Amid recent efforts to bring more condominiums and other housing to downtown Mount Airy, eight new “residents” have quietly moved in at a space along West Oak Street.
They don’t pay rent or plant flowers. But on the bright side, the figures occupying a fabled spot called the Whittling Wall do not disturb neighbors with excessive noise or take up more than their share of parking spaces.
A place once occupied by local men who gathered to whittle and swap stories — which more recently became relegated to a barely noticeable site devoid of such activity — is populated once again with eight mute, yet lifelike, statues of key figures in Mount Airy history.
The brick sculptures, recently installed along the wall near the corner of North Main and West Oak streets, are strategically spaced in seated positions as the whittlers of old might have been.
However, the ranks have been expanded to 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 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.
The latter sculpture depicts a woman working diligently with a sewing machine, a common sight at labor-intensive textile companies operating here for many years.
She and the other statues are the result of a grant received by the city government last year from the N.C. Department of Commerce to fund a downtown-enhancement effort, with the nature of that project left to the discretion of local officials.
Their decision involved commissioning Reidsville artist Brad Spencer to create the statues as a way of beautifying the downtown area while also honoring important local figures.
Spencer completed the statues earlier this year, sculptured from brick in keeping with a medium dating to ancient Babylon which is known for its durability.
Now that the eight sculptures have arrived, the unique art forms are getting thumbs-up reviews from “critics.”
“I think it’s a thing of beauty,” Mayor David Rowe said Saturday of the Whittling Wall project. “I think it’s an outstanding example of good artisanship.”
Rowe additionally mentioned the longtime role the spot will play as a focal point downtown.
“The wall really looks attractive and I think people are going to enjoy it for a long time to come.”
Downtown visitors also seem appreciate of the new statues, and have been spotted posing for pictures with them.
The mayor said he has gotten much positive feedback from citizens, including reaction from members of the local African-American community to the sculpture of L.H. Jones.
“They like it,” he said, and are happy it was included in the project. Rowe is personally drawn to the statue of the textile worker.
Accolades regarding the sculptures also are coming from Lizzie Morrison, Main Street coordinator, who spearheads efforts benefiting downtown Mount Airy, and as an artist, played a key role in planning the project to enhance the wall.
“I am really impressed with the Whittling Wall and how it has turned out so far,” Morrison commented in reference to some construction work still to be completed at the site.
“The statues are amazing, and I think Brad Spencer did an excellent job capturing the likeness of each subject, which had to be difficult considering he was working with brick,” she added.
“I love that this project honors another side of Mount Airy that people don’t always see,” Morrison believes.
“The Whittling Wall pays homage to local heroes who helped shape Mount Airy with their own two hands. The sculptures tell the story of who we are in Mount Airy – artisans, musicians, educators, business owners, hard workers – all people who serve others to make this community better.”
“I’m so excited to see those folks honored,” said Jennie Lowry, a longtime official of the Downtown Business Association, who is a merchant there along with being a musician and radio personality.
Lowry cited one potential drawback with the statue subjects, which is generational in nature.
“Unfortunately, I feel like a lot of people in Mount Airy who are (of younger ages) may not know who Donna Fargo is or Tommy Jarrell is,” she said. Lowry hopes that plaques planned for the Whittling Wall will bridge this gap.
At last report of the project’s status, “the sculptures are done, and the next step will be to finish the sidewalk, and finish the top of the wall with planters,” according to Morrison, the downtown coordinator.
“Weather is definitely a factor, but I anticipate that phase of the project happening quickly. We’re working on wording for plaques that explain who each sculpture represents. Those will be completed in January.”
At some point in early 2018, yet to be determined, an opening ceremony will be held to celebrate the project.
Both Morrison and the mayor are enthused about the fact that the Whittling Wall will serve as a conduit linking North Main Street, the heart of downtown, to nearby Market Street, a growing commercial area.
“This project will transform West Oak Street,” Morrison explained, “and creates a visual connection from Main Street to Market Street and the Spencer’s property (a former industrial site being redeveloped). It is one more step in the right direction to revitalizing the downtown district as a whole.”
Aside from any business gains realized from the Whittling Wall resurrection, the eight sculptures have a personal connection with the community that Morrison also deems valuable:
“I think the people of Mount Airy can see their families and themselves honored in this wall — maybe they worked in the mills, maybe they own a business, maybe they’re a teacher or a musician,” she observed. “I hope this project makes all of the people of Mount Airy feel proud.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.