Buried Treasure

Discovering the Rockefeller “nest egg”

By Pamela Phillips

“Sold for $7 to the young lady in the back.”

There was one other bidder. Maybe two. But less than a minute after hitting the auction block the box was mine. That’s how the eggs came into my possession all those years ago.

Tucked away down a narrow dirt road north of Fort Bragg sit the remnants of an estate that once hosted some of America’s most powerful and wealthy families. Stately cottages, an opulent clubhouse and a Donald Ross-designed golf course welcomed guests who arrived in private railcars. Quiet and secluded, it was a paradise that many locals didn’t know existed.

Set among longleaf pine forests and winding streams, the idyllic tract known as Overhills was acquired by Percy A. Rockefeller, a nephew of Standard Oil founder John D., in the 1920s and remained in the family for nearly 80 years — first as an exclusive hunt club and later as a working farm and family retreat.

Percy’s great-grandchildren later decided to part with the beloved property, and it was sold to the U.S. Army. The sprawling acreage would provide additional training areas for Fort Bragg, but not before the barns and cottages were properly cleaned out. Which brings me to that sunny March morning in 1997.

Scores of vehicles lined the road a quarter of a mile into the grounds. Overhills was an enigma, and people were curious. I parked and headed toward the sale. Walking amid shadows of the once grand estate, I felt as if I were in another time.

Under rusting canopies, I joined the crowd inspecting odd farm implements, worn furniture and bags of golf clubs. Boxes overflowed with chipped pottery, dented pots and faded tablecloths. Not exactly priceless antiques.

A yellow and orange plaid pillow caught my eye. Beneath it was a box containing an Easter basket, several bags of plastic grass and, at the bottom, a cardboard egg carton. I pulled out the carton expecting to find mismatched halves of plastic eggs. Instead, I discovered beautifully painted eggs with intricate flowers, birds and geometric patterns detailed in rich, vibrant colors. A box of masterpieces!

I quickly closed the carton and put it back underneath the Easter grass and ugly pillow. I looked around. Does anyone else know what’s in the box? When I emerged as the winning bidder, I collected the box and made a beeline to my car.

At home I inspected my find. These were real, hollowed-out chicken eggs, certainly not Fabergé-class, but unique, and no two were alike. It wasn’t until years later that I researched and found that my “Rockefeller” eggs might very well be Pysanky.

Pysanky are hand-decorated eggs traditionally made during the Easter season throughout Eastern Europe, most notably in Poland and the Ukraine. Symbolic of the rebirth of nature after winter, they are believed to bring good luck or have special powers, such as protection from evil spirits. The eggs are not painted but inscribed with wax using a special stylus known as a kistka and dyed using natural colorants.

In the years since that day at Overhills, I often wondered about the eggs. Were they commissioned as gifts for the Rockefeller children? Picked up on a trip abroad? Created by a talented employee? I guess I’ll never know. 

Recently I came across Pysanky “eggspert” Joan Brander, a Canadian artist who learned the art form from her Ukrainian grandmother and teaches it to others. She graciously interpreted some of the motifs and techniques used in their creation, pointing out the degrees of difficulty. She even included a recorded snippet of the correct pronunciation of Pysanky. It’s PEH-sen-keh. Of course, I’d been pronouncing it wrong.

Today Overhills lies hidden behind chain-link fencing, part of Fort Bragg’s Northern Training Area, the once-manicured golf course buried in overgrowth and the remaining structures crumbling from neglect. But one small piece of that fabled Overhills world lives on. Every spring, as Easter approaches, I pull out the cardboard carton and arrange the delicate treasures on a fancy platter. For a few weeks, as they have for the last quarter-century in my home, the Rockefeller eggs take center stage.  PS

A native of Ohio, Pamela Phillips has called the Sandhills home since 1987. She is working on her first novel. 

The Beauty in the Barrens

The Beauty in the Barrens

The triumph of Tufts,
Olmsted and Manning

By Claudia Watson
Photographs by John Gessner


Beneath the canopy of a brilliant blue June sky, the land lay battered. An abandoned tramway, used for hauling lumber and turpentine, stretched through a landscape marked by scraggly oaks and a few spindly pines. Wild hogs and sheep foraged the nearly barren sand.

On that day in 1895, James Walker Tufts, accompanied by surveyor Francis Deaton and two other men, inspected a 100-acre parcel of his new landholdings in southern Moore County — the site for his proposed town. The first task was to settle where to place the survey stake marking the land’s center point.

They made camp for the night in an old lumber shelter, boarded on two sides. The next day, Tufts walked to a broad, shallow, basin-like plot of ground. He had neither an ax nor the proper fatwood stake but succeeded in finding an old piece of timber, which he drove into the ground. Deaton marked the spot on his rough topographic map “Beginning Point.”

Characterized by its rolling terrain and deep, coarse sand, and predominately covered by tall longleaf pine, the land once had been part of a 90-million-acre wilderness stretching from southeastern Virginia in the north, to eastern Texas in the west, and as far south as the upper half of Florida. The longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) could live up to 500 years, grow to 3 feet in diameter and reach a height of 120 feet.

Soon, this region’s harsh but beautiful landscape was under pressure. The tall, straight, longleaf timber did not go unnoticed by the steady stream of European settlers. They followed the Cape Fear River and its tributaries to the pine barrens of Moore and Richmond counties to find land for intensive high-yield farming. But the sandy soil was unsuitable, so they turned to the pine forests for their livelihood.

The vital longleaf ecosystem was devastated, the target of exploitation: first for its lumber, to build homes, buildings and masts for ships. Later its resin was used to make tar and turpentine, essential naval store products that supported shipbuilding efforts. With the arrival of trains in the 1800s, the trees were felled to build railroad tracks. Ultimately, those railroads were essential to Moore County’s development and Tufts’ arrival.

James Walker Tufts, a successful and wealthy entrepreneur from Massachusetts, was captivated by the area’s warm climate and therapeutic pine-scented air. He used his considerable wealth to locate and purchase nearly 6,000 acres to build a winter retreat in an area laid waste by decades of timbering operations.

The project, seen as essentially benevolent, would provide respite and recreation for “the betterment of his fellow humans.” In particular, he focused on ailing individuals — including those with early stage tuberculosis who were mistakenly, and commonly, believed not to be contagious — seeking a warm, dry climate while recovering. Learning quickly that all stages of the disease were contagious, he rebranded his retreat into an outdoor sporting venue, with recreation as its primary business.

Tufts envisioned a charming New England-style village set in the 100-acre core of his land holdings. Armed with Deaton’s survey denoting the town’s center, and immediately after acquiring the land contracts, Tufts turned to the most prestigious landscape architecture and design firm in the country — Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot — to design the town he imagined.

Olmsted’s plans were renowned for the role that landscape architecture played in improving quality of life. His concept was that nature not only lifts the human spirit, but strengthens and restores it. He also believed that every human being, regardless of social or economic status, had a right to that experience. Tufts’ principles and Olmsted’s were synchronized.

Olmsted, however, was in his 60s and affected by mounting health problems, including dementia, which soon sidelined him. During the summer of 1895, just as Tufts’ project was underway, Olmsted retired. That year, his stepson John Charles (“J.C.”) Olmsted and architect Charles Eliot carried the firm’s workload. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was busy with George W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore estate project.

Olmsted’s catalog lists Pinehurst village, but it was small compared to other projects. A visit report dated June 20, 1895, provided by J.C. Olmsted, indicates that Tufts initially spoke by phone with another member of the firm’s staff and provided his conceptual overview for the village.

A general plan would cost $300, including supervision, planting that year, and time for a planting assistant. “Traveling expenses were extra. No visits were to be made by the firm, only by W.H. Manning that fall,” noted the proposal.

On July 3, 1895, Tufts met with Fredrick Law Olmsted Sr. and J.C. Olmsted at their offices in New York, and within days the firm provided a plan for the town drawn in ink on linen paper. Tufts quickly accepted it and then, eager to see his vision move ahead, ordered 200 water oaks.

The project’s 1895 promotional brochure said, “It is understood, of course, that the extensive plans that have been made for beautifying the village with greenery will require considerable time before they are carried out to completion. The wilderness cannot be made into a garden in a day, even with the most liberal expenditure of money, energy, and skill.”

Warren H. Manning had joined the Olmsted firm in 1888 as its planting supervisor, where his extensive horticultural knowledge quickly expanded his responsibilities. Mentored by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. in his early years with the firm, he oversaw over 100 projects, including planning the metropolitan park systems for Boston, Louisville and Milwaukee. In addition, he supervised the acquisition of thousands of acres for Vanderbilt’s Biltmore estate and, beginning in 1893, became involved in planning its arboretum.

Manning’s vocation had its roots in his New England childhood. He credited his father, an esteemed horticulturist and nurseryman, for his appreciation of nature. He absorbed his father’s fascination with plants of all types, particularly the newly fashionable American native plants. Though he did not have formal training in landscape design, he traveled extensively with his father to commercial greenhouses and gained experience as the manager of his father’s plant nursery.

When Manning was 27, he wrote Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. seeking work and stressing his horticultural skills, particularly his success moving large trees. He wrote of his “knowledge of hardy trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants & the treatment & the effects produced by them.” He underscored his literacy in common and botanical names and botanical relationships.

The Pinehurst village project progressed with J.C. Olmsted the lead partner. Designing the landscape without inspecting the site wasn’t feasible, so in September Manning was sent to meet Tufts and explore the property. He and Tufts traversed the 100-acre town site taking in the views from atop ridges and gaining knowledge of its topography as well as the natural scenery.

When he returned from his visit with Tufts, he described the area as “largely sand hills laid to waste” from timbering. But he added with enthusiasm that it also held “long valleys with springs, streams, and narrow wetlands” with small trees, shrubs and herbs.

The moist valley areas and wetlands were the most exciting and attractive for plants, birds and other wildlife. “The bottoms of the wet valleys are the natural winter and summer garden spots of the region and a constant source of delight to one who appreciates varied forms of plant life,” he wrote.

The dry upland was less appealing. Here, scrubby and stunted oaks and spindly pine trees, either dead or deeply gashed, littered the area marked by tufty grasses and bare sand. It is “a ghastly ruin of fallen trunks, blackened stumps, and decayed branches, all testifying to the devastating methods of the turpentine distiller and the lumberman,” Manning said in the Pinehurst Outlook in December of 1897.

“It became at once evident that an artificial means must be resorted to if an attractive evergreen landscape is to be provided during winter, and an abundance of flowers during early spring, the most active season of visiting guests and residents, most of whom being from the colder states expect very different and more attractive conditions than those prevailing at their northern homes, conditions which would not be presented by the original landscape,” he wrote.

Delivered Oct. 30, 1895, the landscape plan offered lushness in exchange for the dreary and monotonous landscape. “It will be replaced by a varied and interesting local scenery in which green foliage will form all the foregrounds, drape the buildings, afford shade on sunny days, and conceal the raw earth . . . with perennial verdure,” the plan noted. The comprehensive proposal recommended a heavy use of evergreen plants — preferably broad-leafed evergreens.

An oval-shaped “Village Green” meant for active use was the plan’s central feature. Located in a broad, shallow amphitheater-like valley, it was surrounded by winding roads that hugged the natural grades, radiating outward from the green. Charming New-England style cottages, most with porches, were sited on uniformly sized lots along roads often named for trees — Magnolia, Dogwood, Laurel, Maple, Orange and Palmetto. The town’s layout provided an enhanced sense of space with the boundaries opening to new views.

Near the railroad tracks, to the south, stood a dense grove of longleaf pines that offered a glimpse of the forest that once covered the land. The hotel, town office, a store and community casino were placed in the center of the village. Evenly spaced trees and dense plantings would offer a naturalized effect throughout all of this.

To achieve the lush setting for the town, Manning specified and located the trees, shrubs and ground covers based upon the location, carefully framing the views from cottage windows and the hotel to provide a verdant appearance in every season.

The planting scheme recommended 222,600 plants in nearly 90 varieties, importing 48,000 plants from France and 1,500 from nine American nurseries. The balance of the plants would be purchased, collected later, or propagated at a nursery in Pinehurst.

Realizing the initial cost would be great, the architects justified it by saying that the cost would be insignificant once the plants established themselves. “It is absolutely essential to making the vicinity of a village of the sort you are building agreeable and homelike in the winter,” the landscape plan argued.

Evergreen shrubbery was primarily local and native material. “It was recognized . . . that native plants must be depended upon chiefly for the results we wished to secure, for they only could be procured in sufficiently large quantities to do, at a reasonable cost, the immense amount of planting that was required in the town,” Manning wrote later in the Pinehurst Outlook. He preferred native material because it was fully adapted to the local soil and weather conditions, and needed less water, fertilizer and overall maintenance to thrive. As an added incentive, they remained balanced with nearby plants instead of overtaking the landscape like invasive species.

The plan included dozens of native plants collected from private property or the swamps within about 100 miles of Pinehurst, but the effort became costly.

“You better depend upon your greenhouse men to do your propagating from seed instead of attempting to root from cuttings, which would be very difficult if not impractical,” Manning suggested of the local native plants. “You will get more plants at less cost,” he added, offering an unconventional and less time-consuming method for preparing the seeds for germination.

To help implement his plan, Manning brought in Otto Katzenstein, a German seedman who worked for the Olmsted firm and was enamored with native plants. Katzenstein would develop and manage the town’s nursery and crews who gathered plant material to use in Pinehurst.

With the planting proposal approved, Manning shifted his attention to installation and began with the Village Green, which provided the central recreational setting for the community.

Planted with rich layers — groundcovers, shrubs, and trees above — the Village Green provided an area for restful recreation and the study of nature. Selected for their growth habit and the various tints of green and texture they offered to the foreground, the trees and shrubs provided an indistinct border.

Multiple “plantations” were set upon the Village Green and anchored by evergreen (not coniferous) native trees — Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), evergreen oaks and Carolina cherry laurels (Prunus caroliniana). Then, the smaller groups of single trees and shrubs would spill out from the larger tree groups and blend into the foreground, creating a constantly changing play of light and shadow.

The understory featured non-native camellia, boxwood, pyracantha, azaleas and cherry laurels (Prunus lauroceracus). These mingled in groupings with native sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia gluca), holly, gall-berry (Ilex glabra), wax myrtle (Morella cerifera), fetter bush (Lyonia lucida), and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). Wisteria would festoon the tall pines with its drooping clusters of flowers. Osmanthus, nandina, wisteria, elaeagnus and privets, all non-natives, would adapt and naturalize.

The transition to the sunny central area of the Village Green required 40,000 groundcover plants. In that time, landscape architects commonly used non-native species for their visual appeal and ability to colonize, often filling a derelict space. Here, non-native Japanese evergreen honeysuckle, English ivy and periwinkle covered the trunks and branches of the deciduous trees, keeping the areas green with foliage, even in the winter. The unruly honeysuckle required regular shearing to keep it within borders and at ground cover height.

Many experimental plots of grasses were grown from seeds secured from various parts of the county, but most failed to tolerate the conditions. Only winter rye grown from seed made a good start in the Village Green, but it finally drew Tufts’ ire.

“Winter rye was bravely endeavoring to cover the whiteness of the sand. Patches of rye growing on the village green served only as a mockery of the word green and of the deep lush turf of the New England commons after which this area was patterned. On every hand, there was white, infertile soil,” Tufts wrote.

Manning adjusted the plan and removed the unsuitable ground cover creepers and turf. Next, he recommended covering the bare sand with fresh pine straw and later planted dozens of longleaf pines.

In the 1800s, lovely shade trees were becoming rarities, and lovers of arboriculture would travel miles to see them. An evergreen canopy was essential for Pinehurst village and would lend much-needed shade and character, not typically found in the South.

Village streetscapes received 1,500 trees, and the homesites, 500. Native trees used throughout the plan included longleaf pines, red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), dogwoods (Cornus florida), eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) and sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum).

Oaks, the most essential of all native trees and known to sustain a critical and complex web of wildlife, were among Manning’s favorites. Drawn by their lofty canopies and color shifts throughout the seasons, he used willow oak (Quercus phellos), live oak (Quercus virginiana), and swamp laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia) as specimens to edge village streets and grace homesites.

Today, the village’s landscape is full of the towering oaks, Southern magnolias and cedars planted between 1895-1898. Thirty-four of those trees on the village of Pinehurst property and bordering the Village Green are protected and designated heritage trees including several magnolias and hollies along the walkway near Given Memorial Library. In addition, dozens of other majestic trees at Pinehurst Resort and on private land continue to provide intrinsic value to the community. Most of the Village Green’s longleaf pines are at least 100 years old.

At Pinehurst’s founding, the only remaining dense stand of longleaf pines in the area, known as the Pine Grove, became a favorite attraction. There, a friendly herd of deer shared their domain with gorgeous peacocks, attracting visitors with children in tow who enjoyed the teeter-totters and swings.

Manning specified the addition of 50,000 trees, mostly longleaf pines, for the Pine Grove site and the borders of the village. He also included exotic conifers known for their shape, texture and color in the landscape. Adapted well in the South, the graceful deodara cedar (Cedrus deodara), Japanese cedar (Cryptomerias japonica) and cypress augmented the native growth.

The workforce completed the village center’s buildings, necessary infrastructure and 14 residences within about six months. With each area’s completion, Manning’s workers began installing the landscape.

The updated general plan drawn in November 1895 for Tuft’s promotional efforts reveals the enormous scope of work required to connect passages full of scenery for the village, its roads, walkways, and finally, the homesites — where visitors observed the details more closely. The initial homesites were small and set back 36 feet from the street. Manning wanted to ensure that “each home then appeared to be set in its own private forest.” So, 13,400 evergreen ornamental shrubs, in addition to 500 homesite-designated trees, provided generous coverage, plant diversity and individuality to each lot.

The early streets were 16 feet wide and built using sand and clay from a local pit. A sloped 16-foot shrubbery bed and 5 feet wide sand and clay sidewalks bordered each side of the road. The shrubbery beds absorbed stormwater runoff from the road and sidewalks, benefitting the ornamental trees, shrubs, and flowers planted there.

The streets and sidewalk areas received 1,500 trees and 17,000 plants. Many of the evergreens used on the Village Green would be repeated for these areas but softened by clusters of mahonia and winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum). Low evergreen groundcovers, including St. John’s wort (Hypericum calcycinum), wintercreeper (Euonymus radicans) and many types of roses, covered the edges of the planting strips providing seasonal interest.

After working throughout 1895-96, Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot ended their contract with Tufts. The firm recommended Manning to assume the project, which he did with vision and energy. He quickly established a farm with a large barn housing a herd of Holsteins and Jerseys cows, then in 1898, started Pinehurst Nurseries.

Otto Katzenstein, who tended the town’s nursery during its founding, became superintendent. He propagated and grew nearly 100 varieties of native trees, shrubs and herbs that succeeded under the challenging growing conditions of the longleaf pine region and offered them to a broader community through a catalog. 

The catalog also offered a variety of non-native “thrifty” plants, including pansies, pinks, roses and a hardy form of the English violet, discovered in an old Southern garden. Those plants adorned the landscape of the Carolina Hotel on its opening day, Jan. 1, 1901.

A winter resident wrote in the Pinehurst Outlook, “Looking out my window . . . I see planting spaces filled with native evergreen shrubbery — magnolias, holly, gall berry, bay flower, yucca, honeysuckle, ground roses, pansies and violets and the whole surrounded by a vast green lawn. Think of it — a pretty green lawn with violets in profusion right out in the open in January — as pretty as our own New England lawns in June.”

While the involvement of Frederick Law Olmstead, Sr., in the village plan has often been a matter of conjecture, in a 1922 letter to Leonard Tufts, Manning wrote, “I know Mr. Olmstead’s personal interest in Pinehurst was a keen one, because of his sympathy with your father’s desire to establish conditions that would make it possible for people who were not well to come to Pinehurst and live for moderate costs . . . and I remember very well his keen interest in my report on conditions that I found there.”

Over the next three decades, Manning continued to work with the Tufts family to extend their vision of the Sandhills. His national practice included more than 1,600 landscape projects throughout North America. One of the 11 founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects, he is considered one of the most significant landscape architects of the 20th century and its first environmental engineer.

Tufts’ vision and collaboration with the Olmsted firm and Manning’s ability to visualize the true nature of the place restored life to a land of nothingness — giving it, and us, a land of unexpected beauty.  PS

Claudia Watson is a frequent contributor to PineStraw and The Pilot and finds joy in each day, often in a garden.


Planet Sandhills

North Carolina’s center of biodiversity

By Bruce A. Sorrie

In simplest terms, biodiversity is the total number of animals and plants that occur in a certain area, say, a country or state. When asked, most North Carolinians would say that here in the Tar Heel State, biodiversity is highest in the mountains, with the extreme range of elevation and rugged topography, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A second area of biodiversity might be the outer Coastal Plain and barrier islands (including the Outer Banks), with its species-rich pine savannas, maritime-influenced plant communities, and huge numbers of nesting birds in summer and birds that winter there in the cold weather. 

Yet, when the numbers are tallied, it is the lesser known and often overlooked Sandhills region that comes out on top. And not just in one category — plants, for example — but in several others as well. This seven-county region (Cumberland, Harnett, Hoke, Lee, Moore, Richmond and Scotland), while not very large — 3,384 square miles — encompasses a wealth of natural habitat types, which in turn support high overall biodiversity.

The Sandhills region overlaps three of the four major regions of the state, encompassing parts of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain as well as the entirety of the Sandhills. Each of those regions has different geology, soil types and topography, and the natural habitats reflect that.

In the Piedmont we see rocks when we walk through the woods, and rock ledges often front rivers such as the Deep and the Cape Fear. The Raven Rock State Park in Harnett County boasts one of the biggest ledges in the state. The brownwater (nutrient-rich) rivers of the Piedmont support wonderfully tall and shady forests on floodplains.

In the Coastal Plain we have Carolina bays, some forested with pond cypress, some open ponds, which support unique plants and animals that have adapted to fluctuating water levels. We also see xeric “bay rims” (dune-like sand ridges) bordering the bays, and dry-to-xeric flatwoods elsewhere.

In the Sandhills, we encounter myriad streamheads where rainwater collects to form acidic and nutrient-poor blackwater creeks and swamps. The margins of these streamheads provide habitat for many species typical of outer Coastal Plain savannas plus endemics found nowhere else. These streamheads are embedded within some of the highest quality longleaf pine communities in the entire Southeast: Fort Bragg, Camp Mackall, Sandhills Game Land, Weymouth Woods – Sandhills Nature Preserve, Carvers Creek State Park, Walthour-Moss Foundation, Calloway Forest Preserve, Eastwood Preserve and others.

Each section of the Sandhills has its own long and complex history, and each brings many products to the biodiversity table.

Now, for the numbers. These have been generated by the ongoing North Carolina Biodiversity Project (, an online resource where anyone can read species accounts, see images, and view maps of the flora and fauna of North Carolina.

Vascular plants (mosses, liverworts, lichens not included): Moore County is No. 1 in N.C. with 1625 species (including non-natives that have become established); Wake is a close second with 1622; and Orange a distant third with 1548. Notably, Richmond (1475), Harnett (1450), and Cumberland (1436) counties all rank in the top 10 for plant diversity.

Butterflies: Moore tops the list with 120 documented species; Richmond (115) and Cumberland (114) are in the top five.

Dragonflies and damselflies: Richmond is king of N.C. with 119; Moore is a close second with 117; Cumberland (115) is tied for third; and Harnett (110) is seventh.

Grasshoppers and crickets: Wake is far ahead with 110 species; Moore (84) is second; and Scotland (70) is fifth. 

Freshwater fishes: Richmond and Brunswick counties are tied with 91; Moore (81), Harnett (76), and Cumberland (68) make the top 10.

Moths: Madison County in the mountains is No. 1 with a whopping 1352; Moore is 12th with 860. 

Birds: Inland counties cannot hold a candle to coastal ones when it comes to numbers of species of breeding and migrant birds. Dare County boasts 434 species; Wake a very impressive 343 is fifth; but, at 253, Moore is only 23. 

Mammals: The Sandhills region’s best is 38 species in Moore, far down the list, which is topped by Buncombe County with 66.

Of course, these lists are not static and will change over time as biologists and naturalists document new additions. However, the fact that several Sandhills counties rank in the top 10 statewide in multiple species groups will likely not change very much. It is remarkable that the seven-county Sandhills region, which represents only 6.3 percent of the area of North Carolina, supports half of the state’s vascular plants: 2,100 out of 4,200 species.

We who live here are lucky indeed to have such diversity at our doorstep. PS 

Bruce A. Sorrie is a graduate of Cornell University and the author of dozens of scientific papers, including descriptions of 13 new species. He lives in Whispering Pines.

The Creators of N.C.

The Burden and Beauty of Home

Carrying the weight of
William Paul Thomas’ art

By Wiley Cash

Photographs by Mallory Cash

I’ve met William Paul Thomas twice, both times inside an art gallery. He wasn’t present for our first meeting, but his work was. In October last year, I encountered his portrait of Alexander Manly, editor of The Daily Record, which was North Carolina’s only daily Black newspaper, as part of the Initiative 1897 exhibit at a gallery show in downtown Wilmington. The exhibit featured prominent Black civic leaders in the years preceding the 1898 race massacre, a violent coup d’état that saw Wilmington go from being one of America’s most successful Black cities to a place where racial terror and murder were used to take over Black-owned businesses and homes.

The second time I met William was in late February inside the Nasher Gallery on the campus of Duke University, where his portrait series Cyanosis was part of an exhibit titled “Reckoning and Resilience: North Carolina Art Now.” The subjects in the nine paintings in the Cyanosis exhibit are not as historically prominent as Alexander Manly, but they’re nonetheless important to William’s life. Each person is either someone he knows or someone he’s met during the course of a day, perhaps someone with whom he shared a passing conversation or a quiet moment that changed the trajectory of an afternoon.

Top row: Regine’s Brother, 2021, Lindsay’s Friend, 2018, Donna’s Son From Chicago, 2017. Second row: Le frère de Nathaly, 2019, Leticia’s Dear Friend, 2021, Kenna’s Dad, 2019. Third row: Tamara’s Father, 2019, Lydia’s Only Caregiver, 2017, Stephanie Woods’ Fiance As An Icon of Piety, 2017.

The name of the series is taken from the medical term that refers to the blue pallor skin takes on when it is not sufficiently oxygenated. The idea first took root in a portrait William painted of his young nephew Michael. He painted half of Michael’s face blue to emphasize the color of his skin. Soon, the use of blue grew to represent the presence of deep emotions — perhaps trauma, fear or uncertainty — that lie beneath the surface of people’s lives while they present a calm face to the world. In an online interview with Artsuite, William shared the unifying theme of the series: “My question through those paintings is: What would it look like if that trauma or adversity was shown on the skin? Would it invite people to be kinder to each other?”

On the day I finally met William in person inside the Nasher Gallery, Mallory, our daughters and I arrived half an hour early. While Mallory unpacked her camera gear and set off to scout the museum for places to set up, our daughters and I wandered through the exhibits with scores of other masked patrons. When we found the exhibit featuring William’s paintings, we paused and stood in front of them. The nine paintings are all closely cropped portraits of Black men in rows of three with a self-portrait of William sitting at the center. Each of the men is looking in a different direction, some of them seeming to stare right into the viewer’s eyes. Strips of blue color their faces in various places: across the eyes like a blindfold, over the nose like a mask, or covering the mouth like a gag.

William arrived, and we all introduced ourselves to one another. I’d been following his Instagram for several months — which I will later describe to him as being “delightfully weird” — and I didn’t know what to expect from an artist who is wildly experimental and playful while still remaining earnest and sincere. The dichotomy a viewer might find in William’s work also seems present in his personality; he is formal but warm, thoughtful but quick to smile. He told us he had just returned home on a flight from Chicago after spending the weekend at a family wedding with his fiancée and their newborn daughter. We joked that he looked rested and photogenic for a man who’d spent the morning lugging bags, baby and a car seat through airport terminals. His face softened for a moment at the mention of his being a new father, and then he and Mallory got to work.

Meanwhile, our 7- and 5-year-old daughters were feeling inspired after seeing the art in the museum. I tore pages loose from my notebook and fished pencils from my bag, and we found seats in the café and ordered snacks. I must have been feeling inspired myself because, like them, I began doodling on a blank page. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the faces of the men I’d just seen in William’s paintings, that strip of blue still hovering on the edges of my vision. When I thought of deoxygenated skin I thought of the videos I’d seen of Eric Garner and George Floyd, recalled their panicked voices saying, “I can’t breathe.” I looked down at my hands, one holding a pencil and the other resting on the table, the blue veins rolling atop the backs of my palms, not because my skin was deoxygenated or because I was experiencing latent trauma, but because my skin is pale and the blue veins were visible because the blood inside them was moving freely.

After we left the museum, we followed William across the Duke campus to the studio where he teaches a painting class to undergraduates, which is just one of the courses he teaches at several nearby universities. Inside the classroom, one of his students was behind an easel, working on a project from his class. He greeted her warmly by name, and then I watched him return to his work on a portrait of a man named Larry Reni Thomas, a Wilmington native known as Dr. Jazz because of his extensive knowledge of the music’s history. The two men met when William was working on Initiative 1897.

I asked William what interests him about painting people he meets. He lifted his brush from the canvas and considered my question, his eyes settling just above the top of his easel.

“For a long time, my art had been contained within an academic context,” he said, a reference to his Master of Fine Arts degree from UNC-Chapel Hill and his teaching in the undergraduate classroom. “In the portrait work, it’s important that the people that I invite (to be painted) don’t always belong to that same environment, so I’m having conversations with people who don’t necessarily have the same ties to UNC or Duke. I meet someone at the bus station and we strike up a conversation, and that’s a person I’m making a painting of. I feel like I start learning more about this area, or where I’m at, via those conversations. That’s how I’ve chosen to break away from a strictly academic environment.”

I ask him if he specifically looks for subjects outside of academic settings, and he admitted that he does, but that he’s also interested in introducing people to art who do not always think of themselves as being individuals who appreciate it.

“Sometimes I make visits to places with people because of the location. The Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill is right on Columbia and Franklin, and buses run all around that area. So if I was talking to somebody and having a conversation about art, there have been times — if they have the time — I’ll say, ‘Let’s take this conversation to the museum.’ Since I’ve identified museums and galleries as places I love to be as an artist and as a consumer of art, a lover of art, I don’t necessarily expect people to share that same interest, but if you tell me that you are not interested in art but you have not been inside a gallery, I question that and I challenge it and say, ‘Then let’s go check it out.’

“I have relatives, friends, people I’ve met who feel like they don’t have a direct connection to art, and I disagree right away because I’m thinking, if you dress yourself in the morning or if you like a certain model of car or if you like a certain movie, these are visual experiences where you are making choices about the visual world that suggests that you have some interest in aesthetics even if you don’t identify as an artist or a person who likes art. You can treat the museum that way, where you intuitively defer to your own tastes and go in there and judge whether or not you like whatever you see or are disinterested or feel moved by it based on your own experiences and not whatever education you have.”

When William considers how hesitant many people are to engage with art, he views his casual discussions with strangers as an opportunity that might lead them to a museum visit or to their portrait being painted: “It’s really of interest to me to engage in conversations where I try to demystify or deconstruct wherever that idea comes from.”

William is also interested in deconstructing the role art played in his own life, especially during his childhood. There could be no better representation of this than the bright pink concrete block that rested on the floor nearby. I’d already seen the block on his website, and I knew it had been painted to match a wall William’s mother had painted in the apartment where he’d grown up with his sisters in the Altgeld Garden housing project on Chicago’s South Side. He bent down and picked up the block at his feet.

“I extracted a single cinderblock as a way to represent that memory,” he said. “It became a way to carry that experience forward as a part of my narrative. How much of her decision to paint that wall influenced my decision to become an artist? This domestic alteration, how did it have an impact on the way I see the world?”

I asked him about the differences between being affected by the burden of memory and affected by the physical burden of lugging around a 40-pound block of cement.

“I did that unconsciously,” he says, referring to the burden of memory, “and now I’m doing it consciously. I’m choosing to carry this weight with me.” He smiles. “There’s never any good reason to carry a cinderblock around with you, but there might also not be a very good reason to take any traumatic or negative moments that I experienced as a child to have that affect me in the present, but nevertheless, for better or worse, the things we experience through our lives are carried with us. I’m definitely carrying home with me.”

I thought of his newborn daughter, a baby born in the Triangle, far from William’s Midwestern roots. What role would her father’s art play in her own conception of art’s role in her life? How would she carry her childhood with her?

He smiled at the questions, and then he rested the block in his lap as if it were a newborn.

“I hope she recognizes art as a normal, central fixture of her life, whether she is personally creating things or paying attention to the world around her. I hope she recognizes that it’s something valuable and precious.

“I hope she has an interest in exploring and discovery. I hope she gets to know Durham and North Carolina in a way that’s really intimate. I want her to carry with her how rich the world can be wherever she is as long as she’s paying attention.”

If William’s daughter follows the example of her father — an artist who is constantly paying attention to his surroundings with an idea toward capturing the richness of a place and the people who inhabit it — I’ll bet she’ll learn to do just that.  PS

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.