Sunday, September 28, 2008

Planet Earth: Article by Greensboro News and Record - July 21, 2008

The world waits south of the railroad tracks

Monday, July 21
updated 7:35 am
Sidney Gray and Martha Forrest

Sidney Gray and Martha Forrest

Jim Schlosser

GREENSBORO - The first impulse was to call Homeland Security.

What resembled a large World War II-era mine had been planted at Lee and South Elm streets. The large, round explosive devices used to bob around in the ocean, blowing gaping holes in ships that hit them.

Recently, the round object has been transformed into a blue-and-white globe by Greensboro artists Tony Forrest and Emmett Williams. On many mornings, they arose at 6:30 and worked until the heat made painting oppressive.

They were urged on by Forrest's wife, Martha, and Sidney Gray. Gray and his wife, Ricki, own the parking lot that's the site of what they've dubbed "Planet Earth."

Several people in the neighborhood say they can't find Texas or Michigan on the globe. But Gray says Planet Earth remains a work in progress. It will resume when Tony Forrest returns from Mexico.

The object originally served as an air compressor on a U.S. Navy ship. Gray, who owns various downtown properties, saw the compressor on land owned by John Tasker Jr.

Decades ago, Tasker and Gray were among the founders of the Old Greensborough Preservation Society, which sought to promote preservation and progress on downtown's south side.

Gray had been searching for an object to turn into public art at the Lee-Elm property, which he and his wife bought in 1978. He wanted to create something eye-catching, a conversation piece that might cause people to cross the railroad tracks into the south end of downtown.

Tasker had bought the compressor in the 1970s when he owned a metals business off Holden Road. He intended to sell it to anyone needing a powerful air compressor. But no one came along. The compressor went with him when his metals business shifted to King Street next to the railroad downtown.

When he sold the King Street land to become part of what's now City View Apartments, the compressor was still there. Tasker was eager to help when Gray contacted him. With a forklift, the 3,000- to 5,000-pound compressor was hoisted onto a truck and moved a few blocks to Lee and Elm. Gray then spent several weeks sandblasting away rust from the compressor.

Another beauty of Planet Earth is it didn't cost the city a cent. Tasker donated the compressor and moved it at no cost. Tony Forrest and Emmett Williams gave their time and talent. Sherwin-Williams Co. provided free paint.

Gray asks, "What better place for Planet Earth?

"Lee and South Elm are the entrance to downtown from the coliseum area and from I-40 and I-85,'' he says. "We have 28,000 cars a day pass here. We thought it a great work of art that would go well because this is such a pivotal corner."

Gray believes he has lined up a sculptor who will donate his time to weld - using several hooks on the compressor - a sign that would say "Old Greensboro.'' Gray thought about using "Greensborough'' again, but the town abandoned that spelling before the Civil War. Gray decided Greensboro is Greensboro.

Martha Forrest owns the Tin Rooster interior design-gift-accessory shop and the Blue Diamond Gallery, both on South Elm not far from Lee. She lives around the block in the new South Side residential/retail complex.

Martha Forrest believes Planet Earth will make the intersection a destination and that it could become a rendezvous marker. She's convinced family and friends are bound to gather for photos around the globe.

"It is really a gift of love to brighten up the whole downtown experience," she says.

The lower end of South Elm seems to thrive with antique and art shops and other commerce. And the new South Side project has added people and activity and won design awards.

But Martha Forrest says the big downtown promotions, such as Fun Fourth and the Festival of Lights, attract thousands to the north side of the railroad. During those events, few people detour south of the tracks, she says.

"We are all just individual proprietors paying rent each month, and we don't get a whole lot of attention," she says. "The money is not trickling down to this end of the downtown fast enough."

Well, not yet. The city plans to redevelop two rundown blocks across Lee, including what was the art deco-style Holsum Bread Bakery. Within a day or two after Gray and Forrest gathered at the globe to be photographed, a demolition crew leveled the old bakery.

But Martha Forrest says the redevelopment project - to bring residential and retail to the two blocks - is years from completion. Until then, rents and mortgage payments will continue to come due to those already in an area where people "enjoy a wonderful camaraderie and attitude and are looking out for one another," Martha Forrest says.

Planet Earth brought together kindred spirits: Gray, Tasker and the Forrests, all Greensboro natives. Gray's mother, Sylvia Gray, ran an antique and furniture business at 606 S. Elm St. from 1945 until her death in April 1997.

"I think it's a very clever idea,'' John Tasker says of Planet Earth. "Sidney was very creative about this."

Tasker warns that Planet Earth shouldn't be viewed as a clever "sign."

"We think of it as sculpture, " he says.

Planet Earth may spawn satellites. Martha Forrest and Sidney Gray see possibilities for more public art near the railroad tracks. Their goal: to psychologically forge the railroad barrier between north and south downtown.

"The idea," Martha Forrest says, "is to encourage people to cross the tracks."

3 comments:

Janet L. Sellers: Artist, Writer, Thinker said...

How did you find the mine to use? I would love to use a similar thing to make my art on for peace and beauty.

Sidney C. Gray said...

Hi Janet: This is actually an air compressor that came out of a naval ship. My wife noticed it lying on some land owned by a friend and he donated it to me for the project. It is my hope that this project will continue to evolve and you and other artists are most welcome to participate.

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