CowParade Round Up
Golden Belt Arts
10 a.m.–4 p.m., Aug. 18

Paula MacLeod has grout in her hair. The Durham-based mosaic artist steps back to survey the white flank of a cow sculpture, covered with jagged chunks of broken Vietri dishes and crockery, ungrouted. She has a ways to go.

But MacLeod is smiling and good-naturedly teasing her husband, Rodney Scurlock, about working harder. Other artists contribute to the patter within a large sunlit studio in Durham’s Golden Belt Arts complex, affectionately nicknamed “The Barn.” Twenty or so colorful cows, about 8 feet long and 5 feet tall at the shoulder, reside here until Saturday’s CowParade 2012 Round Up event, when they’ll be joined into a herd of more than 80 fellow bovines.

CowParade North Carolina is a large-scale public art fundraiser benefiting North Carolina Children’s Hospital at UNC. The CowParade concept began in 1998 in Switzerland and really took off the following year when more than 300 cows lined Chicago’s “Miracle Mile” and raised upward of $3.5 million for charity. Some 75 cities in 30 countries have held CowParades since then, and tens of millions of dollars have been raised for nonprofit partners.

After the family-friendly Round Up event, which offers food trucks as well as the opportunity to meet cow artists and paint your own mini-cow, the herd will scatter. Cows will find their way to street corners, parks, sponsors’ storefronts and other public places around the Triangle. CowParade organizers estimate that they’ll attract a half-million visitors to the Triangle during the fall exhibition phase.

As far as public art is concerned, this is pretty contrived fare, albeit fun and fanciful. Although plenty of the cows are cleverly conceived and beautifully executed, some of the herd has more in common with an advertisement or a tourism brochure than a sculpture or painting. Zebra-striped cows, a yellow Burt’s Bees cow with a stinger for a tail and an Alexander Julian cow complete with Tar Heel-blue argyle and wingtip hoovesthese pieces provoke more chuckles than thoughts.

Come January they’ll be wrangled back up for the big payoff. Two auctionsone live, one onlinewill raise money for the hospital. The program’s success as a fundraising platform more than cancels out the cheese factor. When Wells Fargo came on as a presenting sponsor in May, the company wrote a check for $100,000 to Children’s Hospital. That’s a big carton of milk.

There are really artful exceptions in the herd, too. Museumgoers will easily recognize Durham painter Heather Gordon’s “Binary Bovine.” Gordon’s trademark spiraled black-and-white rectangles, representing the binary code of an MP3 recording of a cow’s moo, cover the entire fiberglass animal. Whip out your smartphone to scan the QR Code on the cow’s forehead to hear the moo.

“It’s your typical moo, a classic moo,” Gordon says with a grin. She’s using a Styrofoam meatpacking tray as a palette. “A lot of the cow moos that I was listening to had more than one cow, or they had more than one moo, or they had background tractor noise or farm noise. And I didn’t want any of that.”

After Saturday’s Round Up, Gordon’s cow will join Warren Hicks’ at Johnson Lexus in Durham. Although their cows couldn’t look more different from each other, or from MacLeod’s, the three artists all agree that they’d underestimated the challenge of this project. Artists received $1,000 to do a cow. MacLeod will log about 140 hours of labor. Gordon and Hicks are right behind her.

“There’s much more surface on a cow than you’d imagine,” Hicks marvels. “Skin is the largest organ, after all.”

Hicks base-painted his cow with a mottled yellow. Conglomerations of black rectangles, calling to mind Native American designs, as well as road signage, curl around and over the animal’s topography. With brush in hand, Hicks has had to explore his cow like a landscape.

Artists are used to breaking down a shape into its geometric components. One might be tempted to think of a cow as a box with legs. But the hips make drastic protrusions and the belly is unexpectedly round. Detailed features like horns, ears and tails present unpredictable challenges. If you’re used to a two-dimensional canvas, it’s hard to keep a brush line straight across an udder.

Mosaic work is perhaps even more difficult, especially with MacLeod’s attention to detail. “There are birds in the ears and then there’s a rooster, a pig, a rabbit and a goat in various places,” she says with a laugh. Her “Lady Carolina Blooo” cow offers a scavenger hunt of sorts for those willing to get down on hands and knees. It will mosey to the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill through the end of the year.

Despite the labor-intensive, low-payoff project, these artists have no regrets. Painters like Hicks and Gordon have made the most of the chance to work on a sculptural form. They’ve also loved the camaraderie of the shared space. “It’s nice to be working here rather than in the studio,” Gordon says, nodding toward the other artists.

Scurlock pipes up that they’ve run out of grout. “We’re off to Lowe’s … again,” MacLeod sighs. Time to saddle up. The Round Up’s a-comin.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Milk money.”