The Art of Plaster

Modern applications of an ancient building technique elevate walls and ceilings to a higher aesthetic. Jimmy Sanfilippo has brought speciality plasterwork to Vineyard homes for nearly three decades.

jimmy sanfilippo

James Sanfilippo of Aquinnah is anartisan specialty plasterer. In practice, this makes him a choreographer of an impeccably timed routine involving multiple players, sceneries, and props – an artist charged with the task of creating a functional, durable, and aesthetic product. And he appreciates the blurred line between trade and art – thrives on it, in fact – accepting the most creative, challenging, and physics-bending jobs with vigor, learning every day, and passing on decades of expertise to his team.

All this while keeping an eye to the material, a soft mixture of lime and gypsum combined with sand and water, and spread on walls, ceilings, or other structures to form a smooth, hard surface when it cures. This capricious, earth-based material is affected by humidity, heat, concentration of aggregates, the temperature of the mixing water, air circulation, even the residual minerals that surrounded the gypsum when it was mined to make powdered plaster mix.

Overlay these variables onto a curved plane, a dome, a barrel vault, or a cast molding, add a layer of pigment-imbedded plaster (called integral color), or a marble-like Venetian finish, and you’ll get an idea of the kind of possibilities offered by Jimmy through his business, Sparrow Plaster and Tile.

“Everybody’s got a different standard, and I tend to do the higher-quality jobs that take more time and use higher-quality materials, or hard-to-get things,” says Jimmy, who started his plasterwork business on-Island in the mid-eighties, transitioning away from the drywall trade, which he felt became generic during that era’s construction boom. His emphasis on the esoteric aspects of artisanal wall surfaces sets him apart. “That’s where my talent is, that’s where I can express myself in a way that feels good as an artisan and a tradesperson,” he says.

“There are a lot of people that hang blue board and plaster one coat of plaster over it, and that’s one phase of plaster. What I do is a lot of work over wirework, which is a wire screening, and you have to use that on shapes – barrel vaults, domes – you can’t get a piece of Sheetrock to do it,” he explains.

Plastering over wirework requires a different process than plastering over a flat surface, and involves several layers. Since plaster cures quickly and each layer must cure consistently to avoid future cracks, the scene must be prepared to the last detail before the water hits the mix. Jimmy breaks an area into sections and assigns each to a worker. Together the crew decides the amount of plaster each section will require, and the consistency that the tender should mix for each section, factoring in any inconsistencies between plasterers and areas.

“In plastering it’s really important to be a team player...and you have to have that naturally in you. A lot of people get competitive, but in plastering that has to be tempered down to say, ‘Look, this is going to be a beautiful ceiling when we’re done and we’re doing it,’” Jimmy says. “I couldn’t do it alone. It humbles you in a really good way.”

Plasterwork is known for longevity, partly because of material durability and partly because plaster can expand and contract with the weather, making seasonal changes or even shower humidity less damaging. There’s also a certain aesthetic, even to a flat plane of plaster, and Jimmy lights up when he describes it. “You know a plaster ceiling because it’s hand-tooled, and it doesn’t look like you took it out of a box and hung it to the wall. When you see floors that are handmade and woodworking that’s hand-done and then plaster, it really all comes together – the marriage of all that show-craftsmanship in a home.”

While the majority of his work is on-Island, Jimmy frequently works on projects in New York City – a place where innovative architectural design whets his appetite for new challenges. He’s done a number of projects for celebrated restaurateur Keith McNally, including plastering Pravda (the adjoining barrel vaults and five-foot-thick walls of this restaurant in New York’s Nolita area make it one of his favorite projects), Pastis in the meatpacking district, and Keith’s Vineyard home – where the two men met.

Keith had a very specific vision of a plastered wall for his house in Chilmark. Jimmy was called in to hear Keith’s concept, which turned out to be an oxymoron of sorts: “He wanted multiple surfaces within one surface – a layered system where the outer layer would be smooth but expose the inner layers, which are rougher. He wanted to do a wash over that, where the color would grab the deeper parts and fill in those crevices, [making some areas] darker, and the other layer of plaster, the smoother part, would reject the color and even be wiped off.”

plaster wall
Layers of plaster create a distinctive look for this bedroom in Keith McNally’s home - the color-washed walls appear rough, yet are smooth to the touch.

Jimmy made an offer to Keith: “Meet me for a day and work with me in the studio....At the end of the day, we’ll be able to see if I’ve done something you like.”

Keith agreed, and when the day was done, he had found the man who could achieve his vision.

“I like working with people who take an interest and have a real sense of feeling about a home, because that’s what they are – they’re homes, not just houses, to me. After I leave you are going to have many, many years in that home,” Jimmy says.

“Oftentimes people will ask ‘Do you like this or that?’ I’ll give functional information...but as far as aesthetics, that’s something personal,” he says. “So I try to bring that out in them, [saying] show me a place you like or show me a magazine article with a picture that you like so that I can see what is going to work.…And I’d like to know about the room – is it [an] Oriental rug, is it hardwood, is it antique furnishings, modern furnishings, is there a lot of drapery in the room, is it a cold or a warm room – all of that stuff comes into accenting the room in the proper way with the plaster.”

While it has branched largely into aesthetics in current American building, plastering is an ancient practice that evolved to protect, insulate, and sanitize early buildings. Evidence of the earliest plasterwork in India, China, and Jordan dates from nearly ten thousand years ago. “The pyramids were plastered,” Jimmy says, with a note of pride. “If you think about how beautiful the pyramids are as a structure, then imagine them covered with bright white plaster and imagine witnessing that on a full moon out in the middle of the desert. That, to me, is like ‘wow.’”

Limestone, a mineral in plaster, acts as a mold inhibitor, so early Europeans would plaster over their stone or wood walls to prevent mold and to make the walls easier to clean. “The indigenous people of Martha’s Vineyard used it as well,” Jimmy notes. “When they would [build a wetu], they would plaster it with clay-concentrate mud. It’s really traditional in that sense. Times have changed, but it’s the same concept: You’re making your house out of materials from the earth.”

Jimmy was attracted by this combination of the natural aspect of plaster and the hand-wrought artistry of the trade, but he moved into his field from a diverse building background that started in his early years, working for his father’s booming drywall businesses, first in Florida and then in Massachusetts.

“Ever since I can remember anything, I was on the job....I used to cover the nails and fill the nail holes with drywall compound, and I couldn’t reach over the four-foot Sheetrock unless I was standing on a milk crate or a bucket, and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t wait until I’m tall enough just to do all these,’” he says.

High school advanced his trades training: Jimmy was accepted into the industrial arts program at Marshfield High School, where he learned woodworking, metalwork, small engine mechanics, and welding – “a diverse education in what it took to build things.” And he’d work after school until eight or nine at night in the family business. After graduation Jimmy began doing drywall on the Cape and eventually moved over to Martha’s Vineyard and started his own drywall company.

“I got bored with what I could do,” Jimmy recalls of his drywall days. “I was doing large homes, and a lot of them had fancy work and curves, and the architecture started to change at the same time that the newest plaster methods were being introduced to the industry. That coincided with my interests, and I thought I want to learn how to plaster, but I can’t be hired because it wouldn’t be appropriate to say ‘I’ll try it and see if I can do it on your house.’”

As fate would have it, a friend approached Jimmy about going in on a house in upstate New York, which would become his first plastering project. With one house under his belt and back on the Island, Jimmy began offering plastering services for drywall prices, to compensate for his learning curve. And he refused to take more drywall jobs. “All of sudden I had no money and no work, but I kept saying ‘Nope, I’m not taking these jobs, I don’t care what anybody says.’ I took a pay cut for the first few years I was doing it, but I was learning a lot, and I hired friends of mine from the Cape who were also making the switch….We taught each other and really fine-tuned.”

The rest is history, told in the walls, domes, and moldings of houses around the Island and architecture in New York – a tradesperson who, from the start, wished he could reach higher, and pushed himself to new levels of mastery. A quote Jimmy found and shared captures his trade philosophy: “A man who works with his hands is a laborer. A man who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. A man who works with his hands, his head, and his heart is an artist.”

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