Joe Wheelwright has always worked big and dreamed bigger, carving faces out of 7-ton boulders, turning scraggly pine trees into towering sculptures fit for a Tim Burton movie, even trying to replace the crumbled Old Man of the Mountain. But the 65-year-old Dorchester artist's latest plan is by far his most outlandish and ambitious.
Wheelwright, whose sculptures have exhibited along the East Coast, from Miami to Washington to New York, Boston, and Vermont, wants to carve a giant head into the majestic Andes mountains of Peru. It's a project that could take a decade to finish and cost millions, but which he boasts could be the "eighth wonder of the world."
As proof of how serious he is, he is in Cusco now talking with Peruvian business leaders and government officials in hope of raising money — and getting permission — to create a piece he believes could draw comparisons to Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Those familiar with Wheelwright's work and unyielding personality say the idea is just crazy enough to come together, but there are some who say he has no business carving into the side of a beautiful mountain for the sake of art.
"I don't question his ability to pull it off," said Fitchburg Art Museum director Nick Capasso, who commissioned a stone piece from Wheelwright while curator at the Decordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln. "He's certainly worked in very large scales."
Wheelwright knows the challenges he will face. But he is hoping to make the case that his piece would be perfect for the Andes mountains, serving as both inspiration and tourist attraction in Southeastern Peru. The region, in part because of the 15th century Incan village Machu Picchu, already draws more than 2 million visitors a year.
"In America, I think you couldn't accomplish this," Wheelwright, a wiry figure who uses his hands both when he's working and talking. "There'd be a counterforce that would smite it. But in Peru, mining is huge and a huge tourist industry and a huge labor force and there are good workers. It would be ideal. The world is ready for an eighth wonder of the world."
His supporters say what separates Wheelwright from other artists is his willingness to take on bold, groundbreaking projects.
"One of the things we learn in art is that you won't learn anything if you don't take risks," said Murray Dewart, a sculptor with works in the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard Art Museums. "I'm a great believer in taking risks and a great believer in Joe's work."
Even Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau said he was not surprised to hear his longtime friend and former roommate at Yale University proposing such an oversized idea.
"I hate to think of him running out the clock chipping away at a remote peak in the Andes, but for a certain kind of artist, it doesn't get any better," Trudeau said in an e-mail.
The mountain sculpture idea is actually rooted in an earlier Wheelwright proposal. In 2003, disappointed by the collapse of the rock formation in New Hampshire known as The Old Man of the Mountain, the sculptor proposed a potential replacement. He carved a man's head out of a 17-inch-tall chunk of granite, to show state officials what it would look like. He was not surprised that he never heard back — a full-sized version of the head would have been very costly, but he keeps the model on a table in the center of his studio.
Then, earlier this year, he and sculptor Nora Valdez developed a project with a group of Peruvian sculptors. Wheelwright and other members of the Boston Sculptors Gallery will show their work starting in February in the Qorikancha Museum in Machu Picchu. A group of Peruvians artists will show their work in Boston next year. The Peru exchange gave Wheelwright the idea for reviving his Old Man of the Mountain proposal. The idea came as he was also coping with his biggest, professional failure.
In late 2012, he had attempted to raise a 35-foot sculpture made out of a pine tree in the woods of Vermont. The piece, constructed on the ground, would have been his tallest yet. But as Wheelwright and a group watched his assistant scale the tree during installation, the piece fell and shattered. The assistant ended up in the hospital with broken bones in his arm and face. Wheelwright found himself in a fog. He felt shaky and exhausted.
"I think that was really a nightmare come true," said Tess Wheelwright, his daughter. "He has always lived on the line between crazy and visionary. He's had a magic touch there and been able to make a life just doing what he wants to do. The fact that the Gods betrayed him that day. I think it really shook him."
The mountain idea, she said, has given Wheelwright back "that old sparkle in his eyes."
It is also become a topic of some debate. Trudeau urged Wheelwright to keep the idea to himself at this early stage. He worries that too much publicity might alienate the Peruvians.
Marco Troiano Bocanegra, Wheelwright's main contact in Peru, also suggested waiting before going public. Bocanegra has been setting up meetings in advance of Wheelwright's Dec. 29 trip. In an e-mail, he declined to share the names of the officials on the artist's schedule.
Wheelwright's uncle Peter Matthiessen, the famed writer and naturalist, told the sculptor over the phone that he did not like the idea of his cutting into the mountains.
In an interview, Matthiessen related the idea to his feelings about Mt. Rushmore. "I'm impressed by the amount of work that went into it but I just hate the idea of it," he said. "Joe's thing isn't anything like that, but the mountain is doing all right by itself."
Wheelwright appreciates the debate, though he believes the carved head will not overwhelm the landscape, it will complement it. He's also not sure whether talking now will help or hurt his chances. He believes the nature of the idea should win over the Peruvians.
"What is art? It's the elevation of the human spirit and joy of the aesthetic," he said, while taking a break from working in his cavernous studio on Humphreys Street.
"That's what we have to sell to the nation of Peru. That this is a fabulous, natural, fun move that in the long run is going to be profitable, too."
Wheelright insists that he's not dead set on carving the mountain. He will let it go if he encounters resistance.
His daughter isn't so sure.
"I don't believe him," she said. "When he gets a vision, it's hard to turn him off."