Joe Coates

Durham-based sculptor Joe Coates learned welding at age 15 from the aircraft mechanics at Topeka Municipal Airport, where his father was the manager.  He used that skill to earn money, buying wrecked cars and repairing them for resale.  Soon, he was creating metal sculptures “for the sheer joy of the creative process.”

Coates attended Duke University on a General Motors Scholarship, majoring in mechanical engineering and working professionally as an engineer for several years before switching gears to launch The Trail Shop, Inc., one of the first outdoor recreation shops in the Southeast. A lifelong adventurer, Coates counts mountain biking, whitewater kayaking and rock climbing among his many interests (notably, he completed first ascents of Alaska’s Cathedral Spires in the summer of 1976, alongside famed climber Royal Robbins), and frequently draws artistic inspiration from time spent in the natural world.

Coates credits his Duke Engineering degree for his ability to optimize strength and balance in designing his sculptures, and to draw on materials science knowledge to choose the best media with which to execute each concept.

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Ground Effect sculpture by Joe Coates

Ground Effect, 2020

Stainless steel

Gift from the artist

Location: Wilkinson Building Level 1

This sculpture is located outdoors at the Research Drive entrance.

Joe Coates E’72 learned in flight school about ground effect: the aerodynamic phenomenon whereby drag is greatly reduced within one wingspan of a fixed surface. A few species of birds, including the Brown Pelican depicted here, use this principle to conserve energy in flight as they glide just above the surface of the water.

Imposition of Our Will Upon Nature sculptures by Joe Coates

Imposition of Our Will Upon Nature I and II, 2018-2019

Polished steel, Hickory tree trunks

Gift from the artist

Location: Wilkinson Building Level 2

As a student at Duke Engineering, Joe Coates E’72 was first introduced to the concept of natural resource management. An idea for a sculpture representing use and overuse was planted in his imagination and grew for more than 40 years, until a storm toppled an ancient hickory tree on his property. The fallen timber offered Coates the perfect material with which to tell the story of our society’s appetite for natural resources.