Little Town — Big Ideas

Juniper Planting Day Group Photo
 Juniper planting day — left to right: Jim Savery, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge Manager, Feather Phillips, Pocosin Arts Director, and Dave Kitts, Pocosin Lakes Assistant Manager.

Chances are you’d never name your arts organization “swamp on a hill,” but a dynamic group down east has done just that. Only they are using the native Algonkian term pocosin.

Pocosin Arts takes seriously its relationship with the pocosin, the predominant wetland ecology of the region, and has made connecting culture to environment through the arts its mission.

Located in tiny Columbia in Tyrrell County (population 3,895), just west of Dare County, it has offered arts programs related to the environment from its 1994 start. Local clays which had been used by the Indians dating back at least 3500 years became the basis for the pottery program. And native woods became the stuff of wonderful sculpture, which you can see along with other local expressions in the gallery gift shop when you stop by the Main Street headquarters.

The little arts organization with the big ideas is largely the result of the vision of Feather Phillips, executive director of Pocosin Arts. “Feather has been inspirational in helping me see what potential I have and feeding it,” says Carol Lee, director of the clay program at Pocosin. And others associated with the program echo those sentiments of admiration.

It is one thing to have big dreams, but another to fund them, and Phillips has proven to be as good a fundraiser as dreamer. She approached the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and a 1994 grant of $25,000 for seed money made Pocosin Arts a reality. Another $70,000 from Reynolds in the ensuing three years and an additional $80,000 over a five year period from the Kathleen Price Bryan Family Fund kept things rolling. Further funding from the N.C. Arts Council, the N.C. General Assembly, the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources Division of Forest Resources and Office of Environmental Education, and the A.J. Fletcher Foundation led to a talented staff, diverse programs, and exciting projects.

The most ambitious project to date grew out of a vision to connect environmental education with art education, to celebrate the millennium, and to help restore an endangered tree. Inspired by the late German artist Joseph Beuys, 7000 Juniper, An Art Action for the Millennium emulates his famous 7000 Oaks project in which he planted oak trees in Kassell, Germany in 1982 to symbolically inaugurate the reforesting of his country. 7000 Oaks projects were extended to the British Isles, Holland, France, Italy, and America, and Beuys left a legacy of the notion of artistic life beyond the studio walls.

It was in this spirit of global collaboration, spiritual renewal, and environmental awareness that Pocosin Arts proposed the 7000 Juniper project as a fitting celebration to usher in the millennium in coastal Carolina. The juniper, also known as the Atlantic white cedar, was central to the culture, providing wood for boats, channel markers, shingles — all mainstays of coastal life — until their popularity led to their near disappearance and endangered species status.

At dawn on the vernal equinox, March 20, 2000, a community of artists, naturalists, educators, and others gathered to plant juniper seedlings. Through ceremony, celebration, and documentation, the project began the reforesting of the North Carolina coastal plain with juniper.

Later in the morning, every student from Tyrrell Elementary School planted a tree along with a hand-made clay marker on which he or she inscribed a symbol to commemorate the day, the project, and the millennium.

By shortly after noon, the first 1000 junipers were in the ground. Pocosin Arts will work with the art school at East Carolina University in Greenville to design the space for the remaining 6000 trees, creating a design to blend art and the natural environment. Planted in a seven-acre site in Pocosin Lakes Refuge, the trees should be overhead in five years and 20 feet tall within 10 years.

“It will be open space alternating with dense planting, the way the trees grow in nature,” says Phillips. “But it will be a place visitors can enter to sit, meditate, contemplate.”

And it will be a symbol of the dreams and realities of art action in eastern North Carolina.