Tom Piccolo began his sculpting career at the Galveston South Jetty Lighthouse 2.5 miles off the coat of Galveston Island. "It was out of boredom more than anything else," he says. He was one of the last, two-human crews at the lighthouse which is now run by computers.
Working 20 days on, 10 off, Tom found a set of carpenter chisels on the island. Later "a big storm blew over this empty water tower and exposed these big wooden beams. I started carving."
"The first thing I carved was a great big tit." And later, "I did a butt to go with it." The tit has since disappeared. But he intends to keep the butt for ever; it now hangs on the wall in his home studio.
He said his early work was mostly an expression of sexual frustration as there were no women at the lighthouse. Then, and for the years following his subject matter consisted almost entirely of female busts and torsos carved from wood.
When I first met him he was a manufacturer's rep, selling hobby supplies-including rubber band-powered model airplanes on the road. At home between forays into what he called the "rat territory" of Louisiana and Arkansas he continued to sculpt torsos-male, female and ambisexual.
His work became more art and less frustration as he gradually learned his craft. He married metal sculptor/arts teacher Sharon Leeber, and they often shared showings at the Contemporary Gallery in the Quadrangle. It was a happy union. According to gallery director Ralph Kahn, "I've sold every piece he's ever made."
About a year ago I photographed some larger, more abstract pieces Tom had recently completed. They had grown in his imagination from wooden clothespin-like models. But the tall, elegant planks were majestic and regal. They were in the back yard instead of at the gallery, because right in the big middle of an almost constant and consistent commercial success, Piccolo appeared to be veering off in an entirely new direction.
At that time he just wasn't getting into doing much art at all. he settled into a construction job and waited for his future to catch up with him.
When he started sculpting again, his work turned even further from representation. This September (1980) at the debut of eight large new exquisitely-tensioned abstracts, he was startled and deeply disappointed by the mass of negative feedback from many of those who had always been fans.
Only one piece sold at the opening. Tommy was devastated. "I was used to selling everything in a show," he said-"at least half of them on opening night. All of a sudden I was in a while new category."
While he was still in shock, Tom explained that he was really sick of doing torsos. He'd done almost every kind of torso in every pose imaginable, he said posing to mock their varied postures. And he had done enough. He did not want to do any more. Unfortunately for his finances, that phase was over.
Eventually, three more pieces sold. One is in the lobby of the Brookhaven college art department. The others, says Tommy with characteristic humor, were sold to "a doctor, a lawyer and an Indian chief." Unsold were two pieces now at El Centro college, where Sharon teaches art part-time. One is in the new building's lobby, the other in the hall outside the library. "Ralph kept one," he continued, "and I got one in my front yard."
Kahn's feedback was mixed. "He liked the figurative stuff and still calls me every once in a while to get me to do some more." They were, after all, says Tom, "a lot easier to sell." Kahn personally liked the new work, which some of us consider Tommy's best ever, but he's found it necessary to focus on what Tom describes as his "new, limited audience." Limited, he explained, because the new pieces were so large they would have to be shown outdoors.
He called the opening "a real kind of bummer," and it was kinda scary for awhile. But in the months since the opening, Tom's usually buoyant confidence had rebounded. Now, he said "I'm working three days a week making cabinets, and I'm going to continue doing that even if I don't sell my art." He said his audience would just have to learn to accept the changes. he was not sure where this 'new direction' was leading him, but he was going to flow with it, wherever it might go.
Just recently, he's installed a bigger boom on his truck, so he can handle much bigger pieces of wood-up to 18 feet long And he's been busy working on models for a massive, 17-foot work which will, he hopes, move and interact with the wind. If it works out, neat!" he said enthusiastically. "But there's a lot of delicate balances in a 12 to 15 hundred pound sculpture. If I can't do it, I'll make it stationary-I'm doing it just for the fun of it."
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