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The Lab at VAE
April 7-27, 2017
Betsey Peters Rascoe, Mike Cindric, and Sam Cox
A celebration of the unique people and landscapes of Eastern North Carolina.
For a lot of people who live in the Piedmont, Charlotte, or back up in the mountains, the coastal plain of Eastern North Carolina is a broad flat expanse you have to drive through on the way to the beach. The four main highways, HWY 64, HWY 264, HWY 70, and Interstate 40 all cut through swamps and sweet potato farms, crossing rivers and inlets, and traversing old trading paths, and although they come close, they largely bypass the towns and cities like Kinston, Wilson, Rocky Mount, and Goldsboro. You may see the signs, but unless you get off the main road and start looking, these places will only be names to you. In fact, if you fill your tank before you head east, crossing I-95, you can make it all the way to the Atlantic without setting foot outside your car.
If you look up from your phone long enough to stare out at the landscape passing by, it can be as mesmerizing as it is desolate—mile after mile of cotton, tobacco, and soybeans. Fencerows planted with trees to break the wind and keep the sandy soil in place. Long green expanses dotted with farmhouses surrounded by shade trees. Huge industrial-sized chicken houses connected to far-off grain silos by long, straight roads that disappear into the horizon.
If you're in the right mood, looking out the window might raise some questions about who lives here and why, who raises these crops? What happens in Wilson? What goes on in Lumberton? What is that huge metal tank? Are there alligators in the Alligator River?
Designers Betsey Peters Rascoe, Mike Cindric, and Sam Cox set out to leave their air-conditioned cars to turn an artistic eye on these routes across the coastal plain. Their aim wasn't just exploring, or travel-writing, or journalism, or anthropology but all of them in combination. Each explored a different route east, taking time to stop in the cities and towns and crossroads and talking to people whenever and wherever they could find them.
What they discovered was collected and curated collaboratively by the group and their exhibit, Off Route Journals, was up at VAE Raleigh from April 7–27. Their aim was to meld qualitative discoveries like interviews, remembrances, and personal impressions with more quantitative data like maps and agricultural reports and statistics. The truth that emerges at the intersection of the qualitative and quantitative is a region, like so many far away from large urban centers, in a state of flux. Places where the past still lives and the future is uncertain. To be sure, they found some decay and dilapidation, but despair was equalled by pride and hope, a real affection for the places they visited shared with them by the people they encountered.
They spoke to people like Vicki Osborn of Stumpy Point in Dare County, who remembers growing up where the men either fished for a living or worked at the nearby bombing range, and the women worked for local government or in the tourism industry. They ate seafood every day, but also endured a sense of isolation, knowing that nothing but long lonely roads without phones, lights, or gas stations were all that connected them to the wider world. That their isolation is diminished as the area around the coast fills up with subdivisions, beach houses, golf courses, and condos is regarded as a mixed blessing. There is some nostalgia, but it's nice to be able to buy gas in the town you live in, just as it's a good thing to be able to find work outside of the fish house heading and de-veining shrimp for .50 cents a bucket.
Chris, a turf farmer from Pamlico county, likes being where he is and doing what he does because he finds greater freedom on his farm than he could have either in a city or even a small town. He notes that the commercial fishing that once dominated his area has all but died and that the greatest threat to farmland in his area is not encroaching populations or expanding urbanization, but that solar farms enjoy more lenient regulation than straight agriculture and the vast expanses of flat land without any trees are perfectly suited for solar energy production. The only problem is that this makes it more and more difficult for farmers to produce food and commodities like cotton. Still, a young man with 2600 acres, Chris isn't going anywhere. He'll figure it out.
As old industries die, and unforeseen trends sculpt a new landscape, people are finding reasons to stay in Eastern North Carolina fueled by an abiding sense of affection for their homes. This was the overarching discovery Rascoe, Cindric, and Cox made on their journeys east.
"My affection for the state grew, the more I saw, the more I understood, it just deepened. And it was sort of emotional" says Cox. "That was a surprise for me."
"I was surprised and happy to find out how much affection the people I talked to had for their communities," Rascoe explained.
"It might not be much, they would say, but you gotta see our downtown. They really wanted their downtown to be the best, and they wanted you to see it, and enjoy it with them, even if you were just passing through."