Opinion Columns & Blogs

Public art 'Looms' large

I was watching Thomas Sayre and his crew installing "Loom" in the main courtyard of the Old Cotton Factory when I decided to ring up Gary Williams, one of the principal owners of the complex.

As soon as he picked up, he said, "It's impressive, isn't it?"

Because I am perpetually on the back side of the technology curve, it always disconcerts me when the person on the receiving end of my call has Caller ID and knows who's calling before I say hello.

"Yeah," I said, "I'm standing here watching it go up as we speak."

"I can't see you," Williams responded. "You must be standing close to the building."

Assuming he was looking down from his second-story office, I moved out of the shadows of the former textile factory Williams and his partners, Bob Perrin and Brian Barwick, restored last year to the tune of $11 million. I looked up at his office and waved.

"I see you now," he said. "You have a hat on."

"That's me. Why can't I see you?" I asked, straining to see Williams peering down at me.

"Because I'm at Ocean Isle," he said.

That he didn't add, "Dummy!" is a testament to his self-restraint.

Over the previous two days, I had been watching "Loom's" progress on the Web via a security camera link (www.theoldcottonfactory.com) Williams had set up, so I felt doubly foolish.

Actually, while Sayre's 28-foot-high work is a monument to the men, women and children who labored in the Rock Hill Cotton Factory and other mills that were the lifeblood of the city for a century, the Internet played a key role in the process.

June Lambla, a Charlotte arts consultant retained by Williams, presented the selection committee Williams convened with nearly three dozen artists or firms she thought were qualified to take on a project of this magnitude.

I served on the committee, representing the Rock Hill Sesquicentennial Committee, which would contribute about a quarter of the project's cost (Williams and his partners paid the lion's share). Because we were able instantly to view the artists' works, the selection process was foreshortened.

It's pure coincidence that the same week "Loom" was installed, an op-ed column about Sayre's work appeared in The Charlotte Observer. The writer, a UNCC architecture professor, rallied to the defense of work that Sayre had been commissioned to create for the Queen City's new light-rail line.

Charlotte's cultural Philistines, led by drive-time radio commentators, have a history of ridiculing public art. Indeed, by dubbing a sculpture destined for the old Charlotte Coliseum "Gumby," they helped kill one work by an internationally acclaimed sculptor.

To date, no such attacks have been launched against "Loom." That may be because although it's "public art" in the sense that it's accessible to the public, no tax money was involved in this commission.

Those who were involved would like to think that "Loom" soon will be adopted by residents of York County and visitors alike. Given the visibility of the work from Dave Lyle Boulevard and White Street, it's already a landmark.

Clearly, it's Rock Hill's most significant public art since the Civitas statues were erected at Gateway Plaza in 1991.

And for anyone who ever worked in a textile mill or who has seen photographs of one, the symbolism of the earth-cast "spools" or the stainless steel tower and connecting cables will need little explanation.

Better yet, if a first-time viewer is baffled by "Loom," it will provide locals a great opportunity to explain that Rock Hill takes pride in its history.

The Herald reported last week that York County wanted to build a new main library on land across that intersection. If so, library patrons one day may gaze across at "Loom."

And as the Textile Corridor linking downtown Rock Hill and Winthrop University is developed, perhaps other civic-minded entrepreneurs will be inspired by Williams' and his partners' benevolence to sponsor more public art.

And just in case, any of them are reading this column, two other industries that helped Rock Hill prosper in its earlier years are the railroads and the Anderson Motor Co. ...