Mark DiLeonardo works magic cutting and bending sheets of stainless steel into imaginative, eye-catching designs. The home he shares with his wife and young daughter reveals that magic room by room — on tables, on walls, or standing elegantly on the floor by a window.
Throughout the house hang abstract designs made of shiny bands of steel, many interwoven with texturized steel bands to create a special effect. Among those pieces is an interwoven structure that subtly reveals five fish in motion.
The artist's most recent work, a swirling abstract design, beckons the eye with its twists and curves in shiny silver bands.
"That one looks almost like an inkblot," DiLeonardo said.
A 6 1/2-foot stainless steel structure in one corner of the family room was also created from interwoven metal ribbons. On a nearby table rests a stainless steel chess set in a sleek modern design. An avid online chess player, DiLeonardo, 42, calls this handmade set his "pride and joy."
The passion for metal art arose slowly for the Connecticut native whose late father, Joseph DiLeonardo, was a watercolor artist and clay sculptor.
"That was my earliest influence in creativity," he said of his father.
That artistic inclination was later coupled with the practical skills DiLeonardo acquired along the way. In the Army National Guard, where he served from 1987 through 1991, he learned to weld. At his longtime job at Douglas Machines Corp. in Clearwater, he works on custom-made steel industrial kitchen equipment and other machinery.
"These pieces he works on are all custom-made by hand," Penny said of her husband's work at Douglas, "and not by another machine."
DiLeonardo's transition from making industrial machines during the week to creating decorative metal objects of art at home on Saturdays and evenings was a gradual one. Most of his artistic creations are abstract, but others are modern renditions of musical instruments and seascape items, such as fish and sailboats.
DiLeonardo began his art on a small scale.
"I started making stainless steel frames for family pictures in about 2000, shortly after Penny and I were married," he said. "A few years later I made the chess set."
In a well-organized 10-foot-square shed behind the house are the tools of his artistic trade: a long work table, a welding machine, an air cleaner and metal working tools of all sizes. A nearby carport shelters a large wooden table, a cutting wheel, a plasma cutter, shears and a large roller, where the artist places the sheets of stainless steel for cutting.
Tools are costly. A small roller costs about $1,000, the large one about $7,000. Welding machines, DiLeonardo said, go for about $2,500. Then there's the stainless steel: $10 to $12 a pound, purchased from several local suppliers.
"It weighs more than regular steel," he said of stainless, "but it lasts longer and doesn't rust."
The process of creation is costly as well, at least in terms of time and patience. DiLeonardo usually sketches an idea on paper first.
"I go to the back of my head and think how I want to sculpt it," he said. "The large sculptures have to be preplanned, but on some of the wall hangings I go with the flow as I begin to work on a piece."
Penny, who keeps the financial records and festival schedules for her husband, watches him at work.
"He spends as much time polishing and finishing as he does creating," she said.
For the last four years the DiLeonardos have made the rounds of art shows on both the east and west coasts of Florida, including the Dunedin Art Harvest, the Cool Art Show at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg, the Las Olas Art Fair in Fort Lauderdale and the St. Armand's Circle Art Festival in Sarasota.
Art sales have been steadily increasing, which is shifting the couple's focus to other venues besides shows. Commissioned work has increased, and DiLeonardo said he enjoys fitting a specific piece into someone's home or patio.
"We would like to work with interior decorators and architectural firms," Penny said, "and create the perfect piece that someone is looking for."
The artist would like to make more of the larger sculptures for public areas and spread the word about his art to the community. He hopes to capitalize on all he has learned through the years.
"It takes years to learn the skills," he said. "You just have to think outside of the box and create things no one has seen before."
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected]