Downtown East park’s public art in the hands of Rock Hill students

Business EditorMarch 24, 2013 

— Ask almost anyone in Rock Hill who Thomas Sayre or Audrey Flack are and you’re are likely to get a blank stare.

Their contributions, however, loom over our city.

Sayre’s work is about the men, women and children who worked at Rock Hill’s cotton mills. Flack’s focus is the city’s visions.

Sayre and Flack are not business owners, elected leaders or even the rank and file of Rock Hill. They are artists, and their works help define Rock Hill.

Sayre’s “Loom” spans the entrance to the Cotton Factory. Flack’s four bronze statutes, “Civitas Four Visions,” are on the corners to the city’s gateway plaza on Dave Lyle Boulevard.

While they are the largest, they are not the only examples of public art in Rock Hill. At the corner of Dave Lyle Boulevard and Main Street is the Sculpture Gallery where the works of Winthrop students are displayed. There are also many examples, some permanent, others temporary, in other parts of the city.

The efforts help create Rock Hill’s image. Advocates of public art argue that image creates interest and interest creates vitality. Sometimes that vitality creates economic opportunity. Done well, public art reflects the personality, the fabric, of a community.

So it’s little wonder that Comporium and the city are considering public art in new Downtown East park.

Currently the park is a largely unused parking lot. The plan calls for a dramatic water fountain in one corner, green space and a pergola. Surrounding the park will be office and retail space, possibly a hotel and, if the wish list is fulfilled, a performing arts center.

To get ideas for the park’s public art, Comporium and city officials turned not to an established artist or even an artist in training at Winthrop, but to a most basic level.

They asked the students of Rock Hill schools to create art that could be used as the basis for bike racks, for tiles that could be incorporated in the design, and words or images that could be sandblasted into benches or walls.

The project – the Kids Integrated Design Showcase – attracted 60 entries from students at Independence and Lesslie elementaries, Castle Heights Middle School and Northwestern High School.

They were asked to base their art on the theme “from cotton to technology,” reflecting the history and the future of Rock Hill.

Recently they presented their ideas to a panel of judges from the city, Comporium, the Arts Council and Winthrop.

Ninth-grader Rosemary Mary Messer of Northwestern quickly put things into perspective for the panel. She was born after the Rock Hill Finishing and Printing Co. – the Bleachery – sent its final shipment out the door. All she and her fellow students have known is a collection of empty, aging Bleachery buildings. A silent symbol of what Rock Hill once was.

Yet the students quickly demonstrated they understood Rock Hill and the story that should be told.

Castle Heights students Sha’ron Nealy and Jack Davis designed a bike rack that looked like a train. They selected a train because the railroad transformed Rock Hill into the major city of York County.

Lesslie student Tommy Bouler and Stephen St. Clair looked at historic photos of mill machinery and designed bike racks. Their historic idea intrigued the judges, who have asked the students to take their concept one step farther, designing a futuristic bike rack based on the mill machinery.

Messer’s artwork, which could be a bike rack, showed two mill stones or gears connected by a thread. The thread starts as a sewing needle and ends as a USB cable connector.

Brook Kane explained that her elaborate artwork featured a water tower, a loom, smokestacks, cotton and city hall.

And the students in James Mathews’ classes at Independence Elementary created a series of futuristic drawings that could become tiles set into benches or walls.

Their creativity, in part, may have been sparked by Mathews’ own story. His first job was at the Bleachery. His father and his grandfather worked at the plant. His father was known throughout the plant as the “color man.”

The students’ efforts, said Tom Stanley, a judge from Winthrop, are coming “from ground zero. There is a lot of energy. There are a lot of ideas.””

The early assessment from the judges is there are concepts that could eventually be used at the park.

The efforts may face the anonymity of Sayre’s and Flack’s contributions one day. But if their art is used, that day made be years off.

One of the motivations, the students said, was to be able to take their parents and, later, their children to the park and say, “This is what I did.”

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066 •  dworthington@heraldonline.com

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