Artist Josh Copus builds community

SMOKESTACK: Josh Copus' latest project celebrates and explores the Marshall community, one brick at a time. The chimney, currently installed at the Woodson Branch Nature School, will be dedicated on April 7.
SMOKESTACK: Josh Copus' latest project celebrates and explores the Marshall community, one brick at a time. The chimney, currently installed at the Woodson Branch Nature School, will be dedicated on April 7. Photo by Thomas Calder

In Western North Carolina, it’s not uncommon to spot an old brick chimney alone in a distant field. In fact, if you wind your way through Marshall via U.S. 25, you’re guaranteed to see such a structure atop a hill at the Woodson Branch Nature School. However, if you were to pull over and give the smokestack a closer look, you’d discover an unconventional design. All 1,500 of its bricks carry messages, images and, in some instances, faces.

The chimney is the latest project by Marshall-based artist Josh Copus. Between August and November of last year, locals created the handmade bricks at Copus’ mobile community brick factory, as part of the latest iteration of the artist’s Building Community Project (a program he launched in 2006, while a student at UNC Asheville). The installation is a result of this effort, which the artist calls a monument to the residents and town of Marshall.

On Saturday, April 7, Copus, along with the Woodson Branch Nature School, will celebrate its dedication. The event will include a scavenger hunt, guided tours of the property, information on the school’s programs and a brickmaking session.

The installation, explains Copus, offers a unique way to explore the opposing ideas of community and diaspora. For Emily Patrick, Copus’ fiancé and contributing project partner, one brick in particular stands out as emblematic of these themes. It reads: THIS BRICK IS A MEMORY. “I like that idea of this whole thing, this structure, being a memory of Appalachia’s past,” she says. “It’s a symbol of the past, and of the past gone. But it’s also a question of what happens now?”

Contrasting perspectives

From day one, Copus explains, the Building Community Project has been free for anyone to participate in. Much of the financing comes through grants. Copus and Patrick have also spent countless hours digging up clay and demonstrating the process to would-be makers. Inclusivity is key to the project’s success. “The barrier of participation needs to be eliminated as much as possible,” Copus says. “That’s one of the core pillars of the project: It does not cost any money.”

MIXED BATCH: Free of cost, the Building Community Brick Project is also free from censorship. Residents of Marshall were invited to share their legacy and views by stamping them onto handmade bricks. Photo by Thomas Calder
MIXED BATCH: Free of cost, the Building Community Project is also free from censorship. Residents of Marshall were invited to share their legacy and views by stamping them onto handmade bricks. Photo by Thomas Calder

The program is also free from censorship. Inscribed messages vary from inside jokes to factoids about the town and from memorials to political statements. A pair of bricks situated side by side on the front of the chimney offers an example of the contrasting perspectives held by those who partook in the project. One reads, THE CONFEDERACY LIVES and is accompanied by two small, circular imprints of the Confederate flag. The other declares, WE CAN HEAL.

Copus says the two women who designed the messages created them on the same day while sitting across from each other. “Everyone knew what was going on,” he explains. “But no one got called a racist; no one got called a hippie. It was obvious they were of differing viewpoints. … But they just made art together. And there was a conversation.”

“Think about how rare it is for those two people to encounter each other in real life,” adds Patrick. “So much of the back-and-forth happens on Facebook. People never see who the other side is. To be able to have the starting point of making something together, I think, is cool and different.”

The old jailhouse

The chimney will remain at the Woodson Branch Nature School for an undetermined period of time. But, ultimately, the installation will come down, and the bricks will be used as part of the sidewalk and back patio for Copus’ other ongoing project: the old Marshall jailhouse.

OUTLAWS: Josh Copus and his fiancé and project partner, Emily Patrick, inside the old Marshall jailhouse, which Copus purchased with three business partners. Photo by Thomas Calder
OUTLAWS: Josh Copus and his fiancé and project partner, Emily Patrick, sit inside the old Marshall jailhouse, which Copus purchased with three business partners. Photo by Thomas Calder

In 2016, Copus and three business partners purchased the town’s former sheriff’s office and house of correction. The plan is to turn the upstairs detention center into short-term rentals; the downstairs will have commercial businesses, as well as a small museum. The project is still in its early stages.

“The renovation of this space comes alongside what is a pretty exciting growth we’re seeing in Marshall,” says Madison County Planner Sara Nichols. “The developers of this project have taken the community into consideration as they want this space to be a space that adds to the dynamic nature of Marshall.”

Part of this consideration has involved interviewing residents with ties to the old jailhouse, which opened in 1905 and operated until 2012. The result, “Stories from the Old Marshall Jail, Vol. 1,” is now available on the Building Community Project website.

“We want to do a full length,” notes Patrick. “That will take more time and more trust, but that’s the nice thing about this project. It’s giving us time to get to know people and for them to get to know us.”

For Copus, everything — the chimney, the jailhouse, the documentary, the brick project — is connected by the guiding principle of community. “The ultimate resolution in my mind is that a child comes and makes a brick, and then that brick becomes part of [the jail’s] property,” he says. “And then, 30 years from now, that child is an adult, and they always have that connection to their hometown.”

In the meantime, the lone chimney peers out toward U.S. 25 with all its memories, inside jokes and stories holding it together. “It’s the history of a place, as told through what really makes the place,” says Copus, staring up at the monument. “So much of what the history books are about is, like, this war or this thing — when the real history is about the details.”

WHAT: Building Community Project’s chimney dedication
WHERE: Woodson Branch Nature School, 14555 U.S. 25, Marshall. communitybrick.org
WHEN: Saturday, April 7, 2-8 p.m. Free

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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