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Immortalizing Ideas

Posted On October 4, 2020

When Wesley Wofford empties his mind, he leaves a lasting statement

By KIM HENRY

Have you ever looked up at a nine-foot bronze sculpture and wondered how does such a work of art come into being? How does a person become a sculptor of such magnitude? By what process does the work arrive in a public space? Here to answer these musings is acclaimed Cashiers sculptor, Wesley Wofford, whose emotive, impactful creations have earned him Emmy and Academy awards, state commissions across the country and a sought-after personal collection. His insight on this currently topical art form is invaluable - how, why, what and who do we choose to immortalize?

Inspired by the pioneering fantasy movies of the 70s and 80s, Wofford was busy drawing and creating 'monsters, muscle and eyeballs' as a kid. His high school art teacher was so impressed with his obvious talent that she gave him free rein to explore mask making, puppetry and drawing. Maturing in his genre, Wofford went on to study fine art at Valdosta College in Georgia, where he was inspired by some of the world's greatest historical sculptors, such as Rodin and Michelangelo.

Ever committed to the authenticity of his passion, Wofford and his wife Odyssey, dropped out of college at age 21 and headed for the Hollywood hills to "figure out how to make a living in the modern world as a sculptor." Infatuated with hyperrealism, Wofford pursued work in the motion picture industry, creating realistic people, characters and animals. Diving into advanced translucent silicones led him to develop his own successful techniques for makeup effects and to work on over 75 motion pictures and television shows such as “A Beautiful Mind,” “Hannibal,” and “Batman and Robin.”

Never one to conform, after a prolific ten year run of film work, at the peak of his career but bogged down by mundanity, Wofford felt a mental shift and moved his family to the mountains of North Carolina. "I was afraid that if there was no passion left, my work would suffer, so it seemed like a good time to bail," says Wofford from his beautiful studio in the mountains. As they drove out of LA, in indicative Wofford style, he presented a speech to the Academy for two films that were potential nominees with a U-Haul of his belongings parked just outside!

Fast forward almost 20 years, and Wofford's list of achievements is long and impressive. With Odyssey Wofford as his gallery manager, Wofford is a fellow and board member of the Sculptor Society and an elected member of The Portrait Sculptors Society of the Americas, receives regular state commissions, and has time to attend to his own vast body of work. Among his most critically acclaimed pieces is his evocative portrayal of Harriet Tubman. This is currently touring the country, and his next project will be based in Franklin, NC, as a part of a Women's History Trail Project. “Sowing the Seeds of the Future” celebrates women's contribution to the future and was commissioned to counterbalance the lack of female representation in public memorials and monuments. 

The sculpture sets out to highlight three separate cultures through three historical women - a slave woman, a Cherokee woman and a pioneer woman. "The first phase involves a lot of historical research as this informs our decisions about which details we want to include in order to express the ideals we are looking to enshrine," explains Wofford. "Public sculpture is a loud voice in the world, and it's important that we think carefully about what we want to amplify in public spaces."

Wofford's personal work is also committed to the issues and themes that resonate with him. "If I tried to do a piece that did not reflect my ideals, then I don't think it would be a successful sculpture because I would be faking it. The work has to ignite me," he shares. One of his own pieces, “Generation X,” shows a disembodied head hunched over an iPhone, in a profound depiction of the emptiness and depression that our online dependency can invoke. Now in the time of COVID, this theme is more pertinent than ever. "A lot of my work is my reaction to what's happening in the world around me and sometimes I just need to express it in clay and empty my mind," smiles Wofford.

The process to 'empty his mind' is more complex than us layfolk could ever imagine. It involves miniature prototypes, computer generation for sizing, multiple versions in clay, burning out wax from ceramic shells and finally immortalizing the image in bronze. Wofford's talent is visceral, and as gut-wrenching as it is moving, as sensual as it is stark and covers everything from school shootings, to the beauty myth, to Black Lives Matter. Both contemporary and timeless, this complex art form has been enriched by the boundless talent of this artist, and as the viewers, we are touched, provoked and inspired.