by Rachel Levy
“I think if you give things time, that they will help you. You’re only in trouble when you rush things and, nowadays, a lot of pressure is exerted on short-duration projects and on immediate resolutions, and it’s not good for creative people that need time to sort stuff out.”
This is the philosophy of ROMOLO DEL DEO, a master sculptor and enthusiast for the more thoughtful, less-wasteful Long Art Movement.
If you were to run into Del Deo on an average day in his native Cape Cod, you’d likely find him walking down the coast enjoying one of his favorite past-times: beachcombing, a process that both puts him in touch with nature and offers new inspiration for his work.
“I grew up in Provincetown,” Del Deo shares, “which is an interesting place, but also a place where the environment was very present in a way that forces you to think about environmental factors.” His specific stretch of New England coast, however, goes beyond its scenery. Equally as important as its iconic seaboard is P-town’s history as an artist’s colony. In fact, it’s the oldest continuous artist’s colony in America, making it out to be quite an eclectic place to be raised.
“It was a wonderful place to grow up,” Del Deo shares, “and it was an unusual, distorting place to grow up because, essentially, when I was a child here, everyone was either a fisherman or they were an artist.” This upbringing led to a perspective that views art and environment as inextricably linked together. The son of acclaimed artist Salvatore Del Deo and conservationist-minded mother Josephine Couch Del Deo, the young Del Deo was introduced to the intersection of aesthetics and environment at a very early age.
He reminisces on his youth as a special time in his life that had a great influence on the work he creates now. “A lot of my education [growing up] was very unorthodox,” he says, referencing a period when he had to be pulled out of school for medical complications. “We had all this clay hanging around,” because of a project his father was commissioned for, “and I wasn’t in school, [...] so I just started sculpting. You know, we were artists, so we were very poor, and I didn’t have a lot of toys so my approach to sculpting at that point was to make everything I wished I had.”
From trucks to trains, he spent his time learning how to construct objects he was seeing all around him with the only tools he had: his two hands and a chunk of clay. “This became really like my first language,” he says. “Instead of learning to read and write, when most of my peers were doing so, I was learning how to look at an animal, or a picture of a boat, or whatever, and sculpt it. I got a very early start on that and it just sort of became my thing.”
Perhaps you’ll sense his humility in that last statement upon understanding how this thing of his has earned him exhibitions around the world and awards from major institutions like the New York Foundation for the Arts and The Henry Moore Foundation.
Part of his success can be attributed to his commitment to challenging himself. He says he doesn't want his art to become too easy, or “fácil” as he puts it. In Del Deo’s eyes, his training has provided him the skills needed to professionally sculpt whatever he sees in front of him. However, he’s looking to do more than simple recreations with his work. He describes wasted talent in an artist like a poet who just writes Hallmark Cards. “It would be like if you had a good vocabulary, a good way of stringing words together and you just wrote lots of flowery poetry about stuff without actually using that ability to say anything.”
The most recent achievement of Del Deo’s is the installation of his sculpture entitled “The Tree Of Life Which Is Ours” in the Marinaressa Gardens of Venice, Italy, for exhibition in the Venice Art Biennial 22. The inspiration behind this piece brings us back to his hometown coast, a stretch of land that is now feeling the ever-encroaching impacts of climate change.
Del Deo, an observer of the natural world, began to notice the prevalence of ghost forests along his stretch of Provincetown coastline. Ghost forests are stretches of formerly lush coastal estuary where saltwater encroached, killed the trees, and left behind a mass of slowly dying and dead trees.
During his beachcombing excursions, Del Deo began collecting and studying different pieces of driftwood from these ghost forests. “I have a way of working and it’s kind of like I’m a squirrel and I’m hoarding things for the winter,” he says of the process.
Eventually, he began making molds from these shapes to see what his work might reveal to him. “What really excites me is to take it through a process of transformation,” Del Deo says. “I want it to be a springboard and I really want it to take me somewhere else.”
After making molds and then twisting, cutting, shaping, recombining and eventually making new molds, he eventually came upon part of “The Tree Of Life Which Is Ours.” He compares the process to writing a script or a novel. “You get to a certain point in which you don't have the ending.” This is where he found himself after completing this initial design based on those pieces of driftwood he collected.
The ending for this sculpture finally took shape as a woman’s head that draws inspiration from the myth of Daphne.
“Daphne, you see, she turned into a tree,” Del Deo explains. “And I’ve been working with this idea about how I wanted to say something about how climate change is something we are all involved with, and how these ghost forests are a very obvious precursor, which is a global phenomenon.”
For Del Deo, Daphne closed the loop between the ghost forests and their connection with humanity. “[Daphne] became a tree. So her existence and the tree’s existence were united and in that sense, we are all Daphne.”
For Del Deo, now as always, art is indistinguishable from the environment.
Rachel Levy ('22) is a published journalist, photographer, and filmmaker studying within the Environmental Science and Public Policy department. She creates work at the intersection of art, culture, and environment and produced her first film “Starving in Paradise” this year about food insecurity in Hawaii. In September of this year she’ll travel to Tanzania on a postgraduate fellowship to produce a documentary about the relationship between female empowerment, eco-tourism, and international development; find Rachel at rach-levy.com.