A Day of Free Art in Raleigh, North Carolina

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When most people think of places known for art, they probably do not think of Raleigh, North Carolina. We were really surprised when on a cloudy day in February, we were able to spend a day totally immersed in art in Raleigh. The best part about it was that all of the art was free to visit.

William B. Umstead State Park

William B. Umstead State Park is a really lovely 6,000 acre park nestled between Raleigh, Cary, and Durham, North Carolina. The tall pines and tumbling streams are a great reprieve from the surrounding suburban areas. The park has an extensive trail system that was the perfect place for a run. We saw lots of families out walking and many mountain bikers as well. The trails are even open to equestrians!

Walking up the trail in William B. Umstead State Park, there is a really cute little cabin.

Walking up the trail in William B. Umstead State Park, there is a really cute little cabin.

The chainsaw art is carved into the massive trunk of a fallen oak tree.

The chainsaw art is carved into the massive trunk of a fallen oak tree.

What’s most surprising about William B. Umstead State Park is the incredible chainsaw art hidden along the Graylyn Multi-use Trail. After a massive red oak fell near the trail in 2017, chainsaw artists Jerry Redi and Randi Boni of Smoky Mountain Art transformed the tree into an intricately carved forest scene, complete with herons, owls, squirrels, foxes, and other woodland creatures. The carving also includes bench where you can stop to rest.

When you find the chainsaw art, it’s kind of unbelievable that it’s just on the side of the trail in this otherwise typical urban park.

When you find the chainsaw art, it’s kind of unbelievable that it’s just on the side of the trail in this otherwise typical urban park.

A branch of the tree has been carved into a bench, making a great place to take a photo.

A branch of the tree has been carved into a bench, making a great place to take a photo.

To get to the art, enter this free state park at the Crabtree Creek Entrance. Drive to the large parking area at the end of Sycamore Road. From here the hike to the log is an easy mile round-trip. Walk up the trail about a quarter mile, until you reach the wide gravel Graylyn Multi-Use Trail. Turn right and walk another quarter mile, and you will see the glorious golden log on your left.  

North Carolina Museum of Art

In our year of traveling, Ian and I have visited a lot of free museums! (Free stuff is kind of our thing!) The North Carolina Museum of Art is definitely the coolest and larges free art museum we have been to this year. (Of course, NCMA doesn’t hold a candle to the totally free Smithsonian Museums in Washington, DC, where we lived before we moved into our van.) Admission to the North Carolina Museum of Art’s permanent collections and the museum park is totally free. In fact the museum was the first major museum in the country to be created through state legislation and funding. This is the way it should be! Everyone should have access to art.

This beautiful mural is on the outside of one of NCMA’s buildings.

This beautiful mural is on the outside of one of NCMA’s buildings.

This gallery of sculptures at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh is really stunning.

This gallery of sculptures at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh is really stunning.

These concrete legs in the Art Park are strange and disturbing.

These concrete legs in the Art Park are strange and disturbing.

In the museum you’ll find everything from Egyptian sarcophagi and ancient Sumerian art to stodgy, British portraiture to modern contemporary pieces. They also have a comprehensive collection of North Carolina artists’ works as well.

There is one of these silver trees by Roxy Paine in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in DC where we used to live.

There is one of these silver trees by Roxy Paine in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in DC where we used to live.

These longleaf pines are natives of North Carolina, and the museum grounds feature many of these fascinating trees (aka truffula trees.)

These longleaf pines are natives of North Carolina, and the museum grounds feature many of these fascinating trees (aka truffula trees.)

Our favorite part of the North Carolina Museum of Art is the museum park. In the 164 acres of woods and fields surrounding the NCMA you will find two miles of trails, and probably two dozen outdoor sculptures, including some interactive works. This is the largest museum art park in the nation, and it took us about an hour and a half to fully explore.

This painting was amazing. It looked like it was glowing.

This painting was amazing. It looked like it was glowing.

A Titanic moment on the bridge to nowhere. Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art Park has a lot of unique pieces.

A Titanic moment on the bridge to nowhere. Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art Park has a lot of unique pieces.

The artwork at the North Carolina Museum of Art includes many antiquities.

The artwork at the North Carolina Museum of Art includes many antiquities.

Most of the art is contemporary. There is “Gyre,” by Raleigh-based artist Thomas Sayre, which is three enormous steel and concrete rings partially buried in the ground. There is a also bridge to nowhere that is extends out of a hill over a gully. There are two massive mesh heads named “Awilda and Irma.” You can crawl in the butt of a red and white piggy bank, Pigcasso (although it’s designed for children…) You might feel a bit disturbed by the lumpy disembodied concrete body parts, but you’ll be cheered up by the whimsical Vollis Simpson whirligig, an iconic North Carolina folk artist. (If you want to see more whirligigs by Simpson, read our full North Carolina blog post.)

This cute little hobbit hole has a secret. It’s actually a giant pinhole camera.

This cute little hobbit hole has a secret. It’s actually a giant pinhole camera.

The camera projects an image of the trees on the walls around you.

The camera projects an image of the trees on the walls around you.

Our absolute favorite piece was a moss-covered stone hut, called “Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky.” This building looks like a hobbit hut on it’s own, but it holds a secret. It’s actually a massive camera obscura, or pinhole camera, so big that you can walk inside.  When you walk inside the cool stone building, close the door and let your eyes adjust. Soon you’ll see the shapes of the trees above projected around you. If you don’t quite see it, try changing the aperture (the metal plate with holes above you.) On a cloudy day we found that the middle aperture produced a crisp image of the trees in a mandala around us.

It’s almost like standing inside a mandala of shadow and branches.

It’s almost like standing inside a mandala of shadow and branches.

Once you leave the Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky you can look up and see the trees that were projected in chamber.

Once you leave the Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky you can look up and see the trees that were projected in chamber.

Guasaca

If all that art viewing makes you a bit hungry, stop for a bite at Guasaca—a Raleigh-based chain that serves Chipotle-style Venezuelan food. The carnitas arepas with plantains are the perfect balance of spicy and sweet. The food is cheap, the portions are huge, and you won’t regret the stop!

We highly recommend braving it, and dousing your arepa in the spicy, yellow habanero sauce.

We highly recommend braving it, and dousing your arepa in the spicy, yellow habanero sauce.

Guasaca is like Chipotle in the way that it’s served, but they have much more creative ingredients.

Guasaca is like Chipotle in the way that it’s served, but they have much more creative ingredients.

Free Camping Near Raleigh:

Finding free camping/overnighting spots in central and eastern North Carolina is really challenging (Western North Carolina is a dream!) We did manage to find a fairly nice spot at a canoe launch along the Haw River. It’s about 30 minutes from Raleigh, but it certainly beats a Wal-Mart parking lot. It might be the moment where you question, “Am I really living in a van down by the river?” The spot is somewhat close to Highway 64, but the river is really pretty. You could probably even pitch a tent along the shore here!

Just living the dream, in a van down by the river.

Just living the dream, in a van down by the river.

There was a very pretty sunset the evening that we parked near the Haw River.

There was a very pretty sunset the evening that we parked near the Haw River.

Have you experienced any of this art? Have you found other cool free spots in North Carolina? Let us know in the comments below.