city and resident Henry Michaux, a professor of art, to plan a cultural program for the park, with the idea of changing its atmosphere to community resource. Michaux suggested a sculpture contest, because he said most sculptors had no place to display their work. The parks department connected with the arts council to plan the event.
"We didn't realize it would grow from what it was then to what it is today," said Sturgis.
'Sculpture tells a story'
The public sculpture collecting grew out of that first contest, and Sturgis said the event and other city programs in the park helped dissolve the Sunday gatherings.
Though a largely white crowd attends the contest, a leisurely Saturday afternoon of food, live music and sculpture, people from the Freedman community also attend, some of them entering pieces in the contest.
Freedman resident Sylvia Greene has won awards at the contest, and is one of a number of artists inspired by the event to start sculpting. She made her first piece in 1995, breaking a mirror and using tweezers and glue to piece it back together. Now she works with discarded items to create sculptures with messages, including cleaning up the streets, literally and figuratively.
"Sculpture tells a story," Greene said. "If it wasn't for sculptures, we wouldn't know about our past. I feel what we're doing now sets the stage for the future."
Local sculptor Keith Willis, who teaches a "Junk to Funk" class for aspiring sculptors, worked with friend Suzette Bradshaw and the city of Lenoir to start a rotating exhibit of local sculptors' pieces. "Tucker's Streetscape Gallery" gives artists a year-round venue for their work, which people buy for their collections.
Christie Arney, one of Willis' students, would visit the contest, and one year decided to sign up for one of his classes. "I don't think of myself as an artist," she said, "but I do like to work with my hands."
Arney made a 5-foot sculpture evoking a hot-air balloon. placing it on her front porch and drawing compliments from friends and neighbors. Sculpting, though, is more about the process of creating than it is about the finished piece, she said, citing one of Willis' lessons.
Despite the positive effects of the contest and the sculpture collection, the projects have their detractors.
One man wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper last year, saying $100,000 of tax money had gone into buying a 15-foot, stainless-steel tree that sits next to U.S. 321. Giduz replied with her own letter, explaining that no tax money is used to pay for public sculptures.
Bringing people together
Though even Giduz doesn't like every sculpture in Caldwell's collection, she said one can't judge it "piece by piece, but the value is the whole and what's been created here."
A survey the arts council conducted in 2006 drew several hundred responses, and Giduz said 98 percent of respondents said positive things about the sculptures.
"I don't feel like we've force-fed the community," Giduz said. "I guess that could be argued, but the way I see it is that people can interact as much or as little as they want."
Mike Roig, the Carrboro artist who sculpted the tree on U.S. 321, wrote of the community's efforts:
"Here you are beginning to demonstrate that this commitment to public art, far from being senseless, instead creates an interest within a community that can bring people together in a lively interaction - one that fosters tolerance for new ideas, and a broadening of the identity of one's place in the world."