The Artistic Years: Creating Wooden Ships
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Jason Frizzelle
Walking across the pebble-stone driveway in Brunswick Forest, I enter the garage, or model shipyard, of Michele “Mike” Demonte.
He is dressed comfortably in a burgundy T-shirt and brown cargo shorts with Sperrys and looks more like Mike Demonte the retired bocce ball player than Mike Demonte the gifted painter and model ship builder.
“Well, what do you think?” he asks.
I marvel at the magnificent wooden ship in front of me. It’s a French galleon. From hull to tallest mast, it stands 6 feet tall and is about 5½ feet across with cherry wood planks and a main deck, giving it abundant width. It’s outfitted to the finest detail with little black cannon emerging from inside the hull. I tell him I love the intricacy.
He tells me it has yet to get intricate.
It’s a work in progress, he says, adding that he is a ways from finishing. He estimates that work on this extensive project, a replica of La Soleil Royal, one of three ships built in 1669 for Louis XIV, requires about 3,000 work hours.
“Years!” he says.
In consecutive eight-hour work days, he would spend just upward of a year completing the ship. However, he estimates the project spans about 15 years. “There’s no money, there’s no obligation of any kind, there’s no nothing,” Demonte says. “I work when I feel like it and eventually it will get done.”
Now retired, Demonte, 66, knows the rigors of work. Born in Italy, he spent his teen years working on a fishing boat off the coast of Sicily. Mending nets, working the decks and assisting the machinist, he spent long hours on the boat.
“I wanted to be at sea,” he says. “I wanted to be the captain of a ship.”
At the urging of his mother and father, he immigrated to the United States in 1969 at age 20, arriving in New York City. “The parents always have the last word,” he says.
After working as a butcher for Key Food company for 35 years in Brooklyn and also living in the Poconos and Staten Island, Demonte and his wife, Debbie, fell for the Carolina coast. They bought a house on Topsail Island in 2002 and settled in Brunswick County in 2008.
Demonte and I step over to a large canvas propped by a wooden frame and easel that he built. It is a replica of Rubens’ The Great Last Judgement from 1617. Demonte ’s piece is 64 inches high and 50 inches wide — a scaled version of the original, which is somewhat larger. Most of Demonte ’s work is inspired by original paintings, and he captures them masterfully. “Cerulean blue is a basic sky, but there’s colors that play into it; it’s not just one color,” he says.
He shows me more pieces. Some are his take on Hajime Soryama’s Sexy Robots series, while others capture scenes such as the abbey at Monte Cassino southeast of Rome.
He welcomes me inside his home and shows me his collection of paintings. A painting of Demonte’s parents circa 1923 is the first stop. We take a few minutes to view a perspective he painted of the town square in Mola di Bari.
It occurs to me that this is not so much a house as it is the Demonte Museum of Visual Art. I follow Demonte around his great room viewing pieces inspired by floral arrangements in photos. The center of the home features a grandiose ceiling display of images from Greek and Roman mythology, with religious and Renaissance accents, too. I see cherubs, horses, castles and more, all set in the brilliant colors of a sky embedded in an octagonal ceiling. I cannot help but envision the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He deflects my attempts at Michelangelo comparisons.
The youngest of nine boys, Demonte recalls the ways of his Italian home.
“We weren’t rich by any stretch, but we weren’t poor either,” he says. “My mother had her mentality set that she was poor, so naturally anything other than the usual was considered a luxury, so even if I had asked her for a pencil, it was a luxury.”
Now Demonte finds time for his art with all the materials necessary. He works at his own pace, and his perfectionist mentality shines. In most cases, he layers at least six coats of paint, using a glaze to achieve the ideal hue. “The methods I use are what the old masters used,” he says.
Demonte ’s gritty character permeates his work. He left Italy with a fifth-grade education. In his initial years in Brooklyn he toiled with night school endeavors, but it wasn’t enough.
“I wanted to start from the basic ABCs,” he says.
He enrolled in a Jewish school on Bay Parkway in Brooklyn that allowed him to start from the beginning. Unfortunately, he had to leave when school officials discovered his gentile roots. “They found out I was Christian!” he says, laughing deeply.
The artist invites me to sip espresso with him at the dinner table. I partake, as it pairs well with his homemade biscotti. His mother made bread twice a week in the old country, he says. He decided to learn how to bake bread in what he describes as a trial and error process.
We talk more about his Last Judgement piece. It is, of course, a dramatic depiction of souls separated into heaven and hell. Demonte reinforces that it is not the type of piece people usually buy for the home. Still, it might not end up on display at a gallery.
“I’m not the kind of guy that goes out there to exhibit and show off,” he says, “I just like to do [the art].”
Demonte donated his painting of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to Cape Fear Community College. It had been featured in an Italian Festival that raised thousands of dollars for scholarships at CFCC. Falcone’s Italian Restaurant in Leland includes some of his work, too. He donated the fountain painting that serves as a logo piece on the wine bar as well as the lattice work overhead.
“I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to set up a booth,” he says. “I’m not into that stuff — I’m not a sales person.”
But plenty of people see his work, and he is no stranger to making deals.
“If anybody wants to buy, sure go ahead!” he says. “It gives me the reason to keep going.”
His first official buyer was a woman in Brooklyn who bought a small print for $5. (The next day, it was stolen when her home was burglarized.) Today, Demonte estimates some of his larger pieces could sell for as much as $2,500.
He tells the story of his first trials with oil and canvas. He was able to collect paints and a few other supplies from a co-worker whose daughter had quit the craft. “What am I going to do for a canvas?” he remembers asking himself. “So I took an apron from work and I stretched it as much as I could on something and started painting on that.”
Soon learning how to prime a canvas, Demonte was painting with confidence. He no longer had to be as frugal. “Well, eventually I did spend hundreds of dollars, but I got hundreds of dollars back,” he says.
He continues reminiscing as we sip espresso. He goes to the garage and sifts out another batch of small prints for me to view. There’s his replica of Boucher’s The Bath of Venus. There’s his take on the Procession of Grand Canal in Venice. He shows me perspective pieces such as a painting of his photo at Pebble Beach, Calif.
When people learned of his talent early on, he took on a barrage of requests, but facing deadlines compromised his love of the art. “It becomes a job; it takes all the pleasure away from it,” he says. “Now I do it whenever I feel like.”
Demonte shows me a few more prints. These are inspired by Boris Vallejo, a Peruvian artist known for his fantasy paintings. Demonte likes fantasy artwork, noting the exaggerations of “forms that harmonize.” He highlights the balance of classic poses. “It’s acceptable to the eye,” he explains.
As I leave through the garage, I get a last glimpse of his take on The Great Last Judgement. How does he do it? I wonder aloud.
“If you truly love your work, you become good as you do it,” he says.
Demonte has spent years hand-crafting an intricate model of a French galleon, and he says he has years to go on the project.