To mark the new year, Raleigh Public Record’s Chrystal Bartlett sat down with the artist who created the acorn the city drops each first night. David Benson also owns Third Place Coffee on Glenwood Avenue.
David Benson designed the acorn the city drops each New Year’s Eve, he’s also the owner of Third Place Coffee on Glenwood Avenue. Photo by Chrystal Bartlett.
Why an acorn? Why not a tree for the City of Oaks?
The City of Oaks, yeah, they’ve already got trees, but they didn’t have an acorn. You know John Watkins came up with the concept. His wife was on the board of directors for the Raleigh Bicentennial, and he was the head of marketing research and planning, MRP Associates. So she was the treasurer of the Bicentennial commission and they wanted some concept to sell Raleigh to the people. It was the 200th anniversary for Raleigh so they said, “Well, we need something,” and Raleigh’s name is, it’s always been “The city of Oaks,” so John came up with the concept of an acorn. So he came by and ran it by me and I said, “Yeah, that’s a great idea.” And then he asked if I could build one and I said “Yeah, sure I can build it.” So then they ran it by the Bicentennial Commission and then everybody got on board with it, and so we built it.
How did you get the gig? There was no RFP (Request for Proposal) or a grant process?
No, it’s all in who you know, right? John had done another, previous to this, he did an event for recycling and they needed an award to hand out to these people, and I had an office, an artist’s studio right near him and I’m the only one in the building that even had something even remotely close to what he was wanting, and so he says, “Can you make something out of recycled materials like Coke cans and stuff like that? I don’t want any beers cans or anything like that, just recycled materials to make an award.” I said, “Yeah, sure I can do that.” So he gave me a budget and I said, “Yeah I can do that.” And so I made this award and it was presented, and then a few months later, it might have been a year later, he said “Can you make this acorn?” He told me the whole concept and so we went through that and that’s how I got the commission.
So did they have a pre-set budget? Or did you tell them, “You want an acorn? This is how much it will cost?”
They had a budget in mind and you know, we had to get together on the budget. I think the budget was $20,000 or something like that. But John wasn’t selling me on the idea that I was going to make a living off it. He was selling me on the idea that he was going to make me famous and I just said,” I don’t really care about that, I’d just rather have the money,” because I’m an artist and I never had health insurance at the time, either, so I was just looking to make a living and that’s how I make my living, to make art.
If you had to do it all over again, would you? If so, why; if not, why not?
Yeah, sure. It was good. I’ve had a good run, I’ve been really lucky.
This is not your statue; it belongs to the City of Raleigh, right?
It belonged to the Bicentennial Committee and the Bicentennial Committee gave it to the City of Raleigh.
O.K., the City of Raleigh owns it, so how does it come out looking so good every year? It seems like you are involved in the maintenance. Is this a labor of love or do they actually pay you to maintain the nut?
Yeah, I get paid to maintain it. You know, it’s pretty reasonable. Artsplosure gets sponsors to clean it and I guess I sponsor it in a way, so I guess I could get paid more….
So you’ve never had a party and just had people clean that nut for you?
Oh, I have, I have.
I’ve heard stories about those polishing parties, David. Do you really make people rub a section before they can drink a beer?
No, no that’s total bullshit! But, you know, that’s not a bad idea. I think I may do that this year. I’ve had it at carwashes, taken it to inside and ruined the floor of the old Civic Center.
What do you do to clean it?
I use phosphoric acid, basically. It’s what they use to clean the kegs and stuff for beer making. You know how they make beer and they have those big vats that are copper? Well Gary Greenshields, who used to own Greenshields, gave me this phosphoric acid one time and he said, “This is what you need, Dave.” And I said “O.K.” So Gary gave me this stuff and I clean it and I said said, “Wow, this works great!”Then you got to, you know, usually it’s cold and this stuff works when it’s warm, so if you’re outside and it’s cold, then it doesn’t work so well and you really have to work hard at it and really scrub it. But every year I find a way to make it just a little bit easier.
The city moves the acorn to drop it for First Night Raleigh last year. Photo by C. Duncan Pardo.
So even though there are sponsor to do this, you maintain it?
The sponsors pay money and then they pay for my materials to do it
So you are getting paid to maintain even though you don’t own it.
What better person that the guy that created it, who made it?
Now you own a coffee shop, Third Place, how does that fit in (or not fit in) with your life as an artist?
Well, you know, I’m a social person, so this fits in perfect. And what I liked about doing the art was, you’re social, you’re respectable, it was in the community and it’s not tied to how successful you are money wise. But if you’re an insurance salesman and you’re a terrible insurance salesman but you still have to talk to lots of people and you don’t sell much insurance, you don’t get much respect, but as you’re an artist, it’s a little different. Everything’s a different as an artist because, frankly, the more stuff you make, the higher the price. There is no point of diminishing returns with art, so if you’re really prolific, you make more money, but if you make coat hangers, the more you make, you have to charge less for them. It’s a whole different ways to think about things, that as an artist, you can get respect without having to own a big house, a nice car and have lots of money because they respect you for your talent as opposed to respecting you for what you’ve done as far as making money.
Your artistic career is not over, but you seem to be best known for this work. How does that make you feel, being known as “the acorn guy?”
I don’t really care, because that’s my mark I don’t really have to live up to anything anymore. You know, whatever I do, its O.K., there’s no pressure, there’s no pressure to succeed. All the pressure’s gone, it’s great. You know, I have a great life.
Any plans on adding to the piece – will someone maybe commission a tree, a squirrel, etc?
I don’t know. If someone wants me to build a squirrel, I’ll certainly do it, but it would be really big, it’d be a huge squirrel now, wouldn’t it?
It’ll have to size up to that nut!
Yeah. Actually I like the squirrel that they have in those Ice Age movies for kids. Because they have that big acorn that rolls around and that’s pretty cool. There’s this cute little acorn and those scats or scrats, I think they’re called scrats, that try to catch that acorn and do stuff with it.
How many people have asked you for smaller replicas? For the home? Lapel pins, perhaps? Is there a sideline business opportunity there we don’t know about?
Oh yeah. I should be doing a line of jewelry. When I started out, before sculpture, in art, I was a jeweler, so I still have quite a bit of that equipment at the house. I was making acorn earrings for while. It’s an opportunity to make a killing, but apparently I’m not interested in that.
Tell me a little bit about making the acorn. Were the materials it is made of the ones you wanted to use or were they dictated by the budget?
They were dictated by the budget. I wanted to do the internal structure with stainless steel, so I would not have to paint it and I’m really lazy, but I had to use steel, because stainless was way expensive, so then I had to paint, which was a little more work, but less money.
And the outside?
Outside is copper and I had to order the bottom of it from a company, I don’t remember who it was. But I got these two big rolls of copper, that weighed 300 or 400 pounds apiece, and so when the truck got to Artspace I had to help unload it. And I didn’t have any gloves, so I cut my hand really bad, and so, I said “Oh well, you just keep going, right?” And then, I cut all that out, and then I cut my finger again with a saw, and cut the end of it off, but I masking taped it back together and kept on working. And then, I was standing inside the acorn, because had it on its side and was spinning it, because it was easier to do, and I stood on the edge of it and it spun and then I cut my shoulder really bad. I kept getting hurt on that job, but you know, we got it done. And then the top part of the copper came from just roofing sheets. We didn’t know what to call those, so we called them acornites, we made up a word. You know the texture on the top of the acorn, it’s actually an acorn cap, but those little things, there’s no name for those, you know, because there are those little sections, I couldn’t name for them anywhere, nobody knew, so we called them aconites, which is something else, I don’t know what it is.
You’re probably going to get a call about this from the State botany department
Yeah, I’d be happy to know what it is.
I’ve seen a variety of answers to this question, but you tell me, “How much does it weigh?”
I think it weighs twelve hundred and fifty pounds. Well what happens, see, is that the crane comes in and those cranes are really expensive products and they are donated by Earl Johnson III. He donates his crane time. They used to own Carolina Crane and now they own another crane company, but he has donated a crane every year. He is one of the best sponsors that the acorn has ever had. And those cranes weight the acorn, because they have to know what they’re picking up and so it’s always weighed 1,250 pounds.
Do you ever worry about the cranes and the acorn, maybe it’s going to drop?
Every year. Every year. I put safety chains on it, open it up inside, check it for rust. And I ask these guys, the crane guys, “What happens if it falls?” He goes, “It come straight down, straight down.” So I go, “O.K.” So we don’t stand underneath it.
Let’s talk about your non-sculpture business, the Third Place Coffee shop. How’s business been lately? You seeing any dip from the recession?
Yeah, it dipped last year and up until the first few months of this year, and then all of a sudden it started to pick up after Valentines, I guess. So it’s been a steady rise since then, since February. People talk about things like the economy and they’re doing this and that or whatever, but if you can actually see it, then that’s better. I’m a big proponent of show me, don’t tell me
Have you had more job applicants?
Oh yeah, yeah. I’ve gotten great job applicants! And I’ve got great employees. My employees are fabulous and I think that part of it. Jobs have gotten tighter. I had a girl the other day just walk away from the job because she told me she needed money, and I said “O.K.” and then she said, “I’m taking the day off.” and I thought, “Wow, that’s weird.” And then she quit. I think she expected me to hire her back, but making a bad choice like that, I don’t want people who make bad choices working for me, so of course I did not call her back, because if she’s been making bad choices for herself, she’s just going to continue that practice with me, so she was showing me that she wasn’t making the right choices. So I get a lot of people who make good choices, and that’s who I look for, whatever they show me is what I go with.
I think everybody here appreciates a job. They do pretty well, they make pretty good tips and customer service has shot way up and they care more. The biggest thing is that people who work for you might not like the customers; some customers give you a hard time. I try to tell them, “Look this customer is going to pay you. You’re actually the most important person here, because you have to make sure that customer comes back. So they can shop here and support us. So you want them to support you, so you can stay working and keep your job.” It’s pretty simple, but people don’t always understand it.
What’s it like owning a small business in Raleigh? As opposed to your sculpture business? What’s the difference between coffee and the art?
Coffee is a lot more work, a lot more work. It’s more than I’ve ever worked before in my whole life. I mean, this is hard work. Sculpture is fun! You know, you go out, you go to a bar and you drink , you talk to a few people, they call you the next day and say, “Oh yeah, can you make me a gate?”Or, “Can you make me a yard art?” And I’d go, “Yeah, sure.” But this way, they just, you know, you get it a nickel at a time.
So, what’s it like owning a small business in Raleigh versus, say, any other town?
I don’t know. I’ve never owned a small business in another town. But Raleigh’s my home, so I really like it. I’m really community oriented. And because, when you look at First Night, it really brings a community together once a year for a non-alcoholic event and I guess the non alcohol part was good, it can get families out there. And you know, I don’t have any problems with that, but I carry that on all year long at the coffee shop, it’s a community place. The Third place, the concept is that you have home, you have work and a third place, which is where you hang out to decompress. You know, home is sometimes stressful, work can be stressful and so you just need some place to just go, it’s like a neighborhood bar like in Europe, you go to a pub, you know, and you see all your friends and you hang out, and so that’s what this is like.
So, where do you when you need a break?
I just come here and go to work. I mean, it’s stressful, but you know, when people say, “How do you do it?” I go, “I’ve got a short memory.”
What’s the question I should have asked, but didn’t. The one someone always should have asked you about, but never does about the acorn.
That’s a tough question. It’s the people’s sculpture, you know. It doesn’t belong to the city. Everybody thinks the city owns it, but it’s the people’s sculpture, they own it. So it’s a symbol for – what does it mean – other than it’s a symbol for the city of Raleigh and it’s an icon, but it means for people to get together. It’s a means for people to get together; it’s always brought out to bring people together, so it’s a focal point of socializing with people. And on a real scale, too. It’s not like Facebook where, you know, you chat with people and you Twitter or whatever. You are physically there with other people and you are hanging out at the acorn. And it’s in a park (Moore Square) with a lot of bums and it’s done pretty well out there and, I mean no one has really vandalized it, so, yeah, I guess that’s really the question is, “ Is that what Raleigh is about?” and I guess yeah, I guess it is.
Hanging out, yeah. Community