During last year’s World of Bluegrass festival, one of downtown’s most popular photo spots was the iconic Sir Walter Raleigh statue in front of the Raleigh Convention Center. Sir Walter had a banjo welcoming the International Bluegrass Music Association’s convention to town.
But that’s nothing compared to the statue’s look this year. Sir Walter is part of an actual stage: the “ Banjostand,” a stylish band shell with a backdrop made from banjo parts. The space will serve as a site for impromptu jam sessions for World of Bluegrass, which begins Tuesday with the IBMA business convention and nightly “Bluegrass Ramble” concerts.
“This will definitely be a step up from last year,” artist Bland Hoke said on Sunday as assembly of the Banjostand began.
Hoke’s construction team arrived in Raleigh after a 32-hour drive from his home base in Jackson, Wyo. Parked motorcycles from last weekend’s Ray Price Capital City Bikefest still lined Cabarrus Street when Hoke’s rental truck pulled up to the curb and they began hoofing out buckets of tools, supplies and wooden banjo necks and pots.
“The timeline on this is hard, getting down here and installing it in just a couple of days,” Hoke said. “That’s challenging, but the biggest challenge of all was designing it with potential hurricanes in mind. It’s all modular, designed to be taken down quickly if necessary. It’s also designed so that everything will fit in a rental truck, and then a storage unit.”
The “Banjostand” has been in the works since last year. Kim Curry-Evans, the city’s public-art coordinator, wanted to do a temporary installation for the 2014 event. The Raleigh Arts Commission provided a $25,000 budget, and the city put out a call for entries.
Several dozen submissions came in from as far away as California. Hoke got the nod with a quirky proposal calling for a stage to be made out of parts from that most bluegrass-oriented of instruments, the banjo.
“We had a lot of good entries and narrowed it down to three finalists to interview,” said Curry-Evans. “Once Bland came in talking about a bandstand made of banjos, that was it.”
‘No banjos were harmed’
Hoke works as artist in residence at the Jackson Hole Public Art Program in Wyoming, with a specialty of repurposing castoff materials. For the Banjostand, he found a cache of defective banjo necks and pots at the Deering Banjo Co. in California.
“We have a sign that says, ‘No banjos were harmed in this process,’ ” Hoke said with a laugh. “When I was leaving their factory, the Deering people were telling me, ‘Thank you so much for doing something with these parts. We’ve been holding on to them for 25 years.’ So they’d been hanging on to these parts because they couldn’t bear to just throw them away. Then I came along with an actual use for them. I thought that was the most endearing aspect of the whole thing.”
As designed by Hoke, the pots and necks make up an 18-foot-high band shell arched above the Sir Walter statue. By Sunday evening, it was starting to take shape. The banjo necks fanned out from poles that made the backdrop look like huge feathers, or the ribbed skeletons of giant fish or dinosaurs.
As darkness fell and the workers called in a delivery order for pizza, the job site began to feel like the construction party of a theatrical company.
‘It takes a village’
Matt McConnell, a Raleigh artist who specializes in industrial art installations, brought over a few friends and equipment from his nearby Boylan Heights workshop to help out. A group of volunteers from N.C. State was also on the case, tightening down pieces as the Banjostand rose into the night.
Completing projects such as this on schedule takes much cooperation.
“Yep,” agreed McConnell, “it takes a village.”
Work continued until about 2:30 a.m. Monday. After a few hours of sleep, Hoke and his crew were back at it before 9 a.m., hustling to finish before Monday afternoon’s grand opening.
After this week, the “Banjostand” will go into storage, then reappear at future World of Bluegrass festivals. Beyond that, its final destination has yet to be determined.
“I used to play banjo,” Hoke said. “I wish I’d kept at it; that would make this project even more hilarious. But it’s cool to have that connection with the banjo. The great part is, seeing is believing. It’s best to see this in person. Once people see the scale, I think imaginations will run wild, and there will be a lot of interest in having it.”