Skye Ferrante held a one-man vigil in front of the Museum of Modern Art for the first couple of days after it joined the thousands of art spaces around the globe shuttered by COVID-19.
“The museum is closed, but I’m open,” Ferrante, a sculptor who works as “Man of Wire,” told passersby as he displayed a sample of his art.
The closing of exhibition spaces has pushed artists into a commercial purgatory, as collectors and buyers put purchases on hold.
“I hope this reminds people that artists are alive and surviving as best we can,” Ferrante said as he stood in front of MoMA on West 53rd Street in midtown on March 15. “Many of us rely on public venues to sell our art or perform.”
Those who stopped, intrigued by the sight of a man dressed in white overalls standing on a footstool, heard Ferrante recount the story of “Portrait of Jezebel Reading,” the artwork he was holding. He said it presented the reclining figure of a burlesque performer reading a Margaret Atwood book while he sculpted her.
Ferrante likes collecting stories about his models. “I do a portrait sitting and then I write about the portrait sitting,” he says. “Because for me, the sculpture, the portrait, is an excuse to write, an excuse to interview the model, to get to know someone.” Ferrante believes that when models are unclothed, as they often are in his work, they tend to let their guard down and become more talkative.
Ferrante, 47, was born in Manhattan. His parents both attended the School of Visual Arts and worked in advertising. The family eventually moved from Greenwich Village to Queens. Ballet was his initial artistic pursuit, he says, starting at age 9. He trained at the Feld Ballet school, now known as Ballet Tech, and became a professional at 16.
“Ballet informs everything I do,” says Ferrante. “I’m certain that the movement in the wire and the line and the continuity is influenced by it.”
He became interested in working with metal during an apprenticeship at the studio of Greg Wyatt, where he learned about the craft of bronze sculptures. Ferrante set up shop on the streets, creating and displaying art for sale.
He has enjoyed interacting with New Yorkers and visitors while discovering a way to earn a living doing art. He also sells work through galleries. Ferrante says he sells work at a wide range of prices, starting with “affordable fast art from $100 to $1,000” to portrait, landscape and commission work for $2,500 to $20,000.
Davide Francioli, a Milan-based street-art expert who writes for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, is intrigued by the idea behind Ferrante’s MoMA vigil.
“Ferrante’s performance at MoMA sends an important message on how museums and galleries aren’t the only way for artists to work,” Francioli said in an interview in Italian. “Purchasing an artwork on the street, from the artist himself or from the person portrayed in the work, as some of Ferrante’s models do, adds an emotional layer for the buyer.”
As museums, galleries and performance spaces remain closed, artists have been selling work online and mounting live streaming shows, often setting up ways for audiences to make digital donations.
Initially, Ferrante thought he had found a way to continue working from his Chelsea home. “I’ve been doing portrait sittings remotely via video chat,” he says. “And amazingly, that works. I’m surprised it took a pandemic to give me that idea.”
As COVID-19 brought New York to its knees, Ferrante changed his mind about seeking payment for creating art at a distance. “It doesn’t feel right to me right now to be asking for or promoting the remote portraiture, because no one wants to spend money right now,” he says. “When people don’t want to spend money, they’re not spending money on art.”
He remains uncomfortable using social media to appeal for donations.
“I sometimes use stories to just let people know that I’m still active. But I haven’t felt compelled to do as other artists are doing right now and bombard the public with pleas,” he says, something that “feels too desperate.”
“I’m not interested in it. There are other people that are more in need right now.”
Still, art stands as his most effective way of making a living.
“What I can do is unique, and I’m kind of able to take a spool of wire and make money faster than anything else,” he says. “I’m not really good at anything else. Writing, maybe. But I don’t think that’s going to pay the bills anytime soon.”