Inside Four Walls

04 May 2024


New CAM exhibition unveils works by North Carolina artist Thomas Sayre

By Judy Royal 

When the Thomas Sayre: Four Walls exhibition opens at Cameron Art Museum (CAM) on April 26th, it will be the culmination of nearly 25 years of the artist's work that came together unexpectedly.

Four Walls features new and never-exhibited works by American artist Thomas Sayre. Each of the four large-scale pieces in the installation questions the belief systems and symbols that underpin the ideals of church, nation and creation. Made of materials that include tar, smoke, fabric gowns, gunshots, welding material, earth and fire, these works invite visitors to draw close and experience the messiness of making, and by analogy, to bear witness to the ways that life invades, entangles, and tarnishes us. The exhibition runs through February 16th, 2025.

Sayre, a sculptor and painter, had been working on some large pieces for many years but had no permanent home or plan for them. That all changed, however, during a serendipitous meeting in spring 2023. Several CAM staff members decided to take a field trip to Sayre's Raleigh studio, prompted by the museum's recent purchase of his work Wild Swans on Coole. 

“Eager to be out of the museum and in the studio of a working artist, we were captivated by the studio, which seemed like a cross between an alchemist's laboratory, an artist's studio and a machine shop, where materials like metal, earth and fire create meaning,” CAM Executive Director Heather Wilson says. “To say that visit was extraordinary might be an understatement. Our conversations in Thomas' light-filled living room ranged from the church to books to music, and we left with a profound certainty that we had to work with Thomas on an exhibition. I'm so glad that Thomas felt the same way.”

Indeed he did. “What transpired was a surprisingly profound conversation about lots of different things, with laughter and tears,” Sayre says. “After the visit, they had a sense of the work of three of the walls, and then I came to the museum and saw the space and four big walls and weeks later it all came together in my head that this needed to be four pieces on the four walls. It clicked with everyone. It's been miraculous that everything just aligned in surprisingly easy ways. We all just sort of felt it together.”

Sayre says he's thrilled to see how his creations will converge at CAM. “This big and powerful work is going to be seen all in one place,” he says. “Each of the four walls refers to a kind of ideal which in our American culture is fairly common. I hope it will provoke some people to question 'what is America anyway' and 'who are Americans?' Museums are wrestling to have works that speak to the issues of the day, and I think these four walls certainly do that.”

As part of the exhibition, Sayre will collaborate with Grammy-nominated musician Tift Merritt to perform in the Four Walls space on September 12th. She’s written a cycle of four songs to go with the exhibition and provided Sayre with hospital gowns from a segregated mental hospital, which were used in one of the walls.

Sayre has had a long-standing relationship with CAM, dating back to St. John's Museum of Art, where he did an exhibition in 1988 called Scarecrow Beach, which drew from memories and dreams of beach structures such as lifeguard chairs, cabanas and boat houses for inspiration. He is also known for his public art projects, including Gyre at the sculpture park at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

Four Walls features art that explores the human experience and speaks to our current times, Wilson says. “I think this is a chance to see one of the most important contemporary artists living and working in North Carolina today, and it's an opportunity to see art that speaks to our present,” she says. “Thomas Sayre: Four Walls, with its meaningful engagement with the structures that constitute our society, creates a space where we can think deeply about the world and our place in it.”

Sayre says he hopes Four Walls will be provoking to the community. “I hope they'll be challenged by it and it'll be memorable and that it was engaging when they were there and maybe engaging after they leave in their memory,” he says. “The best work I've seen doesn't always come at once. It's unsettling, and I have to keep thinking about it, and over time the piece sort of gets lodged in me and I understand it in my own way, and that often takes time. I hope people will be stimulated enough to come back.”

Want to go?

Thomas Sayre: Four Walls exhibition takes place April 26th, 2024 through February 16th, 2025 at Cameron Art Museum, 3201 S. 17th St., Wilmington

Opening Night – April 26th, 6-9pm; Artist Talk – April 27th, 11am-noon; Tift Merritt and Thomas Sayre: A Happening in Four Walls – September 12th at 7pm.


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