For LaNelle Davis, mosaic sculpture is her passion, and she is willing to follow wherever that passion leads her, even if it leaves her perched on a 10 foot scaffold in the rain, meticulously placing bits of mirror and tile on the side of the building housing Angelina’s Kitchen in Pittsboro, NC.
LaNelle is a quiet, dignified woman, soft spoken and humble about her art. As she puts it, she prefers to “fly below the radar.” She is quick to credit her mentor Virginia Bullman with providing the spark that ignited her creativity and sent her down this path:
“If it weren’t for [Virginia Bullman], I would not know anything about what my passion is… I saw her birdbaths. I had never seen anything like it. They were stunning. I saw that, and I said I must know. I saw that, and it hit my soul.”
“She’s literally been my education, and it’s been really life changing. I really think that on the pathway of life that there are times in your life that people are put in your path. I can mark time by the events or people that are put in my path. And Virginia was put in my path. She changed my life.”
Out of a chance meeting at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market grew a friendship that has spanned almost 20 years. LaNelle and Virginia Bullman shared a rural background. They collaborated and pulled from their collective memories to create sculptures that reflect the lives of important women in their pasts.
“We made our first woman. I didn’t know anything about armatures. I mean, I’m a retired social worker. I was pushing pencils. Over the course of about 15 years, we made about 25 of those big concrete women. I would do that on the weekends. I would go to my job, and then Saturday and Sunday, we would work about every weekend or every other weekend. We were so inspired by these women from our past – strong women. And when people saw them, they sort of knew who they were. It was great fun.”
The details in their sculptures help to tell a story, the apron on The Millworker (aka Norma Rae) at Carr Mill matches the standard green ones worn by mill workers during the time that Carr Mill was a functional textile mill. Ready and Waiting (aka Louise), also in Carrboro, was modeled after a woman LaNelle saw day after day, sitting on a bench, patiently waiting for the bus.
LaNelle laughs as she remembers the learning process, the trial and error of mixing elements to create the sculptures:
“My neighbors probably think I’m up to something no good here mixing concrete in my basement.”
In 2010 Virginia Bullman encouraged LaNelle to accompany her on a trip to Philadelphia to go see the work of Isaiah Zagar at The Magic Gardens. LaNelle was stunned by what she saw – swirls of color, faces, and animals created out of thousands of pieces of tile – a massive outdoor mosaic sculpture garden that spanned half a block.
“He [Isaiah Zagar] has mosaicked three- and four-story buildings. It is mind-blowing. It hit me the same way that I got hit when I saw Virginia’s stuff at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning. It was like BOOM. And I thought… I had to know. And I told the Art Director here Molly Matlock [Concert and Special Event Coordinator at the NC Museum of Art], “Pittsboro needs this. And I want to do it, but I don’t know how just yet.”
Once again, LaNelle refused to let a lack of knowledge stand in her way. This past year she registered for a class with Isaiah Zagar and spent time in Pennsylvania with him learning the art of mosaic tile murals.
“I went up there and it was mind blowing for me… working with the mix and all that tile. It was exhilarating.”
“Oh, my god, I’ve got a building and no materials. No design. So I started drawing and drawing, taking pictures of chickens, going through chicken books. And I just started drawing. I must have made 15 drawings before we settled on one. And when I drew that one, I knew that was the one.”
Businesses and artists in Chatham Country have rallied behind the project. The PTA Thrift Store saves dishes and china that LaNelle breaks into pieces and uses in the mural. Rice’s Glass Company provided most of mirror that forms the outline of the rooster and chickens slowly taking shape on the side of the building. Potters Mark Hewett and Louise Hobbs, as well as Dover Pottery, have donated materials also. LaNelle has even incorporated a mirror from her mother who passed away in December of 2010:
“So there’s a piece of her in it. I’ll know that’s there. Every time I see it I’ll know a part of my mother is in it.”
She has dedicated a part of the mural to her mother, but she is also interested in the history of the building itself and is glad she can do something to honor the memory of the people who once worked at The Hatchery.
“I have an admiration for working people. The dignity of all work… The people that worked in this hatchery. I would really like to speak to the people who worked here. Was it shift work? Was it a great place to work? Was it not? What were their lives like? I mean, I think about things like that.”
LaNelle says the process has been a learning experience through every single step. The scale is larger than anything she has ever done before, even the oversized sculptures that she and Virginia Bullman created. She had to move the furniture out of her kitchen just to complete the 9 foot sketch of the rooster.
“I first draw the outline [on the building] in chalk because I can erase chalk. And then I come back with the paint. And let me tell you, it’s a sobering experience when you lay that brush of paint to someone else’s brick building. It’s like, ok, we’re committed now because the paint is now on the building.”
She hopes to complete the 9 foot mural by the end of October, and judging by her progress so far, she should have no problem meeting her self-imposed deadline.
“I’m really passionate about this. You know, my body wants to do this. It’s kind of a solitary kind of thing. I need to stay quiet so I can think. I need to just do it. I need to stay silent so my mind can work through what it needs to work through.”
“I’m 58 years old, and if not now, when? I mean, I have what I need in my head to do this. I just need to do it… And I want to see a finished product, and I want it to be something fun and beautiful for Pittsboro and whoever sees it.”
You can find LaNelle’s mosaic mural on the corner of West 64 and Rectory in Pittsboro, NC.