In the beginning…
In 1998, after a short stint working in animation I worked for a halloween mask making company in the San Francisco Bay Area. I can’t remember the first mask I ever sculpted, but it was likely a monster or alien head, since those were popular masks. After a few weeks I was trusted to sculpt various realistic faces that were needed. Life size portrait busts of George W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Nicholson, Monica Lewinski (yes there was a demand for her when Clinton was president) and several others were portraits I recall having sculpted. The busts were then turned into halloween masks and sold on the market. I remember modeling several masks of Cassandra Peterson, aka Elvira and other faces that required more anatomically correct likenesses.
There were about five or so clay sculptors all doing the same thing, each artist with a special skill. Molds would then be made in the next room over by a dedicated group of artisans and then those molds were shipped to China for mass production before hitting the market. Unfortunately, I rarely ventured out of the sculpting room so I didn’t get the chance to learn the other processes in detail.
A new calling
After a couple of months making halloween masks Mario Chiodo, the owner, asked me if I’d be interested in sculpting large monuments. At 23 years old any opportunity Mario wanted to throw my way would have made me happy. Heck, I would have scrubbed toilets with a toothbrush if it meant being hired to the coolest company and learning from a great sculptor. I was eager to learn and excited for the trust that he was showing me. Not only was Mario an incredible sculptor, he was a great business man and a genuinely good person all around.
In early summer of 1998, Mario brought me over to a warehouse a few blocks from the halloween company which had a couple of large sculptures in progress. James, Todd, Michael and Debra were hard at work on what was Mario’s first casino sculpture: “The Greenbacks”, still located at Harrah’s casino in Las Vegas.
Immediately I joined Todd and went to work on the other large monument “Birds of Paradise”, this one about 8 or 9 feet tall. From the first stroke of the tool I fell in love with making large scale sculptures. I especially loved problem solving and the challenges working large. The large commercial buildings where we worked in in the east bay were inspiring. With 16 foot rollup doors leading into a large and somewhat empty space filled my mind with possibilities and ideas. Sometimes there would be five or more monuments happening simultaneously. I loved talking with the other assistants, getting my hands dirty and feeling like an artist.
Eventually, I got to meet Mario’s main client for the casino sculptures, Henry Conversano. Henry used to drive up in a cherry-red dodge viper and he looked like Las Vegas! He was confident, well respected and enjoyed his time visiting Mario and his assistants. Sometime after meeting Henry I began designing a few of the monuments under Mario’s guidance. If memory serves we all did a little designing for Mario.
It was hands-on learning and by far better than any art school education out there. I had found my calling and I was ready to jump into the monument business head first.
The best kind of vice is ADvice
One day, Mario was alone working late and I somewhat awkwardly told him how much I wanted to start my own sculpture company, perhaps even run a foundry. I didn’t really expect him to care much at all. After all, I was young and had only been sculpting for him for about 4 or 5 months. But he saw my love for large scale sculpture and that I wanted to learn. Over the next few weeks he shared his thoughts with me when he wasn’t busy running around. Although I may be paraphrasing this short list here is some of the advice that has stuck with me over the years;
- You have to crawl before you walk, walk before you run and run before you fly. Everything is done in that order.
- There is no immediate success in the sculpture business.
- You have to make your own luck. And the harder and smarter you work the luckier you get.
- Go to Italy! It will change your life.
- Don’t get your overhead so large where everything collapses (although this may have come from Mario’s cousin Denny)
I listened. I went to Italy and it did change my life. When I came back, I worked. I worked alone and hard…And I worked harder, then smarter.
After working for Mario off and on for a couple years I decided to leave the bay area. My first job after leaving Northern California was as a sculpting assistant for Danielle Anjou in Santa Barbara, CA. After moving to Loveland, CO I worked for sculptors Gary Lange and Dee Clements. It was working for Dee Clements that gave me that final missing link that would soon allow me to get the ball rolling as my own artist. Dee taught me how to make good urethane molds, pour waxes into molds, chase waxes, weld and chase bronze. I also learned how to do patinas, maintain a working studio and greet clients with a smile.
After working for Dee for a couple of years I felt confident to go out on my own. I purchased equipment, found a large studio to work in and eventually started Sutton Betti Sculptures, Inc.
Passing the torch
Recently I made the decision to hire a full-time sculpting assistant, one that is a little like me; hard-working, talented and determined to find his/her path in this business. Someone reliable that I can teach as much as I can.
I am optimistic. Optimistic that the skills I carry can be passed on.