With Uproar Public Art Festival, Orange County hands the visual arts its largest megaphone

Top: Pat Ray Day at his sculpture studio. Bottom: Tina Marcus at her art studio. Photos and photo collage by Pamir Kiciman.


By Pamir Kiciman

ORANGE COUNTY — Orange County funds its arts commission, and it has needed to for any edge compared to Durham and Raleigh, which often steal the spotlight when it comes to visual art events.

Not anymore. Now, with the monster Uproar Public Art Festival, Orange County is making its loudest noise in the Triangle art scene.

The ongoing month-long festival — which closes August 12 — features 60 outdoor works of art across the downtowns of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough.

“The partnership with the towns … helped the Orange County Arts Commission (OCAC) receive its first-ever grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help offset costs,” Deputy County Manager Travis Myren said.

Myren said the festival is a unique experience that brings art to the public by emphasizing accessibility and engagement.

“The festival will drive visitors to Orange County businesses, including hotels and restaurants, at a time when tourist traffic is typically slow in the county,” he said.

It is the first festival of its kind not only in the county but in all of North Carolina. The event is completely free to the public who are encouraged to vote for the artworks using the QR codes on signs accompanying each piece. There’s more than $27,000 in cash prizes for the artists both through the public vote and a select jury panel.

For all the details, maps and other tidbits, see this from Orange Slices on The Local Reporter, or visit the festival’s website.

The brainchild of Katie Murray, the director of OCAC, Uproar is modeled on similar events in other states, with some major modifications. Here’s Murray:

“A major difference is the emphasis on accessibility. About four years ago my husband was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition and lost use of his right leg … that completely changed my perspective and has informed the way we designed Uproar.”

Realizing her own guilt with her past events and venues which checked the ADA box but weren’t truly accessible, Murray even changed the festival from a combination indoor/outdoor event, to outdoors only to take away the limitations inherent to indoor spaces.

“The tourism bureau supported this effort by hiring trollies for Chapel Hill and Carrboro on Saturdays, and the O.C. Dept. of Transportation is providing Mobility on Demand shuttles on Saturdays as well,” Murray said.

Uproar goes even further by partnering with Dan Ellison’s audio description organization.

“We also wanted the low vision community to be able to experience the event … And of course, we made everything free so there would be no financial barriers to participation,” Murray said.

The jury panel for the event includes Larry Wheeler, director of the North Carolina Museum of Art 1994-2018. Wheeler was the first judge Murray asked to participate knowing Uproar’s inaugural event needed a strong jury.

“Stacey Kirby actually won ArtPrize in 2016 so that was a no-brainer,” she said of the second judge. ArtPrize is one of the events from which Uproar took its cue. As for Antoine Williams, the third judge, Murray said she wanted someone that represented the installation side of Uproar and recently saw one of his installations at the Ackland Art Museum.

Another way Uproar differs from similar events is it mitigates some of the financial risks for artists. The prize money is significant, but artists incur costs getting there and installing their work. Every artist at Uproar received a $500 honorarium and mileage reimbursement up to 200 miles, with everyone getting a minimum of $100. The organizers also partnered with the Hyatt at Southern Village on room rates. To give readers a sense of the scope of Uproar, The Local Reporter visited with two artists. Here are their stories. The works installed for Uproar aren’t shown here to encourage you to visit each site and experience the art personally.

Pat Ray Day, #13 on the map – “Steel Plate Dancers”

This sculpture artist’s website does have his resume and list of exhibitions, but not much else about his art. That’s because he wants the work to speak for itself. Day is hands-on and action-oriented. Not much of a talker, he enjoys the physicality of how his ideas come into being. So much so that he prefers working with steel and said, “welding art is a lot more direct.” As an example, he mentioned that sculpture made by casting is several steps removed from immediacy. (This Khan Academy video shows how involved a traditional casting method is.)

Left: Day feeding a donkey he’s befriended. Top right: The artist demonstrating his treadle hammer. Bottom right: Day holding an already shaped piece yet to be attached to a sculpture. Photos and photo collage by Pamir Kiciman.

His small to medium-sized pieces are like drawings in the air with elegantly shaped steel. Instead of using pencil, charcoal or ink to draw on a 2D surface, Day makes lines in space with mostly narrow strips of delicately shaped steel, which are later painted black. There are some more solid chunks of metal in his work, and a few muscular pieces, but the dominant shapes are steel lines wavily dissecting and altering the space in which they are and the experience of the viewer.

The sculptures contain a lot of empty or open space which makes the forms appear to breathe. The steel bends just so and the entirety of the work is never the same at different angles.

The work is instantly recognizable as Day’s creation.

“My work is more abstract expressionist,” he said. “I’m using shapes and forms and marks, lines to create a mood and a feeling that emotes in a way that people can relate to the physicality of it.”

Top: Day cranking a lift he uses while welding his sculptures together. Bottom: The artist talking in front of the sculptures he has in his studio. Photos and photo collage by Pamir Kiciman.

Let’s talk about his shapes. Where do they come from? What do they represent? He gave some answers, but the feeling was; just experience the finished work and let it speak to you.

“Well, they’re a lot of my own language.” Day said. “I’ve been making these shapes and some you’ll see repeated. It comes from my own experience.”

Then he went deeper: “The necessity of steel is either utilitarian or violence. I’m making it into something that is not violent or necessary. I’m mocking steel.”

Day also has an affinity for primitive stone carvings known as petroglyphs.

“I reference petroglyphs because they look like my own drawings,” he said and pointed to a lighting pattern in one of his sculptures.

There’s a universal appeal and connection in Day’s sculptures because they come from an ancient place. This universality is an unspoken common language and meaning everyone knows and can relate to.

For example, in “Surmount,” there are bigger and more solid pieces of steel, especially towards the back of the figure that everyone can relate to as burdens or obstacles. But then there’s the empty space within the figure letting in air and lift and the aspirational flame at the pinnacle of the sculpture, indicating victory. This is the human journey wrought from steel.

Being an artist is also being an inventor. Artists run into situations in making their art that require innovative solutions.

Day pointed to the large metal contraption he uses to hold the shaped pieces of steel he has ready to be welded on the way to creating each sculpture.

“I use this lift; I can adjust the height and clamp and position parts and then weld it where I need to,” he said. “That way I can build these 3D objects without assistance.”

Then he has one for hammering called a treadle hammer that he co-invented with members of Artist-Blacksmiths of North America. “What I use it for is to save my elbow when I’m forging. Then I’ll use my hammer and anvil to do the finer work,” Day explained.

He said these days he’s living his best life. Day is an avid cycler and values family time, together with social engagements.

Tina Marcus, #4 on the map – “Paper Trail”

When you enter this artist’s studio, you’re confronted by bent, hunched and twisted life-size human forms sensitively shaped and formed out of brown corrugated cardboard, desperately inviting you to listen to each one’s story.

This is the latest iteration of her work that she calls, “Pulp People.” 

Marcus is neither entirely a painter nor a sculptor. The art she makes that can be hung on a wall is on canvas over which another canvas is placed, but she doesn’t use paint or paint brushes. And these pieces aren’t two-dimensional either. The central figures on her canvases are poured human forms using a modeling medium, evoking the human journey that can be both broken and sweet — “I pour these figures onto vellum [tracing paper].”

She then puts this multimedia together on the canvas covering the original canvas in its frame, coloring and texturing the surface in self-discovered ways such as powdered pigments and spray paint and before that sand. She precisely calls these, “assemblages.”

Marcus likes to work with her hands. She also finds inspiration in language and common phrases. Overall, she calls her work “soul-selfies,” as a sort of resistance to oversharing our lives online and how soulless that can be.

Left: Marcus with two of her Pulp People and an assemblage in the background. Top right: An assemblage called “We Are All Looking At The Same Thing.” Bottom right: Pulp People and assemblages in the artist’s studio. Photos and photo collage by Pamir Kiciman.

She doesn’t give the whole narrative, both in creating her work and describing it: “I don’t like to get too specific. I want people to fill in their own narrative. Let them fill in the blanks.”

There are no facial details or other details in her human forms, only a gesture or a whole posture that’s vague but specific in the emotion it draws out.

Her most recent 3D pulp figure is “Paperweight.” It’s a good example of how Marcus uses “idioms and common expressions” in her work.

“We all know what a paperweight is. We all have that paperweight. We all have some kind of a bag, something that’s holding us down.”

Her work is about awareness, as she likes to call it, throughout life, and “defining moments.”

The origin story of her pulp people is remarkably humble and touching. It took place several years before she was able to work out and engineer how to bring it to expression with corrugated cardboard, a material Marcus uses because it’s so ordinary, yet suddenly there’s a human figure looking at you.

“I was driving to work one day, and I saw this woman. She had all her belongings in her basket. She had her plastic bags, her shoes hanging over the side and she had her cardboard shelter. And she was moving slowly,” Marcus recalled. “I saw her, and I saw the cardboard. And I said, ‘she is what she carries.’ And that sat with me four or five years.”Marcus’ works constantly play in the tension between vulnerability and resilience. She is an “active observer” who notices what every one of us sees, but we quickly brush it under because we’re distracted or it’s uncomfortable.

Top: Marcus’ “Person of Interest.” Bottom: Three of the artist’s works in her studio. Photos and photo collage by Pamir Kiciman.

She borrows a term from criminology to name and describe one of her pulp human forms: “Person of Interest.”

“We know what that is. So, the ‘person of interest’ in this case is a person living on the streets,” Marcus explained. “They don’t have a home to go to because there aren’t appropriate resources. That’s the person of interest and that’s the crime; that there are no resources for this person to have a home.”

That is a resilient way to make art. To pull our focus to what’s perhaps truly important, to pull focus away from the petty things that normally occupy our attention.

Because when we consider questions that make us feel vulnerable, we more fully share in the human experience and find solutions.

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