Rod Zullo | A Natural Inclination



By Mark Mussari

Anyone who has wandered the sylvan landscape of Pennsylvania’s Bucks County can understand exactly where sculptor Rod Zullo is coming from, both personally and artistically. Zullo grew up in New Hope, a town renowned for the artists and other notables who are drawn to its pastoral beauty and creative spirit. “In Bucks County there were always successful artists, people held in high esteem in the creative arts,” he recalls. As a child, Zullo was exposed to prominent Pennsylvania art movements, including the Brandywine School—which gave the world the Wyeths—and the local New Hope School of impressionists.

“It all just sank in from living there,” observes Zullo, “and from living with parents who appreciated the arts.” He describes his youthful self as “the art kid” and expresses gratitude to his parents for encouraging his talent. “They weren’t rich,” he explains, “but they had good taste and an appreciation for art.” At the age of 8 he was introduced to author James Michener, who had a home in Bucks County (an art museum there now bears Michener’s name). Zullo’s father was also friends with woodworker George Nakashima, famous for his elegant, hand-carved furniture, and took his son to Nakashima’s studio.

Artistic genes ran in the family. Zullo’s paternal grandmother was an oil painter, although her career was shortened when she developed multiple sclerosis. Still, she encouraged Zullo’s parents to send the boy to professional art lessons. Later in life, Zullo discovered that he is a direct descendant of Italian Renaissance painter Francesco Zullo. “If you look at the path that has led me here,” he says, “it’s pretty obvious it’s where I should have ended up.”

Another important interest blossomed in Zullo’s childhood: His father fostered a love for fishing and the outdoors. “When I finished high school, I decided I would work on fishing boats,” recalls Zullo, who had been offered scholarships to art school. His original intention was to first save some money and then enter art school. “What was going to be a couple years sojourn from school ended up becoming 10 years,” he admits. But even at sea, Zullo was studying and learning. “One of the sculptors who really inspired me was Kent Ullberg, who sculpted these wonderful marine mammals. Without even knowing him, his work inspired me to do what I knew—what I loved most,” he says. “It gave me hope that I could express myself and speak my own language.”

Finally, art school beckoned. “After 10 years at sea, I had this creative energy that needed to be fulfilled,” Zullo explains. Because his father had introduced him to fishing in Montana in his childhood, Zullo chose Montana State University in Bozeman for his art studies. More than his classes, Montana’s dramatic landscapes and wildlife spoke directly to his artistic nature. He also discovered a lifelong mentor in Floyd Tennison DeWitt, a Montana-born sculptor known for his equine figures.

After school and during the winters, Zullo supplemented his knowledge of sculpting by working in foundries in Bozeman. “After being exposed to sculpting in the foundry,” he notes, “the desire to create was irresistible.” At work Zullo absorbed all the information he could about the casting process. “I gained more knowledge outside of school than in it,” he says.

While obviously influenced by life in the West, Zullo also cites several international figures as significant influences on his three-dimensional art. “I think Alberto Giacometti has been enormously influential on some of my work,” he points out. “Also Antoine Bourdelle, a Frenchman and student of Rodin’s who came into his own.” In addition, Zullo mentions the work of Paolo Troubetzkoy, the Russian-Italian sculptor. “He was extraordinarily expressive,” says Zullo. Exposure to these artists has had a profound effect on the singular approach Zullo takes in his animal sculptures: “My travels to Italy have been very powerful, enabling me to break away from the western realism that exists west of the Mississippi.”

To study abroad, Zullo borrowed money and went into debt—yet he insists he has no regrets. “I couldn’t afford to do it, but looking back, I couldn’t afford not to do it,” he says. “I was seeking more knowledge than I was capable of getting on my own.”


Today, Zullo works predominantly in bronze. His early sculptures mostly depicted marine wildlife, but more recent works include all kinds of animals, including equine figures, birds, and various game. “A lot of my animal sculptures are very human oriented,” he explains, “because the human condition is part of every one of those creatures.” For example, a cow with the ironic title of UDDER MADNESS reflects a particularly difficult time in the artist’s life. “When I did that piece I had just broken my neck,” says Zullo. “My life was pure, utter madness, and I just needed to express that.” Seeing an old cow standing alone in a pasture, Zullo found a visual expression of his emotional state: “I thought, there it is—that defines the craziness of my life right now.”

At the same time that they possess a strong narrative sense, Zullo’s sculptures and elegant bas-reliefs display an intricate knowledge of animal anatomy. “I’m just one of those people who grew up surrounded by animals, dogs, and pets,” he reveals. “The more dogs I meet, the more dogs I love.” Zullo says he finds something consistent in the nature of animals: “A horse wants a carrot, a dog wants a pat on the back, or a neighbor’s cat rubs against my leg—those things don’t change.”

Although Zullo defines himself, artistically, as a realist, he admits that something reminiscent of expressionism surfaces in the rough-hewn textural quality of his sculptures. He says this is a natural progression in his creative journey. “My work is very real but also very expressive, especially some of my newest pieces,” he notes. Zullo achieves this rugged texture partly in the casting process. “I leave a lot of the investment [plaster or clay that forms the mold in the lost-wax casting process] in my pieces; I don’t sand-blast them,” he explains, adding that this is due in part to the influence of Italian sculptor Marino Marini.

Zullo says his goal is to impart “an aged, unearthed feeling” to his work, and, indeed, many of the pieces seem like figures discovered in an archeological dig. Color increases this effect, and critics frequently laud Zullo for his inventive patinas.

In his piece ODE TO THE WEST WIND, Zullo depicts a large work horse with a bowed head and a wind-blown tail. The solitary horse stands steady, exuding a distinct strength of purpose. “You’re in the middle of Montana, and it’s 20 below, and there are these big horses out in the pasture waiting it out,” explains Zullo, who worked for eight years on the sculpture.

In INTO THIN AIR, depicting a hawk about to take flight from a rocky ledge, Zullo crafts a study in angles and movement, the rock inclining in the opposite direction of the soon-departing bird. Crackly pieces of investment enhance the sculpture’s textural effect. “That piece is a metaphor for the leap of faith that is my art,” observes Zullo. “It really is like a leap off a cliff.”

His sculptures have won a number of prestigious awards, including the 2003 best new artist award from the National Sculpture Society. He still resides in Bozeman, and when he isn’t sculpting or painting, he works as a hunting and fishing guide, which, of course, continues to inform his art.
Zullo often finds himself in the studio before daybreak, and he says he feels lucky to have a studio separate from his house. “I work a lot, but the greatest gift of all is that I can work whenever I want,” he notes. His home functions somewhat like a western salon. “A lot of fellow artists visit or come by or stay. It’s a place where artists are welcome,” says Zullo. Challenges—including a divorce and complications arising from donating a kidney to a friend—have failed to slow him down. “They’ve reignited my creative energy,” he comments. “My creative side is the one thing that never leaves me.”

Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Meyer East Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Chaparral Fine Art, Bozeman, MT; Paderewski Fine Art, Beaver Creek, CO; Collectors Covey, Dallas, TX; The Sporting Gallery, Middleburg, VA; Highlands Art Gallery, Chester, NJ.

Featured in February 2009