The building at 212 N. Churton St. in Hillsborough is no stranger to the sound of hammering metal or the sight of sparks from welding torches. Built in 1942, it was originally a gas station and, in keeping with the heavy metal theme, housed Beyond Barriers Personal Training.
In September 2021, after sitting empty for months during the pandemic, the space reopened as the Eloise James Studio, owned by local metal sculptor Tim Werrell, who had been overseeing the location for a few years.
“About 15 years ago I came in and it was pretty run down,” Werrell said. “And then the management company that owned it before me completely did all the renovations. So now I have the luxury of owning this and being here in Hillsborough. It’s wonderful. I live right on the Churton and Union streets.
The lobby is elegant, modern and decorated with several samples of his sculptures. In the next room, however, exposed brickwork and giant windows enclose a large room of tables, tools, and other work areas.
Werrell has been a sculptor for over 40 years, always working with sheet metal fabricated in a direct process, as opposed to casting, which involves ovens, molds and a larger process to achieve the end result.
“The direct process is to create the mockup or pattern and then lay it directly into sheet metal,” he said. “You can build huge bases through fabrication much more easily than you can build large parts through casting or other processes.”
At the age of 15, Werrell traveled across Europe and visited the Venice Biennale, considered one of the most prestigious art exhibitions in the world. It was there that Werrell saw “the greatest sculpture show I have ever seen” and knew what he wanted to do professionally.
While attending Beloit College in Wisconsin, Werrell had the opportunity to intern with OV Shaffer, who was a well-known sculptor in the Midwest. Shaffer took Werrell under his wing, gave him work, taught him the craft and the business of creating, marketing and selling his sculptures.
“It’s the only job I’ve ever had. I never had a boss, never had a clock to punch. And I’ve always been a freelance sculptor,” Werrell said.
He started his career in Cincinnati, where his family is from. He and his late wife moved to Durham when she took a job at Duke University as a librarian. For 20 years before moving to Hillsborough, Werrell lived in Durham, where he owned property which he would convert into a studio. As real estate values in the city soared, Werrell eventually found he could not justify keeping the space for his studio. He bought the Churton Street building in Hillsborough, moved in his equipment and now rents out his property in Durham.
Many of Werrell’s sculptures are large and abstract. Shapes can range from soft, flowing, organic shapes to those with harder edges and geometric shapes. “If I do a public commission, I usually try to work on researching some type of symbolism,” he said. “I did the Vietnam War Memorial for South Carolina, and it was obvious. It was called the ‘Three Faces of War,’ and it was three figures: two figures holding a central figure that soars skyward. They were abstract figurative pieces. When there’s symbolism, it’s easy. Because you can create forms that are consistent with a business or a city. Other than that, I just find round shapes in my mind.
Werrell said he would weld scale models, called mock-ups, of his ideas to work on next or save them for a future project.
He has work as far away as Cheyenne, WY., and Planer Barrow, Canada. He sold many pieces for private gardens and private homes. And while these may be his bread-and-butter works, Werrell’s piece de resistance should be commissioned for a large public room, such as a municipality or library.
“I think it (the sculpture) makes the space vital. I think rather than seeing your buildings of practical application, like parking lots, these are the ones that are out of context and interesting to see. Also, I think a lot of people and companies put them on because it shows they’re successful,” he said.
Early in his career, when he was starting out in Cincinnati, Werrell had trouble finding opportunities to sell his work, and he complained about it to his father, who was a stockbroker. “And he said, ‘What do you think I should do? I have to call clients all the time. Maybe you should try. So while I was in Cincinnati, I just started soliciting clients. companies to see if they were interested in putting a sculpture in front of their building. And I succeeded. I have all kinds of sculptures in front of companies. Public plays came later.
Werrell said he’s about to start a huge project for Statesville that will include five pieces. The city is experiencing a renaissance in hopes of attracting more people to its downtown area. Statesville officials decided that art, and sculpture in particular, would be the best way to attract more people.
“So they built a huge sculpture park, and then they put different pieces in downtown (Statesville),” he said. “It’s truly inspiring that this small town has done so much and changed the way its downtown looks. This somehow makes it vital.
One of the sculptures Werrell is doing for Statesville will be the tallest he has ever done at 25 feet tall. It’s made with Core 10 Steel, which is an alloy, and gives the appearance of rust, even though it’s not actually rust. Werrell is responsible for building the sculpture to withstand the weather and the passage of time. Generally, the municipality takes care of the actual installation.
“I’ll haul it and, and I usually take a team of guys with me, mostly friends,” he said. “They have a great time doing it, then we go out and have a big lunch afterwards.”
Although he does not have a public work in Hillsborough, he hopes to one day have the opportunity to create a work of art for the town. One of the reasons he opened his new studio on Churton Street is to gain fame in Hillsborough.
“People are welcome to come visit,” Werrell said. “That’s one of the other reasons I’m here because I also feel like a resource to help people understand sculpture. I like to deal directly with the people who buy my sculpture because, on the one hand, you meet all these interesting people. Besides, it’s flattering that someone wants to put something I made in their house. It’s amazing, and I feel really honored.
Werrell said he named his company Eloise James Studio after his parents — Eloise and James Werrell — whom he credits with providing him and his brothers with the freedom and support to become a professional sculptor.
“They encouraged us to go into fields or professions that we would be happy with, not just a day job,” he said. “They opened the doors to a lot of things for us. It’s a pretty great career. I meet incredible people who work for municipalities, and people who give their time to put sculptures in their communities are usually very interesting.
Eloise James Studio is at 212 N. Churton St. in Hillsborough. For more information on Tim Werrell and to see examples of his sculptures, go to werellsculpture.net.