By Craig Paddock
A new farm in downtown Matthews is now home to a running wolf and leaping deer – part of a large, moving sculpture that’s the creation of N.C. State professor Will Hooker and a dozen students in his landscape design class.
The bamboo weather vane sculpture at Renfrow Farm – which depicts a wolf chasing a deer, balanced off with a smiling sun on one side and a whimsical frog catching a bumblebee at the bottom – is meant to provide a smile for passers-by, to be an educational project for students and to offer a lesson in turning natural materials into art.
“Wild Energies” was commissioned by David Blackley, owner of Renfrow hardware. He and his wife, Mary Beth, suggested the deer as part of the structure that would go up on their new urban farm, a 5-acre parcel off Charles Street. Hooker designed the farm’s layout for the family.
Hooker and his students took the design from there, adding a wolf – the mascot of N.C. State University — and the other characters. Over a space of two weeks, they cut down the bamboo, split it, prepared it and started creating their figures. It was a trial-and-error process – “there’s not a book on working with bamboo,” said NCSU junior Hannah Simpson – but eventually the giant weather vane started taking shape.
Friday morning, they packed it in a pickup truck and hauled it over to Matthews. Most of Hooker’s structures are located in the Raleigh area, including one at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum, but others are scattered across the Carolinas. He’s been leading such class projects since 1993 and figures he’s done about 35.
“They’re ephemeral,” he acknowledged. “I started messing with bamboo when my daughter was 18 months old just to entertain her and I was flat broke and bamboo was free. And what I’ve found, since then, is that there is a lot of bamboo growing around almost everywhere in North Carolina. Almost all the people who own the groves want to get rid of it because it’s invasive. I knock on the door and say, ‘Can I take your bamboo?’ and they say, ‘Take it all.’ ”
While the bamboo structure eventually will rot away, Hooker sees the kind of urban agriculture that the Blackleys are pursuing as something more permanent.
“This is the future, urban agriculture is the future,” said Hooker, who is a recognized expert in sustainable agriculture. With fuel prices rising and making long-haul transportation of food more expensive, he says, “we’re going to be producing close to half of our food in towns and cities.”
Hooker likened the trend toward self-sufficient, small-space agriculture to the “Victory Garden” movement during World War II.
“We’ve done it before and we can do it again,” he said, taking a break from installing the sculpture. “We’ve got to do it if we’re going to eat.”
Pressly Blackley, daughter of Mary Beth and David, may be running Renfrow Farm after her graduation from N.C. State. The family intends to sell the produce through the hardware store plus offer classes in gardening and canning at the farm site.
And why add art to a functional farm?
“I think just because,” Hooker said. “All our lives should artful. So I think no matter what you’re doing, there should be some sort of joy associated with it.”
YouTube video: Learn more about Will Hooker’s method of creating outdoor art with bamboo here.