It was February 1865 and if these Union soldiers could cut off Confederate access to the coast there, they would sever the supply chain bringing in the food and weaponry from Bermuda and Europe that allowed the Confederates to keep fighting. The men in front — cannon fodder, according to some historians — were all members of the American Colored Troops, 80 percent of them only recently freed from slavery. Now they were fighting for their continued independence. After two days of battle, the Confederates abandoned Wilmington, which helped end the Civil War. But when the Union soldiers marched into the city to celebrate their victory, those same Colored Troops were at the back of the parade. And then they were forgotten.
One hundred and fifty-four years later, Stephen Hayes, an assistant professor of art, art history and visual studies at Duke University, stood on that hallowed ground, listening to the chants and the call-and-response of living history performers re-enacting the battle, their boots echoing those of their long-ago ancestors. He’d been invited there by the Cameron Art Museum, which sits on nine and a half acres of the battlefield, to create a monument to honor those soldiers. At the time there were about 140 monuments to Confederate soldiers in North Carolina, and one vaguely worded obelisk in Hertford to honor the Colored Troops. That changed on Nov. 13, 2021, when the 2,500-pound bronze monument Boundless was unveiled and Gov. Roy Cooper declared it United States Colored Troops Remembrance Day.
Hayes began with the boots, planning to array hundreds of them to show the soldiers’ movement. That idea evolved into a human-sized sculpture depicting nine soldiers, a color-bearer, and a boy playing the drum, displayed not high up on a plinth or pedestal but at eye level, on the sacred soil, so viewers can feel the humanity of the men who fought. He used re-enactors and descendants of the original American Colored Troops as models, smoothing plaster-soaked cheese cloth over their closed eyes, their mustaches, their ears, as about 30 people in a museum gallery watched.
“I think Stephen believes that earth holds that percussion, the sound of those marching feet,” says Anne Brennan, executive director of the Cameron Art Museum. “And I think he thinks it holds the last sound of their heartbeats.”
Hayes normally creates his molds one-on-one in his studio, making sure each model is comfortable. Instead, he worked in front of a crowd and a camera crew from 8 in the morning until 9 at night. “Your face is going to be part of a monument,” he says he told his models. “You’re going to be retelling this story for years to come, and your grandkids are going to come here, and they’ll understand the story and still see your face.”
Hayes grew up with a brother and a single mother who worked days for the Durham County Department of Social Services and cleaned the building at night as a second job. As a boy, he tinkered. He broke things, he put them back together, he scavenged for found items that he could turn into other things. He got held back in first and sixth grade, then skipped 11th, then earned a spot at North Carolina Central University, where he met his wife, Felicia Mills-Hayes. A first-generation college student, he planned to transfer to North Carolina State University to study mechanical engineering. Instead, he discovered graphic design, and from there a ceramics course, where he became a whiz at the wheel.
When he works he becomes a machine, his mind and body intent on creating, and that tenacity and skill landed him a residency at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University and then an MFA in sculpture from Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta.
There he created Cash Crop, a wood, cement and steel installation of 15 naked people standing in casket-shaped wood pallets carved with the infamous pattern of the Brookes slave ship plan, showing how to efficiently pack kidnapped humans into the hold of a ship to survive the Middle Passage. The figures are molds of friends — and himself — and are connected by a rusted steel chain linked to a wooden block inscribed with e pluribus unum.
“As people walk through, they hit those chains,” Hayes says. “They make a ringing noise and remind people that we’re always stumbling over the past.”
Cash Crop has toured the country for a decade. It was what convinced the Cameron to hire Hayes, and now Boundless stands proud among the pines, 250 feet from the entrance to a museum with works by Joan Miró, Robert Rauschenberg and Marc Chagall that in early 2022 also held a retrospective of about 300 pieces of Hayes’ work.
“We are charged with care of this sacred ground, we are charged with interpretation of the Battle of Forks Road, which ensued here, and we are charged with support of artists and with lifelong learning,” Brennan says. “These are all core values, core missions of ours, and Boundless hits every chord.”
Hayes is a hands-on maker, a problem solver. If he needs to forge iron, he builds a smith. If he needs to carve or burnish wood, he experiments until he figures out how. He weaves and crochets and collects flotsam from salvage shops and roadsides, always considering what it could become. A storeroom in his Duke studio is jumbled with past art installations made of casts of hands and cast-off bullet casings, a cello he was going to turn into a sound system, bolls of cotton, models of heads. As a teacher he pushes his students to experiment, to figure things out.
“He demystifies so much of the artistic process by teaching his students that it’s a succession of problem-solving,” Brennan says. “The more limitations set before you, the more creative you become.”
Hayes himself is incessantly creative.
“I just want to make stuff,” says Hayes, whose work Voices of Futures Past opened at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and then moved to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. “I wake up and I think, ‘Oh, man. Let me see if I can do this.’ The goal is to change the way people view me, and if not me, somebody who looks like me. That’s the main reason why I create the work that I create. To open the eyes of people who wouldn’t even look two ways at this thing. I want them to stop and think about this, look at it, and then when they come up and talk to me or other people, their mind is opening up.”