A Concrete Career

During the harsh winters of the East Coast, Ralph Prata leaves his home in upstate New York to come to Tucson and create abstract sculpture that wouldn't look out of place among early African or Aztec artifacts.

The haunting figures and simple lines of his work find their home in an unusual medium: All of Prata's work is done using concrete.

Prata, who has been creating these concrete abstracts since 1978, has found success by selling his pieces across the country at craft shows—venues that he says are often overlooked by artists.

"There are a lot of artists who would never think about doing arts-and-crafts shows, because they think that galleries are the way to go," said Prata. "But that's a very hard way of making a living. (Many) galleries take 50 percent or more of your profits."

Prata has been utilizing craft shows since their rise to popularity in the '70s and '80s, and was inspired by shows he went to as a child. At the beginning of his career, he was urged by a friend to bring his first series of five sculptures to a show in Massachusetts. He was reluctant to part with these first pieces, so he marked them at what he thought were unreasonably high prices.

Someone from New York came and bought all of them.

"After that, I thought, 'Maybe I don't have to dig ditches anymore,'" said Prata.

Before that show, Prata had been working in construction with his father. He was sculpting from stone, which was expensive. He decided to take advantage of the inexpensive material he worked with every day: concrete. While he eventually found success and could afford stone to carve, Prata said he'd grown attached to the durability and texture of concrete.

"I found my niche," said Prata. "It works well with me, and I've never seen anyone else doing it. It's an advantage, because it's different art. It's what I've been doing my whole life, and I've been very fortunate to never have to have another job."

All of Prata's pieces are created impromptu, he said, and although it looks as though Prata might draw inspiration from other cultures, he said that the imagery comes from his "collective unconsciousness," and that only music offers him inspiration.

"All my imagery is created as I carve; I don't map it out," said Prata. "I'm inspired by Steven Roach from Tucson. He does ambient, new age music, and that's actually why I'm in Tucson now. One year, I came to see him in concert, and I've been listening to his music ever since."

Prata has created a working relationship with Roach; Roach has even used images of Prata's carvings for several of his CD covers.

Prata does all of his carvings using hand-sculpting tools, leaving electricity completely out of the mix. This gives him time to create as he goes.

Most of his pieces are left in the unaltered colors of the concrete, because Prata wants to keep the integrity of his favored medium and does not want people to confuse it for something else. His pieces range from smaller, matted and framed wall-hangings to larger panels and freestanding sculptures.

At his upcoming exhibit, Prata will also be showing, for the first time, a collection of pen-and-ink drawings.

Prata's exhibit will be on display at the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, which—unlike the aforementioned high-cost galleries—has reserved its Little Gallery for traveling artists to show their work for free.

"(Ted DeGrazia) built this amazing gallery. It's all adobe, very Santa Fe-style," said Prata. "It used to be his studio, and now they've set it up for the artists to use. It's charming, (with) stained-glass windows and a wood-burning stove. It's an honor to show there."