Originally published in the Journal Inquirer Friday, May 24, 2013
by Kristen J. Tsetsi
One way to make an impressive amount of money in the art world after having the work embraced by the requisite discerning circles is to create enough product to distribute to galleries around the country (or, for the very in-demand artists, the world).
But for Vernon sculptor Roger DiTarando — whose artistic metalwork graces the spacious homes and gardens of the wealthy, as well as such public spaces as Detroit’s St. Aubin Park Detroit, the Yale New Haven Hospital, and the Rockville Public Library, among others — that would mean leaving the bulk of the work in the hands of a foundry.
“Say you’ve got 25 sculptures you’ve developed over the years. You could have 25 galleries,” DiTarando says. “You call the foundry and say, ‘Send the cheetah head to Phoenix, Arizona. Send the buffalo whatever to Texas.’ So you’re done with it.”
But when pieces, even those in a series, are one of a kind and made for the most part by hand as DiTaranodo’s are, it’s difficult to meet that kind of demand. And even if mass production weren’t an issue, the gallery world, which he calls “cutthroat,” isn’t necessarily his idea of a welcoming environment. He prefers the warmer and more personal exchanges he has with in-person buyers.
“I’d rather be one-on-one with my client,” he says. To that end, he tightly packed about 50 of his sculptures into his “old clunker pickup truck” and a pull-box trailer and drove them to Northampton, Mass., for the top-ranking Paradise City Arts Festival where, along with nearly 300 other accomplished artists and craftspeople, he displayed and sold his work over Memorial Day weekend.
“[It’s] one of the better shows. Beautiful, very creative stuff,” he says. He goes on to praise the founders’ organization and promotion of the event, the festival’s food and live music, and the people who attend.
People watching is one of the perks of the festival, DiTarando says, and more fun these days than it was in the 1970s when it was easier to guess certain things about festival-goers based on what they wore.
Last year, DiTarando says, a man dressed casually in jeans bought one of his fabricated copper and bronze birdbaths — versions of which were for sale at this year’s festival for $1,600 to $2,000 — and ended up surprising DiTarando with his opulent home.
“There were these tiers, terraces, and his house was up on top,” he says. “On each of the tiers he had sculptures. I asked him, nicely, what his profession was, and he said, ‘You ever hear of the proverbial rocket scientist?’ I meet some fascinating people.”
Rocket scientists and other high-income earners join those with more modest incomes at Paradise City, where items range in price from $8 to tens of thousands of dollars.
DiTarando is one of the artists whose festival pieces reach up into the tens of thousands, topping out at $30,000. When art is a business, as it has been for DiTarando for the last 35 years, pricing art is all about economics.
“You break it down with the heat and the rent,” he says. “I have what I want to make a week in my head, and if the thing takes me a week or two weeks, that’s what I want to make.”
Molding and pounding hard metals like bronze and copper into individual pieces that when welded together create remarkably lush-looking goat fleece or fluffy owl feathers is a time-consuming process. Each feather on the owl, a sculpture that takes about a month to complete, undergoes five or six steps — cutting, texturing, curving, marking — before being welded onto the body. For the goat, each section of fleece is cut, melted, shaped, and hammered using a special technique that DiTarando says creates “crinkles” before being welded onto the body, whose detailed components, such as the head and feet, are formed using cast bronze molds DiTarando originally sculpted out of wax.
“It’s a very sophisticated puzzle,” he says.
Much of what DiTarando showed at the festival was animals, including goats, kids, herons, a rooster, and an owl. He’s liked animals since he was a child fantasizing about living on a farm, but he also enjoys sculpting them because of their anthropomorphic qualities and the wide ranging mood possibilities.
“Powerful things, delicate things, elegant things. There’s so many things you can play with,” he says, adding as a separate thought, “Humorous.”
Humor is an important element in his work. On display in his back yard among delicate, hand-made hummingbirds perched on swaying birdbaths is “Set for Life,” a 47-inch tall bronze and copper carrot with two bunny heads, one male and one female, poking out of the crown. Not only are the rabbits in love and set for life in that respect, but they’re inside a giant carrot, so they’re set sustenance-wise, too.
“I think one of my strengths is that I have a nice spectrum of things that I do,” DiTarando says.
A wide range can only help sales, an aspect of his art he is forced to consider before beginning a new project.
Some things he’s made before, such as a richly colored fabricated copper and steel Viking ship hull he calls “homagae ii,” aren’t practical to make again. They would take too much time and cost too much money, and there’s always a chance the finished product won’t sell.
DiTarando has, however, continued to create new, less time consuming series, one of which, “Just Hatched,” features a hatching stork treating its shell like a recliner, legs poking out of holes on one side, torso on the other, its wings folded lazily behind its head. In another “Just Hatched” sculpture currently only in sketched form, a weary mother stork contemplates her many eggs.
“The one positive thing is even though I was, say, broke for many, many years, I had the ability to do what I wanted within a certain scope. My range of sculpture, I could make whatever I wanted,” he says. “That’s fantastic, to have the ability to do that. Where somebody else is going and punching a clock and hating every minute.”