BY JEN KENT | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Local artisan Carrie Chimenti claimed her profession at just 19 years old.
“Basically, I declared I was sculptor, got on a plane to Italy and found out I could sculpt,” recalls Chimenti, who was attending Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, at the time. “I had no idea. I knew I wasn’t a fine painter; I was kind of bored by it. I could do it, but I wasn’t passionate about it. I wasn’t a print maker. I didn’t like ceramics. I knew, during my freshman year and by taking two different 3D courses, that [sculpting] is what I should be doing. So I went to the head of the department, introduced myself, and said, ‘I’m Carrie Chimenti. I just declared. I’ll see you next
year. I’m off to Italy.’”
Chimenti spent the following year studying low-relief sculpture in Florence. Her first piece, she says, was a horse head inspired by a sculpture located on a nearby fountain. “The professor comes over [while I was sculpting it], and he doesn’t speak a lot of English. … He looks at my piece, and he goes, ‘OK,’ pats me on the back and walks away,” says Chimenti. “That was it. That was my validation. I was like, ‘OK! I can do this. I’m doing it!’”
Chimenti later returned to Miami University to complete her degree, obtaining a Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture, and briefly worked in promotional marketing after graduation. But an encounter with Italian citizens at an international conference sparked her desire to move back to Italy and immerse herself in the language and culture — and she did. Chimenti enrolled in a two-year graduate school program through American University and split her time between the college’s Rome and Perugia campuses.
Chimenti earned her master’s degree, then worked at a villa in Umbria where she helped Cardinal Stritch University (CSU) establish a study abroad program. The job, rather serendipitously, would prove significant in determining her next big career move. “One of the professors that was there, Teri Wagner, we really hit it off,” says Chimenti. “Teri was a sculpture professor at CSU and, it turns out, had taught my mom, who was the oldest of 11 kids and never finished college. She went back to school to finish her art degree. ... Teri said to me, ‘I’m going on sabbatical. Can you take care of my house and dogs, drive my car and teach my classes?’”
Chimenti enthusiastically agreed, relocating to Milwaukee in 2005 to teach sculpture and ceramics at CSU and continue practicing art.
Years later, while exhibiting her terracotta sculptures at Festa Italiana, Chimenti met fellow Milwaukee area artisan Eugene Orlandini. They quickly struck up a friendship, and he asked her to assist him with a plaster restoration project in Madison — an endeavor that led Chimenti to discover her true niche as an artist. “While I was working in Madison, my mom was like, ‘Have you ever thought about Italian plaster?’” Chimenti explains. “She sent me a link to a school. I took my trowels and went to study at an Italian plaster school. For me, doing what I do and working with those tools, I feel like I’m sculpting on the wall. It was the perfect fit.”
Chimenti now specializes in Italian plaster, working under her namesake company Chimenti Studios, and uses bevelled trowels to hand-sculpt and manipulate the plaster onto walls and other surfaces. The majority of her business, she says, stems from word of mouth and architect or designer referrals, but some clients discover her work through social media sites like Pinterest or Facebook. “Everybody has a different story of how they find me and why they need me,” Chimenti says. “A lot of times, I get asked to match wallpaper. Clients get a wallpaper sample and find out how much the wallpaper is going to cost — just the wallpaper. Then you have to factor in product and labor. Every single time I’m asked, I can beat the price. They’ll bring me the paper and then they’ll go, ‘Carrie, can you match this? Or can you do something similar?’ I come to my studio and I start creating.”
The creative process, she says, is an organic one. And while she can come close to replicating certain styles, no two projects are identical.
“It’s a very personal thing,” Chimenti says. “Your walls are extensions of yourself — the wallpaper you pick, the paint colors, etc. … They can make you feel a certain way. So, when someone comes to me and they pick me to do their walls versus [installing] a wallpaper, you’re getting everything. You’re getting this relationship — someone that’s into it and is passionate about it. And I think that means something to my clients. It’s one-of-a-kind.”
When referencing a recent project in Fox Point, where she transformed the walls, woodwork, trim and windows of the pub room, Chimenti says she often encourages uncertain clients to “go for it.”
“A lot of times, what you hear is, ‘What am I going to do when I sell it?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, no! Don’t think about it that way; don’t live your life that way,’” she enthuses. “You don’t know how long you’re going to enjoy it. … You don’t know when you’re going to move, so enjoy it while you have it.
“It’s like that saying: ‘Drink the wine, eat the cake, take the trip.’ Because life is too short.”
Chimenti, the mother of two youngs girls, is also philanthropically minded, donating her time to causes that promote kindness and compassion. She most recently volunteered to sculpt one wall of a child’s bedroom for a North Shore mother of three via Kidcycle, a hyper-local, buy-sell-trade Facebook group that rallies its members to “love and lift” each other. She also produced a commissioned work for Make-A-Wish Wisconsin’s Wauwatosa office.
“That was a really special project for me,” Chimenti says, noting that her father once served on the foundation’s board of directors. “When you walk down the entryway hallway, I put up all the kids’ names since the ’80s. Every child that has ever received a wish, their names are on the walls.”
More than 5,500 names currently decorate the walls, Chimenti says, and the number continues to grow. For the past three years, the artist has added each new child’s name to the mural, free of charge.
“For the parents who have lost their kids, that’s huge,” she says. MKE