The classic red rose, whether it’s a freshly picked single flower or an entire aromatic bouquet, has been a symbol of love and romance for ages.
And while buying roses for a loved one on Valentine’s Day will always be a well-received tradition, flowers are a finite gift — often wilting after a few days.
Maybe that is part of the charm of giving someone a rose; here today, gone tomorrow.
But one Valentine’s Day, metalworker Gabe Bellebuono saw people handing out roses to their significant others. His girlfriend’s birthday was coming up, and he thought a steel rose would be something unique that she could cherish forever. “I figured a rose is a classic gift, but I wanted to change it up a bit,” Bellebuono said. And with that, the steel rose was born.
When he was in eighth grade, Bellebuono started interning with Island crafts and sculpture master Barney Zeitz in his Vineyard Haven studio. Bellebuono and Zeitz found each other through Zeitz’s daughter, who played soccer at MVRHS, and Bellebuono’s father, who is a coach for the girls soccer team at the high school.
Bellebuono said he has “been doodling and banging on pieces of metal” since he was little, and his fascination with art in all forms has only grown over the years.
The first rose Bellebuono made for his girlfriend took him five hours to make, but he said he has made at least 15 roses up to this point, and is starting to get pretty good at it. “It used to take me like five hours to make a single rose, even though some roses take longer to make than others, because some are larger or more intricate,” Bellebuono said. “Now it only takes me about two or three hours from start to finish.”
Recently Bellebuono has been selling his steel roses for $100 to $200, depending on the size.
They’ve been a hit, and Bellebuono said he has been commissioned to make “a lot more roses.”
“People really seem to love them, I think because it’s something unique. There aren’t a bunch of other people making roses out of metal,” Bellebuono said.
The dramatic transformation from a jagged piece of scrap metal to a one-of-a-kind work of art is not a simple or snappy process. Bellebuono starts with a long metal dowel that he cuts to size for each rose stem.
He runs the welder down each dowel, and angles the flame to create the thorns and textured surface of the stem. After that, he heats the metal and sands it to give a shiny patina.
But the most laborious part of the process, Bellebuono said, is bending and shaping each piece of metal to create the petals and sepals of the flower.
The young craftsman superheats the metal plates individually, so they are malleable enough to bend upward into the flower shape.
“It’s basically just heat and mold, heat and mold,” Bellebuono said. “It can be a really long process, especially because the steel is so thin that it cools very rapidly.”
Because of this, Bellebuono must be quick to shape the metal while it is still red-hot. “The petals have to be as uniform as possible — I learned the hard way that everything has to be slow and steady,” he said.
And roses aren’t the only flower Bellebuono has experimented with; he made a steel orchid for his father on his birthday, and plans on trying out a rhododendron flower at some point soon.
“I’ve always wanted to try a bunch of other flowers, but I want to get really good at making the roses first,” Bellebuono said.
At his studio, among the flowers are other impressive pieces Bellebuono has created, including shiny steel osprey carrying fish for dinner. The osprey sculptures were designed by Zeitz, but Bellebuono crafted them.
Handcrafted cutlery is also one of Bellebuono’s passions. “I love knives; I have been making a lot of them recently out of railroad spikes and lawnmower blades, things of that nature,” he said.
Bellebuono has a blacksmithing forge at his house that he said he will often spend all day using.
He sells the knives for around $50 or more, depending on the size. A knife takes about five to seven hours from start to finish, but Bellebuono said it’s worth every second. Just recently, Bellebuono was commissioned to craft a chef’s knife for a famous chef.
“I think working at the blacksmithing forge is my favorite thing to do. It’s banging on pieces of metal till they don’t look like just pieces of metal anymore,” he said. “I get to take something as simple as a lawnmower blade and turn it into something useful and beautiful.”
For Bellebuono, working on a forge gives him appreciation for what blacksmiths had to deal with hundreds of years ago, before the advent of modern sculpting equipment. “It really makes you think about what people had to do with the more primitive tools. When you start using welders and plasma cutters, you really get an appreciation for current ways of sculpting,” Bellebuono said.
Some of Bellebuono’s pieces are being displayed at Featherstone, including a sculpture comprised of a twisted branch with metal roses winding around it. The sculpture will be on display through February. “The combination of the two materials [wood and metal] makes for a really interesting contrast,” Bellebuono said. “It’s almost like the sculpture is entirely natural, even though it has metal in it.”
For Bellebuono, making the steel roses is a labor of love. “Roses have always been so pure, elegant, and simple. I never planned on starting a business, I just wanted to make my girlfriend really happy.”
Visit Bellebuono’s Facebook page to view some of his work or to request a rose.