Larry Agnello doesn’t see outdated electronics the way most people do. He looks at old adding machine keys and envisions the dorsal fin of a fish. Old camera lenses are given new life as the mismatched eyes of elaborate, African-style masks. Capacitors from antique radios become the scales of a mermaid’s tail.
When he’s not working, Agnello, 53, is an artist whose medium is recycled parts. Pieces from disassembled electronics, sundry metal scraps, pocket watches, bits of old chandeliers and dolls’ heads have been transformed into intricate sculptures he sells at craft fairs.
Agnello, who lives in Amityville, works full time as a designer and project manager for Westhampton Architectural Glass. He creates his eye-catching sculptures at night and on weekends, then exhibits them, primarily at local arts and crafts fairs. Typically, the creations sell for less than $500 each.
Earlier this month, he displayed his work in a booth at the Westhampton Beach Festival of the Arts. “It’s absolutely incredible,” John Skinner, 55, an iron worker from Hampton Bays, said as he stopped to examine the parts Agnello had used. “What he took to make the art, how he put it together, is truly amazing and interesting to look at.”
Donna Gronachan, 60, of Cold Spring Harbor, is married to a musician and noticed resistors in one piece similar to amplifier pieces she had seen around her house. “It creates a curiosity, because you’re trying to figure out where the pieces came from,” she said of Agnello’s work. “It’s like futuristic, but using stuff from the past.”
INSPIRED BY MOSAICS
Agnello calls his work “Assemblique.” Assemblage is a type of art that incorporates three-dimensional elements projecting from a base. The elements he uses are antiques.
“I mixed the two words together. It was perfect,” he said. His tag line is “broken objects from the past, intricately assembled.”
Agnello started making his pieces about eight years ago, when he was living in Indianapolis. Agnello grew up in Centerport, got married and had triplet daughters on Long Island, and later divorced. He worked for Baron’s Educational Series in Hauppauge as graphic designer for cookbooks, children’s books and more. But in 2008, he moved to Indianapolis to launch a design department for another company, and that’s where, in his mid-40s, he started making the sculptures.
“My boss at the job, who was a friend from Long Island, his wife started taking mosaic classes. The whole class was women. They were all doing the same thing, flowers and this and that. I like mosaics as an art form, but the subject matter is kind of boring. I started doing mosaics of skulls,” he said. “My mosaics started incorporating more and more pieces instead of just tile and glass.”
Kathleen Stevens, who owned an art gallery in greater Indianapolis at the time, saw Agnello’s work when she was at his boss’s house. “I was just blown away by it,” Stevens said in a phone call from Indiana. “I said, ‘Why don’t you make some things for the gallery? Let’s get your work out there.’ It took off right away.”
In April 2012, one of Agnello’s pieces was on the cover of the Midwest issue of Gallery Guide, a catalog of art galleries in the Chicago and Indianapolis area.
COMING HOME AGAIN
Agnello moved back to Long Island in 2013 so he could be closer to his daughters, who were then in high school. “Traveling back and forth every other weekend, that got to be a lot of traveling. I was missing a lot of their life,” he said.
Two years ago he bought a Victorian farmhouse in Amityville with two barns in back, one of which he uses as an art studio, crammed with antique electronics he’s found at garage sales, flea markets and Goodwill. “People throw stuff out. It doesn’t have to go to the landfill,” he said.
Most evenings he has dinner and then creates until midnight, listening to BB King or the Allman Brothers Band, often with Domino, his longhair miniature Dachshund on a couch nearby and, if it’s cold, a wood-pellet stove going. On the walls hang hammers, screwdrivers and pliers; he also uses a Dremel rotary tool, and the green metal toolbox he’s had since he was a kid.
Agnello is usually working on four to five pieces at a time. “If I get stuck on one and can’t find the right piece, I will move to another piece,” he said. “Masks are probably my favorite. I spent eight months in Africa, all over East Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar, just traveling and doing photography and rock climbing.” That was in 1989. He was impressed by how African masks he saw incorporated found objects. “Old nails, rusty screws. I think it was because that’s all they had.”
He also said he’s inspired by Leonardo DaVinci and the flying machines DaVinci drew. “I’d like to put wings on just about everything, if I had more of those brass eagles,” Agnello said, referring to the sculptures that were popular garage ornaments. Agnello screws or nails many of his elements to a wood base, which make the pieces so sturdy, even children can touch them. Typically Agnello starts with the eyes because, once they’re installed, the personality of the artwork emerges.
The pieces in what Agnello calls his “Weird Fish” series are his least favorite to make; he said he started creating the more colorful sculptures because people would comment that his pieces were all dark. “Each one of these capacitors has to be nicely lined up, like the scales in the pattern. That’s just tedious,” Agnello said.
Agnello estimates he’s created at least 300 sculptures in less than 10 years.
Sheri Apple, 56, a dental hygienist from Merrick, saw Agnello’s work at a Long Island craft show and commissioned him to create a sentimental piece for her. Apple’s dad, who had recently died, owned an independent pay telephone company and still had pieces of phones in his garage. She gave them to Agnello and asked him to create a mask. Then she commissioned another mask using her dad’s old fishing and marine equipment. Both pieces hang in her den. “They certainly grab people’s attention,” she said.
Lisa Saltzman, a speech therapist from Bluebell, Pennsylvania, who celebrated her 48th birthday at the Westhampton Art Festival, spent $350 to buy herself one of Agnello’s sea horses. “These are movable and I love that,” Saltzman said of some of the seahorse’s fins.
Agnello says he plans to insert more moving parts into his sculptures in the future. For one of his favorite pieces, he used a broken doll’s head. “You pull her pony tail and her eyes open and close. That used to freak a lot of people out,” Agnello said. “The woman who bought that put it on her mantel.”
A sculpture he is working on now has as its base part of a church pew or altar he found at an architectural salvage place. He’s planning to give it moving parts using gears and a sewing machine pedal, a natural progression in his technique, he said. “Making that next step is definitely where I want to go,” Agnello said.
Selling his art at the shows isn’t Agnello’s favorite part of his Assemblique life; he’d prefer to be in his studio creating the art. But he said he does love to see the look on people’s faces when they recognize an old part from their grandmother’s sewing machine or an old radio. “Their face lights up,” Agnello says. “They can’t believe it’s part of a sculpture.”