Making Memories

Tile Mural by Tom Spleth 2002

…Cling to the ancient landmarks of truth, but be ever ready to test the soundness of a new Idea. Accept whatever your mind finds to be true, and whatever your conscience  determines to be right, and whatever your heart declares to be noble, even though your act in so doing may drive a hoary prejudice from its throne…

Reagan and Ardath Weaver commissioned this artwork for installation on the retaining wall of the Bretsch House at 11 South Blount Street, now the location of the Community Law Clinic of Campbell University School of Law. The Weavers and Linda and Rufus Edmisten purchased the Bretsch House in 1986 as the offices of the Edmisten and Weaver law firm (1984 - 1988). 

Mr. Edmisten had served as Deputy Chief Counsel to the United States Senate’s Watergate Committee chaired by Senator Ervin. The Ervin epigraph was selected to honor this association and to reflect Mr. Weaver’s civil rights work.

When the Bretsch House was sold in 2015, Ardath and Reagan Weaver sought a new installation site where the mural could inspire viewers to the pursuit of truth. Prejudices can be defeated by awareness of our mind, our conscience and our heart if we nurture a willingness to be open to new ideas.

The strength and timelessness of the quote inspired the artist to craft bold painterly strokes and texture that contrast with the smooth surface expected of porcelain.  Similarly, the mural acknowledges that aspirational expression transcends the changing social mores of a progressive state.

The words are an excerpt from a 1973 speech by Senator Samuel James “Sam” Ervin, Jr. (1896 – 1985) at Founders’ Day at Memorial Auditorium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the speech, Ervin quotes Tennyson to challenge the audience to seek a newer order, reflecting on the power of observation and history to find value in mankind. His references to finding truth in Biblical values are as timely today as in the 20th century, just as the laws of our country apply these Judeo-Christian precepts to the actions of individuals.

While Senator Ervin was a strict constitutional scholar, he moved within the borders of the Constitution to address contemporary issues. One could interpret these words to show the potential for people from rigid perspectives becoming “woke”. Ervin explained his early segregationist views in the context of his conviction that the Constitution forbids government from using race as a criterion for legal rights.

The tiles were created during Tom Spleth’s second Arts/Industry residency at the Kohler Art Center in 2002. This mural echoes the American painting idiom popularized by Jackson Pollock (1912 - 1956). Abstract organic forms create a powerful contrast to the angular shape of the tiles. The movement of the lines and layers of color in the design balance the curving script of the epigraph text.

The work builds on a long tradition of text inspiring art: from illuminated medieval manuscripts to 1960s conceptual art to graffiti art, words are used in art to encourage reflection. Text becomes both meaning and illustration. The work incorporates text into a mural consisting of heavily glazed ceramic tiles. The passage chosen for the mural speaks to the need to adapt and be open to questioning assumptions. Mirroring this fluidity, the artwork design moves within the borders of the flat tiles to provide depth.

The mural consists of 28 tiles, weighing approximately 448 pounds. There are seven tiles approximately 22 inches high x 19 inches wide and seven tiles 19 inches square, bordered on top and bottom by 14 smaller tiles approximately 9 inches high x 19 inches wide. The tiles are fabricated from industrial glazed, vitrified porcelain china, fired to cone 11/2400 degrees F. They can be installed inside or on an exterior surface. The tiles are ¾ inches thick. 

What is unique about this residency is that it is not of the artist’s world. The factory challenges everything sensitive, intellectual, and dear. It is a thrill to see ideas take root and grow in such an environment. The power of art is confirmed. The selfless support of the artists by the workers makes it happen. This residency…brought my life’s work together into a singularity for the first time ever. The resolution this experience represented will resonate in my work for years.
— Tom Spleth

Working side by side with industrial staff who are producing plumbingware and engines, the artists use the materials and technologies to create sculpture, installations, murals, and public commissions not otherwise possible. For many years the Arts/Industry residency has been hailed as one of the most unusual and fruitful collaborations between the arts and industry in twentieth century America, and has been featured in media from Japan to Chicago.
— Ruth DeYoung Kohler

Born in Tulsa in 1946, Tom Spleth earned his BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and his MFA from the College of Ceramics at Alfred University. Exhibitions include the Gregg Museum at North Carolina State University, the McColl Center, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, the Asheville Art Museum, and the North Carolina Museum of Art. Collections include Asheville Art Museum; Cameron Museum in Wilmington, NC; Illinois State University; Kohler Company; and the Rhode Island School of Design. Spleth has been awarded numerous public commissions through the North Carolina Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the North Carolina Artworks for State Buildings Program. He received an Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and an Artist Project Grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. 

Spleth's career as an artist includes drawing, painting, functional pottery, and architectural and sculptural ceramics. His ceramic objects and paintings were informed by the natural environment and forest surrounding his home. The multicultural tradition of ceramics, and the deep-rooted Western tradition in painting, provides method and material for a response to the environment. Whether using bold painting strokes or delicately drawn patterns on pots or digital compositions, Spleth is sensitive to the power of the brush. He lives in Little Switzerland, N.C.

Tom Spleth at his studio near Penland, 2010. Photo by Rob Amberg

Early Adventures as an Art Patron
The Wednesday night supper club needed more than a blank wall behind the table.

George Bireline, c. 1973, Acrylic on Plaster, 132 Woodburn Road, Raleigh