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

$800,000 and a dream: “Dionysos” has grand scope, big ambitions

Editor’s note: This post is the first of two examining John Wendelbo and the Durham Sculpture Project. This piece provides an overview of the project and the proposed sculpture. A second piece, to be posted later today, will look at Wendelbo’s background and the project’s unusual funding approach. 


A Durham resident is scheming to remake the city’s landscape and the region’s sculpture scene. 

John Wendelbo is an engineer by training and artist by vocation. His day job at Carolina Bronze Sculpture of Seagrove involves both of those spheres. Now, he’s trying to combine profession and passion through an independent initiative called the Durham Sculpture Project

Simply put, the project is an effort to raise approximately $800,000 from a variety of sources to fabricate a massive abstract sculpture designed by Wendelbo himself. At a projected 35 feet high, “Dionysos” would dwarf virtually every other piece of artwork in Durham and stand taller than most buildings in the county. 


The French-born artist-engineer believes that his project, which might take four years to complete, can make a big impact on the city and region. 

“If you embark on a really big sculpture,” Wendelbo said, “then you’re genuinely creating new jobs to build the sculpture. Not only new jobs, but you’re creating an infrastructure that enables you to build more sculptures.” 

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Wendelbo says that the fabrication of “Dionysos” could create four to six full-time jobs for at least eight months in 2014, assuming enough fund-raising has been done. 

A large sculpture project entails “significant but unavoidable” wastage of typically 30 percent of the material purchased for it, he estimates. One project’s castoffs, however, can form another’s core. 

“A bunch of other sculptures will come out of this, from different artists,” Wendelbo said. “And if you do that, then all of a sudden you have a flurry of fairly large sculptures.” 

Wendelbo argues that excess raw components, along with the equipment and expertise that his initiative would bring to the Bull City, could spin off a dozen other pieces. Each one might stand 12 to 15 feet high. Together, they could transform a swath of Durham into an urban sculpture garden and spur more large-scale sculpture in the Triangle. 

“Once you have synergies going like that, it’s important to try and consolidate those things by adding more,” Wendelbo said. 

The sculptor is working with a small group of volunteers that includes Catherine Howard, a Greensboro native and recent arrival to Durham who holds a degree in art history from Columbia University. 

“It seems like most of the artwork in the area is very two-dimensional,” Howard said. “And so it’d be great to get people interested in the sculpture side of things as well.” 

Added Howard: “I can’t wait to see what other projects people are going to bring to the foreground because he started this project.” 

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Among the unusual things about “Dionysos” is that in designing it, Wendelbo has essentially planned a strictly decorative building without having a piece of property for it to occupy. 

Because the Durham Sculpture Project is being established as a nonprofit venture, “Dionysos” will ultimately be donated rather than sold, Wendelbo said. His preference is to have the city take custody of the sculpture, and he has had some very preliminary conversations with officials to that effect. But Wendelbo has also begun talks with at least one developer about the project. 

“For a private developer, this is a gold mine, because something like this, whatever you think of the sculpture, it will attract foot traffic, no question,” Wendelbo said. 

He believes that “Dionysos” could fit somewhere north or east of the city’s core — some spot where redevelopment is taking place as Durham’s downtown revitalization spreads outward. 

Wendelbo has consulted with the Durham Arts Council about his project. (The organization has no formal ties to Wendelbo’s initiative.) Margaret DeMott, the council’s director of artist services, acknowledged that large sculptures can pump life and commerce into a neighborhood. 

But she added a significant caveat. 

“Yes, it has happened,” she said. “Can you make it happen, and what are all the elements ... to give you the best chance of making that happen? I don’t think anyone’s figured that out yet.” 

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By its creator’s own admission, “Dionysos” isn’t the easiest piece in the world to love. 

“It’s absolutely not the kind of sculpture that would be selected by a committee,” he said. “It’s a bit strange. It’s not sort of an elegant, streamlined piece that will appeal to everyone at all. People will typically — they’ll react to it. They’ll not like it, or they’ll like it, but there’s sort of not much of a middle ground.” 

Wendelbo describes “Dionysos” as dense and alive. In renderings — which the sculptor said provide only a partial sense of how the piece will look at full scale — the design contains so many different shapes that it seems to be in motion. In fact, the structure is not intended to move. 

From one angle, the figure suggests an enormous bull viewed from head on and preparing to charge; horns seems to flare from the sculpture’s top while below concentric rings dangle from a lowered snout. The designer acknowledges the resemblance but calls it coincidental. 

Wendelbo works as a senior designer and project manager at Carolina Bronze Sculpture, which produces large-scale sculptures. Ed Walker, who owns the company, praised his employee’s art. 

“It’s an understatement to say that it’s very complex, and the enjoyable thing about it is that it’s the kind of work that you can look at for long periods of time and then still see more in it,” Walker said. “There’s so much going on in his work, it’s not the kind of thing that you look at and then you’re done.” 

With fund-raising for the Durham Sculpture Project expected to last three years, potential supporters will have plenty of time to study Wendelbo’s design. Their reactions will likely determine whether the piece is ever built to scale. 


Michael Bacon

On the one hand, I love sculpture, I love public art, and I want to see more of it in Durham. I even dig really abstract stuff (I love this one in Asheville:

On the other hand, while it's hard to judge from a 2D rendering of a 3D sculpture.... ewwww. I am totally missing the aesthetic inherent in this. It looks like a jumbled mess with no unity, no grace, no form, and no composition. Someone please explain to me how this would fit into anything in downtown Durham. The look here just seems completely out of place and has no respect for the urban context of Durham, its architecture, or really anything to do with the place that it's supposed to grace. How is Durham supposed to appreciate this sculpture when it doesn't show any appreciation for Durham? (At least that I can see... no accounting for taste and all that.)

Phil Bost

What Michael said.


Looks like a pile of odds and ends from the salvage yard, all welded together, or perhaps from a still that got blown up. It gives a whole other meaning to the term "Reuse, Reduce, Recycle", but with some nice chrome touches.

Julie Maxwell

Yes!! Durham does need a colossal monument but I dream that it can be BIGGER and so much BETTER. "By committee" is not necessarily a bad thing for something of this magnitude. Not sure that I like the concept of a dozen other 12' sculptures springing forth from the scraps of this thing.

It is hard to image this sculpture - plus its 12 offspring fitting well in Durham.

Sean Sondej

I would like to see efforts like the Durham Central Market have $800,000 more donated to them so that we could get a community-sponsored market that partners with our local farmers and helps strengthen our economy and our city.

I love art, but it seems that this endeavor is a bit ahead of itself. How do we justify spending $800,000 on a piece of art to the entire Durham population when so many other basic infrastructure elements could be improved?


The word cacophony immediately came to mind when I saw this.


I've always thought the big expanse of lawn between the DPAC and Amer. Tobacco would be a great setting for a monumental abstract sculpture, but, uh...not necessarily this one.


what yall said


It's an homage to Durham's own - "The Scrap Exchange"

I'm all for $800,000 for art & sculpture. Instead of having an artist raise funds for his own sculpture, how about having a group raise the money and purchase a piece (or even multiple pieces) that represents Durham.

Michael Bacon

Broken link on the Asheville sculpture image. Try this one:

I'm trying to think my way out of this. I can see this kind of working somewhere like near University Tower, or at Durham Regional, or at Southpoint. Still utterly unable to imagine it looking remotely decent downtown.


Maybe it's just the childish renderings, but it looks like the he got his hands on a 3D rendering program and started futzing around without really knowing how the tools work.

Didn't we get tired of that c.1994?

I'm all for a big sculpture but this reads as amateur hour.


i see a sculpture built out of all the jumbled words that's meaning is derived from the compositors fascination.


The "Camel" on Science Drive / West Campus still causes visitors to stop and question. The recent large vases at the Nasher brought some contemplation...but this subject piece may bit a bit . . . umm...ambitious

Tom Dawson

Speaking of the Scrap Exchange: It employs about 8 artists and provides lots of volunteer work and learning opportunities for the community, reuses tons of material. The Scrap’s roof leaks and they could easily be priced out of the market if they don’t own their own space. I can't help thinking that $800 K could go a long way.

Patrick M

I like quality public art projects. I like investments in the public realm. I like a ton of the cool innovations in city life underway in Durham.

This sculpture is none of the above.


resurrect piss christ anyone?

Dingus Khan

Is that an Autobot or a Deceptacon in the process of exploding?

Khalid that's pretty funny.

I take it there are not too many Gehry fans on here. I spent two years in a Gehry building that some people called ugly...others the same time I've never seen sooo many people take pictures of a building over a 2 year period. I'm not hearing beautiful for this sculpture yet but the 3D rendering is interesting.

Its not really abstract if you can tell what it is. I think its great that it sparks people's imagination (i.e. Transformers)...imagination is something that gets turned off as we become adults.

BTW my guess is the artist talked to a developer on E. Main St. about an open strip of land. I think it would fit in an area that screams unconventional...and hopefully encourages people to imagine.


safety first.

it's unfamiliar.

just say 'so?'.


tone down the snoot please. the guy's an engineer, then a sculptor, before he's a 3D renderer. you sound like a half time architectural intern who has yet to pick up a sense of modesty and politeness.


I love sculpture and I love public art, but this seems uninspired + jumbly.

Melinda Stuart

Thanks for your attention to my downtown Asheville sculpture image on May 5 ~!


there is a description of the piece a little down the main page on the project's web - which might interest some. I thought it was pretty interesting, especially the part about the effect of scaling up. Certainly I for one am not rushing to judgment on this one, I'm not quite sure I fully understand what I am seeing. Love the project as a whole by the way. The sculpture, I'm not sure, maybe, I'm intrigued.


‘... other parts will preserve their edginess and hardness, but the piece will still stand stout, taught and proud...'

does he mean 'taut'?

Donny D

Love outdoor art, hate this sculpture. Are we trying to represent Durham as a futuristic society where power metal gods reign supreme by wielding broadsword's and roaming the landscape in search of truth and dragons? I can think of many more use of $800,000 dollars in the Durham economy.


rethink, please - public art, including sculpture is a vital part of the community;; however, this proposal does not relate to Durham. We are diverse but no longer tied in knots of angst.


So being and engineer and sculptor excuses you from knowing how your design tools function and gives you a pass on knowing how to represent your ideas?

I would have argued exactly the opposite - I was referring not just to the images but the form(s) as well. Apologies if I came off snooty.

Snoot free: I love large, abstract sculptures. But in my humble opinion this is not very good, and not very well represented.


If Durham's signature downtown sculpture isn't three-dimensional enough, I don't know what is:

Ellen C

I think it looks like how Dionysus feels after a bad bottle of wine.

Frank Hyman

@ Jonathon

The rumor is, that it's good luck to rub the, uh, 3D parts.

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