In Conversation With: Romolo Del Deo

Romolo Del Deo is a sculptor best known for putting a contemporary spin on classical form. By revisiting techniques from antiquity with his modern approach to deconstructing, disassembling and recasting his sculptures, Romolo creates a timeless aesthetic informed by his connections with Italy (studying there as well has working with a local foundry and artisans) as well as growing up in a vibrant artist community. 

Romolo is currently exhibiting at the Venice Biennale. The Tree of Life Which is Ours (pictured below)is inspired partly by climate science and partly by myth. This artwork was created for the Marinressa Gardens of Venice, and presents the artist’s approach to a sustainable art practice for the 21st century, which he refers to as Long Art, a platform for environmental and sociocultural activism. This approach repurposes artisanal methods from antiquity which require the investment of an artist’s time, utilizing natural materials as an alternative to the industrialized mass produced processes and products that are driving global warming.

1.  How were you introduced into sculpture?

When I was 5, my father Salvatore Del Deo received a peculiar commission to create a large welded sculpture. It was unusual because he was a painter. I was amazed by the process which seemed protean to me, and when he had completed the model in plasticine, he gave me the remaining clay to play with. We were quite poor when I was a child, and I did not have many toys or playthings, so this clay was a huge bonanza for me, and I used it to create sculptures of all the toys and animals and other things I coveted or that stirred my imagination. It was an almost magical material which allowed me to create the things I envisioned. The impact of this was augmented because I had suffered serious neurological damage as a child, struggled with blindness, and was unable to enter school like most children at that age as I worked my way through physical therapy. So all my urges to learn, master language, and connect with the world were channeled through clay and sculpting. It became my first language. I have been sculpting ever since. At 15, I studied with a local Provincetown sculptor Joyce Johnson who taught with joy and shared that with me. Her lessons never left me, and I still close my eyes to concentrate while sculpting, taking me back to those early years of discovery when touch was a clearer vision than sight and clay unlocked the world.

2.  While in Italy, where did you find peace and inspiration?

At 18, after high school, I apprenticed with stone carvers Rino Giannini and later on Silverio Paoli in Pietrasanta, Italy, where I learned about my Greco-Roman ancestral roots and was introduced to heirloom materials and practices which formed an important part of my development as an artist. After earning a bachelor’s degree at Harvard and going on to join the faculty there, I came to feel disconnected from my work, which, while received with expanding success, felt increasingly alien and calculated to me. So I resigned from academia and returned to Pietrasanta to rediscover my path. In a small 11th Century cottage on a mountaintop above the town, over the course of two years of intense reflection, work, and study, I found the path to rethink my entire approach to my art. To survive, I hired myself out doing art restoration and spent a lot of time thinking about how art ages and endures and learning about the impact materials play in the lifespan of an artwork. This experience also had a profound effect on my work. When I emerged from my period of reclusion and returned to exhibiting, my work had transformed into the approach I have adhered to for the rest of my entire professional career.

 3.  Can you discuss your decision to be intentional with the intersection of climate science and sculpture?

I grew up in the seacoast community of Provincetown, MA, and my mother, Josephine Del Deo, was a central figure in the early ecological movement and the fight to save the dunes and barrier beaches there from development in the 1950s and 60s. She instilled in me a love of nature, a respect and an awareness of its fragility, and our responsibility as custodians of the planet. 

When I was at Harvard, I wrote a thesis about the intersection of environmental responsibility and art practice. At the time, in the early 80s, much of the now accepted language and discourse around sustainability was little understood. I called the approach a Subsistence Aesthetic for want of a better term. The idea was that art had to examine how it was made, and what impacts it placed upon the environment. Because art was always a leading indicator of how society saw and shaped itself. And artists, too often hid behind their good intentions while working in ways which promoted methods with serious negative environmental impacts. I sought to shed light upon this dissonance. At the time, in 1982, there was little appetite for this kind of approach. 

But in the last 20 years, we have seen a gradual growth of greater awareness about the impact of all actions, by all factors of human society, even in art making. I have been speaking out about the carbon footprint of artworks. That many works, even those intended to be Green in creation, once brought into the context of curation and museum or gallery distribution, often require huge energy investments to be stabilized and exhibited permanently which can actually accelerate and increase over time. I call this energy expenditure the Carbon Half-life of an Artwork. To truly understand an artwork’s impact, one must evaluate the entire artwork’s lifespan, not just its creation. 

Therefore, I am encouraging artists to consider natural materials that have been utilized for centuries and are proven to be extraordinarily stable and do not require constant and increasing expenditures of resources and energy to keep them stabilized and enduring. These materials and methods have the advantage of not being products of the petrochemical industry which they all predate. These methods and materials require the investment of time and effort, requiring artists to be conscientious consumers of materials, not profligate in churning out works. While these methods and materials may have a high initial investment of energy and effort, if one considers the entire arc of the artworks carbon footprint, its half-life, their impacts, unlike many modern materials and practices, fall to nearly zero and can remain negligible and enduring for centuries, making them a vastly greener way to think about creating art.

4.  Can you tell us a bit about The Tree of Life Which Is Ours and its significance?

The Tree of Life Which Is Ours owes its title to the concept that we are bound in fate with trees. The park on the Venice waterfront where the sculpture is installed is full of trees, which bear vivid signs of their struggle to deal with the rising waters of Venice. In a way, the park is itself a slow motion drama about sea level rise recorded in its trees. I wanted to connect my work to this story. 

There is a global phenomenon known as Ghost Forests. These are spectral desiccated forests composed of trees, usually hardwoods, that have had rising salt water get into their tap roots killing them. The significance of this is that climate change deniers will often point to periodicity of climate cycles over decades to minimize or seek to debunk the concerns of global warming. However, Ghosts Forests are usually composed of trees that have survived over decades, even centuries, but are now subjected to the effects of rising sea levels not previously recorded in modern times. Their deaths cannot be explained away by decadal cyclical weather patterns. They are a message, as imperative to survival as a dead canary in a coal mine. I used fallen wood collected from ghost forests to create the trunk of my sculpture. 

In pondering the connection between the imperiled lives of trees and the entwining of our fates with theirs, I thought of figures in myth and lore, who became or lived in trees. This led me to sculpt Daphne as part of this piece. She was a goddess of free flowing waters who became a tree to escape the pursuit of Apollo, the sun, and in so doing, she bound her existence to a tree. We have, in essence, all bound our existence to trees, if they are in danger, we are in danger. We are all Daphne.

5.  What or who influenced your interest in Long Art (environmental and sociocultural activism – for our readers)?

As I mentioned previously, the insights gained from restoring work from the 15th – 17th Century led me to refine my concepts about sustainability and art making. I also lived and worked through a period in art making when artists were deluged with an ever-expanding choice of synthetic materials to utilize creatively. But as time and experience showed, these “miracle” materials and methods often either negatively impacted the lifespan of the artwork or even the artist themselves. Over time. I have lost many friends to toxic materials utilized in their art practice, materials we accepted with abandon, believing the hype that they were analogues for the traditional materials we had used in the past. Many artists suffer from huge background contamination in their art practice because ways of making were shaped by a previous material’s era. 

I have also witnessed the degradation of many artworks created just 20 or 40 years ago, which now require more expenditure of energy and resources in curation and restoration than works made centuries before. Long Art is about investing upfront in time to make artworks from traditional methods and materials. Creating work whose carbon half-life peaks early and whose carbon footprint declines to negligible amounts quickly and enduringly is an alternative way to think about making art. I am not saying that it is the only way, but I would like artists to start thinking about this element as they consider creating work and making material choices. Most art supply stores and most art fabrication facilities promote and rely nearly entirely on petrochemical processes and synthetic materials now, and there are few easy options to even locate natural materials previously utilized in art making for centuries. Like every other element of society, we have been sold a marketing conundrum that this artificial option is the better way and, through lack of access to previous knowledge about past methods, the only way. But it is not, it is simply a way and not necessarily a better one. Few synthetic materials are actually superior to natural materials, few rapid fabrication processes produce results superior and more enduring than heirloom and artisanal methods. There are exceptions, and a blanket rejection of all that is new is not what Long Art advocates, simply that we consider all the options when thinking about our art practice, including the methods and ways of the past to create art whose net carbon footprint is in harmony with a world drowning in waste and burning up with consumption.

6.  What have you learned from working with natural materials and being more conscientious of art making’s impact on the environment? 

Natural materials are often devilishly hard to work with, require patience, mastery, and practice. They are not compatible with mass production. They impose upon the artist the necessity of slowing down, investing in each piece. We live in a world drowning in ill-made things of materials that are not durable and also do not degrade. Our sea, soil and air are increasingly filled with the silt of microplastics. Even most art is inundated with plastic-based materials. By contrast, natural materials offer another path. They are usually, at most, two steps from their pure forms found in nature; they rarely require the kinds of heavy industrial refining common in synthetic materials. They are not derived from petroleum. And while no material used by civilization is without impacts, natural materials impose a vastly lighter level of destruction upon the environment. And because, as I mentioned, they tend to require a more studied and labored approach, each piece created this way takes more time, and hence inversely, fewer can be produced, lessening even more the impacts of creative practice.

7.  Have you experienced any full circle moments?

Yes, in many different ways. I guess living long enough will do that to you. Time has the ability to eliminate much of the noise of life, and I find myself feeling closer and closer to the young boy I was, amassing a universe in clay to tell a story of my dreams and desires. Many of the distractions of life that imposed themselves as I became an adolescent and then a young adult don’t seem so important now, but the urgency to sculpt a world remains and the drive to tell my story. To whom? Myself? Others? No One? Everyone? I can’t say, but this impetus to communication, so personal as to be a language of one, and so universal as to require no translation for any who care to pay attention, is in essence the force behind the will to create, to make and dream through the making. And in this way, I feel I am full circle, that small boy with a mountain of clay.