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.