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.”
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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.”
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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.
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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.
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.”