Perhaps the one thing that many Durham locals take from granted is the same thing that newcomers will come to understand in less than a year’s time in the Bull City: everything and everyone in Durham is connected. Case in point: a beautiful, metal bull sign hanging at 106 W. Parrish Street.
Taking it back to September 2015 when I was but visiting the city of Durham, North Carolina for the first time, I was walking around the downtown area taking in all the sights when a particular bull shaped sign caught my eye — the aforementioned one. Now mind you this is before becoming a Durhamight and falling subject to Bull City love, meaning an obsession with all things bull had yet to take ahold of me. The sign was particularly well-done, eye-catching and perfectly displayed.
Proof? It’s a sign for a Bull City Dental practice and the last time a dental sign caught your attention you were roughly 7 years old and realizing your mom just rolled up to your dentist without any prior disclosure that you had a dentist appointment.
I would find out nearly a year later when I interviewed the wonderful dentists of Bull City Dental, Dr. Denise Palmer and Dr. Audrey Kemp, the connections to the sign. It turns out that I noticed the sign the very day it was put up!
Bull City Dental, Dr. Palmer’s second practice in addition to her thriving practice of 31 years in northern Durham, would open a few days after the sign went up. Dr. Palmer also directed me to the sign’s creator Neal Carlton of Vega Metal and Cricket Forge, who would unearth even more Durham connections.
Things would begin to connect with a call from Neal one morning that his schedule had opened up and as had mine. I put the address in Google maps and went on my way. As I drove down Rigsbee Avenue approaching the intersection of Hunt Street a familiar metal horse sculpture came into sight. I would later find out that the horse statue was made by a friend of the Vega Metal crew, Jonathon Bowling from Greensville, North Carolina.
I turned onto Hunt Street and parked. Walking towards the building that houses both Vega Metal and Cricket Forge I saw a beautifully done mural on the side of the building. While I noticed the art, I wouldn’t truly see the full picture until I stepped inside and got to know Neal a little bit.
I walked in the front door, past the beautiful iron butterfly chairs and various pieces of unique metal art to the office area where Neal Carlton was catching up with a good friend of his and Johnathan Paschall was working out the kinks in a new design.
Neal introduced himself, his friend and Johnathan, but before I could or would introduce myself something caught my attention — a beautiful, metal piece of Bull City artwork displaying our iconic skyline figures in the background and our beloved bull standing prominent in the foreground.
All decorum went out the window as I pointed at the piece and shrieked, “I love this! What is it?” Neal chuckled. He would go on to explain what the piece was a prototype for, how they made it and before I left that day, he gave it to me as a gift. This established one hell of a connection to my heart strings.
Fortunately, Neal has a very chill demeanor and as someone who has lived in Durham for over 35 years, he’s grown accustomed to meeting a wide variety of people — hard-pressed to think of a situation that would faze him.
I sat down, properly introduced myself to Neal (while scooting the prototype ever closer to me) and began our interview. I asked Neal to take me back to where it all began for him.
Neal Carlton: I grew up in eastern North Carolina with two amazing parents who always encouraged me and told me that I could be, and do whatever I wanted to do. I met Francis Vega in High School, where his mother was the Spanish teacher and my Dad was the High School principal. Boy, did we get into some trouble!
To an outsider it may be hard to understand how two different companies are one, but both Vega Metals and Cricket Forge have been longstanding businesses in the Durham area. The locals get it. I asked Neal how long have he has had both Vega Metals and Cricket Forge and how they came to be.
Neal: Vega Metals is 29 years old this year and Cricket Forge is 16 years old. What’s amazing is, the thought that you can make a living at doing creative work and giving other talented artist a livelihood too. We have been and continue to be so blessed.
Francis was the Vega in Vega Metals. He passed away about 3 years ago. To back things up a bit, after High School I had gone to Florida and got interested in horticulture. I attended Horticulture School in Clearwater, where I worked in greenhouses and did landscaping.
Francis called me one day to see what I was doing. He said, “why don’t you come and go to welding school. I’ll give you a place to live.” That was one of the reasons I needed to come back home, another one was that I missed North Carolina.
After welding school, we worked construction and spent our off-hours in small home shops learning the art of casting and blacksmithing. Francis had the idea of starting a small business. It was called Weldcraft and shortly thereafter, he asked me to come join him. Our agreement was, we would pay all our bills first and the money that was left we would split. There wasn’t a lot leftover for many years.
Eventually, a few years later and lot of heartache, sweat and tears, that business became Vega Metals, Inc. I’m now blessed to have Francis’s wife Cindy Vega as my partner and friend. The Vega name lives on.
About 16 years ago we started Cricket Forge after buying our first Computerized Numerical Control (CNC) machine. We saw that it was an avenue for production pieces. We had some friends that encouraged us to come and visit a wholesale market. They said you really need a product line of production pieces that you can take to market.
Cricket Forge was actually Francis’ idea. It was the notion of the lucky cricket, a sign of good fortune. We all thought he was crazy when he first said it and we all laughed, but the name stuck and has turned into good fortune. I guess it could have been Bull City Forge, but I’m glad it’s Cricket Forge.
We spent the next 6 months developing and designing a group of pieces that consisted of garden art. One piece in that original group was the Butterfly Bench. Now that bench is sold by Neiman Marcus and is in galleries all over the country. It graces many public spaces and gardens across the country. That one bench design has turned into over 20 designs and Cricket Forge has well over 200 pieces that we produce for wholesale.
I cannot tell you how many variations of bulls we’ve created but we’ve created a lot. They are in signs and sculpture and ornaments. I believe it’s getting a little overused but that’s what people love in Durham now.
The Vega Metals side of the business is custom oriented. We mainly do forged metal railings, gates, furniture and sculpture. Each piece is custom designed for the client and designed to fit their space and their taste. Our work is found in Duke Chapel, Cameron Indoor Stadium, the North Carolina State Senate and House of Representative and their Chambers, Duke Gardens and countless other businesses.
We have been blessed to work in many private homes in the area, from the heirs of the Duke family to major institutions and beyond. Our last two major pieces were created for Percent-For-Art competitions. These included Gateway Gardens in Greensboro where we designed and built a 35-foot high icon sculpture and driveway gates and the Buffalo Road Aquatic center, where we designed and created a 45 foot long by 10 foot high aluminum wall sculpture.
Neal took the time to show me around the shop, allowing me to touch and climb on everything while snapping pictures of every last inch. When the impromptu tour was complete he shared a very impressive portfolio of forged metal artwork he and Francis had created over the years. As a man who has spent a lot of time in Bull City making pieces of art that truly stand out, I was curious to know what stands out to him the most about Durham.
Neal: I think that it’s the eclectic nature of the people. There is such a wide variety of characters, from working class to very well educated. It seems like, or maybe it’s my rosy view of it, but there is just something here that people are very proud of. There is this unifying feeling we’re from Durham.
I think part of that is people from Raleigh and the surrounding areas would say, “Don’t go to Durham, it’s dangerous.” We moved into this building about 25 years ago. It was pretty desolate in downtown at the time. We moved in and the first night our building was broken into and all of our hand tools were stolen. That was our “Welcome to downtown Durham.” So to be a part of Durham’s downtown resurrection has been pretty phenomenal.
The diversity of culture here makes it nice. I find it very hard to put it into a synopsis. You have the Universities and all of the wonderful things they bring, you have all the visitors that come to the Universities or the hospital or the Blues Festival or the American Dance Festive, Full Frame, etc. etc. You really have to live here and be a part of it to get Durham.
My early memories of being here was the smell of tobacco. It filled the city, the packaging and the processing of the cigarettes. It would be pretty strong at times. The whole tobacco industry and the Duke family, is so entwined in Durham. That industry even though it’s gone, that legacy is still here and still a part of Durham. You can’t separate it. Thank goodness those buildings weren’t torn down for progress.
What changes would you like to see for the city of Durham?
Neal: Maybe a little more cohesive, a more thought-out design of public spaces. Where the planners, developers and artists think of it as a whole and not piece meal project-by-project thinking.
The park behind us is a perfect example. I think it could have done with a little more thought and input from neighbors already in the area. I realize everyone has their thoughts and ideas of what they want in public spaces. At the first public meeting about Durham Central Park what was suggested over and over was art, and if you look now there is very little art in Central Park. A missed opportunity.
The gentrification and the talk about it, that’s because people care about the city. You don’t want to lose the little things that make the city unique. You don’t want to lose the local guy, the arts and that’s what happens. You see it over and over. Artists come in and make it a cool place and businesses see that. Big businesses come in and then the artists can’t afford to be there. I don’t think I could afford to live in downtown Durham just because what has happened over the last 10 to 15 years. I think the people of Durham are aware of that and don’t want it. Durham is unique for the funky little shops by small business owners.
As a man who has crafted countless bulls in our city, I was intrigued to know which bull in the city is his favorite.
Neal: I would have to say Mike and Leah’s bull in downtown Durham, Major. Because I know Mike, he’s a friend and I know what kind of effort it took to create their bull. Leah and Mike have a great eye for design and that piece shows their skill and passion for their art. There’s a story to Major and Liberty Arts, but I think maybe I should let Leigh and Mike tell the story of Liberty Arts.
Neal gave me a few more leads to venture down the path The Bulls of Durham is taking and let me pour over his team’s impressive collection of art they have created. Johnathon got caught up in the excitement and showed me even more photos of art they have created before volunteering to be the next interview for the project.
When I thought the interview couldn’t get any more amazing, Neal nonchalantly told me I could have the prototype that caught my eye when I walked in. With rough edges, bits of metal shavings still clinging to it and a few kinks to be worked out, it’s a perfect symbol for our city.
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Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.