Vet Memorial awarded for unique concrete sculpting

kjahner@newsobserver.comJanuary 21, 2014 

— The town’s Veterans Memorial has already established itself as part of Garner’s profile, and a part of its citizens routine. Many commuters have become accustomed to passing it on Buffaloe Road, joggers running by it on their runs through Lake Benson Park. Google maps has it labeled (though it doesn’t yet show up in satellite view).

But the monument has caught attention from beyond the area, taking one of two Architectural Precast Association awards in the Trim/Landscape category. In addition to the award, Concrete Products magazine wrote up a profile on the project in its December edition.

Design company Clearscapes designed the project, with Garner resident Mon Peng Yueh providing the concept design. But it was Thomas Sayre, a well known sculptor who has done work across the country, who delivered the element that wowed the concrete trade magazines. To bring life to his concept of giant concrete slabs with its crevassed, earthy exterior, he turned to Lucas Concrete, with whom he’d worked on about half dozen projects since 2008.

Lucas president Chris Johnson submitted the project for the award. And he did it with confidence.

“I knew it’d win. It was that unique,” Johnson said. “We were up against some pretty stiff competition, but they were pretty impressed. They hadn’t seen anything like it.”

The judges, which also awarded the exterior of the new cinematic arts building at the University of Southern California in the category, backed up Johnson’s assessment.

“This really ‘wowed’ us. Layer of texture protects the smooth inner panels,” said the competition’s website. “Precast concrete panels designed to simulate the area’s indigenous red clay is highly imaginative. Reflection and awareness of past is greatly stimulated with this architecture.”

The slabs – each individually cast – take a brownish-red, clay-colored tone similar in hue to soil that can be found in the area. Yueh said the symbolism of the reference to the ground was two-fold.

“It’s kind of the idea that you come from the earth and go back to the earth,” Yueh said. “It also kind of relates back to the agrarian history that we have.”

Yueh drives by the memorial often. She particularly likes its appearance at night with the lighting creating a serene glowing oasis in the dark park’s open space.

“It actually came out pretty close to our vision. We can’t say that for all of our projects,” Yueh said. “So I’m very happy about that.”

The one disappointment she had was that funding limits prevented a little bit of additional lighting below the benches.

Bringing the vision to life

Yueh said the precasting technique was unique, with the work being done off site. In the casting process, the concrete is typically poured into the dug-out earth on site. In the process, once the concrete hardens, it’s dug out and the dirt is sprayed away

But since the designers didn’t want to create that level of site disruption (closing down more of the park for longer), the casts were made in Charlotte at Lucas’ facility.

“It’s a public park, and we wanted to limit the amount of excavation,” Yueh said, “We didn’t want to limit access to the park.”

Sayre, who helped design the shimmer wall on Raleigh’s Convention Center as well as other public art works in a variety of different states, turned to Johnson’s company again. Johnson said Lucas Concrete’s first project with Sayre was the first time he had outsourced parts of his artwork.

The relationship provides Sayre access to heavier-duty equipment from the manufacturer. Johnson said he sees the artwork as a way of giving something back, plus possibly make something that gets some attention. “I don’t ever make any money on artwork,” Sayre said.

“There’s a lot of things you can do with concrete, but there’s not many concrete artists,” Johnson said.

And he said Sayre put a lot of work, traveling to Charlotte to work on the 36 distinct textured slabs on each of which either a decade of conflicts or local casualties would be mounted.

The concrete was dyed an earthen tone, poured into dirt dug up from 40 feet down so that it would be clean virgin soil.

“Thomas put his blood, sweat and tears into this,” Johnson said. “Literally, he put his back into it.”

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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