The Pencil Gift
Interview of artist Dalton Ghetti by Karim (photos by Sloan Howard)
Forward by Olivia Ramsay
Pencil artist and sculpture Dalton M. Ghetti was born in Sao Paolo, Brazil and came to the U.S. in 1985 at age 24.
Most of the pencils he uses are found on the streets and sidewalks. Daltons work is a recycling process. He turns discarded objects into art. See his full bio here.
I love this quote from Lewis Hyde’s The Gift – it describes how I labor on my pencil sculptures:
When I speak of labor, then, I intend to refer to something dictated by the course of life rather than society, something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior, than work. –Lewis Hyde, The Gift
It is so true that I work from an interior rhythm and not from what society – a paying client or a paid commission dictates to me or demands of me. I labor on these pencil sculptures for the love of art and not for money. In fact I do not sell my pencil art, ever. All I do is have them photographed so that others can get to see my art and hopefully be inspired by it. And I make postcards out of them which people can buy – and hopefully they will write these postcards in pencil!
Yes, of course.
I separate what I do for work and what I do for art.
For work, to make a living, I work as a carpenter which for me is satisfying work and although I do not make a lot of money, I make a sufficient income to keep body and soul together. This is work to pay the bills. Then there is my art which is a labor of love, it is not work.
This labor is sacred to me and something that is a form of meditation and enrichment of the soul.
People ask why I don’t take on clients and paid commissions.
Part of the reason has to do with the fragility of the medium that I work in. Creating a sculpture on a pencil is very delicate and fragile work. One misstep and the pencil wood cracks open and the brittle graphite shatters. Now, if I am working on a paid commission with a deadline, that brings added pressure to this very tender process of sculpting a pencil. And that pressure may cause me to work too fast which can result in mistakes and breakage.
There is also the fact that I do this work for myself and not someone’s approval.
If I create something I love for a client and they don’t like it as much as I do, or if that was not what they were expecting, then I risk disappointing them. This is why I do not take commissions. I create according to my own standards and then I share the gift of this art through photographs of my work.
Well, it actually relates directly to this idea of artist commissions and deadlines and expectations. I see artists compromising all the time to meet the expectations of their clients and to make the deadlines of their commissions. I do not wish to be that person, Karim. I work when I am inspired to work. When the inspiration takes me I will work on a pencil sculpture.
There are times, Karim, when I cannot bare to look at a pencil. I need to rest, to work on other concepts, to keep my love of this art fresh and pure. But if I were to accept a commission, I would have to contrive and force that inspiration even if I was not feeling it. I would have to work when I do not wish to work but do so just to meet a deadline. That is not me. I love this work and sometimes I will spend months and even years working on just one pencil sculpture. No client is going to want to put up with that!
There is too much waste in our society, Karim. Particularly here in America. I will take pencils I find on the street, or in trash cans, and I will bring them back to life. My first pencil sculpture was with a pencil I found lying on the sidewalk. I took it and gave it a new life.
Regarding the concept of Pencils for Africa, I want to give my response:
Love it! Love it, Karim!
These are exactly the values I embody. You know, when I learned about how the artisans at Mezimbite Forest Centre cherish their pencils it reminded me of back home in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Allan issues the Mezimbite artisans a single pencil and asks that they etch their name on the pencil so that they are personally responsible for them. And as carpenters like me, these artisans need to use this simple tool of a pencil all the time in their work. And they need to keep sharpening them. Usually with a blade.
And when the pencil whittles down to a tiny, tiny stub, then they bring this stub to Allan and he issues them a brand new pencil. Right? Well, that is how you treat a precious resource. In this country, if a pencil is not good-looking enough, if it is chewed, or the eraser is grubby, or somebody can’t find the sharpener – the pencil gets thrown straight in the trash can. That’s where I find the pencils for my sculptures mostly – in the trash. That is no way to treat a gift.
The pencil is a gift.
It is one of the most simple and useful and functional tools devised by and known to man.
It is profound in it’s simplicity. And like you and I have discussed Karim, the way this elegant gift is treated is a metaphor for our mass consumer culture.
If I own something and it breaks, I fix it. That is the way I was brought up. Back home in Brazil people where I lived, cherished their possessions. They used stuff until stuff died.
Yes. Until the very end of it’s life expectancy.
They fix, they mend, they sew up, they patch up, until the item is worm down and cannot be recycled any longer. Not in this country.
Over here, your TV stops working, you throw it out and go buy a brand new one. Same with your computer, your gadgets.
Oh, your chair sounds a little squeaky? Just drive it to the dump, then drive to the shopping mall and buy a brand new one. Right?
The cycle is consume, trash, consume, trash. Nothing is cherished, nothing is respected.
No tenderness for small moments, small gestures, small things.
One of the reasons for my pencil art is because it celebrates small things.
To sculpt on the end of pencil – that is a small sculpture.
I have always been a little quirky in that I have been a respecter of small things. I am a person who can spend hours and hours by the river looking at the small and even microscopic wildlife: spider, tadpoles, frogs, tiny fish. I can spend hours watching ants build an ant hill – it absolutely fascinates me! Not a lot of people do that, right?
I love tiny moths – I love the green of the moths, it is a very unusual green color, right?
You know, even on the streets of New York City, there is wildlife under our very feet. Mostly, we just squish it. I am always very careful where I walk and careful to be respectful to the small creatures: bugs, ants, worms – all sorts of insects inhabit the city.
I just want to wish you the very best with Pencils for Africa.
It is exactly what I love – the whole concept of recycling used pencils and creating artwork, of the human connection between people here and children in Africa – and most of all, that none of this is going to be tainted by commercialism and the exchange of money.
I have found that money changes the way people respond to something. There are so many “causes” out there nowadays but the common denominator seems to be that they all need money.
What I love about Pencils for Africa is that it does not require any donations. People send their used pencils to PO Box 4-3-2-1.
Okay, they spend a little money for the postage, but that is it. And from there, one of the people in your African development network stuffs a bunch of used pencils from PO Box 4321 in their suitcase and head over to Mozambique, or Ghana, or Uganda, or Zambia. Pure recycling. I just love it! Sign me up!
Afterword by Elinor Breman
Fantastic piece – I am so glad to have had the opportunity to learn about Dalton Ghetti’s amazing works of art and his recycling ethos, which strikes a chord with my own (although mine is far less artistic!). A truly inspiring story, as well as wonderful images on your online gallery Dalton, to accompany it.
I am so pleased that you are supporting the Pencils for Africa initiative – let’s all spread the word!
The love of the small reminded me of a wonderful book that I read by Robert Macfarlane called The Wild Places in which he explores the existence of wilderness in the British Isles, coming to realize that you can find in microcosms even within urban environments – it is all a question of scale.
Small is beautiful.
Dr Elinor Breman
Senior Research Associate
Department of Zoology