What’s your title?
It’s not meant to be a funny question, but it makes Michael Perrotta of Sculpture House Casting laugh.
“We’re a family business,” he says. “We don’t have titles. I’ve done everything from sweeping the floor to doing the patina on a bronze. Nothing is above or below anyone here.”
Michael, who handles the business aspects of the foundry, is sitting at an art-scarred antique oak desk.
It belongs to his father, Salvatore. So do the dust-shrouded grey New Balance sneakers peeking out from under it.
Michael picks up a crimson-color wax head that’s lying on the desktop.
It’s right where Salvatore left it; he was working on it yesterday, flicking away flecks of wax from its seams so it can be cast in bronze.
You can see the bright-red dots on the floor. They look like blood.
The desk, Michael mentions, used to be used by the foundry founder, Alex Ettel.
He rummages in the top drawer and brings out a bunch of vintage photos.
He holds up one of Alex, then one of Alex’s father in the studio standing next to a pair of life-size equestrian statues.
Michael isn’t sure what’s in all the drawers because he’s never really gone through them carefully. They contain a hundred years of history.
Sculpture House Casting, which has been making art molds and casts since 1918, is the oldest foundry in New York City. (More photos.)
The city’s two other foundries also are in the boroughs.
Modern Art Foundry in Astoria was set up 85 years ago, and Bedi-Makky Art Foundry in Greenpoint, Brooklyn was established in the early 1920s.
“We all collaborate on projects,” Michael says.
Until 2014 when it moved to Long Island City, Sculpture House Casting, which has 11 employees, made its home in Manhattan.
Salvatore and Michael’s uncle, Joseph Ruggerio, bought it in the mid-1980s after working there for decades and now all three own it.
“My father came to New York City from Naples, Italy, in 1966 with $80 in his pocket,” Michael says. “He was a poor farmer and didn’t know anything about this business. At that time, foundries were dominated by Italians. He went door to door looking for jobs. He got a job here and worked his way up. He also got my uncle his job.”
Michael, tall and statuesque with perfectly sculpted salt-and-pepper hair, grew up in the foundry.
“As early as I can remember, I would come here on Saturdays with my father,” he says. “I found it to be a fascinating place. And I got to play with clay and plaster.”
He continued to help out while he was earning a degree in finance from St. John’s University.
“After I graduated, I did a few other jobs for a short time, but they were so mundane and boring that I came back here and never left,” he says, adding that the transition, like the foundry’s molds, was virtually seamless.
The foundry works with a host of artists, including Kara Walker, Kiki Smith and Tom Otterness.
“Everything we do is handmade,” Michael says. “We’re still analog in a digital world, and we’re going to stay that way.”
It also creates high-end props for window displays for the likes of Macy’s and Tiffany & Co.
If you’ve ever been to Carnegie Hall, you’ve seen the ornamental plaster that the foundry restored in the 1980s.
And if you went to the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2014 to snap a selfie with Kara Walker’s bittersweet sphinx A Marvelous Sugar Baby, you got to see the surrounding statues the foundry made.
Last year, perhaps you sat on a cast-concrete Louis XIV sofa or chair made by the foundry for Liz Glynn’s Open House at 59th Street and Central Park.
Or maybe you’ll visit the FDR Hope Memorial on Roosevelt Island, which will include Meredith Bergmann’s statue of the 32nd president and a little girl that were made by the foundry.
“It’s interesting working here,” Michael says. “We’re producing art, and I get to meet a lot of interesting people.”
There may be an art to the foundry’s work, but Michael is the first to admit that the creativity is cast by the artists.
“We are more like mechanics,” he says. “We carry out artists’ instructions.”
Michael, who is 47, acknowledges that the foundry’s is a dying art.
“In our world, art is the first thing that is cut from budgets,” he says.
Although Michael commutes on the LIRR from Sea Cliff, the foundry’s workers, who are immigrants, live in the boroughs.
“I can’t move to the suburbs,” he says. “I have to be on a subway line, so it’s vital for the city to make space for industrial businesses like ours.”
Indeed, it was an astronomical hike in rent — from $8,000 to $40,000 per month — that forced Sculpture House Casting from Manhattan.
Successors? Michael hasn’t given much thought to the subject, even though he probably should.
Salvatore is 71, and Joseph is 65.
Michael’s daughter, who just turned 14, is far too young to be thinking about joining any business, even one owned by her family.
“She comes to visit occasionally,” he says.
Then again, nobody has mentioned retirement.
Michael is proud of the fact that during his tenure, which began in 1995 and included the 2009 recession, there have been no layoffs.
“We’re a family,” he says. “If things don’t work out, we’ll go out together.”
He puts the faded black-and-white snapshot of Alex Ettel back in the desk drawer and slowly closes it.
Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018.
Support Astoria Characters at GoFundMe
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;
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Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling