In a workshop somewhere in Reidsville, an operation of great importance to folks about 70 miles away in Mount Airy is under way: bringing historical figures of the Granite City back to “life.”
No, this doesn’t involve Dr. Frankenstein moving his laboratory to North Carolina to conduct another of his infamous experiments, but the work of sculptor Brad Spencer on a “Whittling Wall” project for Mount Airy.
After the city received a grant last year from the N.C. Department of Commerce to fund a downtown-enhancement effort as determined by local leaders, the commissioners’ decision was to add a series of statues to a fabled spot.
It is an area at the corner of North Main and West Oak streets known as the Whittling Wall, where officials want to honor people who played key roles in making Mount Airy what it is today.
The wall was so named due to the tendency of men to gather at that site many years ago to whittle, chew tobacco and swap stories while their wives shopped.
Spencer, an artist who specializes in brick sculptures — reflecting a medium dating to ancient Babylon — was commissioned to create eight life-size statues that will be placed along the Whittling Wall later this year.
These include likenesses of Donna Fargo, a Grammy-winning country and pop singer who grew up in Mount Airy and now lives in Nashville; old-time fiddler Tommy Jarrell; Ralph Epperson, the founder of local radio station WPAQ, a flagship for the traditional mountain music of this region;
Also, Leonidas Harold “L.H.” Jones, an educator and leader of the local African-American community; Fred Cockerham, an old-time banjo player and fiddler; Flip Rees, a longtime retailer in downtown Mount Airy; and two other figures portraying an anonymous whittler (reflecting the history of the wall as a gathering place) and a mill worker to signify Mount Airy’s textile heritage.
Spencer took time out from his Mount Airy sculpturing project in recent days to discuss his progress.
“I think it’s going well,” he said of the effort, which at that point had resulted in the completion of four of the eight statues. “I’m working on the fifth.”
It is one thing to create a sculpture of a live model, but quite another when the subjects are deceased — which is the case with five of the six individuals to be honored with the Mount Airy project along with the abstract whittler and textile worker characters.
And not being from Mount Airy, Spencer never met any of those individuals, and has had to gain a perspective of who these people were.
Artists in such cases must rely on what’s available, including old photographs or video footage, plus personal recollections of those who knew the individuals which can provide an idea of their personalities or mannerisms.
In the case of the Ralph Epperson sculpture, Spencer has been aided by the presence of a documentary on the late radio station owner which was produced several years ago by Jordan Nance and includes an interview with Epperson. This helped him capture the multiple dimensions of Epperson’s appearance rather than simply relying on a photograph.
“It’s difficult, I don’t care how many photos you have,” the sculptor said of recreating a subject under such conditions.
“You try to capture the essence of that person and do the best likeness you can,” Spencer explained. “So I’m trying to capture their personality and a sense of life, too.”
In seeking to create more than a cold, motionless figure, the Reidsville artist endeavors to make the sculptures “look like they could get up and walk away.”
There is no set time or process to complete each of the likenesses, with every one approached on an individualized, case-by-case basis.
“Sometimes you hit it real quick — sometimes you struggle with it,” Spencer said. “It’s a challenge, I’ll have to admit.”
One barometer for the artist’s efforts has been the good response he has gotten from the statues crafted so far.
The group of sculptures made of brick — hailed as a durable art form that blends in with other settings — will be placed along the Whittling Wall and officially dedicated during a program later this year.
Though he is not from Mount Airy, Spencer is keenly aware of its presence as a key destination for visitors and what the Whittling Wall project means for that.
“Tourism is very important in Mount Airy and whatever goes there, it will be one more thing people who come to town will want to see.”