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$800,000 and a dream: Wendelbo takes unusual approach to massive sculpture

Editor’s note: This post is the second of two examining John Wendelbo and the Durham Sculpture Project. The first piece provided an overview of the project and the proposed sculpture. This piece explores Wendelbo’s background and the project’s unusual funding approach. 


Ambitious, innovative and risky by its very nature, the Durham Sculpture Project can be summed up in one word: entrepreneurial. This is the type of venture that is mounted not to fill a market need but to create a market. Artist-engineer John Wendelbo, the project’s leader, implicitly acknowledged as much when he said he wants his initiative to spur the creation of additional sculptures in Durham and the Triangle. 

What’s more, the approach Wendelbo is taking to create a 35-foot-high piece of art essentially turns the conventional process on its head. 

Because of the expense involved in building bigger pieces, most large sculptures are commissioned. Few sculptors begin with a concept for an expensive undertaking and then pursue the funding for it, as Wendelbo is doing. 

“I’ve not seen it in the visual arts as much with something with this scale,” said Margaret DeMott, an official with the Durham Arts Council who has discussed the project with Wendelbo. “I’ve seen it more with the performance arts. So it’s interesting.” 

Mark Rossier is deputy director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, a nonprofit organization that helps artists throughout the nation. 

“He’s got a pretty ambitious vision, and he’s worked out the details there, and so there’s no reason for him to not go out and try to raise money to see the thing through,” Rossier said. “People waiting around hoping someone will commission their work — they might wait a while. So as much as possible, we encourage artists to sort of grab the bull by the horns and just do something.” 

The foundation is serving the Durham Sculpture Project as its fiscal agent, a function it performs for hundreds of artistic programs. 

While the foundation supports all manner of artwork, including films and other-large ventures, Rossier said, “I would say a sculpture project of this size is — is unusual... We have a few other public art kind of projects, but — but it’s not the run-of-the-mill project that we do.” 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Despite the project’s ambitious nature, Rossier said, Wendelbo appears qualified to execute his vision. 

“He knows exactly what he’s doing, how he wants to do it,” Rossier said. “His background is such that he should be able to do the project and pull it off successfully.” 

“He certainly has worked on large sculptures and has an engineering background and has, I think, an understanding of what it takes to do that in terms of just studio sizes, studio space, the kind of equipment, the cost of the equipment, the kinds of materials, the scope of time,” DeMott said. 

Wendelbo’s boss agrees. 

“John is a shaker and a mover, and when he wants to do a project, he sets about figuring out a way to get it done,” said Ed Walker, the owner of Carolina Bronze Sculpture. “And this is a somewhat uncommon way to get that project done, but I believe he will be able to see this all the way to the end, and Durham will have a beautiful sculpture once it’s done.” 


~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On Tuesday, Wendelbo stopped by Old Havana Sandwich Shop to talk with two reporters about the Durham Sculpture Project. He was dressed in mustard corduroy pants and a bright red rec-league T-shirt with the number 13 on the back. 

But the artist-engineer’s casual appearance belies his professional training and experience. 

Wendelbo grew up in France but earned two master’s degrees in England: one in engineering from London’s Imperial College of Science and Medicine and one in maritime science engineering from Southampton University. He was working in France as a naval architect for a yacht designer when Frank Stella called the firm. The renowned sculptor needed assistance building his massive “Prince of Homburg” sculpture. 

In 1998, a 25-year-old Wendelbo flew to New York to lend a hand. It was a life-changing experience. 

“I came to America for three months to help on this piece,” he said. “And three months became three years. Three years became 10 years.” 


After “Prince of Homburg” was installed outside the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 2001, Wendelbo began a new career abetting the creation of large sculptures. 

He also started a new family, marrying a woman from Orange County, N.Y. He and his wife, an occupational therapist, moved to Durham in 2005. They now have a seven-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Wendelbo’s passion for the Durham Sculpture Project is evident. He doesn’t seem arrogant, but neither does he admit to many qualms about the challenges ahead of him. 

“I have no doubt it’s going to work,” he said at one point. 

But it likely won’t work without either widespread community support or the kind of large-scale donation that Wendelbo says he prefers to avoid. 

“If I can get ten, twenty, thirty, forty thousand people to say yes to this by donating a couple of dollars ... then that’s the sort of yes vote that validates the project,” he said. “And that’s much more powerful than having, say, a group of eight people on a [public art] commission saying we’ll choose this or we’ll choose that. It’s more democratic.” 

While Wendelbo has spoken with some Durham movers and shakers, he’d prefer to proceed “without any major major major financial backer. If you can get away from that, you can really keep your freedom in a much more profound way.” 

Fund-raising, which only recently began, could last into 2014. Wendelbo’s bankroll is currently climbing toward the $5,000 mark, leaving roughly $795,000 to go. 

Wendelbo has been asking people for donations directly as well as selling prints of his artwork in order to raise cash. The Durham Sculpture Project also has a Web page for collecting donations

And Wendelbo hopes to open a gallery that would, in part, serve as a hub to promote and raise money for the venture. 

Because the nonprofit New York Foundation for the Arts is overseeing money collected and spent for the project, donations to the Durham Sculpture Project are tax-deductible. 

The road ahead will be long and challenging, but Wendelbo and his allies are eager to take the journey. 

“It’s bold, it’s definitely bold,” Wendelbo said. “It’s something that, if you can pull it off, it’s really unique. If you can pull it off, I think it’ll be a sort of fantastic testament to the character of the community.” 




P.M. Harris

This is advertised as a two-part series, but reads more like an advertorial. I don't understand why BCR would devote this much space to this topic. Couldn’t you cut it down to one blog entry by cutting some of the positive spin?

Kevin Davis

@PM Harris: No intention of "advertorial" or boosterism intended. It's audacious (and controversial) to propose a 35-foot-tall metal sculpture for Durham, and it's a story that deserves a full look. Matthew's work on this story needed two posts to tell the tale, so that's what we've run.

I'm not sure I detected a positive spin and am sure none was intended, but that's ultimately something for readers to decide for themselves, of course.

JD Overton

Please God no. That sculpture is so ugly. I don't care if one cent from Durham taxes goes towards it. I don't want to have to look at it for the rest of my life.

I Heart Durham

@PM Harris: You could start your own blog and do just that! :-)


Did this guy lose his last gig when the Death Star blew up? Seriously, if you want to see pointless gigantic monuments erected by totalitarian regimes for the sole purpose of being imposing, go check these out:



At least unlike the bat signal we are not forced into accepting this. The artist is trying to raise $800,000...a very nice large number that will most likely result in this conceptual drawing staying just that.

Frank Hyman


Thanks for the link. Look like sites for a science fiction movie.


What happens if he raises $799,000? Will he return the donations if the sculpture does not get built? Supposing I wanted the piece to be built, I would definitely want to know this before donating.


good question Justin, donations are made to NYFA, not to 'me', or 'he' as you call me, NYFA stands for the new york foundation for the arts, of course funds are directed specifically to this project, they operate in a sense as an escrow account, and NYFA is both a fiscal sponsor and a fiscal shield, they make sure that funds are only be used in -line with the project guidelines and vision. That's item #1.

#2, you may know we'll be soon be opening our headquarters, which will in fact be a new gallery downtown, once we are into that space, which I will reveal shortly, but not today :), there will be much more direct conversations, open forums etc... about where the project is going, the question you raise is one of those which will be examined carefully, I have some ideas but it's the kind of question that really benefits from wide spread input. For now I'll say that the mechanism exists to return donations individually one by one, if need be, however I doubt that that is the optimal solution in a broader cultural and socio-economic context.

#3 there is a lot, A LOT, more to this project, than just building this specific sculpture, it's important to keep that in mind, and educate one self about it. tThe gallery forums will be an excellent place to do that for those interested. sign up on the mail list on the project web site http://www.durhamsculpture.org

#4 ooh I cringe when I read that the piece is messy, it's such a classic pitfall of mis-perception / deception that comes from looking at large objects on small scales, eg the computer screen. it's a bit like looking at a mountain range on a small globe, one of those small globes with topology, if you just look at that, then of course it looks messy, it's minute and you can't see anything, valleys and mountains are all jumbled, and yet of course if you're standing at the foot of the rockies it looks different, doesn't it? same geometry, different scale: the negative spaces of dense objects 'air' out as they scale up, conversely something that looks 'tidy' when you hold it your hand feels very empty as you scale it up.

something to keep in mind, things are rarely what they seem, or what one envisages.

keep in touch though, sign up on the email list on the web site, that's the only way to really be kept abreast of things, openings, news, and actually a lot of other stuff too.




i like it!


@lee (and others too): sign up!


The picture above is actually the most controversial angle. When I clicked on the "renderings" link, it made a lot more sense to see the rotating 3D rendering. I saw something different with each turn...and NO...I was not under the influence. :)


@khalid : there's a 3D animation, like a video, on his website http://johnwendelbo.com/?page_id=23 - there also a post under in which he responds to someone and gives some insights into his thought process, some of it at least.

also a lot of other very cool animations under the 3D / 360 animations/... tabs, I'm partial to this one http://johnwendelbo.com/?page_id=95 and this one http://johnwendelbo.com/?page_id=108


I'm the last person that would discourage art in the city, but this design just makes me sad. It's much more suited to an office park (e.g., http://bit.ly/kpo3g5).


somewhere between the Giza pyramids, Disneyworld and Las Vegas, a small town
bones about sculpture. cue 'Thus spracht Zarathustra'

Bo H

I dig it. Privately financed public art installations = pretty cool idea. The only big improvement I'd suggest is to figure out a way to let people climb on it... kind of like the City Museum in St Louis (don't let the lawyers & actuaries steal all our joy).

Michael Bacon

I shared my response with jw on his blog. I'll re-post here just for the hell of it (unedited, hence the references to "on Bull City Rising")...


As I said on Bull City Rising, I'm a lover of public art, sculpture, abstract art, and even abstract public sculpture. That said, I find myself hoping earnestly that this never gets built, at least not downtown. I don't share this to be discouraging, but because you've asked for feedback on this, and because this is what you get into when you propose and/or build public art.

You say that you don't think that public art needs to "reflect" the city it's in. I agree with that, but I feel, strenuously, that it needs to be in conversation with the urban landscape it's in. Otherwise, it dominates and diminishes the landscape around it. That's what I'm deeply afraid of from this sculpture. Downtown Durham is not a blank canvas -- it has a deep and convoluted architectural history, one that has joy, hope, pain, mistrust, success, mistakes, and dreams etched into its landscape. It's the reason so many of us love it so deeply. To turn your sculpture loose on the urban landscape is not just to put a monumental work of art in town, it's to have that artwork's interpretation of the landscape broadcast inescapably, incessantly, for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year.

You mention, somewhat dismissively, the 9 foot bronze bull. You should tread carefully here, as I'll step forward and say that's one of my favorite pieces of public art, anywhere. To illustrate why, compare the "Major" (the real title of our bull) with the "Charging Bull" of Wall St. Both are public art, but one reifies a tired cultural stereotype, and one is genuinely challenging by, well, being a *bull*. I don't simply refer to the fact that our bull's balls are bigger (there is no elegant way to put that), but that the Wall St. bull looks like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, emphasizing all of the idealized conceptions of what a bull is that the 20th century media and literary touchstones have emphasized. On the other hand, Major looks like a bull that you might see grazing in a field. He's kind of fat, looks somewhat dangerous but also vaguely just hungry, and is generally frozen doing what a bull does on a day to day basis, which is stand there and look around. And yet, even as a passive sculpture, it is simultaneously a little intimidating and yet engrossing to passers-by, art sophisticates and neophytes; adults, teenagers, and children; urbanites and farmers. This isn't a *requirement* of public art, but it is quite an achievement.

And that "challenging realism" is not just some totem of Durham's people, but rather a descriptor of where a big chunk of downtown Durham's artistic, sculptural, and architectural aesthetic (and it is real and growing) lies. This is the aesthetic of Full Frame, of the Center for Documentary studies, of Phil Szostak's remarkable three story lobby on the DPAC to emphasize the culture of open conversation in Durham, of the Mercury rocket and our oddly beloved brontosaurus at the Museum of Life and Science, of Mueck's Mask at the Nasher, of Durham: a Self-Portrait and Welcome 2 Durham, and to a certain extent, of Philip Freelon's work downtown. You'll find this in the art being produced at Golden Belt and in the various art collaboratives around the city -- we value realism and authenticity, warts and all. In fact, the more challenging, the better. You're not entering an uninterpreted space, you're entering a hyper-interpreted space. You can't just drop a piece of art into the middle of it and expect it to be judged solely on its own merits as if it fell from space.

When I view your renderings, "messy" isn't the word that comes to mind. I don't mind messy -- life is messy. The words I would use to describe it are bright, colorful, jumbled, whimsical, cold, glassy, aimless, winged, arching, explosive, expansive, visceral, and unbalanced. This doesn't make it somehow a bad sculpture, but in my eye, it makes it terrible for downtown Durham. As I said on Bull City Rising, there are some places in Durham that this would fit wonderfully. I think the best place would actually be in front of Durham Regional Hospital. (Forgive me, but I laughed when you said that it should "blow your guts away," because this sculpture reminds me of nothing so much as dissected viscera. ) There's plenty of space to absorb the expansiveness of the sculpture, and goodness knows hospitals need heavy doses of whimsy. It could sit next to University Tower, particularly if there were some way to make it visible from the Boulevard and the Bypass, as that's a major gateway to town that is in desperate need of interpretation. Heck, I wouldn't mind seeing it on the grounds of my alma mater, the NC School of Science and Mathematics; this kind of sculptural engineering has been part and parcel of substantive artistic expression at the school. And if Southpoint would take it, it would be a godsend there to counteract the overly sentimentalized kitch that's been vomited out around there.

I would ask you to take a moment to consider why the backing you made for your rendering was a Montana-like expanse with a long horizon and fiery sunset. Simply put, that doesn't exist anywhere in Durham. Would your sculpture have been flattered by a backdrop of 1920's commercial buildings that have been cut up and fixed up so many times they're jumbled? How about a massive post-industrial complex of masterful brickwork? A mess of railroad tracks? If you wouldn't put those in the rendering because it wouldn't reflect your sculpture in a good light, that should be a massive clue that this sculpture doesn't belong downtown.

Best regards,
Michael Bacon

Seth Vidal

I think I'm with Michael on this. I don't know where in downtown it would fit in. And even so I don't think I'd want to sacrifice the open space in downtown in exchange for this.. Can you imagine this in the open field next to the farmer's market? Or down the hill from the skate park?

Now... if we're talking about replacing an eyesore surface parking lot with this... well then - we might have something to talk about.



This project is so ugly! It is a computer generated nightmare. Too big, doesn't relate to Durbam. Stop it now!


this thread is making me like glenn beck


"...Downtown Durham is not a blank canvas -- it has a deep and convoluted architectural history, one that has joy, hope, pain, mistrust, success, mistakes, and dreams etched into its landscape. It's the reason so many of us love it so deeply."

whoa man....that's heavy stuff.

Joanne Andrews

How is a big,macho,sculpture a testament to the unique character of Durham? Are we living in the same town? I think it is more a testament to ego. Please consider creating an artwork that responds to our built and natural environment, not one that imposes itself upon the environment.
No thank you,please.


I find the sculpture interesting...in a positive and negative way but that's what I like about it. It creates strong emotions...not oh its okay sameness that nobody continues to talk about or bothers visiting.

The most intriguing part of the project to me is the creativity of the funding process and resulting economic benefit. And it will spawn babies! I thought Durham was about sustainability and recycling. The scraps become smaller sculptures? That's interesting.

And the funding process IS the voting process. JW specifically said that he did not want institutional money. Soooo if you don't donate...this doesn't get built. If it does get built, there are 800,000 reasons why it should exist in Durham and that's backed with individual's money.

As far as location, I really doubt he is looking inside the loop. I've already made one guess (Golden Belt) while ATC would be an option if they abandoned plans for Phase III on the current green beside the DPAC.

I commend him on the courage to put his work out there for open discussion and debate. I commend him on the democratic funding process that is no different than the Durham Central Market initiative. I'm impressed with the thought put into each aspect of this project that is grounded in reality.

But maybe the engineer in me makes partial. :-)


Does Wendelbo secretly work for Fairway? Both seem in the business of eyesores.

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