Franco Minervini says when you are an Italian immigrant coming to the United States, you put your dreams on hold.
The Lapeer man set aside thoughts of stone carving in his 20s to start a machine shop in New Jersey.
Minervini, father to Tina Minervini, co-owner of Cinch Art Space in Cortland, would return to carving and sculpting in his 40s.
Today, the 76-year-old has several large scale public monuments to his credit.
“I was 8-years-old when my grandfather showed me how to carve,” Minervini said at his studio. “This is a secret. When I was 8-, 9-, 10-years old, I carved a head. It was lousy. It was terrible!”
He compared it to his grandfather’s work and other professionals. It was not like theirs.
“I went to the top roof of my house and threw it off. I judged my work by the masters.’”
He stresses to his grandchildren not to do this.
“I was good at art. I knew how to draw and paint. When I came to America at 14, you put a hold on your dreams … You have to pay up your debts … I opened up a machine shop when I was in my 20s.”
Back to art
But when he was in his 40s, he took sculpting classes at the New School in NYC.
“In 1984, there was a documentary, ‘The Stone Carvers,’ that won an Oscar. I was amazed. I didn’t know there were people carving stone. This was a show of Italian carvers that carved in America.”
“One was Vincent Palumbo, who happened to be from my home town. The next day I told my wife what I was going to do … go to Washington, D.C. and apply for a job as a stone carver.”
The National Cathedral was looking for carvers to make ornamental stone figures.
“My friends thought I lost my mind. I was making good money as a machine shop owner. To make $6 an hour?”
But Palumbo was there, overseeing the work.
“The first question Master Palumbo asked me: ‘Who is your father.’ ‘Vincenzo.’ ‘Who is your grandfather?’ ‘Michele.’ This guy is losing his mind. Why is he asking me about my family?”
“I think I worked with him,” Palumbo said of Minervini’s grandfather.
“That’s when he told me he’s from Molfetta, the home town where I lived. ‘I used to carve across the street from you,’” Minervini was told.
“He was one of the master’s I used to look at. I used to play hooky from school and watch them carve.”
“Towns have a way of names (in Italy). Minervini is an old name that’s been there thousands of years. If you go five miles away, no one’s ever heard the name.”
Commute to National Cathedral
Living in Marlboro, N.J., at the time, he got the carving job.
“Honey, don’t worry,” he told his wife, Diane. “I will work two, three weeks. I will learn everything about carving and then I will quit.”
“Two and a half years later ….” he laughed.
“Thank God I had a wife that understood the need to do this,” he said of Diane, who died two years ago.
“I worked my butt off. I worked three days a week at the cathedral and four days a week at my machine shop to make ends meet.”
“It’s a calling,” he said.
How else would he do that? he said.
“I used to drive Wednesday morning, getting up at 3 in the morning, just to drive to work. At night I would check into a hotel and crash. It was exhausting.”
But he loved the work.
After two and a half years, the job at the cathedral was done and he returned to the machine shop full time. He started carving on the side.
Photo by Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor
Love of the work
David Beale of Cortlandville started water color painting when he was 50. He was a construction contractor but fell in love with water color.
“When I started painting, I kept doing contract work. Five years afterward, that petered out. At 56, I bought the frame shop. That’s when I quit doing carpentry work.”
He wouldn’t exactly say painting was a calling.
“I would say it’s like most things in my life. I fell in love with it. It was fun. I knew I was pretty good at it.”
He started teaching water color classes and his background fit with the frame shop work.
“This has happened several times in my life. I majored in pre-med and took a music course and that was the end of pre-med,” Beale said.
Nathan Loda of Homer is a full time realistic oil painter. When asked if his work is a “calling,” he groaned. That’s so philosophical, he said.
Art has always been part of his life. “I can do it. I enjoy doing it,” he said.
He was in Virginia this month, dropping off work at a gallery that represents him.
Minervini’s studio is lined with models of his sculptures. Along one wall are “rosettes” he made at the National Cathedral, little gargoyle faces.
“They are 200 feet up in the air, all around the cathedral,” he said. “When you look at them, all you see is an ‘X.’”
His first big job was a monument to Christopher Columbus, in 1992, for the 500th anniversary of the explorer landing in the Americas.
It was a big job in Ocean Township, N.J. His wife thought he was crazy. “My arrogance told me I could do it,” he said.
“Rather than celebrate the man, I celebrated the voyage,” he said, depicting the three ships Columbus sailed with his crew. The work is 5 by 7 by 2 feet.
Another big job offer was for the Monmouth County Sept. 11 Memorial.
“149 people that died on Sept. 11 lived in Monmouth County, N.J.,” he said.
That was a contest they opened up to everyone. There were 48 entries, down to 10, to 3. I won the commission. That was pretty cool.”
He made an eagle in flight with a beam from the World Trade Center in his grip.
In between these commissions, there is a lot of carving going on. A lot of design. “Nothing comes out of it,” he said.
“But this year I finished a monument to the Monmouth Library.”
“It’s an open book, 7 foot by 7 foot book, flat open with a circle on it, meaning knowledge that one gets from a book … the title is ‘Endless Possibilities Through Reading.’ Once they heard the title, they loved it.”
Some of the basics
He uses chisels and hammers on American limestone from Indiana to create.
He goes to the quarry to choose his stone and then has it cut into blocks at a mill. It is brought to Lapeer. The farmer up the road has helped him remove the block from the truck with a forklift.
A work could take up to two years to complete. His Columbus took him three months.
He typically sketches out an idea for a work on paper.
“You change it. You change it. You think about it. You think about it.”
The design is on his mind while he’s driving, watching TV, when he gets up in the morning.
“It doesn’t come to me. It’s not a Eureka moment. The head of the eagle. It’s very important. I sculpted it in clay. I looked at it. I wasn’t happy with it. I changed it. It has to mean so much. The expression of the eagle … it can’t be too angry. It can’t be too happy. That was one project I did nine times. After the ninth time, I was elated with it.”
Lapeer is “conducive for creativity,” Minervini said.
“It’s serene, quiet, a place you can get into your thoughts.”
His daughter, Tina, is on the Cultural Council of Cortland County board of directors. His other daughter, Diana, lives in New Jersey. Diana helped him on the Sept. 11 and other sculptures.
“The people that work for me, mostly quit. You have to do it my way,” he said.
“But my daughter couldn’t quit. I don’t know if she wanted to, but she understands me. I don’t know if I am that demanding. But I do make my work, my work.”