Founder, Pellettieri Stone Carvers’ Academy
Conducted by Samrudha Dixit on April 10, 223 at Chris Pelletieri's workshop, New York, New York
Chris Pellettieri holding a carved stone head in his workshop. New York, New York, 2023. Photo: Samrudha Dixit.
In this interview, Chris Pellettieri discusses his background, experience, inspiration, and recent work. The interview encompasses a broad range of topics, from stone masonry and its commerce to technology and the educational significance of handcrafts. Pellettieri engages with the material both somatically and temporally. As a resilient stone carver when he works on the stone in front of him, he is empathetic to the stone’s work on him.
Interview duration: 1 hour and 10 min.
Chris Pellettieri (CP): Yes.
SD: In this workshop in New York City. Mr. Pellettieri is the founder of Pellettieri Stone Carvers Academy. In 2014, he was chosen as one of the top makers of New York City by the Museum of Art and Design. Apart from sculpting and exhibiting his fine work. He is also an educator and the programs he offers at the academy value stone carving at a therapeutic register. Thank you, Mr. Pellettieri, for participating in BGC's Oral History Project.
Interior of Chris Pellettieri’s workshop. Plastic curtains on the right near the windows demarcate the dedicated machining area. New York, New York, 2023. Photo: Samrudha Dixit.
SD: Yeah, so the first two questions are introductory, and sort of we will get into the ideas of making and about you as well. So, my first question is, how do you identify yourself? Are you a teacher, artist, craftsperson, sculptor, carver, or designer?
CP: I've been working for the longest time in a kind of isolation, and it's irrelevant to me if there is an advantage in identifying myself in a certain way because I am pursuing an opportunity that becomes important. But, aside from that, personally, I don't really focus on those issues at all of identifying myself as a certain, in any of those categories that you that you offered.
SD: Okay, so, if one were to ask, what do you do? What do you do, what is the best way to explain?
CP: Like, at a party? With someone who's ignorant?
CP: I just say I am a stone carver.
SD: Okay, and how would you define a stone caver? What is your definition or understanding pertaining to that term or idea?
CP: A person who shapes stone.
CP: Yeah, and, there are all kinds of different specializations, and sometimes many of them I am experienced in. Because a stone carver could specialize in sculpture, could specialize in architecture. Even within sculpture, there is architectural sculpture, and there is fine art sculpture. So, I have experience with both of those. But I don't feel like I specialize in one or the other.
SD: Okay, which one do you enjoy more? if you have to choose.
CP: I don't think it's so much. I enjoy working with people with clients to do commissions for something that they need or that they think they need. So, there's a component of I am not just here in my workspace doing things that excite me, with no regard for the person who will be living with it. Which is fine too, I have done that as well. But I like to collaborate with people who have something that they feel they need, it could be a cemetery monument, it could be a fireplace mantle, or something for their garden. The sculpture, I think that brings out my creativity, it's a challenge creatively because you are also considering somebody else's needs and you want them to be happy, so you're considering their taste. Uh, sometimes I forget what you ask me.
SD: It is ok you can ask me again, I was just talking about, how would you define stone carving. But I think we.
CP: You asked me what I like best. I think.
SD: Yes, and then we went there, but it's okay as and you can take it at whatever extent there is no formal.
CP: It's a great feeling when somebody comes to you and they want something, they're not quite sure, they need your help, and you feel like you have succeeded in helping them, maybe even more than they were expecting. Yeah, that's a good feeling.
SD: So you feel that this is a very collaborative profession where the client is equally important, and it allows you to express, is that?
CP: It can be, it can be. I mean, there are people who don't want to deal with that, or they don't like dealing with that. So, they just pursue their own vision of what they want to do. And if they're lucky, there is, there are people out there who will see it, once it's finished, and maybe they didn't even realize they wanted something. But they see it and they say that's, I have to have it. That would be a great position to be in. I've never been in that position, but it's different from having somebody come to you and say, I need something. I need this for a memorial for my loved one, or I need it for my home to feel complete. So you work with them, and you say, well, Sometimes you work with a third party like the cemetery, that has all kinds of rules and regulations as to what materials are okay and what size is, okay. So not just you, in the client there are some other external limitations.
SD: So there are like three things coming together, in what you are saying. There is your expression, then there is a client who you are trying to sort of deal with, and also, there is a limitation of the placement itself because it might be a cemetery. But if you're working for a fireplace mantle then there might be a limitation of the size.
SD: Okay. Interesting. I also understand that you have dabbled with wood and photography. Before this, so what drew you to stone, and how do you compare it with the other mediums? Because they also have something similar.
CP: Well. My father was a photographer. So, that's probably the major reason why I ever got involved in photography. Most of us want our parents to respect us and be happy that we did, be proud of what we're doing. That leads us to pursue certain things or exclude certain things that we don't think they'd like, and it's very difficult, I really feel this now because my son is graduating college this year. It's really difficult to be at a stage in life where you feel like, I have to choose what my path is going to be and think, this is it for this is the moment, and it's never going to come again, which is completely, not completely, but it's not really true. You can change course at any time. It gets more difficult if you have a family and responsibilities for income, but anyway. I did some photography in high school. Then in college, I worked in the place where my father was working. Because at that time, it was all, there was no digital, it was all lab, you had a lab.
SD: Yes. Darkroom.
CP: But part of my decision factor was competition. There's a lot of competition in photography. Say, there are way more people who have training, who have ambition, than there are opportunities. I didn't want to be a photographer taking pictures of products for catalogs, which is no disrespect to the people that do that. But at that stage in my life, I wanted something which had a little more um, ah, creative expression, I guess, a little more opportunity for I don't know, maybe becoming famous or having recognition.
CP: And take photographs at bar mitzvahs or weddings, I didn't feel like that would offer the kind of reward that I was looking for, So, I was reading, and also, my uncle was a sculptor and a glass blower, and a teacher, and just an all-around high-level craftsman. And artist but a craftsman in the sense that he could just pick up tools and materials, and it would seem like he had magical abilities to cut something right on the line and join it together with other pieces of metal or wood or whatever material, and it just worked. And if I would, after he left the room, if I would try to do the same thing, it just seemed like the tools were not the same tools that he was using, even though they were, they didn't act the same way because I was expecting much easier results. So having seen him and spent time in his workspace, I kind of defined adult competence. In terms of having those skills and abilities to work with tools and materials, and that just make things seemingly effortlessly that, uh, that worked and looked good when they were done. So having that background and knowing that I was tired of academics and sedentary information-based activities, I did some reading, and I felt like woodworking was the most accessible in terms of—there are whole shelves in the library dealing with instructions on woodworking, there are schools that teach woodworking. So, rather than initially going into something which would be a big investment, a big like, effort in terms of just getting started, I decided to let me try this thing because of everything I can get at the hardware store. I can get the wood, just take the subway to get a piece of wood. I don't know where I am going to get a piece of stone or glass or iron. Just get a sense of, could this be my future? Could this be something that I would be successful at? I tried woodworking. My friend, an older friend, somebody of my parent’s age, he had access to a space in the basement of an apartment building just a few blocks from my house, and it was like a workshop, he turned it into sort of a workshop. There was a place where there was a vise and storage for planes, saws and wood, and stuff. I made some little carpentry projects of a box and a little wood carving. I got my uncle involved, and I told him I wanted to try wood carving. He gave me some gouges and mallets and chisels for wood carving. And I experimented totally in hiding. Until the product was done and then I would show people, but I didn't want anybody to see in case it was wrong, I didn't want to be laughed at. I have an older brother, I guess it's not like everybody who has an older sibling has to deal with this, and I love my brother, he's great. But at that age, and it's also maybe because of my dad, my dad had a tendency to ridicule. Other people, not me so much, but at other people. I’ve always been like worried that I would be ridiculed if I tried something new and it wasn't successful that like people would laugh at me. So that's why I was doing this in hiding, almost like secretly. Because I didn't want someone. Oh well, look at him. He's just he's a, he's a carpenter now, look at his, like I didn't need that. It was hard enough for me to try it. Just with my own judgment, I didn't want other people's judgment to be a problem. The results were good, and I really, really enjoyed it. I go in there in that space, and in three hours, I realized I hadn't thought about the time, the time just flew by, so that's great. That's a hallmark of, if you're doing something that's good, right for you. So, then I had known about this program at the Cathedral because I went to school at the Cathedral School from age seven through age thirteen. When I was about twelve, that's when they started this, they resumed construction on the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. And having discovered that there were no people anymore who knew how to do that, who were answering their, help wanted ads. They realized they would need to recruit beginners and have somebody there to train them. So, I had witnessed that, and when I first saw it happening, it didn't seem like something compelling for me that I wanted to get involved in. After exhausting my enthusiasm and academic stuff. After dabbling in these handcrafts in secret on my own. I began to feel like, well, that might really be perfect because I was also doing construction in a modern way, at least that was like I was unskilled, but I was an assistant in construction interior renovation. I was seeing people do things in a modern way with sheet rock and metal studs and transforming spaces with flooring and, new windows. But the new windows come already put together, and they just fasten them into a hole in the wall. They don't take out planes and chisels and shape the wood into well it's not even wood, it's metal. But they don't they don't create it on the spot, that's done in a factory. And they're delivered to the site and the workman put it all together and it takes a lot of skill. But what I felt more excited about was the idea of raw material being delivered to me, presented to me. And with my set of hand tools, I would transform that block of stone or that chunk of wood or that piece of material, whatever it could be, just using techniques and simple tools. Rather than fastening parts together that were already shaped. So, all of these factors coming together at the same time gave me the courage to say, I want to try that. It was even a barrier because a lot of the publicity, the story of the stone yard was focused on the idea that this opportunity was for people who were underprivileged, who are challenged, economically had very few options. I'm not feeling like I'm from a wealthy background, but I also don't feel like I'm from an underprivileged background. So, I worried that either, they wouldn't accept me because my family earned too much money. Or if they did accept me, the other people might not accept me because they see me as somebody who wasn’t from the same tribe as them. But fortunately, I found both of those things were, those are social, those are like, not fitting in issues. Which has been a problem for me since [laughs] I started kindergarten. But I was so pleased, then relieved to find out that if there was any of that it was not hard to overcome. Most people really accepted me.
SD: Was it after joining that you felt this or while applying, applying you were thinking of it?
CP: Well, I found out they didn't want to look at anybody's tax returns or assess your income right away. I knew that from the beginning, but it wasn't until I started working there that I discovered that. Yeah. I mean, there were different backgrounds. There were people from, there were people from Russia, and there were people from China. There were people from, there were people from the neighborhood, Puerto Rican and Dominican guys. Who I thought would be like the dominant, included group and everybody else would be like, oh what are you doing here? He's the white guy. He's the, but I just there's a lot of there was a lot of diversity. And, most people just didn't even like to ask questions about your background or where you lived or how much, what your parents did for a living, or how much money you made. I mean, people, people knew I'd going to college, which, I guess, it's an indicator that I had more resources and money than their families did. But nobody was, only one time was there like a, a little bit of a mean remark about who's the college guy, but even that was like, nobody was throwing stones at me.
SD: How was the learning environment in terms because I’m assuming everyone was a beginner at stone work? Is that how it was?
CP: Well, everybody, no, no. Some people entered already with skills. Yeah, this guy is from Russia. He had had a lot of training in restoration, stone carving in Leningrad or Saint Petersburg, now. We shared an apartment later, Oleg. If people, if people came to New York City with these skills, there was, that was the place to go. There were no other places, so, a lot of people found their way. Who already had some skills, but mostly it was people who had skills, but they got them there. They had been trained there and some over, like, over a decade earlier, before I got there. Some like fifteen years before I got there. From the original British craftsmen who had been brought over in 1979 to train New Yorkers. I don't think any of those guys, the original trainers, were still there. But the people that they had trained were there. Oh no, he wasn't well, yeah, it's just splitting hairs but yeah. But it was a wacky training. It was a wacky education system because I've heard from people that things were more of a system earlier. But those same people told me that when I came things were really, falling apart in terms of the sense that, I guess, the people who were teaching were able to dedicate themselves entirely to teaching. The program that they would put people through was really well thought out and a person wouldn't be put demands on them to do something that there was beyond their ability. More like a school where this, no pressure from production. But things had kind of deteriorated so that I guess the teachers were splitting their time between focusing on the new, the beginners. And having to produce work for commercial needs. Because it wasn't just working for the Cathedral. They were bringing an outside job like the Jewish Museum on the fifth avenue. Which is a wonderful job, and I got a lot of experience working on it, but it also introduced this element of pressure that people had to produce because it was a job that was expected to make money. So that kind of messes things up. I didn't, I didn't get that because I was just a beginner, but people who were there, who had been there for a long time, they said, oh, the whole, the whole education system had like really become corrupted.
SD: So is that because it became more commercial?
CP: I don't think it necessarily had to have been that way just because it became commercial. But commercials add a whole element of being on a schedule. Other people are waiting for the product that you're creating. So, there are penalties, maybe if you're holding up the timeline. So, maybe they were I mean, it doesn't have to be because I think ultimately my academy, I hope one day to have a way of funding educational programs through doing commissions with trainees that will ultimately be in public view.
SD: Would you say that it had an apprentice model or not? The Cathedral school?
CP: The model. Absolutely. The model was, but they had difficulty staying true to that vision. When they had jobs to do in the schedule. I think when they were just working on building the Cathedral, the tower. It was their timeline. There was no external, nobody else. There was no client who was saying, hey, we need this job finished. You guys have got to speed it up. But when they're dealing with a client. The Jewish Museum was the client, and they had a business obligation to them. So, if things are like we can't say all the students take your time. I can't rush him because he's learning that's not compatible with the need to meet your commitments and get work delivered on time.
SD: Can you also explain a little bit about how was the learning? As in, who taught you was there one person, or were there assignments that you did, and how was it introduced?
CP: Looking back. I see. What my friend was telling me about how things had really fallen apart, because, but it worked for me. I think it worked for me because I was really, really hungry. And I really wanted to learn. I think a lot of people that came, I'm not saying most people, but a lot of people. They saw, oh this looks cool I'll give it a try, but I wasn't like that at all. I was like this is my future I have to do it. Yeah, I don't want to go down that path of sedentary. I recognize that this was a kind of a unique arrangement, where we weren't paying to learn. We were being paid to learn. Anyway, one guy showed me how to do a flat surface. Maybe he's demonstrated, he didn't even demonstrate the whole thing, he just demonstrated part of it, and then I do that part of it, and he'd come back a while later and show me the next part of it. So, over the course of an eight-hour workday, he spent maybe an hour with me. Then I continued that process. Just assessing it on my own which is one of the great virtues of the flat surface, you can take a straight edge and assess it. You don't need somebody to come over and tell you you're making progress because you can see. So I repeated the process. Basically, with very little, nobody really focused much attention on me for a month, and I was earning money. So like, on an organizational level, they were supporting my learning, but in terms of people, the way I teach is much more. I'm much more.
CP: Keeping an eye on people, and trying to, steer them away from bad habits and with good habits replacing. Just after that month. I think they gave me something to do, which was really the only stone I ever did for the Cathedral because they were doing this transition to outside work, which is where most of my, almost all of my actual production of stuff that was not just learning pieces was these outside jobs. So, after a month of just doing the flat surface, they gave me something, like, way beyond that. And I was able to do it, it was half finished. I think somebody had abandoned it. Either they got reassigned or they quit. I don't know what happened, but the stone was two-thirds finished. And somebody, just like I was saying with the origami [referring to my skills which we spoke off before the interview] they just do this. I didn't really understand what I was doing, but there while I do this, they came by, and I said, I'm finished, so they say do this next. It wasn't like, I really understood. But I was able to get some practice and have somebody direct me. This one single stone that I ever did for the Cathedral successfully completed. I don't know if it would ever set in place, I kind of don't think so. And then from that, it's hard to remember, but I think from that, I started doing pieces for the Jewish Museum job, which were really complicated. And again, I don't think I really understood. Even close to understanding how those things should be done, so that I could have done them, even if I was on my own in a room by myself [points to the walls of his studio], I think I was just kind of like, the puppet masters would come in, and they'd say do this part and I said okay I'll do it and then they come back. It was a weird kind of system. And I think they were, they wanted to use people to get work done. But they didn't have enough simple work that was appropriate for people at the level I was at. I was used to doing things more challenging than what I was ready for. Um, and that takes a lot of guidance. Not hands-on but guidance, in terms of, they draw the lines on for me and just tell me what to do, and I wouldn't really understand, but I could execute it.
SD: This was, and I am assuming, a formative period for you as a maker. How did you deal with failures at that moment? Because of it.
CP: Not well, not well. I often see people with the approach that I had at that stage. And I have special sympathy for them because when you attempt something, that's really hard. You have to be merciful with yourself, and not think that there's something wrong with you. If you break off a piece that you didn't mean to break off, nobody ever yelled at me. Nobody ever scolded me or was harsh or critical. Just myself and, I think that's one of the biggest lessons that people can take away from stone carving. Even if they only do it for three hours. So, when we have these introductory sessions on Governors Island for the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders at the Mather High School, I start off saying, what you're going to do today, it's not a beginner thing. It's like something for people who've been doing it, I don't know, for a month or so. Try not to even focus too much on the product because you're going to mess up within the first fifteen minutes. And just laugh, try to just to laugh and just enjoy that. A lot of things we do, there's no product. Like if you go to the gym and you lift weights, you're not creating a product that you can take home and show people the product is you you're working on yourself, you're the product. So, I said try to take the same attitude. You get out of this session today, it's not going to be a piece that you can give your mom for Mother’s Day. Forget about that, it's you, you're going to learn things about yourself, you're going to so. That's the healthiest attitude for somebody who's starting with stone carving or any kind of handcraft. It's just because hardly anybody has the opportunity to do it these days. That people come in expecting, that's a surprise. They're not prepared for that. It's much more common for people to dabble in music. And if I gave out guitars instead of chisels and hammers and I said, hey, nobody had done it before, I don't think people would expect it like they're going to leave three hours later playing like classical really with their fingers having this agility and nice music coming out of the thing. They wouldn't expect that. But they do expect that with handcrafts because they don't know any better, There's no system, there's no [pauses].
CP: Well, parents send their kids for music lessons all the time, but they don't send their kids for stone carving lessons or woodworking classes.
SD: Why do you think that is? Do you have any opinions? Is it not seen as cultural, like the way music is?
CP: It's just lack of awareness and that's me, that's one of my big visions for the survival of crafts is not to see them as an activity that's needed to produce a result. If it's seen more as an activity of enrichment, personal growth and enrichment, like, debate, like in college, kids do debate, even in high school, they do debate. It's just an enriching activity, and it has so many benefits for you if you go into different specializations in college or in professional. I've learned how to logic, or create a logical argument. It's the same when you're learning to work with tools and materials, you learn to create logical steps to developing something into something.
SD: Is that? I'm going to skip a couple of questions and come to this. When you talk about the program, as you have also worked with veterans, you mention that there is a therapeutic value to stone carving can you elaborate? When you say a therapeutic value?
CP: No. I mean, the therapy can come from lots of different aspects. But I think even if you took a block of stone and you weren't even, you just decided I'm going to chip. I'm going to turn it into chips on the floor. I'm not going to produce anything. That would be therapeutic. Just the, just act of like swinging the hammer and figuring out how to position the tool to get chips, to break off with the economy of effort. That sort of quiets your mind, it focuses you in on something. I mean, I guess productive might not be the right word if you were just like turning the stone into chips. But you have a goal. It’s meditative, it quiets your mind, and I mean, I'm sure it's not true for everybody. Different people find their therapy in different things, yoga, and traditional meditation, but I think a lot of people who do it, they do agree with me that it has that ability for them.
SD: Do you think also the rhythm has something to do with it because you are sort of, the hand and eye coordination with the stone itself, is rhythmic? I remember when you showed us the first demonstration [during a course taught by Professor Caspar Meyer at Bard Graduate Center], you talked about rhythm. how it sort of becomes part of the stone. So, I just wondering if that is also linked to the idea.
Chris Pellettieri demonstrating stone carving to Bard Graduate Center students behind the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. L to R: Sydney Maresca, Elliot Camarra, Emily Harvey, Patty Madsen, Maura Tangum, Caspar Meyer, Chris Pellettieri. Harlem, New York, 2022. Photo: Samrudha Dixit.
SD: When do you think you attained a certain rhythm or certain pace in your work, like as someone who just started? Did you also go through this idea of imitating?
CP: Yeah. Yeah. So, I'm constantly looking back to or trying to rediscover the thoughts that were in my head when I was a beginner because I want to be able to relate to the people who I'm teaching. Yeah. I can't say when, maybe a month, two months, six months.
SD: Now that we are speaking about, the process is there something which is very frustrating? A process in stone carving which you do not like? you're not fond of?
CP: Well, I did almost all my work in limestone at the Cathedral. So, when I started to do work on my own after, When I left the Cathedral, I also focused on limestone. I had an opportunity to do something in granite about ten years ago. And it was just a sink. It was not complicated. And that was really frustrating because I thought I could apply the same. I knew it was harder, and I knew it would take more time. But I thought I could use the same methods, and it would just be slower. So, that was really frustrating. When you think about limestone and granite, they really have nothing in common because granite is from the igneous, the melt molten stuff in the core of the earth. That comes close to the surface and cools. Whereas limestone is like calcium from sea creatures that accumulate over millions of years and solidifies and compresses. So it's not like just talking about two different kinds of wood. It's not like saying oak as opposed to pine, they're not even the same origin. No, I understand why they both be considered stone because they come out of the earth, they're really, really hard and heavy, and people have used them in, over, traditionally for similar purposes, and they've used similar tools to do it. But it was so frustrating for me to do that job. And, in the end, I used a lot of machine tools, which I kind of avoided using for limestone. And it helped me to confront my own bias of like, machine tools versus hand tools. And I wouldn't say I embraced machine tools after that because I still prefer to use hand tools when possible. But I stopped thinking of them as some kind of cheating or less respect. I don't, I sort of thought they were not respectable. I don't respect somebody who'd use that. But I do now, I have learned something, I have matured in a way but I still wanted to avoid granite. I still didn't want anything to do with granite again. Until like, last year because a lot of my directions I've gone and have been the result of business. I made this decision to try to be a stone carver and have that be my profession. And you asked earlier about how I classify myself. And I thought of it in one way when you asked. But now I’m thinking of it in a different way. And it's very important to me that this be my identity. That I'm a stone carver for myself, I'm not even talking about how I identify myself to other people, this is just. There have been times, I was more of a child carer than a stone carver, for my own kids, not for like profession, there have been times, I was more of like domestic, than a stone carver. Because if I'm between jobs, I might be cooking a meal at night and cleaning up, and that would take up more time than I'd spend carving stone that day doing laundry or vacuuming, something like that. So, there have been times in my life when being a stone carver was. Anyway, I'm getting off the track, but with the granite I had to I had to do a granite job because it was the only job that was really being offered to me at the time.
SD: Have you tried other stones? Because I’m assuming there are different kind.
CP: Yeah. Yeah.
SD: Which one is your favorite?
CP: My favorite is still limestone, but I've done work in marble, alabaster, slate, and sandstone. They're all similar. They're all more similar to limestone. But granite is still this material. I know, the Egyptians worked on granite, and they didn't even have steel. Yeah. I'd love to see videos of them working 2,000 years ago and uncover the secrets of how they did it. Some of it might have been heat, they there's like some reaction to like heat that granite might, they might have exploited that to make it more workable, they might have just had a different concept of like what they could accomplish in a day so that something like that. Then I'm pointing to a sculpture that I did as a cemetery monument, they would have been saying, oh wow, you did that in five years. Wow, you work so fast [laughs]. So, they just had totally different expectations of how long things would take to do. But for me, it's really hard. I decided when I was, decided to tackle this piece that I would just embrace anything, anything that, except something robotic that, A, I couldn't afford, and B, I don't want to do, because that would be giving up the hands-on aspects to a machine. But machines that I held in my hand and control if they are motorized. I'm not going to have a bias against that anymore and they are very dusty. Because machines that spin fast with abrasives make a lot of dust. So, I created this area in my workspace with the plastic sheeting. There's a window there [points to the far end of the studio] that has a fan that blows it out. The window, all the dust. So, I surrendered myself. So, whatever, whatever I have to do, I'm not going to be so judgmental about it. I want a good product, I want to make my client happy, and I want to feel like I've conquered some, something that previously seemed like too much.
A granite tombstone Chris Pellettieri was working on at the time of this interview. New York, New York, 2023. Photo: Samrudha Dixit.
SD: So after this encounter with granite, do you think you'd use machines on limestone or, like if you have to turn out something very quick?
CP: Well, I already have, I already had okay, there's a machine called a pneumatic air hammer. Which was very, very much in use at the Cathedral when I was learning and, and I was even instructed in how to use it. That's been in existence for like a hundred years, it's not like cutting edge. It's not like new, new. But that's only a that's only a slight difference from hitting the chisel with a hammer because, basically, it's a piston that you hold in your right hand and the piston, and you stick the chisel into the piston so that the piston hits the chisel like a thousand times a minute. Lightly, not even that hard because the thing that replaces the hammer is inside this handpiece which is the size of a cigarette or half a cigarette. Not as big as the hammer that you hold in your hand. But since it hits so fast and so many times per second, it makes the work, you can shave the stone away. But it's very similar. You're still guiding it, you're still totally in control of it. It's not like you're somehow, it replaces effort, but it doesn't replace your control.
SD: And I'm very fascinated by how you are connecting machines to control? So where do you think, is there a line after this, it is not made by a human? So, let's say at what point would you say that it's still human-made or it's still made by hand?
CP: Well. I mean, if the machine can do the work without you even, if the machine is cutting the stone and removing material without your contact, then it's kind of automatic. But at the same time, a lot of projects that I do are shaped from a sawn block, which, the saw basically created very, very flat surfaces. Which is often part of the finished product, like this [pointing at the granite tombstone] all my work is on one side and all the other sides are flat or wanted flat, the top is curve, and it doesn't bother me that the back was totally shaped by a machine without my, it doesn't bother me. I still feel like this is my product. So even that is a compromise. Even there, I've gone against my, principles of like.
CP: Yeah. Yeah.
SD: I think this is a good part because we're talking about machines. I saw your lectures which are on YouTube, and I’ve really enjoyed them. I wanted to ask, when did you decide to go virtual or to go on social media? How was your first experience with being on YouTube?
CP: Well. It was great. I guess I decided to do it maybe three years ago. I grew up before the internet, I grew up before even computers were not common at all in people's homes. I was very suspicious of computers when they first came out, it seemed like a combination between a typewriter and a TV. I always thought typewriters were like, that's not that's like, low, [pauses] not admirable work, not nothing to be ashamed of but it wasn't like something I aspired to, even though my mom was a really great typist and that was part of what she did and I respected her so much. I do respect her so much. I was kind of, computers it's not really for me, I'm not really that interested in computers. And then decades later, we have the internet, and I was still like, this is the fad, internet what's the big deal? I don't get it. And I still don't get it. But I've obviously come to realize that like it's. It's not, it's not a fad it's here to stay, at least until something even more. Like, something replaces it. So, I still haven't really watched much YouTube. I'm not a consumer of YouTube. But I became aware through people, friends giving me advice that like YouTube’s big people go to YouTube to, I mean, they go there to watch pornography and just waste time, but they also go there when they have education. There's a lot of education on YouTube. And I was stuck in this COVID and limitations in my ability to teach in person. So, I decided I would try to create some, and I, well, I also did a very small amount of actual using YouTube, and I discovered that that's not that much there. That is somebody clearly and coherently trying to explain the process of stone carving. There's not that much there, and I get that in comments a lot from people who enjoy my videos saying, wow, I can't believe there is nothing out there like what you do. So, I had some experience teaching in person, so I just pretended that my phone was a person, and I tried to. The best I could, this is my tripod [pointing at a pole] like contraption. To make an angle, put the camera so that it captures my hands, and the material, and showed what I was doing so that, And I didn't know what to expect in terms of response, but I'm not diligent about adding more. I think, if I would add more on regular basis the algorithm would share me with more people. Yeah. So, Yeah, and I have found people in foreign countries, giving me feedback. There's a guy in England who. He actually contacted me before I ever did it, and then when I started doing it, he was giving support and positive feedback and actually doing the projects. That my videos taught him to send me pictures of his finished products. We went to England, my wife and I about a year ago and we met up with him and it was really cool to actually meet somebody like that. I mean I'd never seen videos of him, so I didn't, but he'd seen videos of me, and he had this sense of who I was and what kind of person I was. And that I'd be not. You know that I did.
Chris Pellettieri sitting at the desk with the stand where he recorded his YouTube videos. New York, New York, 2023. Photo: Samrudha Dixit.
CP: Yeah, yeah.
SD: Wow, did you like it?
CP: Yeah no. I mean it's to the idea. And this relates to different students will achieve different things with different amounts of support. Vastly different. He really was into it for his own, passion. He was so happy to find my teaching. And so he did things that like, blew me away. Whereas people might be forced to take a class with me. Who are not really into it, wouldn't even, with even with me being able to like, be in the same room and interact with them and actually demonstrate and even like hold their hands and say this is like this, they, they wouldn't achieve. It's the same with me because I was in the same place learning with people. And some people that had been in the place for years more than me, six years more than me. They had learned so much less than me. With access to this, with access to more support and even opportunities to travel overseas and go to France and learn from French. It's just amazing how different people can make different use of the same resources, and some were like that. That's like putting a plant, two plants in the same terrarium and one of them just grows and the other one like where there's up or just stays the same.
SD: Yeah, I think that brings me to my last question about the whole idea of digital and future. As a maker what do you think is the future of crafts or stone carving? In a space which is becoming digital, very virtual, there are things like virtual reality where people make things as completely a figment of imagination. Where do you sort of place yourself or what you do in that sort of a future?
CP: It's hard to say. I'm working towards recognition of stone carving. I'm working towards educating people, and I'm feeling more confident all the time. I talked earlier about how I initially was hiding after I left the Cathedral. Shortly after I left the Cathedral, it went out of business. The stone carving part went out of business, and I was able to come back and use the, the shed, the building as my own workspace. And even then, I was doing good work. The best projects on my portfolio, I have done after I left the Cathedral but before I felt confident enough to share my process and I was kind of hiding, but trying to build up my skills, which now that I didn't have teachers in the same space with me. I had to be really dedicated to taking chances, and if I had the commission to do something, making it more difficult than it needed to be, to give myself an opportunity to learn new skills. So, I'm getting more confident is the point even after thirty-five years of doing it. I'm getting more confident to be able to tell clients like I can't do that. They'll want something that is beyond my ability that they might have seen in a museum or in a book from when the stone carving was flourishing. Even something in New York City, which is only like maximum, like three hundred years old. Something that's beyond my capacity. So I'm becoming more confident to say, I can't do that. This is what I, this is what I see as my powers. And this is, even if it's not like what Michael Angelo did or Bernini or some of these magical sculpture craftsmen. It has value like the texture of the tools on the on the surface. Some people are like. Some don't like that. I wanted to look like auto-body. I wanted to look like, just no signs of how it was created just so. I'm getting more confident to educate people and say like, that's a bias, look again. Think about what it means to have tool marks. Think about how rare that is in our environment today. The reason I started that is because it takes confidence and it takes courage to educate people. Especially wealthy people who can buy anything they want. Those are the people that we have to look to lead the way in terms of funding. The resurgence of traditional crafts, because if you don't have extra money to, if you don't have a property to put something, you have to have a property to put something. You have to have the money to fund it because a hand craftsman is never going to be the cheapest option to solve a problem, whether it's the cemetery monument or a doorway of a building. But let's face it. wealthy people spend a lot of money on stupid things. Just because they're perceived to be in fashion. At least stupid, in my opinion. There's people selling t-shirts for like three thousand dollars because, I don't know, their hand knit out of like llama fur or whatever. Yeah, and for some reason, they catch hold, and they're in demand because, and then, maybe they're really good, but also because there's a perception that other people think they're good. That's not something you want to place. All your hopes on that somehow stone carving and wrought iron, and joinery of handcrafted nature for furniture that somehow going to become hot. And people are going to want it. So, I think, although I do dream that would happen. Especially that it would happen here in New York City where I have, that's the only place I've ever lived. So, I have more awareness of like, what impact I might have towards making that happen. So, I dream of that but I'm not putting all my hopes on that. I believe that. A big part of the future of handcrafts is not going to be based on the product. It's going to be based on what I was talking about before, like the idea that we would send our kids to get music lessons or that we would put our kids in in like soccer or baseball. Not because we think they're going to become professional soccer players or ice skaters. That's delusional because there are way more people, way more kids, doing recreational sports than there's ever going to be the opportunity for them to be professionals. But there's just a recognition that it's fun, kids like it. They have all this energy, they just need ways to get it out in a safe and productive, healthy way. It also teaches you so many things about, to carryover to whatever kind of life to be a good human being, like things like taking turns and respecting your opponent, and like, respecting yourself and safety. Oh man, all this stuff that sports teaches you, that and then the crafts like stone carving. We were talking before about. What if you mess something up, some people, adults or elderly people, still can't tolerate the idea that they might mess something up. And the idea of resiliency, like oh you messed up this flower that you were carving. You knocked off one of the petals but like what now, you're just going to throw it away? Or you find some way to incorporate that mistake into a different design. Or you just laugh it and still put it up on your wall and like enjoy it anyway. I think there's a lot we can learn from the crafts. And in a very basic level of dexterity and using our hands to be more effective with anything we do. Whereas I hear, this person I talk to said, oh, there's a guy who teaches surgery and he's like, he's freaking out because people, kids growing up today, they don't have dexterity the way that they used to when there were different ways of playing. Just different ways of playing which incorporated dexterity. Now, it's a lot of screen-based stuff and video gaming, which maybe have advantages that the old ways didn't have. But there are certain things that if you want to become a surgeon and really have precise control over a small instrument, that begins, I mean, at age six, when you're manipulating marbles or something. That's getting phased out and it's having consequences for certain professions that they can't. They are expecting less of their entry-level people just because of our culture, just because of the things that are being marginalized. And my final thing which you've probably seen, if you've seen my videos is like, we're human beings and we're an animal and like every animal has got its attributes. We have these attributes of very dexterous hands and the brain power to challenge. That dexterity to do things with tools and material, they say, apes can do that too. I saw an ape pushing a twig into a termite mound and stripping off the leaves and making a tool. But we, that's so basic. We can swim too, but the dolphins are like, way beyond us in swimming. I'm not saying we're the only animals that can do that. But I'm saying we've gone like, so we have the equipment that enables us to do it so much more than any other animal. And I think fulfillment, as an individual, is so much tied to using your equipment, both your brain and your hands, to its potential. So, I think the less we do, the more there are that those activities pushed to the margins of our culture. The harder it is for people to find fulfillment. And if people are feeling depressed more, it might be because our activity has gone so far away from what we are designed to do. And the same way you have people saying we should return to a Paleo diet because that's what humans ate hundreds of thousands of years before this modern industrial age. That's what our digestive systems were designed to thrive on. That kind of makes sense. And it's the same idea with our activity diet. Our brain and body were designed, or at least they developed in response to a certain kind of activity. Being sedentary all the time that's not at all, that's like, so far from what our bodies are designed to do. So when you take an animal and put it into this environment, that's wrong for it. It doesn't prosper, it doesn't flourish. So, I think we have to be conscious of that, and if we will, if we want to flourish, who doesn't, if we want our kids to flourish. We have to maybe not follow the trend. We see it as normal today, sitting down at a desk is normal today. For eight or more hours a day and then going home and sitting more to relax. It's not a crime. I'm not saying people should feel ashamed of it, but they should be aware that it could be a cause of not just obesity and diabetes and things like that but also just feeling like not great, not getting a feeling good about life. So that's one way that crafts could flourish again is if people can start appreciating them, not just for the product. There's inevitably a product and that's great too. But that can be replaced by a machine. The machines can make the product. The product which we have undervalued is how much it can make our lives better in, in the activity of doing it. I think with that.
SD: I really want to thank you for your time.
SD: And answering all the questions and it was wonderful to understand your perspective towards crafts. It was the revelation for me that the idea of crafts, being the product is being the person themselves. By product, I don't mean anything derogative. Thank you so much.
CP: You're welcome. You're welcome back anytime.
SD: Thank you.
[End of interview]