Rachel Paolino transforms metal into captivating creations
Rachel Paolino admits she’s obsessive. When it comes to her work, that is. No detail is overlooked in her handcrafted metal sculptures and custom home furnishings. From the chemical patina she uses to achieve just the right color, down to the screws and rivets she hammers in, everything is meticulously thought out, and each piece—industrial yet delicate—is designed to be truly one of a kind.
“That’s the exciting part—no two things are alike,” Paolino says. “I’m always getting to come up with new and creative ways to put things together.”
When it comes to what she makes, the sky’s limit—actually, more like the sky is just the beginning. “I never say no to anything. People come to me with these crazy ideas—they have an idea for something and they can’t find it anywhere—so when they come to me with a specialized idea like that it’s fun to have to figure out how to make it,” she says.
The craziest thing she’s ever had to figure out how to make: a display stand for a large antique butcher’s scale. She created a sturdy steel tripod, affixed with a shepherd’s hook to hold the scale and a boat weight anchor to weigh it down. “The owner came to me wanting a way to display this antique scale—she didn’t want to put a chain from the ceiling,” Paolino explains. “She wanted the stand to also be a piece of art.”
Art is exactly what Paolino creates, whether it’s practical, like a railing, or decorative, like a three-dimensional shark sculpture. Growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, Paolino says she always wanted to be an artist. “My dad was into photography, my uncle is into painting, and being in Providence I was surrounded by lots of art,” she says. In high school, Paolino began following in her father’s footsteps by taking up photography, which she set out to study at Rhode Island College. “I took a 3D class, and the teacher asked if I had thought about doing sculpture because I was good at 3D building,” she recalls. “And I really loved it, so I decided to just go for it, not really thinking about what I was going to do with that when I graduated. I was in school and having fun, so I didn’t really care—even though everybody told me ‘There’s no money in that,’ I just did it because it made me happy.
“I’ve always been attracted to metal,” she adds. “It’s strong, powerful, and I’m this small-statured girl, and working with it gives me this sense of power and makes me feel stronger.”
After graduating from Rhode Island College with a BFA in sculpture, Paolino welded here and there and occasionally showed her work in exhibitions. “I did photography, actually, to make money,” she reveals. Then, while working at Stonewood Products as a sales rep, she took on side projects for the contractors and designers she’d meet. “Eventually I was able to get enough work where I could leave there and just do this as my main source of income,” she says.
Paolino launched Welding Creations in 2016, now based in Harwich. Her work is mostly custom commissions, from builders, designers, masons and homeowners. While she mainly works in steel, Paolino says she looks for ways to combine materials and accent her metalwork with wood, copper, brass, Plexiglass or Lexan. “I made these architectural doors that were steel framed with these glass resin inserts that had a cool gauze inside,” she notes. In her sculptural wall art—her most popular pieces are her striped bass and mermaids, which typically measure between 2-5 feet—Paolino will incorporate found objects, like strings from an old guitar in her guitar sculpture, or even just scraps she has left over from a previous project—something just small enough that it makes for a perfect eye for one of her sea creatures. “I love contrast,” she says. “Especially wood and metal together, the metal is so hard and a man-made object, and then wood is this beautiful, soft, naturally occurring thing. They’re so different, but I can make them work together, and they become one object.”
For Paolino, the creation process is an adventure. “Usually I have to make some kind of jig first so that I can use the jig to make the actual piece,” she explains. “Pretty much every project is different, and I have to figure out how to do it every time because it’s something new.”
She primarily uses a MIG welder (MIG stands for metal inert gas, and this form of welding involves electricity), but she says she also practices acetylene welding (which uses this fuel gas along with oxygen). To make individual pieces for her sculptures, she cuts sheet metal by hand with a plasma cutter. “Some people use a CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machine, and the machine will cut out the pieces, but since I cut it out by hand, every single piece is unique,” she says.
One element of her work that Paolino says she especially prides herself on is her use of texture. “I honestly don’t know how she manipulates the metal, but every piece that I’ve seen of hers, they all have this different texture,” says Sophia Dress, a woodworker and the owner of Faces Gallery in Dennis Port, which represents Paolino’s sculpture work. “Like her pieces that are sea creatures, the texture that she gives each piece always feels appropriate to the animal that she is creating. I have a piece right now called Cephalopoda, it’s an octopus, and that piece has this ripple texture to it that almost looks like water.”
In working with clients, Paolino is a true collaborator, says Kristin Pompeo of Kristin Pompeo Interiors, who was the first designer Paolino ever worked with. “She doesn’t stop until she gets the final product the way you want it to be,” Pompeo says. “And whatever you come to her with she can transform it into something a little bit different. Like, you show her a picture, and she’ll say, ‘We can do this, or we could also put a twist on it and do that.’”
Paolino admits many people are shocked when they discover that she—a slender 5’3”, 35-year-old woman—is a welder. “It’s starting to be more accepted—more females are getting into this trade—but it’s still basically a man’s world,” she says. And while she’s proud to be a woman in welding, it’s always been about more than that. “People are so surprised by the welding part that that’s what they really take from me. But I am an artist.”