Saturday, November 26, 2011

Sergio Furnari's "Lunchtime on a Skyscraper"

photo by Alice Lum
On September 29, 1932, in the final months of the construction of the Art Deco RCA Building in Rockefeller Center, Charles C. Ebbets ascended to the 69th floor and snapped a photograph of eleven construction workers eating lunch on a steel girder. There, with Midtown Manhattan dwarfed in the background, the men dangled their feet and casually ate their sandwiches and drank their coffee.

The photograph, which Ebbets called “New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam,” appeared in the New York Herald Tribune’s photo supplement the following Sunday. It would become one of the most famous black and white images of all time.

Decades later a poster of the photograph hung in shop window on Fifth Avenue when sculptor Sergio Furnari walked by. The Sicilian-born Furnari was new to America and the image captivated him. The faces of the workers—mostly immigrants—spoke to him.

“I know how they felt,” he later recalled to New York Times reporter Leslie Chess Feller, “I looked at those faces and knew I had to capture them in clay. Like me, they were immigrants, poor people who worked hard.”

Furnari started out creating a life-size version of the photograph. The figures were executed in terra cotta, cement, fiberglass and metal. One-by-one the completed statues were welded to an I-beam which Furnari attached to his truck. The work in progress was exhibited around the city, wherever the artist would park.

As he worked on the astonishing sculpture he said “Those men were real people. Each one has, I think, a soul. I feel it when I sculpt them, when I touch their faces and make their features come out of the clay. It’s like I keep their spirit alive.”

Furnari called his work “Lunchtime on a Skyscraper—A Tribute to America’s Heroes.” That title would take on new significance on the morning of September 11, 2001.

The work was nearly finished. Only one figure was left to complete. That morning Furnari and his wife, illustrator Julia Licht, watched the collapse of the World Trade Towers from their apartment window.

Within the next few weeks working heroes would have a new meaning for Furnari and his sculpture.

Each figure was executed with minute detail -- photo by Tien Mao
The work was completed in October. Meanwhile hundreds of workmen toiled in the still-smoldering ruins of Ground Zero. “The twin towers were made by the ironworkers, and it was the ironworkers that had to remove the whole steel out of Ground Zero,” he later related.

Furnari's sculpture became a mobile piece, touring the country -- photo newyorkdailyphoto.blogspot.com
Furnari transported the inspiring work to the site as both a tribute and an encouragement to the workmen. "When they were down in the hole, nobody was smiling. But when they were by the statue, they were inspired, and realized their work was appreciated," he said. The sculpture uplifted the workers for five months.

In 2003 Furnari attached the 25-foot, one-ton sculpture onto his truck and set off on a nationwide road trip in hopes of bringing “the American and New York spirit all over America.” He encouraged people across the country who saw the work to sign his truck. Before the end of the tour, millions of Americans had seen the sculpture.

Upon its return to the city “Lunchtime on a Skyscraper” became a sort of mobile museum, appearing here and there and always attracting a great amount of attention. Unfortunately, in January 2007 it attracted the wrong type of attention.

Thieves broke into the Furnari’s Queens facility and one of the figures was unbolted and stolen.

“I feel like they stole a part of me a part of my life,” the artist told a New York Post reporter. The 100-lb. figure was never recovered.

The essence of the work moves the observer and in 2010 a copy was commissioned by owners of a Valparaiso, Indiana restaurant named “Industrial Revolution.” One of the owners, Mike Lesson, explained “The restaurant is dedicated to everyday people who take risks and is a tribute to the workers who built this country.”

In March 2011 the sculpture revisited Ground Zero as construction continued -- photo by Dianne Renzulli
Furnari still tours his sculpture around on his truck—a newer one than the one which first transported the work—providing a unexpected delight for New Yorkers an d tourists lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

2 comments:

  1. I have the collection at a 5" in height. I'm missing three of the men, number's 6, 8 and 11 from left to right. Does anyone know where I can get them. Please email me at dcalderin8@aol.com

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  2. Artist has a web site. Key in his name and go to his web site and contact him through the website.

    I bought the set for my husband, who is a retired ironworker (connector). He loves it.

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