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Wednesday, 11 April 2007 00:00

Figuratively speaking

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By Sarah Kucharski

Entering figurative sculptor Wesley Wofford’s studio one is struck by the sheer size of his works.

 

High ceilings and open floor space give way to larger than life creations. A clay torso writhes with sinuous muscle, as a ferocious bulldog — a mascot commissioned as a marketing tool to draw customers to a display within a large supermarket setting — snarls in the corner.

The two images are an inadvertent, but apt juxtaposition of Wofford’s skills. Born in Snellville, Ga. — then a one traffic light kind of town — Wofford began studying art in first grade, when his mother recognized his talent and enrolled him in a private class.

Myth and legend drew Wofford to figurative sculpture. He began building Roman heroes such as Hercules and comic superheroes like Superman out of clay. However, many of these early creations fell prey to the firing kiln. Made of solid clay the figures would bubble and burst in the kiln’s extreme heat. It wasn’t until his teacher read about armature — the process of first constructing a framework around which the sculpture is built — that his sculptures truly began to take form.

“I just grasped the concept,” Wofford said.

His interest in figurative work grew throughout the high school years. Wofford saw the work of Duane Hanson, a sculptor known for his life-like creations, and began reading about how to make rubber masks like those used in early Star Wars films. He began looking for colleges that could offer fine arts instruction that would lead to mask making, going on to study at Valdosta State University.

But two years in to the program, Wofford decided that he wasn’t getting the education he had been searching for.

“I couldn’t take the sculpture courses I wanted because it was a very regimented schedule,” he said.

Despite his professors’ protests, he quit and began looking for a trade school where he could learn about makeup effects application. His choice was between a school in Orlando and one in L.A. At first, with family a consideration, it seemed Orlando was the place to go. But at the last minute, Wofford decided that it was in L.A. that there would be the most work. He arrived in town the first morning of school unsure of whether he’d even been accepted. He was.

In four months time he learned about movie makeup effects application from how to put on lipstick to the use of fake teeth and prosthetics. Not knowing anyone in L.A. Wofford was faced with the prospect of having to use himself as a model for his final exam. A young woman in his apartment complex offered to help, but he declined the offer — she later turned out to be Jennifer Love Hewitt, and he was left wearing women’s makeup.

After trade school, Wofford moved back to the Atlanta area, married his long-time girlfriend, and without income, began to contemplate his next move. His wife didn’t want to live in L.A., but that’s where the opportunities lay. They sold her car for $1,500 and headed west.

Wofford and his wife got jobs as extras, getting paid $40 a day, until he landed a job at an effects house. He used the opportunity to gain experience and slowly work his way up the ladder. His work on a beast character earned him control over the show’s makeup effects and crew members he hired in turn recommended him to work on other projects.

But it was the film “The Rock,” that put Wofford in the spotlight. A friend in the business had been getting silicon samples with the intent of using them to create new makeup effects. Together the two made a mechanized silicon head that when shot, exploded brain matter.

The project earned Wofford a reputation. The effects house where he was working was approached to participate in a small competition of sorts to choose who would create a series of frozen bodies for the film “Batman and Robin.”

The house had two weeks and $12,000 to come up with a proto-type to present to the studio. Wofford conceived a figure that, in sync with the film’s plot, would have been frozen in the middle of his daily routine — a man emptying out a trash can with bits of trash frozen mid-air.

“This was like an art piece,” Wofford said.

The figure landed the effects house the contract and they created 18 of the frozen bodies for the scene. Wofford went on to work for numerous companies in L.A. on films including “Bicentennial Man,” “Ali” and “Collateral.”

However it was his development of a special modified silicone material that revolutionized the industry, earning him an Oscar. The Rolling Stones’ were preparing to film a video in which a not yet famous Angelina Jolie transformed into multiple men and women of varying ages. Wofford was charged with the makeup effects for the transformation.

Wofford had experimented with using silicon to create facial applications to change an actor’s appearance. The silicon moved like real skin and its translucency made it look like real skin under the bright set lights — a drastic improvement over the foam and latex applications used throughout the industry.

Wofford had found that a certain medical glue would adhere small silicon applications to the skin. However, one of the applications was a full face mask — the weight of which Wofford had failed to account for. And when Wofford attempted to put the mask on, the glue wouldn’t hold.

Desperately mulling over his options, Wofford had a moment of genius. Latex sticks better than silicon. If he could coat the inside of the silicon with latex, the application as a whole would stay in place.

Wofford wasn’t awarded the Oscar for scientific and technical achievement until seven years later — after the concept had been proven. By then, Wofford already knew that it was time to leave the industry. The pitfall of his success was achieving his Hollywood goals too quickly. He was satisfied that he had done what he’d gone to do. The day he left, Wofford showed up at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science in a U-Haul. He helped give a presentation about two films that were in the running to be nominated for their makeup effects — “A Beautiful Mind” and “Hannibal” — got in the truck and drove back east to North Carolina.

With his return to the South, Wofford also returned to his roots in figurative sculpture.

“I was trying to find myself and I was trying to give myself time to find myself,” he said.

He sculpted portraits like that of Carl Reiner and commission works such Spike the bulldog for North East Sales Distribution Inc. But he was drawn to create more intimate works.

Now, from his home in Cashiers, Wofford aims not just to sculpt, but to invite the viewer to experience the act of sculpting, creating works that evoke a charged emotional response. It is an aim that is reached in works such as his “Coalescence” and “Reawakening.”

Wofford’s work is on display at Summit One Gallery in Highlands, 152 South Second Street. For more information about the gallery, visit www.summitonegallery.com or call 828.526.2673. To learn more about Wofford, his works and commissions visit www.woffordsculpturestudio.com.

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