Earth, Wind & Fire

The Power of Wind

The unseen takes shape in Jim Gallucci’s wind-powered sculptures

By Jim Dodson     Photographs by Sam Froelich

To begin, a breezy pop quiz:

What do politicians and pump organs have in common? Not to mention pop singers and iron sculptors?

The answer, of course, is wind.

When Iron Sculptor Jim Gallucci heard a version of this somewhat lame joke one early spring afternoon while standing in the work yard of at his 7,000-square-foot studio and fabricating shop in South Greensboro, the acclaimed iron sculptor simply smiled and nodded.

“If you think about it,” he mused, “wind is a major force in almost everything around us in life. Wind brings weather, the change of seasons, provides a force for birds and seeds to fly over the Earth, moves everything in the world.  The wind shapes things, sculpts the Earth, propels sailboats over the water, moves people, ideas across the Earth! You name it.” As an example, he mentions a 50-ton airplane. “You think, oh my goodness, how can that thing possibly fly? The answer, of course, is engineers have learned how to use the wind. They can’t quite harness it — wind has a mind of its own — but they can utilize it to serve some amazing purposes.” Gallucci goes on to say that figuring out how to deal with wind is crucial to his job as an artist who creates large sculptures. “It’s called the sail effect,” he explains. “You have to find a way to work with the wind, not against it.”

As he says this, Gallucci — a cheerful, stocky, bearded artist  whose spectacular iron sculptures grace significant public spaces and private gardens all over the state and nation, and who looks, moreover, like a fellow who is gifted in the art of shaping steel to his purposes — stands near one of his latest creations, a monumental work called the Tree of Life. It is a spectacular tree made of structural steel with brass leaves of green that rises 40 feet into the air — i.e. wind — and will soon be bound for the Hebrew Cemetery in Charlotte.

Inside his large fabricating shop, a crew of two assistants is busy welding rebar together for the massive concrete footing that will anchor his stunning
Tree of Life. “Thinking about the wind and its effects is something I had to learn early in my career, which is why an understanding of engineering is critical in this kind of work,” Gallucci says. “Thanks to sitting with so many engineers, I’ve become something of an expert on such subjects as wind loads, sail effect and the other impacts of wind on my large-scale projects.”

The artist recalls a dramatic lesson learned of this expertise, remembering a frightening moment he and his assistants were just finishing the installation of two sculptural steel towers at Raleigh’s City Plaza in July of 2009. “We were welding the last pieces in place when suddenly, a large thunderstorm hit, bringing a microburst of wind that was later determined to be hurricane strength,” he remembers. “It flung three-quarter-inch plywood like pieces of paper through the air and actually moved our 38,000-pound boom truck several inches. But the towers didn’t budge. That was a relief — and not a small message about the importance of understanding wind. It comes from all directions, and it’s often unpredictable.”

Over the course of a distinguished 30-year career as an educator and sculptural artist, Jim Gallucci has made his share of chimes that rely upon the wind to produce sound. But he’s perhaps best locally known for his dramatic gates and bridges that evoke a palpable sense of place and offer a sense of earthy welcome, including Greensboro’s iconic Millennium Gate — plus gates at UNCG, O.Henry Hotel and First National Bank Field, where the Grasshoppers play. His extensive opera also includes gorgeously wrought bridges at Durham’s Duke Gardens and the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh. Several of his more dramatic pieces with specific wind themes regularly show up at important civic and art shows around the country.

“Some of them travel, just like the wind itself,” Gallucci quips, leading his visitor over to a magical looking piece called Divine Wind featuring a circular vortex of iron with sculptural squares that resemble pages caught up in the cyclonic whirl of wind. “We’ve taken this piece all over the country,” he explains. “It’s symbolic of how everything in our lives is shaped in one sense or another by wind of some kind or another. I have hopes that this piece may someday wind up out at the airport, where the wind is very much part of life moment to moment.”

 

A similar piece, he notes, was created for the citizens of Greensburg, Kansas, the famous little town in Southwest Kansas, 95 percent of which was s leveled by an EF5 tornado May 4, 2007. The storm killed 13 and injured 60. Since that time, Greensburg has risen remarkably from the rubble of its devastation, rebuilding a town that is 100 percent Green and now a model of environmental technology that includes one of Gallucci’s rendering of wind’s destructive force called Wind Passage.

“The first thing the community did was rebuild its police station and an art center — realizing that art is something that can hold a community together through the winds of change,” the artist explains. “When the mayor first looked at the piece, he wondered what the little squares in it were supposed to represent. When I explained that those were papers caught up in the vortex, he simply nodded. It was very emotional but quite an inspiration how they’ve come back.”

Here in the Gate City – “a place that — tradition holds — earned it nickname for all the railroads that once passed through this city, though I prefer to think the nickname comes from the fact that we are a city of open gates where all are welcome,” he says — a trio of moving Gallucci wind sculptures connect important spots on the campus of Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro. A colorful butterfly sculpture that holds the name of children who were served by the organization’s Kids Path program (but have passed on) graces the entry of the garden adjoining the facility that counsels ill and grieving children. “Every child whose name appears has his or her own color,” notes Paul Russ, HPCG’s vice president of marketing and development. “It’s the first thing you see when you enter the garden — butterflies in flight — a symbol of the young lives we’ve served.”

A few steps into the garden sits Gallucci’s novel pipe organ bench, a multi-colored confection of iron encircled by foot pumps that send air and sound through genuine organ pipes the artist salvaged from a church. The whimsical sound machine was funded in memory of a Hospice patient named Bruce who loved music and sound of any kind.

“It’s playful and irresistible to almost everyone, and that’s the point,” says Russ. “You have to step on the foot pedals to make the sound. Everyone feels a little like a kid around it, if only for a little while. The families and children who use our services come for therapy or help in dealing with a serious medical crisis, something that makes talking difficult for many children and young people and even many adults. Bruce’s organ bench is a wonderful tool for us in our work. It brings people out.”

And so, in a quieter way, does Jim Gallucci’s plum-colored Whisper Bench that reposes in a small cove of trees near the rear of the garden. It’s a tubular contraption where visitors may sit on the bench and whisper into a trumpet-like cone placed at one end of the bench and be heard clear as a voice in your ear at the opposite end.

“Many of the children who come to Kids Path really can’t vocalize their fears or whatever else is on their minds,” Gallucci says. “But what the bench enables them to do is whisper and be heard, to communicate in a private way. The staff says the bench is very popular — a place many children gravitate to. Everyone loves to listen to a whisper.” A similar bench resides at the Greensboro Montessori School.

Whether it comes from a foot pump, the lungs of children, or the divine winds of the Earth, Gallucci says, “wind is simply a magical force in our lives. It really does shape our lives in powerful and unseen ways,” he explains to his visitor before heading back inside to check up on the footings for his Tree of Life and to finish up work on a brass eagle model he was preparing for
High Point University. 

Across the yard stands an equally massive but somber-looking metal sculpture that features cutouts that were clearly silhouettes of human forms standing beneath a structural girder that looks as it had been tossed and mangled by the wind. His visitor suddenly wondered. . .

“Yes, that steel came from the twin towers,” Gallucci explains somberly, “some of the 9/11 steel I was offered some years ago. I hope it may find its way to a proper place someday, a public setting where it memorializes the terrible events of that day. Talk about the winds of change,” he adds with a sigh.

But then, brightening, he adds: “That’s the thing about the wind. Its power is magical, terrifying, unpredictable. It may even be our future — once we learn to harvest and use it for the good of this world.”  OH

With the wind at his back, Jim Dodson manages to edit four magazines, write books and tend his garden.

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