The Breadth of Life

an interview with Walter Rossi

 By Angela Di Bello
Photos by Nanami Yamaguchi

Where did your inspiration to make art come from?

I was born in Italy in 1951, north of Rome in a little village called Fiuminata, which means river born. My family had a workshop for metal and wood and I spent all of my time in the work shop, where I learned the craft in my early teens.

Did you always know that you were an artist?

I have always been an artist even though, as a young boy, I didn’t know what that meant. Building things, anything, was my favorite pastime. When I was a child, I made my own toys, puppets and nativity. My family thought I was crazy because my hobbies were just building things without any practical purpose.

Do you recall when you had your first studio and what it was like?

My first studio was in Rome, in 1970. The studio was in a loft at the top of an eight floor building, where I could see the city from a big terrace.

This was the best time of my life! I was a college student studying architecture at the time. There, I had my drawing table and all the resources to be creative. I learned from the best. I was a student of Bruno Zevi, and when I studied art, I was a student of Umberto Mastroianni, with whom I visited the Galleria D’Arte Moderna in Valle Giulia where we had pieces in a permanent show. Mastroianni influenced me tremendously and encouraged me to continue with my art. He would say, “Walter, don’t give up, because you have the talent!” During those days I knew Fellini, Vittorio Gassman, and many other highly creative people, all of whom inspired me in their own way.

Why architecture?

I decided to pursue architecture because I felt that going to the academy of art and getting a degree in art would make it more difficult for me to find a job. In 1979, I got my doctorate in architecture, after which I went to London and started to work for the architectural firm Water House and Ripley.

How long were you in London and when did you move to New York?

I stayed in London for three years and had a little apartment with my future wife Caila. I used one room as a studio, where I put a kiln for ceramics so that in my spare time I could work with clay. I still have some of my ceramic work from that period. However, London was not challenging enough for me and in 1982, Caila and I moved to New York. Caila’s family invited us to stay in their family house in Brooklyn, which is why we got married when we did.

The house was purchased by Caila’s grandfather in the early 1900s. I was working in an office as an architect at first, but after one year, I started my own company. You see, my father-in-law was a lawyer, and he helped to open a corporation for me called, We Do Neon, Inc. I began to make neon for shops, architects and designers, and met many important people and artists in the neon business during that time. Everyone knew me!

What was the neon business like in the eighties?

The neon business was very lucrative. It was at this time that I bought most of my big machines to work in metal, and the basement of the house became my studio. In the early 90s, I got tired of working in neon and went into architectural work renovations and furniture making, starting a metal furniture company called, Walter Rossi, Inc.

Did your wife Caila become involved in the business?

My wife and I worked closely together and opened a big show room on Eldridge Street, in Chinatown on the lower East Side of Manhattan. I started to participate in contemporary furniture shows at the Javits Center. My wife did the marketing, and I did the design and production. My furniture was featured in many publications, including Architectural Digest and Interior Design. During this period, I had shown all over the city, including The Bronx Museum of the Arts.

Everything was perfect, until my wife became ill in 2004. I had to abandon my work to take care of her. She passed away in 2007, and it was at this time that I stopped working as an architect and furniture designer and focused on my artwork full time.

What was important was to make art because it was the materialization of my spiritual realization

Was this your moment of awakening with respect to your art?

Yes, it was at this time that I realized how short and precious life is. I went deep into meditation, and I knew then that my work was really about achieving spiritual knowledge. Showing my work did not matter—what was important was to make art because it was the materialization of my spiritual realization.

Looking at my sculptures, I always felt like someone else was using my body to manifest a thought or an idea. I have had this feeling many times, and quite honestly, I feel as though I can’t take real credit for my work.

Where did you show your artwork?

At that time, I started to show at Heller Gallery and at Vorpal Gallery on West Broadway. I met Leo Castelli in 1986, and we, in fact, became very good friends. He sold some of my small ceramic pieces. I had some of my work at the Brooklyn Museum, The American Academy in Rome, and at the Nazionale D’Arte Moderna, also in Rome.

What inspired your first kinetic piece?

My first kinetic sculpture was the Angels. There was a profound knowledge about the universe that came to me—the going and coming of life, the infinite breath of life, the stars that attract and repel matter at the same time, and my questions on why we are here for a short time and then disappear into oblivion.

After my first piece, the others came easily, and I realized that even the sound they made was an important part of the piece. Each work was making a different sound, and that was a surprise to me because there was always a harmonic connection between the movement and the sound.

Where did your knowledge of mechanics come from?

Before studying architecture, I went to a technical school were I learned mechanics and construction as an industrial designer, so my kinetic sculptures come naturally tome because I have the technical skills as my basis. I have always liked machines – when I was 15 years old, I built a competition car – so repairing machines, any kind of repair, was easy for me. This is why I have been able to build my machines.

What do you consider to be your greatest gift?

Nothing of knowledge is ever wasted. I think that with all of the time I spent making art, I could have developed a career in another profession; however, then my desire for making art would have been repressed and frustration would have resulted. At least I did it, and I can say that I did what I liked most. My art work is there to be seen. My calling was to simply make it and to continue to make it until my last breath.