Domenico Belli, an accomplished Italian sculptor, has dedicated over 50 years to the craft of metalworking. Born in the village of Patrica, Italy, his roots in artisanal craftsmanship served as a foundation. After relocating to the United States as a teenager, Domenico perfected his skills as a welder and used them to create unique artwork. Fascinated by shapes and forms, Domenico was eager to learn and continue creating new artistic works with metal. Throughout his journey, Domenico's fascination with metal's limitless possibilities remained undiminished. Even amidst the routine tasks of his profession as a metalworker, he continually sought the art within, dedicating his free moments to sculpting. Today, each of his creations stands as a testament to his enduring passion and commitment to pushing the boundaries of his craft.
We had an opportunity to chat and delve deeper into the world of Domenico Belli, uncovering the stories behind his beautiful creations, his inspirations, and his process. Read on to learn more in this exclusive interview.
Shapes - Cor-ten steel
You started working with metal at the age of 14 in Italy, can you tell me about how you first got into working with metal?
At the age of 14, welding was very fascinating to me. I had uncles who owned metal shops in my hometown. I got involved in working with metal very early in my youth but I was a rookie, as my eyes would often be swollen due to all the welds I was doing. The more I did it though, the more I loved it. I was really interested and fascinated by the forms I could create by shaping the metal in different ways. In these early days, while learning, I was making things like metal railings and other ornamental work, but there was no real time to make any kind of art. Art wasn't even contemplated in my job, and every time I tried to do something artistic with the metal, I was told I was crazy because they were not paying me to make art. I was still interested in making more creative pieces, even though I was told I was crazy about it. When I left Italy and came to America for a new job, they were gonna fire me after working there for only three days because I was playing with material and making creative pieces. My boss told me that I was here to produce for the company, and if I was gonna keep this up then I should go back to Italy. So a few years passed and I continued to work hard learning construction welding and things like that, but in the back of my mind I really didn't want to continue this work, but I had to make a living. In my free time on my lunches though, I would make small pieces using extra scrap metal and recycled material from around the shop.
Open Sky - Cor-ten steel
What kind of creative pieces were you making out of metal in your early years?
I was making small pieces that I would gift to my friends and family, things like flowers, silhouettes, and birds. My friends loved the gifts that I made for them, and I loved making them. These pieces were simple to produce, and easy to make during my free time at work. I had to sneak in some time to work on art during my lunch break because I definitely wasn’t going to stay after hours. We had a 30-minute lunch break so I would quickly eat my sandwich and work through my lunch to make some of my pieces. People in the shop thought I was crazy, but I was hungry to learn and create. I would even get to the shop early in the morning to work on my pieces. Eventually, I thought that I should start selling some of my pieces. I had to put this creative work on the back burner for a while though because I was married and had a family, and knew that
one day I would get back into the creative side of things. Little by little I got back into it because I was hungry to learn more and produce more work
Infinite Embraces - Stainless steel
Have you gone to school for art or welding?
I took a class about 10 years ago from a sculptor in Connecticut. He was a well-known sculptor and I admired his work. I showed up to his class one day and he recognized me, as he was familiar with ]my work from some galleries around New York. He asked me what I was doing in his class, and I told him I wanted to learn from him. He told me that he had seen my work and there is nothing he could teach me. I said there was something he could teach me, but I didn't know what that thing was. I did know that there was something I was missing in my process, and he had it.
For about 3 hours every Wednesday, I would go to this sculptor's class and learn everything I could from him. I did this for a couple of months until one day the sculptor told me that I had to go. He said, “You’ve learned what you needed to learn, you’re done here”. I knew that he was right, so I stopped attending and continued on my journey with my art.
Dolphins - Stainless steel with red powder-coated sphere
What was it that you learned from this sculptor?
I learned how to connect pieces together. I was good at making single forms and shapes, but what I was missing was knowing how to connect them all. It was something that seemed so simple, but I was able to figure it out while taking classes with the sculptor. I never went to school for art necessarily, but I did learn from this teacher who really helped me find the missing link that I needed in my art. So from there on, I started doing more shows with my art, selling at flea markets, and things like that. This experience really leveled me up. And for being someone who never went to school for my craft, it has taken me a while to work my way up from the bottom and get to where I am at now. People often ask me how long it takes for me to make my art or how long a certain piece takes. I started when I was 14 and I am now 68, so that's how long it has taken to make my pieces, you can do the math.
What drives you to keep creating and evolving your craft?
I strongly believe that there is always room for improvement, and this is what keeps me going. If I know everything, then there is no point in continuing because there is no room to grow. I like to keep learning and finding new ways to do things with my craft.
Waves - Cor-ten steel
Do you have any sculptors or metal workers who have been a large inspiration to you and your work?
David Smith is a sculptor and he is my idol. He has a lot of pieces around Washington DC, and even has some pieces around Italy. I remember he came to Italy and did 30 sculptures in 30 days which I thought was very cool. He inspired me to experiment more with shapes, as he makes a lot of abstract works with cubes, circles, and wires. I did not want to copy his style, but he gave me ideas about how I could expand my approach to my pieces.
Intersections - Stainless steel
Can you tell me about how you got the opportunity to create “Patrica Meja”, a sculpture created for your hometown in Italy?
I had always wanted to do something for my town, but it was so hard to do something in my hometown because we had a lot of different kinds of artists who were painters, musicians, and sculptors. The opportunity came from a connection I had made with my old hometown friend via Facebook. We connected and he told me about how he was the president of an association in the town that organized activities and events. When we connected in 2019, it happened to be the 50th anniversary of the association. I was nervous, but I asked him if I could make something for the event. I had sent him a small piece that I had made as a gift and he really liked it. I had asked to make something for this anniversary event and he was willing to get me to Italy to make something. I told him I would go to Italy and make a sculpture, but I needed a shop. I didn't want money for the piece, but I did need a place to make the sculpture. He was able to get me a shop and I made my way to Italy to make one of my biggest pieces to date. I wanted to make something that you can see from far away, something that grabs people's attention. It was a real honor to make something special for my hometown. The piece represented a union between people from my hometown in Italy, with the people here in the United States, like a big hug. The angel wings on the piece represent the people that are no longer with us. This is one of my favorite pieces that I have had the pleasure of creating.
Patrica Meja - Cor-ten steel
Your technique is described as "brute force, decided in the moment". Is your work improvised in the process?
Yes, all of my work is improvised as I'm building it. I never make drawings or sketch out any of my pieces beforehand, which helps me ensure every piece is one of a kind. I have the ability to visualize a piece before I create it, but I never have much of a plan before building. I have shapes and forms lying all around my shop and one day they are going to come together, but my approach to combining these shapes is always improvised in the moment. It has happened many times where I weld shapes together but after stepping back and looking at it, I realize I don't like it, so I take it all apart and start again. My wife also helps me with my pieces, because she often knows what I want more than I know.
In making a piece, what is the most challenging part of the process?
Putting the pieces together can be the hardest part. Because it is just me and my wife, getting some of these large pieces up in the air to weld into a sculpture can be quite a challenge. I use equipment like a chain hoist or c-clamps to hold pieces together while I weld, but an extra set of hands could be very helpful.
Embraces - Stainless steel with blue powder-coated sphere
Being that all of your works are one of a kind and you are against mass production of a work, how do you approach commissions?
I am happy to do commission work, but I always ask what the conditions are. Not only must the buyer love my work, but they have to love the way I work. I also ask what they have in mind. I am happy to try and work towards what they have in mind, but I tell them not to expect exactly what they are describing to me because I am going to use my imagination and ideas in the process of building.
I have turned down a commission request in the past. Someone asked me to make a duplicate of a work from an artist that I was well aware of, David Smith. I am not here to make duplicates, and I am definitely not here to make a copy of somebody else’s work, especially my idol. I have mass-produced plenty of metal works in past jobs, and I am here now to make things that I want to make.
Domenico Belli in his PA studio
Can you tell us about your shop/studio space?
I have two shops that I work out of, one at my place in Pennsylvania and another down in Florida. When I was living in New York I was working out of my one-car garage making large works. This was a challenge because my pieces are tall, and my ceilings were not very tall which meant I had to build my sculptures vertically. When I built my shop here in Pennsylvania I made it with tall ceilings and a lot more space than my garage in NY. This new shop filled up quickly though with all my material and equipment. The space I have in Florida is a rented shop and is even larger than the shop I've built.
In my Pennsylvania shop, I have my roller machine, which allows me to bend and make all of my shapes. So I make all the shapes I want in this PA shop, then I load my truck and take them down to Florida where I assemble the shapes together to make the sculpture whole. I spend half of the year in PA and the other half in FL, and since I have more shop space in FL I do my assembly of the sculptures down there.
Domenico Belli in his PA studio
Domenico Belli will be attending and showcasing works at the Autumn Art Festival in Winter Park, Florida from October 7-8th. His works can be found in galleries and parks across the country.
To learn more about Domenico’s work and view his upcoming shows, click the links below.