Todd Sabelli grew up around food and the food business. As everything from dishwasher to waiter to heir apparent at the former Cappelli’s Restaurant on Post Road in Warwick, it’s no surprise that an exhibit of his photographs would be called “Sacred Dimensions: Flowers and Food.”
It will be on display at the down city branch of BankRI from Jan. 2 to Feb. 5, in the familiar Turk’s Head Building at, of all places, Turk’s Head Place in Providence.
“Photography has always been a personal pursuit of mine,” said Sabelli, explaining why he doesn’t do it full-time. “I will do commissions and I have worked as a freelancer, but I have always thought of photography for its gallery options.”
For many years now, the 44-year-old graphic artist has worked at designing corporate brochures and advertising and currently works for a French software company that specializes in graphics. That affords Sabelli the means to make a living and support his photography habit, which until recently included all the chemicals and special printing of film. He only recently bought a high-end Canon EOS 5D.
“I got a little tired of always looking for supplies online that were getting harder and harder to get,” he explained, but also admitted that he has been seduced by all the possibilities that the digital format affords him. “But I do miss that hands-on, tactile feeling of developing and printing … but I don’t miss the chemicals.”
Like many young college students, Sabelli took time off from Boston University to go to Europe and do the essential bumming around the continent that so many artists must do before they find themselves.
“I’ve seen quite a bit of Europe,” he said. “I spent a year in Italy, went to Paris, I really immersed myself in it. I went to see all the church art and frescos I could. I was staying only 20 minutes outside of Venice, so, if I wanted to see something there, I’d be only minutes away.”
Toward the tail end of his college career, Sabelli signed up for an extension course in photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. He was hooked. After more study in California, where he completed a master’s program in Italian literature, enrolled at RISD for a year and a half, working with Henry Horenstein, Gary Metz and Richard Lebowitz, but it was a photoshop class with Bert Beaver that put him on the road to a graphic design career.
“I like to learn new things,” Sabelli said. “Before I knew it, I was doing designs for print - magazine layouts, websites and books. It blossomed into a career for me.”
But the love of photography hadn’t disappeared.
“On a trip to the local farmers market, Sabelli found himself drawn to the sculptural qualities of the food and flowers before him,” said artist Paula Martiesian, who curated Sabelli’s exhibit. “A cabbage leaf had texture and color that reminded him not of calories and vitamins and nutrition, but of some of the great works of art he had seen in Italy. A peony had the form and feel of sculpture.”
It would surprise people to learn that, aside from the nature photographs that are obviously al fresco, Sabelli sets up many of his photographs on his kitchen table.
“I happen to have this great ambient light in the kitchen that is nicely diffused and gives me a very natural feel,” he said. “Obviously, I have used photo floods, but for the most part I like the available light.”
Obviously, Sabelli’s family knew that he was not going into the restaurant business, and when it came time for his parents to retire, they sold the business after 37 years on Post Road. A developer has turned the property into a parking lot. But it is no surprise that he still enjoys photographing food.
“The color photographs are quietly sensual, with a quality of light that brings to mind both the control of product photography and the inspiring glow inside a great cathedral. It is an intriguing blend of modern and ancient with objects that are as familiar as can be,” Martiesian.
Martiesian said black and white photographs take away the most recognizable distinctions between flowers, and Sabelli’s black and white flowers “emphasize the sculptural and textural forms of the individual flowers, giving them a gravitas not normally associated with the fragile and beautiful blooms … They reveal a lot about the photographer whose love of culture took him from a kitchen in Warwick to the great museums and cathedrals of Italy.”