When former Madison County Planner Sara Nichols first walked into a manufacturing site — Peerless Blowers in Hot Springs — she was struck by the logistics and symmetry of the facility, which makes industrial fans and circulation systems. “I thought, ‘This is more interesting than what I see in a lot of contemporary art museums and galleries,’” recalls Nichols. “Not just the process, but how everything was displayed — it was just beautiful.”
Since 2017, Nichols has spearheaded a public art project, funded through a Community Foundation of WNC grant, that focuses on the relationship between the arts and the manufacturing industry. The five-year initiative gave birth to the Manufacturing Art Park, a walkable outdoor sculptural art exhibit along the Otis T. Duck Greenway adjacent to Mars Hill University. The initial call for artwork designated that pieces must be no smaller than 4×4’ but no taller than 10’ tall, “three-dimensional and engaging.”
The Mars Cutter, by sculptor David Sheldon, pays homage to Mars Hill manufacturer Advanced Superabrasives. (The company created a diamond grinding wheel cutter that NASA used on the Mars Rover.) Mary Ruden’s Timekeeper sundial was inspired by the Marshall packaging company Printpack — medallions representing some of those who make and use Printpack products are embedded in the sundial’s pedestal. A sculpture repping another Marshall company, Buchi Kombucha, which makes popular bottled health drinks, is in the works, and, says Nichols, “at some point, we will put out a request for proposals to artists for one more piece.”
Meanwhile, the latest addition to the park was unveiled late last year. Titled Peerless Oasis and created by well-known local metal artist Stefan “Steebo” Bonitz, it honors the blower company by using its signature manufacturing materials in the design.
Bonitz’ piece is whimsical — two butterflies sit on a droll, colorful snail, surrounded by industrial-chic wildflowers. “I feel, for the location, it will be easy for people from all walks of life and all generations to identify with,” says the sculptor. In a deeply difficult era, “it’s a moment of levity,” he adds.
“At the same time, the theme draws attention to the animals of the planet which are also dealing with hardships,” says Bonitz. “It reminds us that their presence and existence brings a smile and comfort.”
“Steebo used fan shapes to create the snails,” Nichols explains, “and we were out there at one in the morning bolting it down. One snail wouldn’t fit, and he wasn’t sure what to do with it. Later, at the unveiling, a guy from Peerless Blowers said there was a longtime employee who always saw the fans as snails. We decided it would be a good idea to put the bonus snail at the company’s Hot Springs location.”
A couple of years earlier, at the unveiling of Mars Cutter, Nichols remembers that “a number of people came out for the unveiling and they had no idea what we were up to. After we pulled the tarp off, one who appreciated it said, ‘No one ever makes a monument to the people of a community.’”
The comment made Nichols think about the way individuals and institutions are memorialized. “We use these pieces to help these companies tell their story in a more public way,” she says. “It would be great to hear that someone who may walk by a piece every day one day goes to work at one of those companies.”
Before getting the idea for this project, Nichols admits she’d never conceived of being involved with a body of artwork based on manufacturing. Now, in retrospect, she says the most unusual thing about the project is that nobody else thought of it sooner.
“The region has a lot of history in the arts. But there are people in manufacturing who may not see themselves as artists, but they also work with their hands and with design elements.”
Now Nichols is fielding calls from other counties in North Carolina who want to know how to create their own projects based on a partnership between artists and manufacturers. “I fully encourage it,” she says.
Madison Manufacturing Art Park at the Dr. Otis W. Duck Memorial Greenway, Mars Hill University (investinmadison.com). For more information, contact Sara Nichols at Land of Sky (email@example.com). To learn more about artist Stefan Bonitz, see steebo.com.