At the time of its dedication in 1911, the library was the largest marble building in the world and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965. But it is most known for the iconic sculptural elements that flag the entrance on Fifth Avenue, including two lions, symbolizing patience; the two façade statues situated in half domes (beauty and truth); the six sculptures found along the attic (philosophy, romance, religion, poetry, drama and history); and the three entry keystones (Juno, Minerva and Mercury). DiCicco is painstakingly rendering them in pencil to be reproduced in the intaglio printing style Dürer made famous.
“I worked as a commissioned artist for 20 years,” DiCicco said. “But I realized that I spent a lot of time and energy on work where there was no value to me after it was sold. This series will be reproduced as a limited edition, and I can keep the originals or sell them for a much higher fee than I have in the past.”
A Richmond, Va. native, DiCicco didn’t start out as a fine artist. He wanted to be an automotive designer growing up, before attending Virginia Commonwealth University’s fine art department. After a friend at the Richmond Historical Society asked if he would like a commission to draw some of its late 19th century buildings around town (projects which he now claims looked “totally amateur”), he got a reputation for classic architectural rendering.
He started getting calls from real estate agents who had a request. DiCicco’s incredibly detailed, almost photographic, pen and ink renderings of the historical buildings were becoming well known. Would he be willing to create a drawing of a house they just sold to give as a closing gift to the new owners? In addition, they would like to create “Here’s my new address” note cards featuring the drawing, printed with the new return address on the envelopes. His drawing career — in a very specialized niche — took off.
“My first commission when I moved to California was in Malibu,” DiCicco said. “It was this funky little condo.”
But DiCicco’s artistic muse wasn’t necessarily satisfied. He came to California in 1997 and his home drawings became more detailed and expansive. His fees went up. But he wanted a bigger challenge.
“I ended up doing some of the great southern California historical buildings,” DiCicco said. “I got a commission to do the entry to the old Santa Barbara Courthouse from a couple who wanted it for a specific wall. Then I did the Griffith Park Observatory and all those sold well. Finally, I thought about the library.”
DiCicco is a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, headquartered in New York, and teaches classes there (he also takes field drawing classes to the Getty Villa). He got the idea for the library series in 2010 and started taking some photos (he renders his drawings from photographs) of varying aspects of the building — a process that wasn’t always easy.
“I didn’t want to do a perspective looking up one of the figure’s skirts,” he said. “So I ended up asking a UPS delivery guy if I could stand on his truck across the street on Fifth Avenue. I think the composition of the photo is the most creative part of my whole process.”
DiCicco originally thought to draw only the entrance to the library. But as he started photographing, he began to see the extraordinary detail in the figures. “Drama” is holding both masks of comedy and tragedy. “Poetry” has her hand to her ear and one foot stepping on a book.
“There’s such detailed symbolism in each figure,” he said. “I think most people go into this amazing building and never even look at these figures.”
The project grew. Each drawing takes about a month to complete — he’s finished seven so far — and he figures to have the series of 12 drawings completed by an October deadline, when the ICAA is holding an exhibition.
To finance the project, he has taken a page from the 19th century naturalist John James Audubon, who raised the money to print his celebrated “Birds of America” largely through advance subscriptions.
DiCicco tapped friends, family and the library’s representatives themselves. He has even already sold a couple of the originals at fees higher than he has received before.
The ultimate goal is to branch out into a specialty that will sustain works of architectural importance in artistic memory.
To see more about DiCicco’s New York Public Library series, visit his website at www.jeffdicicco.com.
This story first appeared in The Malibu Times.