The Artist's Iron Man: a Life in Sculpture and Film

Ilaria Costa (June 30, 2008)
Vincenzo Amato is both an actor and sculptor who has starred in a number of films, including Emanuele Crialese's "The Golden Door" ("Nuovo Mondo"). He talks sculpture and his predilection for iron while he gives us a tour of his Lower East Side studio

I am meeting Vincenzo Amato for an interview in front of his studio on the Lower East Side.

While I wait for him, I think I have gotten the address wrong. I find myself in front of a splendid building with unusual architecture, with neo-Romanesque arches and columns that could belong to a decaying, deconsecrated church. I hear my name called and there he is: Vincenzo. I immediately recognize the Sicilian actor’s beautiful smile... but on his face I unexpectedly note an expression of veiled reservation, an almost shy reluctance. Vincenzo Amato – known to the public at large as a successful actor for his film roles in Once We Were Strangers, Respiro, and Nuovo Mondo by Emanuele Crialese – is, in fact, a sculptor.

With typical Sicilian hospitality, he guides me through the building which I soon discover used to be a public elementary school, built in 1890 and abandoned in the 1960s. He tells me how he happened to take ownership of the place during his first few years in New York in 1993. He was fascinated by the magic of the then-crumbling space that reminded him of the ancient bakeries in Palermo. He explains that he chose for his studio the area which was originally the women’s restroom because it was on the ground floor and covered with tiles, and therefore the ideal place for a sculptor who works with heavy materials such as iron.


His artistic journey began in a far away place. Born in Palermo in '66, at 18 years old, he moved to Rome to become a blacksmith, and in '92 he landed in New York where he began his career as an artist in this studio. At first he collaborated with the city of New York in the construction of large iron structures and later, he assisted the Greek sculptor Cryssa and worked on different projects with the American sculptor Norman Campbell. In New York, he is represented by the Earl McGrath Gallery where he has exhibited his work in numerous shows. He was the only young Italian selected for Cairo’s Biennial and in the last few years he has participated in various international art exhibitions. Despite the heterogeneous quality of his art, his sculptures always present a sense of clarity and lightness, behind which there is a hidden dedication and a gravitas that I was also able to pick up in Vincenzo’s personality during our interview: an entirely Sicilian vibrancy coupled with a profound sense of connection to the ancient traditions of his land.


How did you arrive in New York?

By chance: in ‘93 I came to this city for my friend’s wedding and I was immediately struck... above all by the iron structures. In Palermo, the city where I was born, I was already working with iron since I was a child, and then at 18, I moved to Rome and I continued working with this material, creating wrought iron furniture. Here in New York I became friends with an American artist – Norman Campbell – and I started to work with him... I then worked with the city of New York to create iron structures.


Iron is without a doubt your favorite material for your sculptures. Where was your passion born?

I believe that every one of us has an affinity for materials that are complimentary to our very being; I would say that iron is the material that best corresponds to my energy and to my body. Manipulating material is a bit like dancing. You must have the right partner and create a sort of unconscious dialogue between your hands, your being, and the matter that you are molding. Yes, it is exactly like a dance – you have to find the rhythm and the right affinity between your body and your partner, the correct medium… In reality, in my recent work for my show in October at the Earl McGrath Gallery, I experimented for the first time with plywood tables, but the concept is the same. In general I am fascinated by “poor” materials that are considered ugly for this reason. It challenges me to “ennoble” them. I enjoy extracting the beautiful from the ugly. Iron, like plywood, is a material that is used, abused, and often thrown out with the trash. I am passionate about collecting it to pull out the beauty of its compact interior and in this way, give it shape and color.


Where do you draw inspiration for your creations?

My source of inspiration is that truth from when I looked at things as a child... I draw inspiration from everything that struck me during my infancy until I was seven years old. I try to tap the well of unconscious memories that accumulate during the first years of experience in the world, and I want to capture the same amazement in the face of these things. And then there is discipline… the self-discipline that I try to practice everyday.


What is the relationship between your work and Sicily, where you are from?

My relationship with Italy is really a relationship of memory… of colors and shapes whose roots are in my childhood. I am convinced that anyone raised in Italy has unconsciously received a very incisive visual education. Having constantly been exposed to artistic masterpieces of incredible beauty, one implicitly receives an education in taste that remains unmatched.


Your artistic career as a sculptor began in New York. What has the city given you that you have then transferred to your sculptures?

Space, light, and energy.


Are you satisfied with your artistic career?

To be an artist, for me, is not a career, but a necessity. It is not a right, but a privilege...and a curse at the same time. Being an iron sculptor I have, though, had the fortune of acquiring a dexterity that has allowed me to weld furniture during financially difficult periods.


What do you like least about your work?

It is very difficult for me to begin a sculpture... I am lazy at the beginning. It requires a lot of energy to find and lift the iron. Starting is always rough: it has to do with physical work and then I am never completely satisfied when I finish it. It is as if, during the entire process, I am only experiencing brief flashes of happiness... In my creative process, 95 per cent is toil and fight, and five per cent is gratification, besides the 30 seconds of self-satisfaction when I finish a sculpture... As an actor, instead, I loathe the long waits of dead time on set.

How do you reconcile your activities as an actor with those of an artist? Are they in conflict or does one improve the other?

Well, when I act it is as if I found myself inside one of my compositions; I don’t look at them from the outside like I do when I create a sculpture...but it is me, myself inside the work. I would say that for my personality, the alternation between acting and sculpture is perfect. Every day I come here to the studio and I work on my sculptures in solitude, master of my own space and time. Then the telephone rings and they offer me a part in a film, something interesting, and for a few months I find myself catapulted into the midst of the frenetic reality of a film set with so many people around me... actors, make-up artists, hairdressers, directors, etc... and then once the work is finished, I return to the solitude of my studio. I consider this alternation a real fortune.


Do you have time for a personal life? What do you like to do with your free time?

Yes, absolutely. At 7pm I close up shop and I go home to eat and I watch many movies, but always at home, in my green neighborhood in Brooklyn. I do not have an active social life, or a film life, or an art life. Whenever I have any free time, I seek out nature… I look for trees and animals.


It is a popular opinion that contemporary art has lost its relationship with the general public. What do you think?

I am not entirely in agreement… the possibility of dialogue between the public and the visual arts is still there... although we live in an extremely commercial world, in the sense that contemporary art is seen as an investment and is acquired by collectors, not because they like it, but as an investment, as a transaction on the stock exchange.


An unforgettable moment since you have been in New York?

There are many... but I would say one is particularly vivid in my mind… when I went over the iron bridges in New Jersey seated on the back of a pick-up truck, on a splendid sunny day in June many years ago… all that iron and that view for me, a life lived in iron, inspired an unforgettable emotion.


Translated by Giulia Prestia, photos by Alessia Bulgari