October 9, 2012
Dore Capitani cut right to the chase: "My wife says the art is just a front." Maybe so. The former industrial mechanic, who worked his way up to master mechanic, spent the early part of his career working for a packaging manufacturer, and later for a glass container manufacturer, and learned how machines and dies do what they do. This sort of background comes in handy now that he's plying his trade as a metal artist, trying to figure out how to bend metal to his will.
Capitani's hometown, Kenosha, Wis., isn't exactly a sprawling Midwestern industrial metropolis, but indeed it's midway between two prominent manufacturing cities: Milwaukee and Chicago. For a young man growing up in Kenosha in the late 1960s, when manufacturing accounted for nearly 30 percent of all private-sector U.S. jobs, a manufacturing career was a natural choice. It was a good run, more than 20 years, but in the early 1990s, the manufacturing sector was changing. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was enacted in 1994; Capitani attributes the big change in his life path directly to NAFTA. His career came to an abrupt end when his employer shut down its Chicago plant and moved it to Mexico, but he and a friend struck out on their own, making mailboxes. This doesn't sound too lucrative, but it was.
"Our clients were people who owned zillion-dollar homes," Capitani said. The average price for one of their mailboxes was $1,500. That gig lasted several years, but eventually the demand dried up. Capitani's marriage likewise foundered, and his future didn't look too bright.
Everything changed when he got a call from an old girlfriend. On a trip to the West Coast to see her, Capitani found himself in Idyllwild, Calif., thinking about purchasing an 8-acre property that had a lot of potential. Serendipitously, the property's price tag matched the amount of money he had left over from his divorce settlement. "It was almost to the dollar," Capitani said. "I think it was fate."
Kenosha isn't a bastion of Native American culture, but nevertheless Capitani cites Native American art as a big influence in his work. "I have always been fascinated by petroglyphs," he said, referring to the rock carvings commonly seen in the southwestern U.S. (see Figure 1).
Recalling his days of making high-end mailboxes, Capitani said he still fabricates similar high-dollar projects when he can. Some projects are purely artistic, some are functional, but all of them are decorative in some way. He once made a $6,500 downspout.
However, he isn't solely focused on upscale projects. His claim to fame is something less pricey: decorative spheres (see Figure 2). A concept that lends itself to infinite variations, spheres are rewarding because they are both unique and challenging.
"I always start with new metal, never scrap or found metal," he said. "I use 1⁄8- or 3⁄16-in. plate, and after cutting the shapes, I use an ironworker and custom-made dies to get the right radius." Using an old propane tank that he cut open to make a form, he lays out the parts and clamps them in place with locking pliers. "I use about 40 sets of Vise-Grip®s," he said.
Welding the first few parts is easy, but it gets progressively difficult as the sphere gets closer to completion. In fact, putting a torch to the metal is just a small part of making a sphere. Cutting and bending the shapes, laying them out in the form, clamping them, and figuring out how to get the torch into tight spots take up much more time than the actual welding.
"It's 95 percent preparation and 5 percent application," Capitani said.
While making the next sale is a primary motivation for every artist, Capitani takes time out for non-revenue-generating activities too. For example, his shop is located next to a steep, twisting road that poses a challenge for many drivers, and, well, accidents happen. He posted a big sign to remind passersby to drive carefully (see Figure 3).
Capitani can't say enough good things about the location. "I'm in heaven," he said. But it isn't just his 8 acres; it's the West Coast mindset, which he has found to be open-minded and progressive. It wasn't long before the newcomer found himself part of the community, both as a businessman doing repair welding and as an artist with pieces on public display along El Paseo, a prominent boulevard in nearby Palm Desert. Likewise, he contributes to the community whenever he can, most recently when he donated some time, effort, and the use of his powder-coating booth to make a sign for a local playground. It's a virtuous cycle.
"The more you give, the more you get back," he said.
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