HARD AT WORK –– Debby and Paul Boccolucci pose in front of the workshop in which he does most of his welding and fabricating, with two chandeliers that are destined for Holiday Valley. Photos by Lizz Schumer.
WEST VALLEY –– On Route 219, between Springville and Ellicottville, a large, yellow sun smiles down at passing cars, flanked by a blue cow with its tongue out, a human-sized SpongeBob Squarepants and a host of other creatures of imaginable every shape and size. These are the creations of Paul Boccolucci, an ironworking artist who has been making iron sculptures of every size and description for the past decade.
Paul and his wife Debby run their Real Stuff Gallery at that location, which the couple built from farmland about 10 years ago. Paul Boccolucci originally came to the area from Buffalo in 1976 to create iron sculpture and fabrication artworks with the rolling, tree-covered hills of the Southern Tier as its backdrop.
“I’ve been doing blacksmithing and silversmithing since I was a teenager. I started in silversmithing and found that I really liked the Navajo style, a lot of which is stamped. I made metal stamps and discovered that I liked the hard metal [that those were made out of] better,” Boccolucci explained. He taught himself blacksmithing after working in his uncle’s welding shop after school to “get a feel for fabricating.
ROOM WITH A VIEW –– The workshop and showroom are located on Route 219 in West Valley, with the rolling Southern Tier hills as a backdrop.
“Iron’s a hard media and I think it’s common knowledge that it gets soft when it’s heated. I started playing around with Play-Doh® at night, which has the same consistency as heated iron. It moves the same way iron works, so I’d mold the play-doh, see how it behaved and tried it out on iron. I got started doing animal heads, shaping them, poking holes in it for eyes and seeing how those looked; that sort of thing. I’m still learning, every, single day.”
Boccolucci said that, when he started, there were no reference books to consult, just tools for experimentation, although people have begun writing references on the subject, during the past 20 – 25 years. These days, Boccolucci uses a mix of blacksmithing, what he calls “the old process of welding” and modern machinery to create his eclectic blend of sculptures.
“In blacksmithing, there is just a forge, an anvil and a bunch of tools and hammers of different shapes. With welding, you’re basically joining two pieces together. In old welding, you might have a rivet or a wood joint, or there’s forge welding, where you heat up two pieces until the ends become pliable and then hammer them together. Now there are modern welding tools, too. I love having access to all of that stuff, the old and the new,” he said. “I still use both [techniques], to varying degrees. Sometimes, I’ll use more of one or the other, depending on what the project calls for.”
Although his undertakings have ranged from decorative walls to Christmas ornaments, Boccolucci said he does “a lot of whimsical stuff,” with his wife’s helping out with painting and sawing. Debby Boccolucci does “99 percent” of the painting and helps man the showroom, which the two keep open whenever they happen to be home, with a concerted effort to stay open on weekends, when customers are most likely to stop by.
HARD AT WORK –– Boccolucci's workshop is a menagerie of metal, tools and other items of the trade.
On a recent sunny afternoon, the couple was spray-painting a pair of large chandeliers in front of the shop. The light fixtures, four of them, in all, are destined for the new lodge at Holiday Valley.
“We made the three original chandeliers that were in the old lodge 25 years ago, so we’re re-painting those and I’m making a fourth one from scratch. I do the wiring that I can, and if I can’t do it, I have friends who can help me out,” Paul Boccolucci explained.
“I’m going to be starting an M&M® people sculpture for a family. It’s going to be a lot of fun because, who doesn’t like M&Ms? Sometimes people will come to me and they’ll have an idea and I’ll tweak it, to work in metal. Other times, they’ll show me the space, give me their budget and what they like and I’ll sketch out an idea. I’m pretty good at working within a budget,” he said.
When asked which his favorite type of sculpture to do was, Boccolucci answered right away: the big ones.
“I have a giraffe I haven’t been able to work on lately and a tree I’m always getting around to working on. I did a 40-foot ornamental structural piece for a wall of a restaurant in Buffalo, once,” he noted. “I did a tree, like the tree house tree we have out front, and that took me about 6 months to finish. The bigger the project, the more equipment you need to move it. When I’m making smaller things like dogs, I’ll make about six of them at a time and assemble them all at once.
My favorite piece to make was a train chandelier for the old train depot in Springville. I made it to look just like a specific train that used to come through there and I took a railroad tie from that railroad and sawed it down. I made a headlight that actually lit up. It was a fun project.”
“I’m not a junk artist. A lot of people can see a pile of junk and turn it into something and that’s a really awesome art, but I don’t work that way,” he said. “My mind just doesn’t do it. If I have a piece with a lot of parts, I’ll make a bunch of parts, put them in separate buckets and take them from the buckets and put it together like that. It’s just how I operate.”
He sometimes uses an propane tanks for “that specific shape” now and again, but Boccolucci said that he gets all of his materials from a warehouse, rather than using found material.
Looking around his workshop, filled to the brim with sheets of metal and pieces of creatures, tubes, wires and tools, Boccolucci said his imagination can be “more of a curse than anything else. It’s not so great when you wake up early in the morning with your head full of ideas. It’s pretty good for a lack of sleep, in other words.”
Even if his job does keep him up at night, sometimes, Boccolucci said he would not want to do anything else.
“Some days I love it [and] some days I hate it. I learned a long time ago that this is what I do: I work with metal. And I’ve got to do it, whether I like it or not.”
The Real Stuff Gallery is located at 10155 Route 219 in West Valley. The Boccoluccis can be reached at 592-0552. For more information, visit www.realstuffgalleryandgifts.com.