Imagine a place where sculptures by legendary artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring, as well as up-and-comers like Hank Willis Thomas, who was recently selected to design Boston’s new memorial to Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, are all housed under one roof. One might instinctively conjure images of a museum in New York or a gallery in London, but it’s safe to say most people’s first guess would not be a mid-sized fabrication shop on the East Providence waterfront owned by a former boat builder.
That workshop is home to Amaral Custom Fabrications. Its founder, Paul Amaral, is a Seekonk native who grew up on a farm, built boats in Bristol and improbably now plays a critical role for some of the biggest names in sculpture and public art. After more than twenty years, the business he built with his bare hands continues to turn out durable, monumental works of fine art, as well as the odd fabrication job for military and oceanographic industry clients.
Though he retains best-kept secret status, Amaral’s work is everywhere. Lichtenstein’s signature Brushstroke sculptures at Singapore’s Pontiac Marina — Amaral fabricated those. The colorful chains from which some of Jeff Koons’s sculptures are suspended — Amaral’s company developed the special process used to paint them. The decorative finials atop the Providence Performing Arts Center — Amaral restored them using only old photos for reference. The playful Mr. Potato Head statues that popped up all over Rhode Island in the early Aughts — Amaral made those, too.
In the process, this humble craftsman has demonstrated that it’s still possible to make big, tangible things here in Rhode Island, things that only people with skills and experience can make. Amaral Custom Fabrications does so with about a dozen full-time employees and a network of local subcontractors for tasks that can’t be done in-house, like engineering and waterjet cutting. The things it makes are shipped around the world and paid for by clients who inject outside dollars into Rhode Island’s economy. In short, it’s exactly the kind of business we’re always told isn’t possible in this state anymore: family-owned, made by hand, with worldwide reach.
Long before Amaral worked on priceless sculptures or even boats, however, he dealt with vegetables. He grew up in Seekonk, the grandson of immigrants from the Azores, on a family farm that was purchased in 1914 on a fifteen-year note and paid in full just before the stock market crashed in 1929.
“Growing up on a farm was a subsistence kind of economy. We didn’t have money, but we had lots of food and lots of work,” he recalls. “That was the most informative period of my life in terms of what I do today.”
The twenty-six-acre family farm was located only about a mile from the home where Amaral and his wife now live; it was where he learned that a knack for working with one’s hands runs in the family. His grandfather, who was born in the Azores and raised in Brazil before coming to Providence, possessed an inventiveness that made up for his lack of formal education; he once made a table saw from an old washing machine. There was also a great uncle who worked as a luthier and furniture maker. They taught the young Amaral the value of knowing how to make and fix things. “You didn’t have money to fix the tractor when it broke, so you learned how to fix the tractor,” he explains. “You didn’t hire somebody. You did it yourself.”
Amaral also displayed an artistic inclination that his school attempted to nurture, even if his family didn’t. He was voted “Most Artistic” in his 1972 high school yearbook and one of his teachers encouraged him to apply to the Rhode Island School of Design. “Art turned me on to no end,” he says. “But the culture of my family was not geared toward art school. It just wasn’t in the cards.”
Instead, he earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts at Bristol Community College and worked as a sheet metal mechanic for GT Sheldahl, then the largest machine shop in Rhode Island after Brown and Sharpe.
In the 1980s, Amaral got connected to the boat building industry through a friend who worked for Tillotson-Pearson, at the time one of the biggest builders on the East Coast and one of the largest employers in Rhode Island. “It wasn’t necessarily a career choice,” he explains. “I just needed a job. In Rhode Island in the 1980s, there were lots of jobs in boat building.” That job augmented his metalworking experience with knowledge of the emerging composites industry.
From there he was offered a position at C and C Yachts in Portsmouth, where he met a young engineer by the name of Colin “Kim” Roberts. Later, when Roberts partnered with John Merrifield, one of the preeminent America’s Cup twelve-meter yacht builders, to found Merrifield-Roberts, there was a position waiting for Amaral.
Along the way Amaral says he witnessed “the industrial might of Rhode Island — and the downfall.” The advent of automation and changes in the world of boating were conspiring to seal the fate of the industry in the state. “I didn’t have to predict the end of boat building. It was over,” he explains. “It was over because of one event, thanks to Dennis Conner.”
Conner was a yachtsman and America’s Cup racer. He was a four-time winner, but famously lost in 1983, the first time in 132 years that America lost the cup to foreign challengers. He returned in 1987 to win again, but this time sailed for the San Diego Yacht Club instead of the New York Yacht Club, which had defended the cup for most of its history.
One peculiarity of the race is that the previous winner gets to write the rules. Perhaps looking to taunt his former mates at NYYC, Conner and SDYC banned the use of aluminum, which was Merrifield-Roberts’s bread and butter. In an attempt to stave off Conner’s proposed rule change, the company issued a position statement against composites and in favor of aluminum. “They failed,” Amaral recalls. “They essentially wrote themselves out of the boat building world.”
Something else happened in 1987 that would eventually lead to Amaral’s own exit from boat building — albeit one that was much more intentional.
“This old bald guy showed up at the door of Merrifield-Roberts. He had this wooden maquette under his arm,” Amaral remembers. “We didn’t even know what a maquette was. The maquette was of a spoon with a cherry at the tip. He asked us if we could build it. We just thought it was the silliest thing in the world that anyone would want a fifty-foot spoon with a cherry balancing at the tip.”
Before we move on, a word about art and how it’s made — in particular, large-scale sculpture and permanent public art. When we see a monumental piece like Jeff Koons’s endlessly Instagrammed Cloud Gate (a.k.a., The Bean) in Chicago or Robert Indiana’s iconic Love sculpture in Philadelphia, it is unlikely that the artist actually made that work in the most literal sense. Artists don’t craft those pieces by hand any more than Bobby Flay himself grills your steak when you visit one of his namesake restaurants.
Instead, the artist is responsible for the creative vision and design, often constructing a small wooden or cardboard maquette that serves as a sort of roadmap for the full-scale work. From there, the artist often hires craftspeople, perhaps a fabrication shop, foundry or other skilled tradespeople, to execute that vision by constructing the final piece that stands in a museum or public plaza. As this type of project becomes an increasingly common area of opportunity for artists, this type of work is becoming a more in-demand and lucrative cottage industry.
Now back to that old bald guy with the crazy spoon idea. He was none other than Claes Oldenburg, world-famous sculptor known for his massive and often playful renderings of everyday objects like the giant badminton shuttlecocks outside the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City or the 101-foot baseball bat that stands in Chicago. That maquette was the first incarnation of Spoonbridge and Cherry, the signature piece in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at the Walker Arts Center. Oldenburg hired Merrifield-Roberts, with Amaral as a project consultant, to build the spoon for what would become both one of the most iconic pieces of public sculpture of the twentieth century and one of the most famous landmarks in the Twin Cities — essentially Minneapolis’s version of the Big Blue Bug. It was the turning point in Amaral’s career, his Dylan-going-electric moment.
“So began my life in the world of art,” he says. “Boat building was rapidly changing and leaving Merrifield-Roberts behind. Those guys got lit up about boat building, sailing, racing; I got lit up by the art world.”
Where “those guys” viewed the Oldenburg project as sort of an amusing side job, Amaral saw the future. “Having no real formal art training and not being involved in the art world, I knew nothing about it. I knew no one’s name in terms of who was an important artist at time. But I thought there had to be others out there — and there were.”
He began marketing Merrifield-Roberts as a sculpture fabricator and within a year brought in close to $1 million. Several years later, another chance encounter sealed the deal on Amaral’s transition from journeyman boat builder to the art world’s secret weapon. A friend of his was working on a boat down the street from Merrifield-Roberts that had an unusual graphic running down the side. Knowing that Amaral was trying to break into the art business, the friend slipped him the contact for the man who designed it.
“I had Roy Lichtenstein’s studio phone number in my hand,” he recalls. “I had no idea who he was.”
The artist had been commissioned by sailor Kevin Mahaney, a former Olympic medalist, to add some flair to the Young America, the yacht he and his crew would race in the 1995 America’s Cup trials. The boat was being painted by RISD students according to Lichtenstein’s sketches.
Amaral decided to cold call this world famous artist about whom he knew nothing. He was invited to visit Lichtenstein’s studio in New York City’s Meatpacking District. The artist had previously worked with other fabricators and been less than satisfied with the results. Amaral went home from that visit with an order for three test pieces. That handiwork landed him a commission through the company he worked for to construct the six large sculptures that now comprise Brushstrokes in Singapore. Lichtenstein eventually came to Merrifield-Roberts’s workshop to examine the finished products.
“For forty-five minutes we all held our breath as Lichtenstein inspected everything. Finally, he had a big smile on his face and said, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for.’ ”
In a twist of irony, it was not Amaral’s artistic affinity, but his expertise with boat building, that got him out of the marine trades and into art.
“Our approach to sculpture fabrication was directly out of the marine world,” he explains. “We built everything to U.S. Coast Guard or Lloyd’s Register of Shipping specs. We took all of that knowledge from the boat building world and applied it to sculpture. No one else ever approached art with our training and set of skills.”
This meant that a sculpture fabricated by Paul Amaral was going to be more durable, more weather resistant and look better longer than any piece made by anybody else. As those early commissions aged, other artists took note of how remarkably well they held up and began asking who built them.
By then, Amaral had the art side of Merrifield-Roberts’s business humming. Oldenburg continued to send work his way. Amaral borrowed some Lichtenstein pieces and set up a Merrifield-Roberts booth at the 1996 International Sculpture Conference, held in Providence that year. He flew down to Florida and came back with a contract to build icons for Disney. In his final year with Merrifield-Roberts, the company worked exclusively in sculpture, with no sales on the marine side.
“At that point we had a conversation about my future, which didn’t end well for them,” Amaral says.
In 1997, he established Amaral Custom Fabrications with five weeks of severance from Merrifield-Roberts. By week six he had a sculpture contract and a contract with the Navy. He opened his shop in July and by October delivered his first sculpture: a sixteen-footer by Kenny Scharf, renowned artist and contemporary of Keith Haring. A week later, he got a call from the late Haring’s foundation. They had experienced durability problems with other fabricators. Amaral quoted them double what they had been paying and guaranteed it was worth the money. He went on to fabricate nearly 500 pieces for the Keith Haring Foundation. By the early Aughts, the foundation of Roy Lichtenstein, who by then had died, also came calling. “They kept me busy for the next ten years with zero marketing effort,” Amaral says. “I didn’t have to worry about anything; I had Lichtensteins to build.”
In the years since, Amaral’s company and reputation have grown in equal measure. The durability of his fabrications — using techniques and materials rooted in boat building — has made him not just an in-demand craftsman, but also something of a guru for artists looking to make their creative visions tangible, permanent and weather resistant. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is in the process of publishing a paper citing his work. Julie Wolfe, conservator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the museum, has studied Amaral’s craft and says, “I have been struck by how open he is to sharing his methods and techniques. His boat building expertise introduced impressive structural design to sculpture, so it is not surprising that all aspects of his fabrication were as solid as you would find on the hull of a ship. Paul has changed the way I approach the maintenance of outdoor sculpture.”
“Someone referred to him as the only guy to do this stuff,” says Gail Folwell, a Colorado-based sculptor. She hired him to fabricate Drills, her twenty-foot rendering of two basketball players that stands outside the Marshalltown High School Roundhouse in Iowa. “He was absolutely brilliant. I work with a phenomenal engineer on my pieces. Paul had ideas to make it more cost-effective, more durable. He completely rewrote the book on how these art engineers do things.” She’s currently working with him on another piece and says, “I keep hoping to get new projects that will be an opportunity to work with him again.”
As the generation of sculptors with whom Amaral built his reputation have passed on or stopped working, he has also become a bit of a mentor to the new generation of artists, people like Miami’s Cristina Lei Rodriguez. He helped her through her first big outdoor commission for a permanent piece in Tampa, Florida. The specs required that it be resistant to salt from the ocean and heat from the sun, as well as damage from hurricanes. “His experience as a boat builder meant he really had a lot of knowledge and strategies for tackling those situations,” she explains. “He helped me figure out how to build what I imagined while also meeting all those requirements.”
Since then they’ve collaborated on a number of projects, including one that was accepted into the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City last year. “At this point if I need a fabricator, I’d rather travel to Providence from Miami than work with anyone else,” she says. “Paul makes me feel a lot more confident.”
Amaral Custom Fabrications has endured and grown, weathering tough years like 2008 and riding high in others. He’s developed a loyal client base and expanded into other areas of work: He restores existing sculptures, fabricates made-to-order furniture for boutique designers, and still does some oceanographic work. He even built oceanographic equipment that was involved in the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. In an average year, Amaral will write fifty to eighty work orders representing twenty to thirty clients; this year he expects to do more than $1 million. His reputation speaks for itself and long-term investments in digital marketing are starting to make a younger generation of potential clients aware of that reputation. “I’m turning down more work than ever,” he says. “We’re at full capacity and have been for the past six to eight months.”
One reason for his success is scarcity: There just aren’t many people who can do what Paul Amaral does as well as he does it. He attributes that at least partly to the ecosystem of skills and experience here in Rhode Island. Asked if there are other places around the country where artists can find such a skilled network of craftspeople, he responds, “There’s maybe five to ten places. If you don’t want to fly across the country, there’s maybe three around any major city.”
That puts Rhode Island in rarified company, an opportunity that Amaral believes the people in charge of promoting our state’s industries to the rest of the world are overlooking.
“I think in a way the marketing people missed the point,” he explains. “We built America’s Cup boats out of wood, out of aluminum, out of carbon fiber. What’s the common thing? They’re all large. I tried to get the chamber of commerce to think large. They want to think small, like maker spaces. Those are small. Go look at the buildings in Bristol, Warren, East Providence. Look at the size of the doorways in front of them. The one thing we’ve continued to do over history is build large.”
He points to the example of TPI Composites, which descended from Everett Pearson’s boat building company. They make giant blades for wind energy. “They’re shipping 300-foot blades on trailer trucks and having to get permission,” Amaral laments. “The state should invest in infrastructure to push these things down the bay. Just assisting with moving large-envelope items out of Warren would be a good investment for the state.”
In the meantime, Amaral will just keep building — though he has begun thinking about his exit strategy. He has a son who actually works for one of his competitors out in California and may not be interested in coming back east to take over the family business. For now, the sixty-two-year-old will remain at the helm because the work keeps coming.
“I just love to build stuff,” he says. “I’ve done it all my life. I love collaborating with craftsmen and artisans, working on something, figuring out a problem. Sometimes I get to do it for myself. I’ve got a 1941 Ford hot-rod in the garage that I built. I have an electric bass that I built. Occasionally I get to work on my own stuff — not very often, though.”