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John Wendelbo's vision of public art 

A computer rendering of the proposed 35-foot sculpture

Image provided by the artist

A computer rendering of the proposed 35-foot sculpture

It's a little over a month ago and I'm loitering in an empty, second-floor storefront on Parrish Street in downtown Durham by a loose stack of toe molding and a swept-together pile of plaster dust, waiting for a lease to be signed. Not by me, but by sculptor and artist John Wendelbo—a name that you might not know, but that he hopes you will soon.

This brightly sunlit loft space will soon be the Carrack Modern Art Gallery. There's a lot of work to do beneath these high, pressed-tin ceilings, but Wendelbo already seems to see the drywall up, paint on the walls and sculptures on stands throughout the space. He gives me the grand tour of the possibilities accumulated in his head. How the space could be divided for installations. Where the DJ will perform on opening night. Which vacant buildings across the street he could project images out the window and onto.

"The shows that I want to put in the gallery are very different than the kinds of shows up in different galleries in Durham," Wendelbo muses as we celebrate his lease signing on the Pinhook's back porch. "To have a gallery in Durham, you sort of have to be a co-op, or a boutique gallery with a million things on the walls. The model that I have for my gallery is, as far as I know, unique."

The Carrack aspires to mostly solo sculpture and installation shows that will stay up only for two or three weeks. The space will be protean, given over to an artist to reinvent for his or her purposes, then torn down and put into someone else's hands.

But the gallery is just the beginning. In addition to its role as a community art space, the Carrack is a foothold for Wendelbo's larger Durham Sculpture Project. He envisions a large-scale sculpture of his—a 30-foot-tall stainless steel collage of geometric shapes and freestyle curves and cutouts titled "Dionysos"—installed in a public space somewhere in Durham. The city would own the piece once it's up, and Wendelbo hopes its presence would spawn a sculpture garden around it for other artists to place work, or even inspire other large-scale pieces to be created and placed around town.

Art in public places presumes a traditional civic process, but Wendelbo is taking a crowdfunding approach rather than the established route of city investment and public consensus. "Someone must have said at some point, 'We need a bull for Durham.' It happens that I like that piece (Mike Waller and Leah Foushee's "Major" in CCB Plaza)— and process-wise, the sculptors are told, 'You need to sculpt a bull,'" Wendelbo shrugs. "If this happens over and over again, what's the outcome for public art? It's never artist-driven."

So, is the Durham Sculpture Project the changing face of public art? Or is it one artist's way of realizing his work without compromises? "I see the world in terms of threads and weaves. This adds a thread. It's not changing what's already there. It's adding one new dimension to something that's already there."

"Still," Wendelbo blinks with equal parts mischief and understanding, "there's this fine line between altruism and doing something self-serving."

Now it's three weeks ago on Third Friday. I'm on a circuit of downtown Durham gallery openings that will eventually end at the Durham Cinematheque's multiscreen extravaganza in Central Park. Sidewalks are alive with sauntering diners and art-goers in hipster raiment. But when I swing by the Carrack, Wendelbo and a couple friends are in painting clothes, about to begin a work session. The new wall around the gallery restroom and storage area needs priming, but work is happily postponed for conversation.

When I ask Wendelbo how the Carrack will stay open without taking a commission on works sold, he launches into a monologue on art and business while pacing around the space, gesturing to an empty corner soon to have sculptures in it. The business model is so clear to him. The artist sells work and takes complete payment on it. The artist's show brings people into the gallery to purchase archival prints from the gallery and to hear about the sculpture project. Each day's take covers the next day's expenses and moves the sculpture project a day closer to realization.

That's when it hits me. Even through his proselytizing about new entrepreneurial models for art, Wendelbo is simply an artist wanting to make his work and to see other artists doing the same. We aren't talking about "Dionysos" this evening, but in effect, we are talking about it.

After spending a chunk of 1998 helping build Frank Stella's gigantic "Prince of Homburg" sculpture, later installed outside the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Wendelbo couldn't get the taste of that architectural scale out of his mouth. When he moved to North Carolina in 2007 to work at Carolina Bronze Sculpture in Seagrove he thought, "How do I do that here?"

Durham, however, has no policy for art in public places like the Raleigh Arts Commission Percent for Public Art, which earmarks half of 1 percent of city construction funds for public art. Nor does the Bull City have the wherewithal or resources to develop such a policy, so public art here is a crap shoot. No wonder Wendelbo aims at "bringing art into the public domain through a fundamentally different process."

Wendelbo estimates that "Dionysos" will take some $800,000 to fabricate, build and install, and he can recite the line items of that budget by heart, carefully noting how many jobs are created and what economic impact the project could have. It's a justification script that he's dragged around town already.

"True freedom is you give the artist money and he does whatever he wants," he concludes, popping open a contractor's bucket of white paint. He's trying to make things happen.

I remember that the Carrack is named after a swift, versatile clipper ship that sparked a new era of exploration and commerce in the 15th century. And I notice that Wendelbo's Tar Heel-blue ball cap actually reads "Marseilles" on the bill.

It's the Carrack's opening night, June 24. Exactly a month—to the hour—after he signed the lease among strewn molding and the kipple of a languishing rental, sculptural work by Paris Alexander, Edwin White, Steve Bickley, Wendelbo and others is barely visible among throngs of people.

Wendelbo is beaming. "I don't know 80 percent of the people here." Then he's whisked off to be photographed in front of an imposing White piece.

Sculptor Paris Alexander hangs out near his fired stoneware pieces. He couldn't be more enthusiastic about how Wendelbo is trying to push the issue of public art generally, and the "Dionysos" project specifically. "X number of people are going to tell you that it can't happen or it shouldn't happen," he gestures to the densely packed crowd. "And then there are the people who are like, 'It's about time.'"

Alexander knows the drill. His "R. Mapplethorpe's Arm" took first place recently in the Raleigh Fine Arts NC Juried Exhibition, and his works are installed at Appalachian State University, the Rowan County Library in Salisbury, Chapel Hill's historic Chapel of the Cross and the Riverfront Park in Charleston, S.C. He's had to work with civic and community commissions to bring those projects to fruition.

"Somebody within the city has to say, 'Hey, this is a good thing,'" Alexander notes when our conversation turns to the Carrack Gallery's model. "Can you imagine if a city invested in part-time shows? Can you imagine what that would be worth?"

Now it's last week. I'm dropping by the Carrack, which has regular hours on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings. It's quiet. As my daughters and I come in, Wendelbo sits alone on the gallery couch, chewing the first bite of dinner. Still a little buzzed from the opening, he's nonetheless already looking ahead. The opening show will come down on July 7, and a new installation by Nuno Gomes will open the following day.

We meander from piece to piece. It's a relief to talk about the art instead of business models and action plans. In front of Alexander's "Death Puppet for John Donne," a tense figure assembled from stoneware, bandages, sticks and roots that's half flayed torture victim and half religious aspirant, Wendelbo conveys appreciation for the artist. "He totally did not have to do this show. He has clients up and down the East Coast."

We talk about the semipermeability of Edwin White's "Cosmic Swirl," a wall piece with a diamond shape made of coiled, horizontal wire protruding from a solid rectangular area. A wire torus hovers within the diamond. It's an illusory piece with neither an inside nor an outside, seemingly seen from a distance even though we're right in front of it.

Then we look at one of Wendelbo's sculptures, "Carrack 2," hanging near the gallery door. He lets me in on a secret: He built it the day of the gallery opening. Or rather, it's an old piece that he augmented the day of the show with two scraps of metal tubing, transforming it from a tangled metal knot to a sweeping vertical autograph in space.

"I build them ad hoc, like collages. I prepare a lot of elements and then see how they fit." It's an apt metaphor for the Carrack Gallery, as well as how it fits into the Durham Sculpture Project as a whole. Changing, adjustable, always moving more or less forward. It's a process, but he quips, "Process is a hard sell."

We let Wendelbo return to his dinner. Walking back down Parrish Street, my daughters take turns sitting on Major's back.

  • Will the Durham Sculpture Project change how we fund public art?

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