An Interview with Sculptor Sebastian Martorana with Photo Essay by Justin Tsucalas
It’s rare to find a contemporary sculptor skilled in the ancient craft of carving marble. It’s even more rare to find one in Baltimore. This is one of the reasons that Sebastian Martorana’s marble towels, which appear pliable enough to pass for the real thing, hang on the walls of the Walters Art Gallery in Rinehart’s Studio: Rough Stone to Living Marble. Despite living centuries apart, both sculptors followed similar paths in learning their craft and the exhibit is an opportunity to appreciate their similarities and differences, and to understand Rinehart’s legacy in Baltimore.
Although he is now based in Baltimore, Sebastian Martorana grew up in Manassas, VA and received his BFA in illustration from Syracuse University. He also studied sculpture in college and included a semester in Italy. After graduation, he became a full-time apprentice in a stone shop outside of Washington, D.C. before coming to Baltimore to earn his MFA at the MICA’s Rinehart School of Sculpture, founded by the estate of William Henry Rinehart.
As a professional sculptor, Martorana undertakes and directs commission stone carving, restoration, and design, as well as his own sculptural works. Many of his sculptures involve incorporating salvaged marble architectural elements from the city and re-incorporation them into individual and site-specific works.
Although he has just recently moved his studio to a new location, Martorana’s recent studio space was part of the stone shop at Hilgartner Natural Stone Company in downtown Baltimore. This is the backdrop for Justin Tsucalas’s photo essay presented.
Cara Ober: How and why did you start working with marble?
Sebastian Martorana: I always had an attraction to sculpture in general and stone sculpture in particular. I grew up in a well educated, but largely un-artsy family. I was the kid in the who showed an interest in art at a very early age, which meant that whenever birthdays or Xmas came around… guess who was getting art books..? Even though I’m sure I really wanted Legos and Gameboy games. But this was kind of before the internet, so I actually read those books—or at least looked at the pictures.
I obviously read the captions, because I understood the materials I was looking at and I was mesmerized by the virtuosity and implied dedication of the people who would make such intense and graceful forms out of such an unyielding material. I was a little kid, so I was familiar with rocks, so the idea that the sculptures I was seeing were made of basically the same things was intriguing to me, and a challenge. I knew that there was some thing beautiful about doing something that was hard–the more difficult the process, the more precious the product.
I’m sure I have my parents to thank for that. They definitely supported my interest in art art, but really pushed the academics—an “A” in remedial math didn’t mean much when you could really work for a “B” in AP Calculus BC. And I really had a lot of great opportunities in the public education system I grew up with in Northern Virginia. I was lucky enough to go the Virginia State Governor’s School for the Visual Arts and performing Arts one summer during high school. This is a public school program to which students from the entire state apply to in a specific discipline. If accepted the spend the summer at a University, in my case the University of Richmond, focusing on that discipline in an immersive way that they would not normally be able to during the school year. This was the first chance I had to strike a chisel with a hammer. My childhood dog had just died, so you can guess what I made… R.I.P., Sissy.
CO: Can you talk about your college experience and its impact (or lack thereof) on your sculpture?
SM: Later, during undergrad at Syracuse University, and I didn’t really jive with the sculpture department and I liked the project based nature of the illustration department, so that became my major. However, I took almost all of my electives in sculpture, and I studied abroad semester at SU’s Florence, Italy campus to focus on sculpture. This time studying language, history and art surrounded by some of the most tremendous works of sculpture ever made kind of broke my “illustration bone” at that moment—at least as far as my sole interest in painting went. I did continue on and graduate with a BFA in Illustration, and I still do illustration work occasionally. I have a deep love of the history of illustration and illustrators. The classes I currently teach at MICA are in the Illustration Department. However, during that time living in Italy, I had really decided that I wanted to be a stone sculptor.
CO: How does one learn to be a carver of marble in the 21st century?
SM: Since there really is no formal major or program specifically for stone sculpture in the states, the summer after I returned from Italy I got a job at a stone company near were I grew up. I spent all breaks during my senior year working there and became a fulltime apprentice when I graduated from Syracuse.
I wanted to learn how to carve stone like a professional stone carver, not just like a sculptor trying to figure it out. Only years later, when I felt like I had a proficiency in the craft of carving stone, did I return to school to focus on applying the ideas I had to the skills I had been trying to develop.
CO: How is working with marble different than other media you work with? How is the thinking process different and what do you like about it?
SM: Well—it’s certainly harder. And slower. There is a lot of pre planning involved. Generally, any stone sculpture requires a pretty significant investment of time, money, and effort. So you really want to be sure about something before you go banging away at several hundred or thousand dollars worth of art supplies. This is something I’ve been able to mitigate to some degree in doing work that deals specifically with salvaged materials. But there is still a great cost there, because just acquiring, moving and/or installing the things can add up. My most recent series based on work gloves is about as spontaneous as I get as a stone sculptor—in that I am literally grabbing gloves that I have in my studio and treating them like the subjects of three-dimensional still-lives. No planning, no measuring, just looking and reacting. It’s fun.
However, I do like the process of a long-game-sculpture as well. I still think of everything I do as illustration. I always trying to convey, or “illustrate” something. Particularly when I am working with clients on commissioned works, there is a great process of research, drafting, proposal, modeling and then carving. I really do like researching the ideas behind the works that I am making.
CO: What is the relevance of marble in today’s contemporary art world? Do you think it’s more relevant in a commercial environment?
SM: The honest and much shorter answer is: I don’t know.
Certainly it can be every bit as relevant as any other medium. Working in stone cuts both ways. Stone sculpture really resonates with some people and so there tends to be a strong response to it from those who are inclined that way. Unfortunately, those people aren’t always collectors or gallerists. Recognition of the work isn’t generally a problem because of the relative rarity of stone artwork. Objective/representational carving specifically is more rare still, so it does make it stand out from the crowd to some degree.
CO: What are the challenges in working in this medium?
SM: Some of the practical issues inherent in stone sculpture can make it difficult to deal with. Sculpture is a harder sell to begin with just because of the space commitment required to display it effectively. Stone sculpture adds the challenges of weight, fragility, the need to have either the artist or skilled art handlers manage installations, and longer time periods to produce each work. These issues can be enough of scare off some galleries or collectors.
CO: Also there’s an inherent ‘concept’ in the medium as well. How does that work?
SM: Unfortunately, there are certainly those who are unable to see past the material; they are unable or unwilling to look for the concept behind the piece as a whole. This is disappointing when it happens. Stone sculpture as a genre has a lot of “s,baggage.” Viewers, especially those with a background in the art will bring a lot of their own preconceptions to the table.
On the occasions that my work has received negative reviews or reactions, in almost every instance it seems to be the viewer’s reaction to the material. If a viewers feeling is that marble sculpture is, by its very nature, traditional, old school, conservative, or over-done, then they are just not going to be into it. That’s not something I can or should even try to remedy. So I don’t worry about it. Though I’ll admit that I find it frustrating when it happens. Truly, I think negative critiques can be the most helpful to an artist, but not if they are just dismissive because of one aspect of the work. That is not helping anyone out.
CO: Agreed. It seems like marble has such a rich history and those associations could be powerful.
SM: One can work with the historical/cultural context of their chosen material. Stone (because of its natural properties) has conceptual baggage, due to it’s traditional use for memorials, which themselves have a natural association with death. But I feel those that would associate stone with being passé or over done as a medium are short sighted. Why stone as opposed to any other medium? I mean, you’ve never heard someone walk into a contemporary art show and say, “Oh man—painting… that is sooooo, like, 32,000 years ago… *sigh* how Upper-Paleolithic… “
If a viewer or critic has a negatively prejudicial association with stonework, then they are not going to like my work. Period. That said I personally have had a lot of luck with finding work, collectors and venues to show my art. Far more than I ever had any right to expect. So I really shouldn’t complain. One working in stone doesn’t have to succumb to its loaded history, or even react to it necessarily, but one should be aware of it.
CO: Who are your favorite sculptors? Who has inspired you?
SM: Well… I’m not going to say Michelangelo (I’m really more of a Bernini-man), but as a genre, I’d admit that I am generally attracted to sculpture that has some quality of realism or technical skill to its creation. There are other contemporary stone sculptors out there doing spectacular work that inspire and push me, like Fabio Viale and Peter Glenn Oakley. I just had the honor of being in a show in New York with three other working stone sculptors, Barbara Segal, Stephen Shaheen and Alasdair Thomson. That was quite an experience. It was the first time I’d really been in a show with other stone sculptors. To see their work in person and talk shop with them was outstanding. I think that all artists working in a similar theme or material can push and help each other to be better.
Though I do love the work of other carvers, like wood carvers Paul Kaptein and Gerhard Demetz, my personal preferences are not just material or process based. An image on the cover of Hi-Fructose of Beth Cavener’s work basically punched me in the face from the art mag section of a book store. I felt it! Her work is gorgeous! And though I am in awe of hyperrealist sculptors like Ron Mueck, Jamie Solomon and Patricia Piccinini, I like their work because they are playing with our conception of reality in a way that is so much more than simply Trompe-l’œil. My work is often referred to as that (trompe-l’œil) and I never really think if it that way. If someone looks at a piece of my marble work and doesn’t realize that it is stone, then I have probably failed.
CO: What about locally?
SM: Honestly, I’m probably most inspired/influenced by other artists I’ve actually met here in Baltimore. Specifically, I met some great sculptors during my time at Rinehart. I was just in a show at UNC Ashville with Jackson Martin. I consider myself to be a pretty details-oriented guy—but Jackson really takes craftsmanship to a whole new level. And not just in one medium either. He is constantly exploring different material because they are an integral part of the concept of his work, and he just kills it every time.
David Paige, who was a guest critic, has a similar ability to work with a handful of materials and not just excel at their handling, but each time he does something with them that is not only aesthetically spectacular, but also works conceptually with its physical nature and history in a way that works in concert with our understanding of that material.
Also, seems like whenever I talk with Chris LaVoie he is doing something different. Sometimes he’s experimenting with a material or method that he has never even tried before. He is an excellent welder and metal worker, but often he is working with materials for upcoming shows that he is jus tackling for the first time. And that fact actually informs the work that he is making. Those guys are far braver than myself. I’m still focusing primarily on one particular medium. I think that I know stone pretty well, but I’m still trying to figure it out. Probably, hopefully, I never will.
CO: Can you talk about the sense of humor and irony in your work? For so much of history, marble is seen as a solemn, serious material – and here you are making cartoon busts of muppets and bath towels! Why do these subjects interest you? What are you trying to communicate through your work?
SM: You are absolutely right. Like I mentioned before, stone sculpture has a lot of “baggage.” Some people can see past it. But if you do some thing that shakes up the expectations of those kind of viewer for just a minute, you just might interrupt their preconceptions and, for a moment, they might just see past the material to the concept. This not to say that the material shouldn’t be considered, it definitely should. But just as a part of the whole, not the star.
The towels, for instance, may have an aspect of Trompe-l’œil, but that is not the intent. They are intended as more of a memorial to relationships. I’m trying to communicate my own thoughts on relationships. Like the stone itself, relationships can be hard, and require a lot of work, but they can be enduring and fragile at the same time. And they are worth the effort. Like the depiction of the towels, the individuals are often dissimilar, but they somehow come together to create something special between each other. So in a sense, yeah, it could be sort of humorous (it’s just our dirty laundry), but really it is just honest.
CO: And an opportunity for visual puns…
SM: Regarding trying to make humorous work in stone, much like the contrast of the softness of the towel’s terry texture rendered in rigid marble, something funny made in a way that is traditionally thought of as the opposite can make that thing seem even more funny.
And yeah, I hope that the Icon Series (Kermit the Frog, Super Mario, Lego Man, Sam the Eagle) is funny to people. Stone sculpture can be pretty heavy… heh—get it..? So it’s important to take a step back once in a while and do something that is just fun. I did this for the first time during my thesis work when I had done a series of pieces about death, war, loss, sacrifice and guilt and then realized that I was becoming kind of depressing myself. So I started doing sculptures of little tubs of ice cream. It was silly but fun. Not to say that sculptures about sad thing aren’t important—they are. And, to be sure, I will do more in the future. But, honestly, it is probably slightly easier to make a successful stone sculpture that is somber, than it is to make one that is funny. This is for two reasons: one, people are conditioned to naturally make the association between the material and death, loss or tragedy; two, really funny art work it harder to do well.
CO: Well there definitely is a deep history of marble as memorial or tomb stone… but it seems like a great tradition to work against or off of.
SM: It was truly it was the work of fellow grad student and current Baltimore-based sculptor, Seth Crawford that first made me realize that sculpture could be both good and funny at the same time. He made a sculpture, Dance Floor for One, which looks just like you’d think it would from the title, flashing lights and all. That piece that really changed the way I look at all sculpture. A portion of a more recent sculpture installation that Seth had in his solo show, Mumbo Jumbo at Gallery CA (featured in BmoreArt), looked like a kitchen mixer cozy made for a tombstone. This piece made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. It was simultaneously hysterical and heartbreaking. It didn’t so much straddle the line between emotions as much as grab it and twang it sharply and silently. I envy that ability. I like to think that I have done funny pieces and serious ones successfully, but I have never really hit those notes simultaneously the way Seth did.
CO: Your Icon series seems pretty close!
SM: I do think of the Icon series as being ironic. When looking at those art books as a kid, and throughout the rest of my life, when I saw images of marble busts I saw an awful lot of dead white dudes. Ostensibly, these sculptures were done out of some idea that these people were important, and someone probably paid quite a lot of money to have those busts made. And I think that is great; I’ve done just that kind of thing before, and I hope to do it again. However, I thought that if I was going to do a reverential bust under my own art direction, I would chose some figures that had personal significance to my own life.
So this led to the three initial subjects in the Icon Series: Kermit—my sense of conscience, my Jiminy Cricket. He doesn’t always make the right decision, but always acts with altruistic intentions. I have often thought: WWKD (What Would Kermit Do)? Super Mario—my inner confidence. You have no idea how unreasonably happy with myself I was when I finally beat Super Mario World. And Lego Man—probably the genesis of my inner sculptor. Legos, though additive, were one of the first ways my brain started thinking spatially. Love them.
So I thought, why not take the time to memorialize these subjects (which can never really die) in the manner that we as a society say that we are to memorialize those persons we deem to be of great institutional import? So I did. I had fun.
CO: Thanks for talking with me today! And congratulations on your show at The Walters.
Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt
All Photographs by Justin Tsucalas of Plaid Photography
Rinehart’s Studio: Rough Stone to Living Marble is on exhibition at The Walters through August 30, 2015.