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Bear of Steel

AHOSKIE – Saying that in addition to teaching students, he wanted to connect industry with the creation of local art and artists, thus Jim Messer, chairman of the Fine Arts Department at Roanoke-Chowan Community College, is joining forces with Nucor Steel in the creation of a symbol of the region.

Last week at the meeting of the Ahoskie Town Council, Messer unveiled his plans.

“We came up with the idea of an origami bear,” he revealed to the council members.

Origami originated in Japan in the 17th century.  Its name is derived from ‘ori’ meaning ‘folding’, and ‘kami’ meaning ‘paper’. This traditional Japanese art of paper folding, popularized outside of Japan in the mid-1900’s, has now evolved into a modern art form. The goal of this art is to transform a flat sheet of paper into a finished sculpture through folding and sculpting techniques.

Only Messer won’t be using paper.  He’ll be using steel.  Free steel donated by the local business.

“What we plan on doing is taking the Nucor steel,” Messer explained. “Nucor then called Sheuck (shick) Steel where they will fabricate (cut) the steel and allow our students to watch and once completed they will install it wherever you think it can best be displayed.”

Messer says his dream is for the sculpture to be displayed for the students and the public to see and appreciate.

“And since it’s an origami bear, the students will have a chance to re-create it, fold it, and make it in their own classrooms out of paper,” Messer adds. “It’s just a way to connect art, industry, the craft of welding, and let it thread with industry and the public.”

Messer says the sculpture will be coated in order to resist rust and the elements, and occasionally have a touch-up.

“That’s something I’d like to involve my students in,” Messer said.  “To come out once a year and clean up the sculpture.”

Messer says the steel sculpture will be 24 feet long and 12 feet tall and would require a concrete pad to rest upon.

Amy Braswell, Executive Vice-President of the Ahoskie Chamber of Commerce, also appeared before Council with Messer.

“The thing that’s been wonderful to me is the interaction between businesses and the college students,” Braswell said. “They’re going to be donating to the college in skills training that could lead to jobs for people from our community, and the other thing is that this is something that will generate conversation and get people talking about our town.”

Messer says much like the proposed murals that are planned for various locations around Hertford County, the Bear will be the first of several such steel art structures.

“The main point is to try to use the qualities of the plate steel and the fabrication and the welding skills to open the door to better preparation in job training,” Messer said. “This is another way to attract local people, people who will stay here and do a better job than outsiders; and we hope some of the first they hire will be our students.”

Messer’s hope is that Charlotte-based Nucor will take the idea of this project to its other sites around the country.

“The amount of steel that we’re using isn’t costing them anything,” Messer added. “This is steel they could scrape off the floor and toss back into the furnace. I just think that we should take advantage of it.”

Town Attorney W.H. ‘Buddy’ Jones asked Messer what the timeline was for construction after fabrication.

Messer said he would breakdown his paper model, then give all the parts and pieces to Sheuck plant manager Rick Watford, and that he (Watford) would then enlarge it and then cut the steel out.

“We want to do all that before January 1,” Messer said. “Then we can start our spring semester with this as part of our welding program.  Then, we want to be able to unveil at the end of February, end of March, so our first unveiling would be during that first warm weekend.

Councilwoman Linda Blackburn inquired about the town’s responsibilities and was told other than grass cutting upkeep, everything else would be done by the students.

The Ahoskie Creek Recreation Complex was suggested as a proposed location site.

“What could work, and it’s not a lot involved with it right now, would be the triangle behind ball field No. 2 between Lakeview and Cameron, that wedge right there,” said Town Manager Tony Hammond.  “Or the area back behind the large picnic shelter behind the trees closer to the creek.”

Councilman Charles Freeman suggested a donation of land from a town or county citizen; or perhaps a downtown location.

“We’ve got a lot of things here in town that are tucked away,” said Freeman.  “Maybe we should think about locating something like this on Main Street.”

Blackburn brought up the area in front of Hertford County High School.

“After all, they’re called the Bears,” she suggested.

Before closing the topic, Councilman Maurice Vann asked Messer a simple question: why a Bear?

“When you think about eastern North Carolina, our large black bear population is one of the things you think about,” Messer answered. “It’s a mascot for our community and it taps into a multitude of ideas.  It’s an animal of strength, wisdom, and patience.”

Mayor Brien Lassiter then called for a Council vote on approval of the project and said recommendations for a location site could be brought before Council at a later date.   Blackburn made the motion, seconded by Councilwoman Elaine Myers, and unanimously approved by the four members present.  Councilman Rev. C. David Stackhouse having left early for a previous engagement.

Messer said he and his students hope to begin the project in some form sometime this week.