Originally from Etobicoke, Adam Colangelo is a successful contemporary metal artist that has had his work exhibited worldwide. Adam didn’t start out with a background in art, and he didn’t go to art school. In the beginning, he harboured doubts about what it meant to be a “real” artist. Was he an artist, or just a guy tinkering with copper? In the lifespan of our careers, self-doubt will visit us now and again. A success will make everything feel all is well, while a failure makes it seem like the past success was just a fluke. Adam shares his story of how he navigated the world of becoming an artist, and what we believe are two simple things that contributed to his success and helped to conquer any self-doubt: A willingness to take on the unfamiliar, and an uncompromising eye for quality.
Adam Colangelo knows that it takes a lot to become an accomplished artist. It was daunting to start a new career, when he took the plunge over five years ago. There’s an impossible list of things to do and learn. In addition to grappling with the techniques he was discovering as a new artist, Adam learned very quickly how to make a website, how to market his work effectively, and how to build great relationships with his clients. What began as a passion project in memory of his grandfather has now transformed into his own artist studio where he practices his art and meets with clients.
How did you get started with your metal work? You’ve mentioned your grandfather as an influence.
A: Both grandfathers and my dad are all very hands-on people. My grandfather from my mother’s side would always be fixing things and working on his car. It was the mindset that you don’t replace it, you gotta fix it so he was always doing that in the workshop. He and I were alike that way, we enjoy working with our hands.
He passed away years ago and it was a weird transition for me because I just finished school and I thought I was going to teach. Throughout University I felt starved of my hands-on tinkering so I got back into it, I was welding and making sculptures for fun. I did it for experimentation, didn’t have any intention of becoming an artist. I just wanted to decorate my living area and put a piece of artwork on the wall. I like doing things myself, so that’s how it got started.
That winter when I came home he had passed away and I just wanted to make a piece to remember him by. I was in his workshop and I found an old roll of copper and discovered you could colour it by using a blowtorch or put some acid on it and oxidize it. So I did that and cut it up. I used resin to seal it so the colour wouldn’t change. It’s a thick, high gloss seal.
What happened after that?
A: I enjoyed doing it and my family thought it was cool, so I did two more. My brother heard there was a group show that was accepting submissions so I put two pieces in and they took it for the show.
Both pieces were bought and that kind of opened my eyes, maybe I could pay my bills and have fun doing this. That winter I was tinkering a lot and by summer I developed a style and technique. First year I did OK, second year I did better, more commissions, and got into more shows. It’s been steady for about four, five years now.
What did you study in school? Did you find that there is still a connection to what you are doing now?
A: I went to Brock University at St Catherines for Concurrent Education. I was doing Phys Ed, Geography, and a Education degree as well, so not art-related at all. There are some commonalities, especially with Phys Ed and Kinesiology. Most people in those fields are very physical people who work with their bodies so that’s the connection for me, because I’m most comfortable when I’m moving and working with my hands.
How do you handle the business side of being an artist?
A: Over the past two years I’ve had really steady work, I’m either doing commissions or preparing for a show. There’s a cycle there – I prepare, I do the show, I hand out business cards all weekend. The kind of shows I do is commercial style, they’re not shows in a gallery but big festivals where you rent a tent and put out your work. You can do surprisingly well. Since you’re there in person, people can buy straight from the artists and they really appreciate that. Then there’s follow-up sales and follow-up commission work. That’s the life-cycle of the artwork. if I have leftover artwork or time I’ll give that work to galleries or prepare more work for them. By the time I’m done that, it’s time to prepare for the next show.
How do you approach pricing?
A: It’s a general square inch calculation that I do but in larger sizes it should be slightly more because it’s harder and cumbersome to work with and to move around.
How do you handle your commission work?
A: I often visit the client’s home, look at the wall, give my suggestions, fill out a order. It’s like contract work sometimes. I make it, then I deliver and hang it, so it’s very involved.
Does visiting a client’s home factor in to the creation of your pieces?
A: It’s good to see the size of the wall and the colours of the room. Some clients will love the art as it is and find a spot to put it. There’s other clients who want to match it to certain decor in their room and that becomes a little more involved, so I can help with suggestions.
That’s a really great service you provide in addition to the art itself.
A: They appreciate it and we get to know each other and that’s a big connection for me as well.
When they look at the piece they don’t only enjoy the piece for what it is and appreciate it but also remember the time I brought it and we hung it, and afterwards we sat down and had a coffee together.. Personally I feel that’s important, I want the piece to evoke good feelings and memories, even a quick visceral positive experience.
How do most of your clients find you?
A: Commercial exhibitions, word of mouth, online networking, and the houzz website. I might get clients that way, even just sending out business cards they start to trickle in so I can check the site.
When you work on pieces, do you have an idea of a series in mind or some kind of narrative?
A: I do series but it’s like a tangent. I’ll get into one idea of a piece like the way it turned out so I’ll make four or five more. Another way is that clients will request additional pieces which turn out to be a series. It’s like a collaboration where a client might have an idea and design and we’ll do it together but that will start the tangent. It alters my thought process and how it’s going to look. I don’t have a lot of time to sit down and think about telling a story, I just enjoy going in and doing the work.
What are some themes you are currently working on?
Right now I like to do abstracted landscapes or a mix of a landscape and a waterscape so I have to use the appropriate colours to get that look out of it. When I first started it was just patterns, then as I got more familiar and comfortable with the material I figured out ways to be more expressive and suggest images. It’s not paint and a paintbrush, so it’s difficult to get an image out of it sometimes and it’s a solid material, it’s not fluid. It’s a piece of copper so how do you even make a face or a tree? I’m slowly starting to be more expressive with the work.
How do you power through any creative blocks?
That’s why I believe so strongly in just going to your workspace and working because thats how you get ideas. Artists will say that your idea won’t just come when you’re sitting on a couch or in bed, hoping it will come through a dream. For me if I’m working on a piece and I don’t feel creative at the moment it’s through that process that I create new things. You can’t be afraid of having a piece you have to scrap, once in a while it always happens. The nature of my work is that it’s in individual tiles, so it’s good to sleep on it and come back in the morning.
How do you stay inspired or motivated in the studio?
For some reason I listen to Sam Cooke a lot in the background. That helps to almost distract me. The work is creative, the idea and design is creative, but it’s very tedious and laborious as well. I have to cut all the copper, arrange all the copper, and then I have to glue all the copper and nothing in that is expressive or artistic. I still enjoy it, but I don’t need any inspiration to get the job done. In terms of other influences, it’s usually other artists that I work with, hang around with. I have a number of artist friends who have influenced me in a positive way. Two of which are heading to NYC with me to participate in the Affordable Art Fair next month.
Can you tell us a bit about the process behind making a piece?
A: It takes a lot of time to make, it’s on a higher level of quality, I think.
I want to make it look weathered but I finish it with a resin to clean it up and make it look brand new. I do grid work to satisfy a sense of order and to have clean lines. I want to achieve that balance, there’s a number of factors involved. WIthin each square it’s completely random like a abstract painting, so it satisfies that viewer’s eye. I didn’t know that starting out, but now I’m starting to understand my direction and what I want to achieve.
The art has been a teacher, in a weird way. It’s taught me about design, it’s taught me about aesthetics, it’s taught me about colour blending , it’s taught me to be a business person, it’s taught me to make a website. As long as you’re willing to jump into it and learn yourself, it brings all kinds of opportunities. It’s brought me clients so it’s taught me how to work with clients and even the little stuff, like creating work orders. It’s really pushed me to learn. It’s hard for me to explain how to come up with the design but it’s how I’ve developed the aesthetic.
Where do you get your visual ideas?
A: So far every new idea has come when I work on a certain piece. Right now I really like waterscape and landscape, I find people are really drawn to seeing the horizon. It’s in our DNA, I think, to identify with the horizon. I like to blend the colours and see what kind of look I can get out of it. People will tell me there’s a quick visceral experience from looking at the work so I’ve been experimenting with that and seeing what kind of feelings I can get out of an image.
Evolution of An Artist
What challenges did you initially face as a self-taught artist?
A: From my personal experience,I didn’t go to art school. Copper is not a very popular medium to work with. When you think art you don’t think some guy tinkering with copper. So when I first started it was hard for me to tell people I was an artist and to feel like an artist. Experiences throughout the years have really helped to solidify that. It made me feel more legitimate. It was all very self-guided but now I realize we all have it in us, you just have to want it, you have to work hard. Everyone is an artist.
That uncertainty seems like something that many emerging artists have to face in the beginning.
A: I remember going in to the art supplies stores and feeling a sense of nervousness and anxiety. I felt like a phoney almost you know? That might be a little strong I was just training myself. I’d say it took a couple years and the more sales you get the more legitimate you feel. Once I decided to make it a career choice, that’s when I finally started calling myself an artist.
How has your work changed over time?
A: The pieces are getting bigger. When I first started they weren’t as big. Now I’m getting into a size range about 6 feet wide by 4 feet high. My first year doing work to do a smaller 12 by 36 it exhausted me. A year later I went slightly bigger, and bigger after that. But the amount of work feels the same. It felt exhausting to do a small piece but now it feels the same amount to do a large piece. I hope to do even larger pieces by next year.
You seem to embrace a lot of aspects that come with being a fine artist, outside of doing the work itself.
A: That’s another reason why I come in the the studio a bit later. I’ll make coffee and it’ll turn into 2 hours of e-mailing somebody, checking my profiles online, tweaking my website, see what kind of traffic I’ve been getting, following up with clients. I feel like there’s a lot of aspects to the job to make it your livelihood, I just believe in quality in everything you do. If I make a website I want it to be good because its a reflection of me and my work. When you’re steering your own ship it’s a completely different thing.
Have you done any collaborations recently?
A: Recently I was commissioned to do a chess board, and another artist (Grace Eunmi Lee) did the actual pieces. That was one little collaboration but I would like to get into more. It’s good exposure for everyone.
You’ve exhibited in different countries, have you noticed any differences in how your work is received?
A: A lot of people here appreciate the fact that you’re a local artist. It was a bit different in the United States because of the economy, people were more scared to approach and ask questions. It’s very exciting to show work in a different country, for sure.
How do you see your art practice expanding in the future?
A: There’s different paths you can take. One path is where you’ll have a few helpers that you use to produce quicker, and have more pieces which will enable you to do more shows. I think the path I want to go is different, because I still enjoy every aspect of the work. I want to keep at my current production level but slowly raise the prices and pick good shows that will help my career along. It’s just about having the time and resources to do these shows.
You seem a lot like your work, in the sense that there’s a general feeling of positive vibes.
A: Your work is your self-portrait, everything you do is a self-portrait. This is generally how I feel. Of course there’s anxieties and sometimes you feel upset or angry but I don’t put it into my artwork. Especially through my grandfather’s death and my fiance’s mother’s death recently, I was spiritual before but now I’m extremely in that mindset. I’m hoping that will get translated into my artwork.
What kind of values do you instill in your artwork?
A: I believe in quality as well, a quick painting is beautiful but when I do work I feel like a lot of work has to go into it. I am very meticulous and I put a lot of time and energy into it to get a higher quality product.
I was watching a biography on Tony Bennett he was talking about suits and how you need a quality suit. Quality is everything, you can’t go to H&M and buy a cheap suit because it’ll start falling apart and it will go out of style. That’s how he felt about his music, as long as it’s about quality every generation will like it. And he’s proven it, he’s had more than three generations of fans. If I put more time into my work to get a higher quality piece I will do it, and hopefully that translates into a timeless piece of artwork.
Adam’s latest work is For Carolyn, a donation to the Walker Family Cancer Centre in memory of his fiance’s mother. To see more of Adam Colangelo’s work, visit http://www.adamcolangelo.com