Since 1978, the large, whimsical bronze sculpture, Peely Wheely, has greeted Wolfe Street Academy (WSA) students and visitors alike with its Seussian characters, perfect for an elementary school. This November, Peely Wheely underwent a multi-pronged conservation effort designed to ensure its cherished spot in front of WSA for decades to come. 

Artist Jim Paulsen, who created the sculpture, and other public art advocates participated in the conservation efforts. Advocates included Friends of Public Art, Cindy Kelly, author of Outdoor Sculpture in Baltimore: A Historic Guide to Public Art in the Monumental City, which includes details on Peely Wheely’s creation, and artist/sculpture Mary Ann Mears.

Peely Wheely’s Lasting Impact as Baltimore Public Art

Ms. Kelly’s book describes the sculpture, which stands 10’ high and 13’ long, as based on the idea of the family dog who walked the children to school each day and waited outside for the school day’s end. Through Paulson’s artistry, the dog morphed into a gentle, prehistoric creature large enough to transport the children on his back. 

Mr. Paulsen intentionally did not name his creation, allowing the students to do so. The name Peely Wheely is the result of a student contest. One of the whimsical, child-centered aspects of the piece are its free-turning front wheels so kids can interact with the sculpture.

Peely Wheely embraces childhood fantasy and has been a charming fixture in the neighborhood for decades. Peely Wheely even had its own “Hollywood moment” with a three-second cameo in the John Travolta movie, Ladder 49, the 2004 film about Baltimore firefighters.

Creating Peely Wheely was an extraordinary experience for Mr. Paulsen. “Working with and for children is both noble and rewarding,” says Mr. Paulsen, who spent over a year just welding the sculpture, his first large commission. “I remember it as an experience that was a ‘real high.’” 

He handled every aspect of its fabrication including the extensive welding that created the linear pattern defining the intricate form of the creature and his passengers. Mr. Paulsen was head of the Towson University Sculpture Program for 43 years and has completed public art commissions in Maryland, Delaware and Illinois and abroad, in Scotland, China, Germany, and England.

Conservation Efforts for Peely Wheely

Funded by a Maryland State Arts Council grant, Peely Wheely’s conservation was given a high priority by conservators because: 

  • The entire surface area was disfigured by corrosion
  • There were gouges, scratches, and graffiti
  • White paint and cement was splattered over it from past renovation work on the school building; and
  • It was missing several appendages. 

In addition to its deteriorating condition, Ms. Kelly explains that “it is a rare and exceptional example of what is possible in an elementary school environment.” She lauds the “extraordinary support of Principal Mark Gaither and his staff, especially the art teacher Laura Bevacqua, the wider community’s embrace of the sculpture and its proposed care.” Mr. Paulson’s stature and enthusiastic willingness to be involved in fabricating the missing pieces of Peely Wheely, she notes, also contributes greatly to the artwork’s importance.

Ms. Kelly hopes that “the approach to the conservation of Peely Wheely and the integration of the sculpture into the educational program will inspire other public schools to follow their lead.”

The sculpture’s conservation included:

(1) Surface cleaning to remove active corrosion, graffiti, and splattered white paint; 

(2) Creating a new patina after so many years without a protective wax coat; 

(3) Fabricating and replacing missing parts, with which Mr. Paulsen helped; and

(4) Coating the sculpture with a hot wax treatment to protect against and slow the rate of future corrosion.

Conservation work was done by Diane Fullick, Fullick Conservation LLC, and Lori Trusheim, Halcyon Objects Conservation, LLC. Ms. Fullick has completed assessments of the 200+ sculptures and monuments for Baltimore City and maintained the outdoor sculpture collection at Johns Hopkins University for the last 10 years. Ms. Trusheim has worked for private collectors and several museums including the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore Museum of Art, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Why is Conservation of Public Art So Important?

Baltimore City is obligated to care for each public artwork commissioned through the city’s Percent for Art Ordinance, an obligation it has almost never honored. Deteriorated artworks do not reflect the city’s goals and the artistic ideals of those original commissions. Visually compromised public artworks cannot enliven the civic landscape or enrich and inspire our citizens as hoped.

Public sculpture at city schools is intended to represent to the students at those schools what art is and what art can be…and commissioned sculptures [should be] celebrated. When these public artworks are left to deteriorate, sometimes over more than 40 years, their resulting condition is a disservice to the students and their communities and to the artists and misrepresents what art is and what art can be.

Cindy Kelly

Author, Outdoor Sculpture in Baltimore: A Historic Guide to Public Art in the Monumental City

Peely Wheely is one of the outdoor sculptures commissioned through the city’s Percent for Art program for 50 Baltimore City public schools. Every one of these public artworks has been visually compromised or worse – stolen, poorly repainted, badly re-sited, or allowed to fall apart without any intervention. 

Mr. Paulsen, city arts advocates, and others hope Peely Wheely’s conservation serves as a model of restoration, bringing new attention to the sculpture’s history and artist and to the need to restore these important public works of art.     

Ms. Kelly notes that having a vibrant arts program and major work of art on a school campus underscores the clear research that the arts build student capacities to learn and retain knowledge, to communicate, empathize, create, appreciate others, think critically, take risks, and grow. “An actual piece of artwork, such as Peely Wheely, enables the expansion of children’s understanding of the role art plays in their own lives and nurturing of art as a source of pride in their school and neighborhood,” she says.

Using Peely Wheely as Educational Inspiration at Wolfe Street Academy

While much of the renovation took place after school hours to ensure the WSA community’s safety, students, faculty/staff, parents, and neighbors enjoyed seeing the progress throughout the month as the beloved statue received a much-needed renovation. 

It was a teachable moment for young WSA artists. Ms. Bevacqua, WSA art teacher, is integrating Peely Wheely and art conservation in her lessons. Arts have long been a high priority at the school through rich arts instruction and vibrant examples of student art throughout the building. Ms. Bevacqua, focusing her students on the concepts of volume and space, visited the sculpture during the renovation with her students. This allowed them to see these new concepts come to life.

“We are thrilled with the restoration of our Peely Wheely,” says Mark Gaither, WSA Principal since 2005. “It’s been exciting to watch the conservation process. In addition to establishing an outdoor plaque to identify the sculpture and an indoor educational panel for our lobby, we’re establishing educational opportunities for our students centered around Peely Wheely that hopefully will demonstrate the important place art holds in our community.”

Thank you to all involved in restoring Peely Wheely to its wonderfully wheeled and whimsical original glory so that generations of school children, their families, and their neighbors may enjoy the artistic vision of Mr. Paulsen for decades to come.        


About the Baltimore Curriculum Project

Baltimore Curriculum Project (BCP) is the largest operator of local neighborhood, public charter schools in Maryland. We create safe, supportive learning environments for children PK-8 by providing innovative, research-based educational strategies, intensive teacher training and extensive support for administration and staff. We support our local neighborhood needs by tailoring our resources and support through community partnerships.

As one of the longest-running charter operators in Maryland, our schools are regularly recognized as some of the most highly acclaimed neighborhood charter schools in the state. 

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