Capturing, and saluting the city’s past

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Sculptor on living his American dream in the city


  • Sergio Furnari with his sculpted replica of Charles Ebbets's photograph. Photo: Rose Lytle

  • Sergio Furnari's sculpted replica of Charles Ebbets's photograph, "Lunch atop a Skyscraper." Photo: Rose Lytle

  • A detail of Sergio Furnari's "Lunchtime on a Skyscraper: A Tribute to America’s Heroes." Photo: Rose Lytle

An iconic photograph took on a new life all because Sergio Furnari saw it when he first moved to New York from Sicily in the early 1990s. “I had an instant connection because I’m from Sicily; I saw a bunch of Sicilians sitting on that beam,” he explained.

The photo, made by Charles Ebbets in September 1932, is of 11 ironworkers who were building the RCA Building, now known as 30 Rockefeller Plaza, on their lunch break, sitting 840 feet above the city. The shot, which was named one of the 100 most influential photos by Time magazine, left such an impression on Furnari that he felt compelled to create one in a life-sized proportion.

The 40-foot long replica, which he called “Lunchtime on a Skyscraper: A Tribute to America’s Heroes,” was fittingly completed right after September 11. Furnari drove it down to the pit and it stayed at ground zero for five months.

Furnari, who appreciated the anonymity that came with living in New York City as opposed to his small town of Caltagirone, Sicily, is having the opposite experience. “And now, 25 years later, sometimes I feel like New York City became like a small village for me. Because everywhere I go, I know people and they know me.”

How did you got started as a sculptor?

I’ve been working my whole life, since I was probably 10 years old. More or less by 14, it became a profession. I went to art school for ceramics. And then, by 19, I had a shop over there. So I was doing fantastic in Sicily. It’s not like I came over here because I wasn’t doing well over there. I came over here because I fell in love with New York City. Of course, coming from Italy, I had certain techniques. Here, I had to mix those with American techniques and materials.

You first came to New York at 20 years old. What did you think when you first arrived here?

The first time was in 1991. I was a little bit shocked. But then I said, “Let me come again.” So I came the second time and as soon as I got here, I got off the plane and went to Nell’s. And I was like, “Wow.” Compared to the places I went to in Italy, it was a totally different environment. Completely different. For work, I used to walk around and sell my ceramics to restaurants. I used to do the floor, outside, inside, the plates. I was walking around selling my artwork, basically.

Why did you choose that photograph?

Because I fell in love with the faces of those guys. Literally, I think I fell in love with their souls. It’s like when you see a beautiful woman, you don’t think about it. You just fall in love the first second. It was instantaneous. We’re talking, maybe ’91 or something like that. I was working on Fifth Avenue and I saw the poster. Immediately, I bought it. I did the first one in miniature in ’91 and then I got busy trying to make a living. People loved them, but I never put it together that I could make some money with them. In ‘97, I made eight of them, and they didn’t last too long. Then in ’99, I started producing them.

Where did you sell them?

I had this 1960 Buick in SoHo. I used to display them on top. People loved the car. I guess they loved me too. That’s when everything became a business.

When did you make it life-sized?

In 2000, I decided to make a life-sized one. And people were saying, “It will cost a lot of money. Why do you have to do it?” So anyway, I did it. Then, by August of 2001, it was almost in good shape. I was trying to finish it. I was doing it little by little, and learning new techniques. By September, it was almost finished. Then the day after September 11th, I took off from New York because my ex-wife was pregnant and I was afraid. A day later, I felt like a traitor, like I was betraying New York. So as soon as I got there, I told her, “We have to go back to New York immediately. By the beginning of October, it was finished. I rented a truck and drove it around New York City.

What are your future plans?

I’m working on a coin. Basically, my dream is to put the 11 men on a quarter in 3D. I have it copyrighted with the Library of Congress. I also do custom, hand-painted swimming pools. In 2003, I started making them and now have 100 all over the world. But right now, I made the largest hand-painted swimming pool in the world. I’m trying to sell it in maybe Dubai or Qatar. It took three years and I’m still working on it.

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