Chain 2 cover

The World on the Tip of a Pencil

Inside Dalton Ghetti’s apartment, there is a nine-year-old monstera deliciosa plant. Nearly all of its waxy, fanlike leaves are reaching out toward the closest window, voraciously seeking sunlight, while four cone-like fruits bolt straight up into the air. As I studied the arrangement of wooden beams, ten-gallon buckets, and twine used to support the enormous epiphyte, Ghetti prompted me to look closely at its fruits, to observe their thick skins made of tiny, hexagonal scales. “I usually get one fruit per year, and it takes one year to ripen,” Ghetti told me as he admired this year’s quadrupled bounty. “If you eat it before it’s ripe, you will die,” he added. The fruit of the monstera deliciosa is poisonous if consumed before its prime, containing enough acid to cause bleeding in the mouth. Only when it perfumes the air with a nectary fragrance and begins to shed its reptilian rind can the fruit, described by Ghetti as approximating a pineapple blended with a banana, be enjoyed. “It’s literally a delicious monster,” he said with a laugh.

Tall, tan, and bald, Ghetti talks — and laughs — with a slow, deliberate cadence and walks with a relaxed gait. He doesn’t own a cell phone or computer, though he assiduously updates his landline answering machine. The morning of our meeting, he greeted me at a train station near his Bridgeport, Connecticut home wearing a t-shirt and gym shorts, exuding the aura of small-town New England in its final days of summer. At 54, Ghetti has a timeless quality about him. He could exist in any moment in history. It is difficult to discern his age, but not difficult to imagine him working as a carpenter, remodeling houses, and coaching volleyball, all of which he has been doing regularly for many years now. These jobs and hobbies have kept Ghetti close to his community: he’s the go-to handyman for a lot of neighbors, and he has watched children grow up on the volleyball courts of his local YMCA.

BehindBars

“Behind Bars.” Photo credit Sloan Howard.

But Ghetti is more widely known for one of his more solitary pursuits. For almost thirty years, he has been carving miniature sculptures out of old pencils, a pastime that has landed him features in newspapers, magazines, and blogs as well as solo and group exhibitions in art spaces around the world. Wielding a pint-sized toolbox of sewing needles, X-acto knives, and steel blades and an arsenal of modified dentist’s equipment, jeweler’s instruments, and hybrid utensils made of toothpicks, razorblades, and needles sharpened into microscopic chisels, Ghetti has transformed a steady supply of expended pencils into a staggering oeuvre of sculpted works. Figurines of animals, people, buildings, and everyday objects glisten atop their individual wooden pedestals, obscuring but also showcasing the quotidian former function of Ghetti’s trademark material.

It’s easy to find Ghetti’s work intriguing. His intricate sculptures are immediately expressive of the time and labor invested in their creation. This craft-like quality — the finely detailed aesthetic — of his work emerges from a deep personal history. As we walked toward a stretch of Bridgeport waterfront, Ghetti regaled me with stories from his childhood in Brazil, where his mother worked as a seamstress. He explained how he and his sisters assisted in the family business, learning at an early age how to attach buttons, stitch hems, and manually prepare textiles for the sewing machine. While his memories of dashing off to build his own go-karts with recycled wood in São Paulo seem to have anticipated his employment as a carpenter and architect (Ghetti holds an associate’s degree in architecture), his work with pencils pays homage to the time he spent meticulously concealing hems and churning out perfectly even stitches by hand. Since childhood, Ghetti has been nurturing a keen appreciation for detailed handwork.

Boot Full

"Boot" (Detailed Image). Photo credit Sloan Howard.

“Boot” (Detailed Image). Photo credit Sloan Howard.

Mounted against smooth white plaster and individually framed in wood, Ghetti’s sculptures can draw viewers in and hold them mesmerized. Scanning the microscopic contours of a pencil tip, one might begin to contemplate what it means to realize these miniature designs. How and why did someone sculpt the entire alphabet out of 26 castoff pencil stubs? Or take two and a half years to chisel a continuous graphite chain out of a single stylus? The mere existence of these sculptures is cause for pause, especially given that Ghetti has never sold any of his works, only offering images of them to take home in the popular format of a postcard. His refusal to monetize his art attests to its deeply personal nature. Yet Ghetti enjoys sharing his work with a broad audience, eagerly loaning and often hand-delivering his pieces to museums and galleries, accepting compensation only for their transport.

Beyond presenting an imaginative reworking of an everyday object, Ghetti’s art invites viewers to consider the artist’s unique engagement with the world. To view one of his sculptures is to shift one’s attention, to sharpen one’s focus and imagine that a tiny peak of graphite can explode with meaning. It is not simply that a pencil tip can be sculpted to signify something else — a spoon, a boot, a giraffe, or a log cabin — but that these intricate creations can invoke an alternative rhythm of time. A sculpture like “Chain” illustrates this well, bearing the traces of a repetitive action but also suggesting the variations in method required to transform a thin graphite rod into a series of discrete links. As a frequent guest speaker at local schools, Ghetti often recounts the journey of endless starts and stops — the imminent setbacks and breakthroughs — that led to the realization of a project like “Chain.”

"Ted's Cabin." Photo credit Sloan Howard.

“Ted’s Cabin.” Photo credit Sloan Howard.

None of Ghetti’s sculptures could have been derived from a single stroke of inspiration or a single burst of mental and physical mettle. The medium imposes strict restraints on the artist. Though Ghetti finds the creative process meditative, he is aware that he can only spend a couple hours a day bent over a table, pressed up close to a lamp, whittling away at pencils. His art demands concentration, sensitivity, and patience, states of mind that not only have unyielding limits but also resist being summoned on demand. His sculptures thus track the passing of one to two hours a day, spread across months or years of Ghetti’s life. They chronicle multiple moments of inspiration, moments that occur in unexpected times and places, amid everyday routines or extraordinary circumstances, inspiring the artist to forge ahead with projects that previously seemed impossible.

As Ghetti and I walked along the waterfront of Ash Creek, discussing places we’ve been to and pets we had as children (his Amazonian adoptees were far more exciting than my pet store companions), we stopped for a moment by the water’s edge. Savoring the natural lull in conversation, I took in the panorama of stalks, reeds, and trees and the bright white herons accenting the gray-green landscape. It was a welcome change, having stumbled through Brooklyn half-asleep just a few hours earlier. Ghetti pointed to a small rocky outcrop, no bigger than four inches wide, sticking out of the water near our feet. The tide was coming in, he said. What did I think, would this rock be completely submerged in the next few minutes? We stood in quiet suspense, watching the rock gradually diminish until, with a soft ripple, it disappeared under the smooth, watery surface.

"Self Portrait." Photo credit Sloan Howard.

“Self Portrait.” Photo credit Sloan Howard.

“If you think about it, that’s a lot of water coming in,” Ghetti said. With the show over, the two of us continued walking toward his house. No photographs, he gently warned. No audio recording devices either. When you use these things, you stop really paying attention, he said. Even when he does carpentry and remodeling work, Ghetti prefers manual tools, opting for hand-powered saws and drills whenever possible. “I try to keep electricity at bay,” he told me, laughing a little at his own stubbornness. Even if it takes more time and effort, Ghetti wants to feel fully aware of what he is doing.

Later at his house, where Ghetti lives and works, he recounted the origins of his monstera deliciosa plant. Nine years ago, he saw a small stalk of it lying in the communal compost outside. Drawn to its one, verdant leaf, he placed the branch in a bucket of water. Since then, he has erected a robust wooden support, brought in three more buckets of water and dirt, and removed the ceiling fan to accommodate his flourishing houseguest. He sometimes sleeps under its massive, heart-shaped leaves, especially during colder months. Since it started bearing fruit, Ghetti has been manually pollinating the pods and, of course, patiently awaiting their transformation from poison to delicacy. He eats the fruit when it’s perfectly ripe. All these ritualistic pleasures, generated from a single discarded trimming. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting plant.