Former boat-builder creates art<br> on an industrial scale

SCULPT BY NUMBERS: Amaral Fabrications workers finish oversize aluminum numbers designed by artist Robert Indiana, best known for his 'LOVE' sculptures, readying them to be painted and then installed at a company. /
SCULPT BY NUMBERS: Amaral Fabrications workers finish oversize aluminum numbers designed by artist Robert Indiana, best known for his 'LOVE' sculptures, readying them to be painted and then installed at a company. /

Walking through Paul Amaral’s workshop, it’s not unusual to see his employees sanding and painting large, 3-D aluminum numbers. Or to see one of Robert Indiana’s infamous “LOVE” sculptures wrapped and waiting to be shipped back to its home.
Amaral has been fabricating new sculptures and finishing existing sculptures for nationally and internationally renowned artists out of his 12,000-square-foot facility in Seekonk for the past 10 years.
Because his is such a small niche market, those years have been characterized by unpredictable ups and downs in business. It’s a “feast or famine” type of world, he said.
“I don’t think you can just do artwork and not suffer huge oscillations in your business,” Amaral said. “The art market is very cyclical, and it’s not seasonal. It has very much to do with the money market, the stock market, the cost of money.”
When the art business slows, Amaral looks for commercial work. Right now he’s fabricating fiberglass cases for sonar companies in Cape Cod. But while it’s not difficult to find commercial work, he said, “it’s difficult to find commercial work that makes any money.”
Commercial work isn’t as profitable for Amaral Custom Fabrications Inc. because the company doesn’t have the equipment or processes to mass-produce a single object.
“We custom-design our fabrication around what it is you want to build,” Amaral said. That’s why the company has been particularly successful working with artists.
To a great extent, Amaral uses materials and techniques from the boat-building industry. Before starting his company, Amaral worked for Merrifield Roberts Inc. in Bristol for 10 years, learning by building aluminum boats for America’s Cup racing.
Metalwork continues to be Amaral’s specialty, though his company fabricates fiberglass sculptures as well. Amaral’s employees also use marine-grade welding techniques and marine-grade paint for durability.
“I really try to separate myself from other fabricators by … using materials that were originally designed for a yacht,” Amaral said. “The aluminum that we use is the only aluminum that the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping allows you to use when you build a metal boat, because it’s so strong and corrosion-resistant.”
The durability of the sculptures has largely contributed to the company’s success because it is what keeps Amaral’s customers coming back. In fact, Amaral’s most prized accomplishment in business has been gaining the trust of clients such as the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.
“When they have a new sculpture they want to build, they’ll call me up,” he said. “They don’t shop it around. They want me to build it and install it.”
Amaral doesn’t use new technologies to design or build the sculptures, he said. Usually he will receive a small model from which he hand-drafts a larger version.
For example, when he built an untitled Keith Haring sculpture of “three dancing people,” Amaral was given an eight-inch 3-D model made from painted cardboard.
“Our input is to advise the artist how to make this real,” he said. “How to make it to the size that he wants it and how to keep it safe.”
Amaral hires C.A. Pretzer Associates in Cranston to conduct engineering studies of every sculpture to make sure the designs are structurally sound.
Ultimately it’s the artist who owns the artwork Amaral designs and constructs, he said. But Amaral rarely thinks of it that way.
“Beyond the monetary value, what I gain is knowing that I built it,” Amaral said. “The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is one of the premier museums in the world, and the largest sculpture on their grounds I built.”
About 90 percent of Amaral’s clients live in lower Manhattan, he said, because “everyone that’s anybody” in the art world lives there. Having Rhode Island School of Design here doesn’t affect his business, he said, except in that he’s hired some RISD graduates.
“I do not pursue the local artists,” he said. “I would love to build their artwork for them, but it’s not economically feasible. Most of it’s too small. The budgets are much too constrained.”
In fact, most of Amaral’s clients find him. He’s spent less than $5,000 on marketing in the last 10 years. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to do more with promotions.
“I would love to move into a larger facility,” he said. “I would love to get the production functioning on its own, so that I could do some higher-level marketing and bring in more work.”

Company Profile:
Amaral Custom Fabrications Inc.

Owner: Paul Amaral
Type of business: Sculpture fabrication
Location: 40 Mead St., Seekonk
Employees: 15
Year established: 1997
Annual Sales: WND

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