The brightly painted concrete figures must have startled passersby by the way they stood out against the drab industrial landscape. In the 1950s, the upstate New York city of Utica was thriving economically and teeming with immigrants. One of them, a retired bricklayer and mason from the Abruzzi region of central Italy created this improbable sculpture park sometime before his death in 1958. Not a trace of it remains today.
Very little is known about the artist. Placido Tobasso was born in Italy in 1904. It is not known when he immigrated to Utica, but he lived on Hubbell Street, two blocks from the factories on Broad Street in the eastern part of the city. Most of Tobasso’s working life was spent laying bricks and cutting stone, until poor health forced him into early retirement.
Tobasso’s health did not deter him from realizing what must have been a powerful desire to express himself creatively in the materials he knew best: plaster and brick. The American Hardwall Plaster Company, located on Broad Street, often gave out broken blocks and torn bags of plaster to worthy people, and Tobasso was among those able to receive building materials for free. Unlike those who needed and used these materials to build homes and churches, Tobasso used them to create a series of monumental figures on city property for all to see.
He chose a vacant lot on Broad Street at the foot of Mohawk Street. The latter is a major thoroughfare through East Utica, so the sculptures would have been visible for several blocks. Here Tobasso fashioned large statues of historical figures of his adopted homeland, including the American Indian chief Yahnundasis, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and a Civil War soldier. He represented his ancient Roman heritage with a statue of a wolf suckling Romulus and Remus and a figure of a fierce winged lion. Lastly, at one end of the assemblage, Tobasso included a large statue of Christ blessing the immigrant neighborhood he overlooked.
The sculptures were remarkably powerful in their rigidity and strong patterning. Characteristically, many people did not understand the artist or the value of his work, but Tobasso had a number of knowledgeable and influential proponents. The renowned sculptor Henry DiSpirito said in a 1958 interview, “He was a great artist. He worked where sculpture should be – in the open, under the sky.” Richard McLanathan, director of Utica’s celebrated art museum at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, also admired Tobasso’s work. When he hosted the great art collector Maxim Karolik (whose American art collection is the foundation for the holdings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) he insisted that they see the Tobasso sculptures. Karolik took one look at the figures and exclaimed, “What spirit!”
It’s a pity that the Utica city officials did not share this view. In the 1960s, at the height of the cultural destruction of Urban Renewal, Tobasso’s artwork was destroyed. Fortunately for posterity, these works had been captured (along with pictures of the artist at work) in a series of photographs in the 1950s by the Utica photographer Dante Tranquille. These images speak eloquently of Tabasso’s passionate and public realization of a personal devotion. Nestled among the massive and impersonal industrial complexes, Tobasso’s sculpture park stood for years as an improbable – and all-too-fragile – affirmation of the humanity that toiled within.