Burning for art in a big way

Downtown Cary project transforms clay to brick

akenney@newsobserver.comNovember 9, 2012 

— If you visited downtown Cary on Halloween, you would have seen a huge tower of slightly damp clay across from the Cary Arts Center.

If you returned two days later, that 11-foot tower would have been glowing hot, stoked inside by a 2,100-degree wood fire. And if you visit now, you’ll see one massive piece of ceramic.

It’s all part of a public art project at the corner of Academy Street and Dry Avenue.

Danish ceramics artist Nina Hole and her team built a 7,000-pound clay sculpture, which essentially became its own kiln when they lit fires in its base last month.

While clay usually is baked in a large oven, this sculpture was its own oven.

“I see so many sculptures ... and they are sometimes just like, ‘Oh-oh, here could be this sculpture,’ ” said Hole as her helpers gingerly placed another row of U-shaped bricks on the tower. “I thought it would be nice to have a sculpture that has grown out of this place.”

The town of Cary sponsored the project with $40,000 from its downtown development budget. Andi Dees, the town’s ceramic arts manager, first spotted Hole’s work at Appalachian State University in Boone, where Hole made one of her “monumental fire sculptures” in 2006.

In all, Hole has installed at least 16 of the sculptures since 1995, when she pioneered the self-kiln technique. The new method only became possible with the advent of the space-age insulation that wraps the structure during much of the firing, Hole said.

And while several artists practice the technique, “everything comes from Nina,” said Renata Cassiano, who traveled to Cary from Xalapa, Mexico, the site of another Hole sculpture. The Cary sculpture team also included Debbie Englund of Chapel Hill and Ann-Charlotte Ohlsson of Denmark, among others.

The town project required a careful pitch to win funding and approval.

“It took a lot of explaining, and a lot of deer-in-headlights looks from police and fire,” said Denise Dickens, the town’s public art coordinator.

It’s a bit like Cary’s version of Burning Man, the massive arts gathering in the Nevada desert where building-size art is burned before a crowd of 50,000.

Cary’s unveiling wasn’t quite so wild. It featured a performance by the Cary Town Band, followed by the unshrouding of the ember-like, radiating clay.

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary

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