There is no doubt that Rowan County has a long and treasured history. From the brick stone businesses throughout the downtown areas to the centuries old homes we tour every October, Rowan County celebrates and honors its history at every turn. Perhaps my favorite way is through its public art. The historically driven murals and sculptures throughout Rowan County serve to educate and engage the community by archiving their unique histories through carefully planned works of art. Until a few years ago, when I thought about public art, Rowan County didn’t always spring to mind, but the excitement and determination of Salisbury’s Public Art Committee has illuminated not only the importance of history to the people of Rowan County, but the ways that history is beginning to inform and inspire the art community as a whole.


Public Art Committee

Salisbury’s Public Art Committee, or SPAC, was formed in 2003 in an effort to facilitate and support public art that celebrates our community’s history and culture. “As an initial project, the SPAC conceived the History and Art Trail – a series of bronze markers to commemorate notable people, places, and events that have shaped the City’s heritage. Twenty markers have been installed, with another twenty in the planning stage.” This trail includes “Crossroad: Past into Present,” a huge 127-ft x 48.5-ft mural, originally created by artist Cynvia Rankin in 1980 and restored in 2001.


Crossroad: Past Into Present, 127′ x 48.5′ mural, Cynvia Rankin, 1980


It also includes the 110-ft long “Smoke and Steel” by Robert Crum which includes over 100,000 pieces of porcelain tile, as well as “Salisbury Cotton Mills”, an installation comprised of tiles that were sculpted and painted by students from all of the county’s twenty elementary schools. All three are intricate pieces which comment on Rowan County’s unique history. Also included in the History and Art Trail are sculptural works and memorials that lead residents and visitors alike on a journey through Salisbury’s past, and in many ways, towards Salisbury’s future.


Salisbury Cotton Mills, Public Arts Installation, Rowan County Public Schools


By 2008, the SPAC was encouraged to host a temporary sculpture installation in an effort to attract tourists and to engage audiences on a broader level. This extremely successful annual installation brings in artists from across the region and introduces our tight knit community to boldly colored shapes, unique materials and new ways of thinking conceptually. Afterall, when a massive, neon orange, steel structure just appears on the side of the road in a rural town, you cannot help but wonder, what is that and where did it come from? And with pieces changing annually, this is an experience that many of us here in Rowan County have come to look forward to.

When asked about the importance of art in public spaces, long time arts advocate and community leader Barbara Perry said, “​Public Art to me is freedom. Freedom to touch, laugh, love, shake your head, and wonder what were they thinking. It is to dislike intensely, to talk about, to sit on and hold hands, to watch your grandchild’s face as he looks at the metal horse and touches it and laughs out loud. Public Art does not discriminate. It is there for all.”


 Salisbury Sculpture Show

Now in its eleventh year, the Salisbury Sculpture Show boasts a whopping sixteen sculptures from artists living and working throughout the United States. In addition to select locations throughout the Downtown Salisbury area, the sculpture show also houses these incredible works at local colleges including Catawba College, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. and Salisbury’s own HBCU, Livingstone College.

One local favorite in this year’s show is “Charleston Horse” by Jonathan Bowling which is currently housed at New Sarum Brewing Company. This life-sized piece is made from repurposed, last century steel and embodies the excitement and power of the creature it represents, leaving viewers feeling like it could take off running at any moment.


Charleston Horse, Jonathan Bowling, Located at New Sarum Brewing Company


Other works, including the dynamic pieces by Richard Pitts, are more abstract and feature bright, heavily saturated colors. This juxtaposition in styles bridges the gap between the past and the present and invites in younger audiences with a more contemporary aesthetic.


Orange Peel, Richard Pitts, Located at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College


This bridge is even further amplified by the addition of the Otocast App, a free mobile guide that allows viewers to identify the sculptures and to listen to information about each one individually. Many of the recordings, including those by the aforementioned Richard Pitts, are recorded by the artists themselves!

By implementing this modern, easy to use feature, Salisbury’s Public Art Committee has found a unique and innovative way to link Rowan County’s past and present by way of the future. Area institutions and businesses have begun putting in requests to host sculptures. Others fall in love and just ask for the purchase price. More and more artists are bringing their work to Salisbury and suddenly, our past and our present are converging in a way that allows us to think critically about our future.


Looking Forward

After decades of growing support for public art and a growing desire for more, Rowan County is truly becoming the hub for arts and culture that I have dreamt of. This year we saw the groundbreaking of the Dixonville Memorial Project and the unveiling of the monument to honor fallen officers at the Rowan County Courthouse.

In 2020, we will welcome a brand-new public art project by way of the Department of Fine & Applied Arts at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. This new project, called “Here’s My Story”, is comprised of audio enabled, sculptural benches that will be placed in the downtown area. Each bench will serve as a place of quiet reflection where visitors can rest and listen to the spirited oral histories of our underrepresented citizens. These sculptural benches, which are dedicated to sharing stories from marginalized groups, are intended to highlight the ways in which diversity within our community makes us stronger and more resilient. To read more about this project and to sign up to record your story, please visit this link.


Jenn Selby, Director of Philanthropy, Transfer, & the Arts at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, presenting the Here’s My Story inclusive public art project to Rowan Rotary. Photograph by Tim Coffey.


Everywhere we look new and exciting artworks are making their way to the public realm and inspiring our community in unforeseen ways. If you would like to find more information about the History and Art Trail, the Salisbury Sculpture Show, or other public artworks in Rowan County, please visit the Rowan County Visitor’s Center.