Fall 2011 Issue
A 'quick' change artist
From corporate America to a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina to the halls of the Vatican, the life of Malcolm Wolff '77 has taken some fascinating twists and turns
By Richard Webster
It sounds like a pitch from a Hollywood screenwriter, one of those stories too fantastic to ever occur in 'real' life.
A man leaves his job as vice president of publishing at CBS after the new president sells off the division. Instead of seeking out a new job in corporate America, he chucks it all, ditches his comfortable life in Miami and moves to the mountains of North Carolina.
At 50 years old, he builds a cabin in Franklin, where he lives with his two dogs, chopping wood to feed his stove, the only source of heat.
Ten years later, on a whim, after hearing an advertisement on the radio, he enrolls in a class at the Atlanta College of Art, commuting 125 miles twice a week. Even though he had never showed an aptitude for art (except for one time when he was 8 years old and carved an elephant out of a piece of soap with a butter knife), he exhibits a natural talent for sculpting and his instructor, touched by his skill and passion, arranges for him to travel to Orgiva, Spain, to study with some of the greatest European artists.
His talent flourishes, he shows his art, sculptures of nature and the human form, in museums across the country, and is accepted into a master class in art at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy.
He finds love and remarries.
The story culminates 26 years later with the man sitting in the presence of the Pope who requested he donate one of his sculptures to the Vatican's historic art collection.
It sounds like a Hollywood fairy tale, but every word is true and the star of this movie is Barry alumnus Malcolm Wolff '77, who moved to the mountains after resigning his job in 1985.
Wolff still finds it hard to believe the unexpected turns his life has taken, counting his meeting with the Pope as the strangest of them all.
"It was a wonderful experience and regardless of one's faith you have to be moved by the majesty of it all," Wolff says of his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI last year. The audience with the Pope came about after a member of the Vatican saw Wolff's work in Florence. "After he thanked me, I thanked him and the Church for bringing such beautiful Renaissance art to the world."
Wolff donated a bronze sculpture of an abstract human figure to the Vatican called Illusion. "From any angle the piece appears to be in perfect symmetry, but that fact is in itself an illusion," he explains. "That inspiration and the faith that it requires to complete the picture in one's own mind is very likely one of the reasons his Holy Father was so taken with this particular piece."
Wolff said he never dreamed that somewhere inside of him there existed a talent that would one day catch the eye of the Pope; nor did he move to the mountains of North Carolina thinking it would spark some long dormant artistic spirit, but that's exactly what happened. "Being in the wilderness and among the trees and animals, I learned to communicate with nature," says Wolff, who today lives in Palm Coast, Fla., with Geri, his wife of 12 years. "I didn't create any art, but I was already going through the internal process of becoming an artist."
It wasn't always as smooth a process as it sounds. During one of his first classes at the Atlanta College of Art, which he entered in 1995, Wolff was tasked with sculpting a "Rubinesque" model sitting before him. When he finished, his teacher, Mustafah Dhada, told him it would make a great doorstop. Wolff said he wanted to cry. But Dhada didn't give up on him.
"He took out a scarf piece, tied it over my eyes, and told me to recreate what I saw in my mind. I worked for the next 20 minutes and when I took the blindfold off, I looked at what I created and the hairs on my arm went up and I received chills. I said to myself, this is living proof of spirituality," Wolff says.
Since that seminal moment, Wolff has shown his work in museums throughout the east coast and as far west as Utah. He has taught at the Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and was the resident sculptor at the Asheville Art Museum. Three months out of the year he teaches private masters courses in Florence, Italy.
"Malcolm is a very dedicated sculptor who came to his work later in his life," says Pamela Myers, executive director of the Asheville Art Museum. "He is committed to exploring both historical and contemporary sculpture and charting his own path. People like Malcolm, who come to art later in life, have more discretionary time to explore passions that have lain dormant for a long time."
Wolff's wife, Geri, knew him when he was working in the corporate world. Even then she saw in him a visual sensitivity and spiritual openness that would later foster the emergence of his artistic sensibility.
"Malcolm is somebody who continually reinvents himself," she says. "This was yet another very interesting iteration of a man whose life had been to that point and continues to be an incredible journey."
So what does the 'star' of a real life Hollywood fantasy do for his second act? How does he top an audience with the Pope?
Despite his age and his long list of accomplishments, Wolff says he has no intention of resting on past successes and looks forward to discovering more about himself and life through his art.
"Where do I go from here and what's next? Sometimes one has to say, 'Maybe that was it.' But I cannot accept that."