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A sculptor of giant nudes explains how he makes money, puts on his pants

Each week, Grid does a deep dive on the economics of running an everyday business, from a tattoo parlor to a dog-walker. This week, we examine how artist Rosario Rosi, sculptor and owner of Eight Day Gallery, makes ends meet.

The man: Rosario Rosi, 72, spends most of his day working in his sculptor’s studio in Andersonville. Rosi is almost entirely self-taught, and nothing in his collection sells for less than $30,000. He refused all pictures of himself, directing our camera lens toward his art.

The path: Rosi’s father was a surgeon, his mother a famed opera singer. As a sculptor of enormous objects, he combines the artistic with the scientific. Rosi’s road to the rare perch of artistic self-sufficiency began with math, the Marines and a stint in South Bend that he describes as a “4-year Catholic inquisition torment.” After graduating from Notre Dame in 1962 with a degree in finance, Rosi then spent 5 years in the Marine Corps, including time in Vietnam. After getting out, he did a six-month stint at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — the sum total of his professional art education — before deciding to pour his benefits from the G.I. Bill into renting a studio so he could sculpt full-time. He’s remained there ever since.

“I’m not completely stupid,” Rosi says. “Everyone thinks artists can’t function in the real world. I can, and I’m very capable of talking to a bank or a financier. Artists put their pants on like everybody else.”

Operations: Rosi owns Edgewater’s Eighth Day Gallery, which takes up three storefronts along Sheridan Drive. There, he displays his own collection of larger-than-life work, set to a soundtrack of swooping philharmonic tones. The gallery is a one-man operation, open by appointment only to clients who track Rosi down through his website — which is also a one-man operation — and through word of mouth. Rosi says he can’t be bothered to curate the gallery 9-5 for public visits when his real calling is sculpting, and he doesn’t trust anyone else to show his pieces. Not that he cares much about his completed works. “I’m divorced from these pieces actually,” he says. “When I finish a work, I’m finished. I’m obsessed with what I’m working on now.”

Expenses: At the gallery, they’re fairly minimal, especially in comparison to how much Rosi pays for some of his production and materials. He saves on utilities when there are no appointments. When his art travels for display on demand, Rosi’s clients pay transportation costs. Friends help with installation. Rosi didn’t disclose how much he pays for rent.

His sculptures are uniformly large, ranging in size from single female nudes that stand about 6-feet-tall to thirty-foot, multi-figure compositions of winged mythological characters. A 2,000-pound sculpture of the Greek goddess Nike hangs from the ceiling, suspended by steel rods. To cast it in bronze, Rosi paid a foundry $250,000. Rosi orders clay by the ton, paying $500 to $800 per shipment. The epoxy resins reinforced by fiberglass that he uses to color sculptures cost about $125 per 5-gallon container.

“Materials are not a huge part of the final value of the product,” Rosi says. “They’re just incidental. If a piece sells for $50,000 or $100,000, materials are only going to be $1,000 typically.”

With ambitions to combine his gallery and studio in a single space, Rosi spent $2.2 million from 2007 to 2012 to renovate a vintage theater once used by Charlie Chaplin. After the project was about 85 percent complete, the market crashed and “we flat ran out of money.” Rosi put the theater back on the market last year and is currently asking for $1.4 million.

Clientele: Not everyone can afford the kind of prices that Rosi charges. He negotiates sales with wealthy patrons who “buy it, give it to their kids who get tired of dusting it and sell it to turn it into another commodity.”

Bottom line: Rosi is strident that he is an artist, not a businessperson, and does not wish to participate in a march toward the materialistic. Nevertheless, he’s fatalistic about the role that money plays in an art world where purchases are often seen as speculative investments. “Right now it’s more important for me to create it,” Rosi says. “Eventually all work goes to the fates and it’s a sad ending. This aesthetic just becomes another way of expressing how well you did in life financially.”

Photo by Susan Du