Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Sculptor Wesley Wofford said he is proud and honored to finally realize the unveiling of what he believes is his most “significant monument” to date. A nine-foot Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad sculpture was recently installed at a private office building in Dallas, Texas. Wofford pointed out, “The resilience of strong women throughout history is finally being recognized and commemorated.”
One year ago last fall, Wofford was at the Macon County Historical Museum dressing two local “models” in period costumes and photographing them for the process that would eventually result in the completed sculpture. Over the past several months, 8-year-old Aspen Applewhite and her dance instructor, Jayda Bryson, of Betsy’s School of Dance, met with Wofford at least half a dozen times at his Cashiers-based sculpture studio as he worked on the fine details of the piece.
“I watched how their muscles moved in the period clothing,” said Wofford. “I set up a massive industrial fan and blasted it and then observed how it blew their dresses and billowed the coat … how their faces tightened and their shoulders braced against the wind. I shot this in slow motion and then scrolled back through and chose specific aesthetic elements for the sculpture.”
Wofford, in fact, spent at least a year working to “imbue the piece with emotional resonance.”
Wofford moved to Cashiers in 2003 with his wife, Odyssey, who is also studio director. Wofford served as a board member at The Bascom in Highlands for three years. Wofford’s interest in advanced translucent silicones led him to develop his own formulas and techniques, which, in turn, projected him into the Hollywood scene and specifically the makeup effects industry.
“What I’ve done for film is like portrait sculpture, but doing it on a live face … transforming their look,” he said in a September 2018 article for The Macon County News.
He has worked on more than 75 motion pictures and television shows, including, “A Beautiful Mind,” “Hannibal,” “Batman and Robin,” “The Rock,” and “Collateral.” He has personally worked with such actors as Robert De Niro, Tom Cruise, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Will Smith, Chow Yun-Fat, and Russell Crowe. Plus, Wofford has been featured in numerous magazine articles and television coverage and has received awards, including the coveted Emmy from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences as well as a technical achievement Academy Award for seven years of work in film.
About the new sculpture, Applewhite’s mother, Crystal Jenkins, said, “She feels honored and blessed, and so do I, to have been a part of such an incredible work of art. As a woman and a mother, I feel we can all strive to make positive changes for our children and their futures. Harriet Tubman showed great strength and bravery during such a dark time in our history. Aspen said it makes her heart happy when she [saw] the sculpture because it reminds her of all the people Harriet Tubman helped to freedom.”
“I am so very honored to have been asked to model for this sculpture,” Bryson added. “It was exciting to see it develop and change from a small clay figure to a historic monument. Wesley placed symbolism throughout the pose. For example, how my hand would be placed or how my head was tilted. It wasn’t as simple as taking a snapshot. As I was holding an extremely awkward pose, I thought that my short-lived discomfort couldn’t compare to the hardships that Harriet went through. The whole experience and the research Wesley shared gave me a whole new appreciation for her and the struggles of my ancestors.”
Wofford plans to travel to Dallas the first weekend of October to see the installed sculpture in person.
“I am very pleased and believe it is my most significant work to date,” said Wofford. “It’s been so satisfying to see how people have reacted to it since photos of it have been on social media. Reaction has exploded. It’s been shared over 12,000 times [as of Sept. 18] and over a million people have looked at it. Plus, I’ve been contacted by the Harriet Tubman home, some of her descendants … I can’t even list off everyone. The sculpture has been overwhelmed with interest. I’m just so humbled by it.” He added that his goal was to, “do [Harriet Tubman] justice.”
Even though Wofford is an internationally recognized sculptor with ties to Hollywood, he is contributing locally by working on a bust of former Western Carolina University chancellor David Belcher, who died in June 2018. In April, the university officially dedicated the David Orr Belcher College of Fine and Performing Arts in memory of the late chancellor. “I knew him,” said Wofford, “and it’s rare that I get to sculpt people that I knew or know. I’m really working to bring out his true countenance.” The bust will be installed at the College of Fine and Performing Arts.
Wofford was also commissioned last year to begin the process of creating a sculpture for the Women’s History Trail representing the contributions of women to Macon County. The sculpture includes three historical, matriarchal, and local figures: a white woman, an African American woman, and a Cherokee woman. Their names are Timoxena Siler Sloan, Sally (last name unknown), and Rebecca Morris. Currently, the sculpture project is in what is deemed the “design maquette phase,” a rough clay likeness that is only one-third the size of what will eventually become a seven-foot bronze finished sculpture.
However, Wofford said, “We will soon be ramping up the project and doing a model search for the women … building their dresses and working on the historical details of each figure.” He plans to have a third-scale model of the sculpture by early 2020, with a future completion date partly dependent on fundraising, which is ongoing. The sculpture, when completed, will be installed at the entrance to Franklin – near the Nikwasi Mound.
“We’ve been working closely with the Cherokee Nation to find a model,” said Wofford. “I’m really excited about this piece and feel it is a connecting thread from the Harriet Tubman piece that I just completed.”