hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture November 2015


A fascination with building things

Sculptor assembles art and community in North Bennington


Contributing writer



The sculptor Joe Chirchirillo stands with his creation “Aquifer,” a kinetic water piece he completed in 2008. The piece is made of steel, copper, electric motors, found objects and water.Courtesy photo/ Gabe Palmer

Debris washing up on the shore just might have been the impetus for a young Joe Chirchirillo to turn to a life of art in which anything – even discards – could stoke his creative fire.

Today, the North Bennington sculptor can look back at one of his favorite boyhood pastimes while growing up in Queens and see how eye-opening and influential such an echo from his past has been.

“We lived in Whitestone, across the street from the East River, and it was still fairly industrial around there,” Chirchirillo recalled. “I loved the factories as well as the remaining docks and shipping facilities. As kids we spent a lot of time playing on the shore. All kinds of stuff would wash up with which we would build forts, rafts, and rock constructions. Don’t know whether any of this was art, but I was always interested in making things.”

This interest in building things continued throughout Chirchirillo’s childhood. When he departed for college at the State University of New York at Oswego, he stayed on track with the creation of objects during the nascent stages of his fine arts training.

“My first experience with formal art instruction was a furniture making class in my sophomore year of college,” Chirchirillo said. “From there, I became interested in sculpture.”

That spark began a creative journey of more than 40 years. As a sculptor, Chirchirillo has worked in many different mediums: welded steel constructions, large clay, stone carving, fiberglass and plastics, wood, cast concrete, and kinetic sculpture constructed from found objects.

“The connection between all these materials is learning how to build things -- learning about process, how to solve visual and physical problems,” Chirchirillo said. “Often times, this is with insufficient funds or scant equipment.”

Indeed, Chirchirillo added, money and equipment always seem to be an issue with the creation of sculpture. He described each project as being something akin to a small manufacturing operation with dwindling resources.

“My work is often heavy; my lifts and gantries are too small, too light, too old,” he said. “My truck is great but sometimes not heavy enough for what I need, and most of my tools are old. I try to minimize these problems by working with materials that are affordable.”

One example of such a challenge was when Chirchirillo had to build a bronze sculpture, which he said would equal about 50 concrete sculptures in terms of cost.

“That’s not a complaint,” he added. “I’m a very lucky guy. I get to do what I want to do -- but always having to figure out how to do it.”

For Chirchirillo, figuring out how to create art also involved making a living and supporting a family in the expensive New York metropolitan area. So when opportunity called, he answered in a way that allowed him to continue pursuing his art.

“I moved into a small commercial building in Jersey City in 1979,” Chirchirillo recalled with a smile. “The area was deserted, and back then things were cheap, and it was 10 minutes by train to the World Trade Center. The place was a wreck, and I started fixing it up and learning more about building skills in the process.”

Always back to building things, Chirchirillo then began to work on part-time construction jobs to make a living. He said he eventually bought the once-decrepit structure in Jersey City and began to renovate it, along with a few other places, as he earned more income.

“This provided a nest egg when we moved to Vermont,” Chirchirillo said. “I still own that first building. The area is much more developed, and the rent from there helps me through the lean art sales times up here.”


Organizing group shows
After he moved to the Green Mountain State about 10 years ago, Chirchirillo quickly became a key player on the arts scene of Bennington County, the Berkshires, and New York’s neighboring Taconic hill country. For the past three years, he has served as curator of the annual North Bennington Outdoor Sculpture Show.

Anthony Cafritz, the founder of Salem Art Works in Salem, N.Y., praised Chirchirillo’s work and approach.

“His sculpture is constructed by the use of found materials or cast components blended in a tonal way,” Cafritz said. “Joe’s voice is constantly evolving. I’m always curious to see the next manifestations of his thinking.”

Along with his creative yen for structures and materials, Chirchirillo’s peers praise his ability to bring together large groups of artists to help promote their work at major cultural events such as the North Bennington sculpture show, which just wrapped up its 18th year.

Matthew Perry, director of the Vermont Arts Exchange, said Chirchirillo is a people person who knows how to unite others through art and creativity.

“I’ve seen him take on the epic role of corralling cats, so to speak,” Perry said from the arts exchange’s new location at the former McGovern Masonry building in North Bennington. “Joe pulled off one of the area’s biggest cultural events -- with over 40 participating artists. More importantly, he accomplishes this with grace and the respect of all involved.”

Charlet Davenport, director of Vermont’s Sculpturefest in Woodstock, said Chirchirillo’s efforts are what the arts scene needs to reach a broader audience in an area southwestern Vermont.
“Joe’s impulse to create group shows in the Bennington community is as important as the unique work he creates as an artist himself,” Davenport said. “He accessed artists he has met and invites others to join in, raises funds through Kickstarter to give them stipends, and creates the sort of publicity needed to assure that the public is aware of all the effort and quality of the work. This sort of generosity of time and effort is invaluable.”

But Perry said Chirchirillo’s effort to organize group shows is rooted in his own creative force.
“In viewing Joe’s sculptures, one can see his personality shining through: the patience of a baseball coach combined with boldness and perseverance, the thoughtfulness and care of a good family man, the imagination and wonder of a child and the skill, intellect and precision of a fine musician,” he said

Having worked with Chirchirillo for years, Perry explained that the sculptor often takes his work beyond a stabile classic, standing sculpture. He said it’s almost as if Chirchirillo is trying to make his pieces literally talk to viewers.

“Joe’s range in size and how far he can push a piece is no worry to him,” Perry said. “He can easily craft a simple piece that fits in your hand like a gem as well as taking on challenging material of steel and concrete.”


Taking it outside
Chirchirillo’s style draws inspiration and influence from both history and mentors. He said his two favorite artists are the noted American masters of sculpture, David Smith and Alexander Calder. Both are known for strong nonrepresentational work, great lyricism and use of materials.
As for contemporary artists, Chirchirillo said he finds inspiration in the sculptures of Andrew Goldsworthy.

“Goldsworthy takes a very Zen approach to his work, going out into nature with no tools or materials and creating sculpture from what is there -- stones, leaves, sticks, ice,” Chirchirillo explained. “His work is very temporary, more like music which is there, and then gone, and is totally dependent on documentation.”

The appeal to nature is one of the factors that’s affected Chirchirillo’s art since he came to North Bennington. This, he explained, is because there are fundamental differences to working outdoors and indoors.

“For me the central theme is about permanence,” Chirchirillo said. “The work I was doing before I began doing outdoor work was kinetic. The sculpture was about creating artificial, false natural systems through the means of crude mechanical systems. I couldn’t make this work for outdoors without it becoming more expensive to create than I could afford.”

Chirchirillo said items such as waterproof electrical systems and stainless fittings that wouldn’t rust became necessary to move his work to the outdoor realm.

He could have spent his time writing grant proposals and applying for funding, but he prefers to stay busy making things rather than waiting years to get them funded.

Apart from funding, environmental factors come into play in his new emphasis on outdoor work.
“There are quite a few opportunities for outdoor work, but it needs to be able to stand up to the elements,” Chirchirillo said. “There is also the issue of vandalism. I had a wood piece burned to the ground once. I want my work to be able to stand up to that issue as well.”
The other main difference, he emphasized, is that outdoor or public sculpture will be seen by people who never set foot in a gallery or museum. He said he is drawn to pieces that can be placed on a city street or in a park, where the non-art-viewing public sees it. This leads to public interaction and ad hoc education.
“I also enjoy the contact with people while siting the work,” Chirchirillo said. “People are curious, and they ask, ‘what is it, what is it for, why did you do it?’ The main problem with the arts is educational in nature, when people are not comfortable with things they don’t understand. So I like explaining it. I feel it’s my job to talk to people about sculpture.”

And making a living from art – perhaps the Holy Grail of every creative person – remains on the forefront of Chirchirillo’s mind.

He’s currently working on a series of three cast concrete fountains commissioned by a client from Woodstock, Vt. Chirchirillo said he also has several concrete birdbaths in the works: one bound for Indiana and another for Arizona.

Outdoor shows, and their exposure on the Internet, also help generate sales.

Chirchirillo’s work is now on exhibit at locations that include Pittsfield and Worcester, Mass.
“I’m always in the process of getting more work done and placed,” he said.

And Perry said that work creates a connection that draws people in – even those who know little about art.

“He orchestrates stories with little motors and pumps, wood and wire creating a dance complete with its own soundtrack,” Perry said. “Water weaves and flows, bubbles, sprays and trickles: Chirchirillo’s work is always functional, whether you’re utilizing it or enjoying it. His sculptures just make you feel good.”


For more information about the art of Joe Chirchirillo, visit www.joechirchirillo.com.