Academy Art Museum (AAM) is currently hosting an exhibition that challenges traditional notions of sculpture. Sebastian Martorana: Public/Private finds humanity – mostly in marble – and offers museum-goers a glimpse into the artist’s unique perspective.
The exhibit name is more than just a window into Martorana’s dual artistic focus. It also explains how most artists find an approach to their work. “There are those pieces that are inspired by public things, things outside of ourselves,” said Martorana, “and then artworks that are inspired by things that are really much more personal; individual things that are more home and family oriented.” The decision to showcase Martorana’s work in two individual yet interconnected gallery spaces at AAM reflects this dichotomy of an artist who is interested in the intricate nuances of the human condition and the sociopolitical realities of our lives.
In one gallery, you will encounter “Trumppet,” a provocative cartoonish bust in white marble mounted on cedar wood. Across the room, “Permanent Separation Anxiety” depicts a squished teddy bear carved from smudged, salvageable marble. Neither could be classified as huggable.
A lighter atmosphere will be found in the adjoining gallery with pieces such as “Baby Boots on the Ground” and “Work Mittens,” alongside busts of the “Friendly Ghost” and “Kermit” (the Muppet frog). The showstopper, “Yours, Mine, Ours,” is where the artist’s playfulness collides with precision – hyperrealistic marble bath towels hang on metal racks so convincingly, you almost want to reach out. Resist. However, touching (or sitting) is encouraged with “New Construction,” a marble-imitating-brick-imitating bench in the middle of the gallery floor.
Martorana passion for sculpting came about not through being inspired by other artists in his family – there were none – but through exposure to art books, museums, and images of Renaissance-era stone carvings. While growing up in Northern VA, his passion for art blossomed thanks to the Virginia Governor’s School Program, a publicly funded summer program. This was followed by a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration from Syracuse University, including a semester in Florence. He earned his Master of Fine Arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Rinehart School of Sculpture. Beyond creating commissioned architectural sculptures and more expressive personal works, he is an adjunct professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
And it is here that he passes on an important life lesson for those students who want to experience the success he has: “I tell them, being an artist is expensive. So, find a job that accentuates or subsidizes that interest instead of a completely separate job. It’s difficult if you are trying to make it as an artist and also have to work full-time in an office, grocery store, or coffee shop. Those are exhausting jobs and don’t necessarily have anything to do with your creative process. If you want to be a metal worker, a sculptor, a welder, or weaver or something like that, find a job that is in some way in that field.”
Martorana speaks from experience. After college, he became a full-time apprentice in a stone shop outside Washington, D.C. The immersive experience allowed him to master the technical aspects that enabled him to translate his creative vision into marble.
Much of Martorana’s stone carries a history of its own. Rather than faultless blocks from suppliers, the artist sources architectural salvage from Baltimore’s ‘perpetual cycle of construction and decay.’ “The stone has its own unique narrative,” he said, “another interesting layer, conceptually.” Using recycled material lends depth to his exploration of the public and private worlds. From this storied stone, Martorana creates an array of textures, examples of which can be seen at the AAM academy.
However, his artistic abilities extend beyond marble and include granite, limestone, slate, and sandstone. He admits that ‘”The type of stone I pick for a sculpture is sometimes defined by the stone itself.” Besides sculpture, he is also adept in wood carving, architectural design, and letter carving, the latter a skill that also sets him apart from others. “Easily 50% or more of my annual revenue,” he said, “is carving letters. There are a lot of carvers that only do letter carving but not sculpture; there are a lot of carvers that only do sculptural architectural work, not letter carving. But the lettering is just often what’s needed for a project. So I’ve done a lot of it. Besides, it’s a very demanding discipline. If you screw something up, it’s really obvious.” Martorana generally avoids using letters to define his artwork, although one of his lettered pieces is in the exhibition. “I’ve always wanted my work to be more global, universal, in the sense that anyone can look at them and hopefully draw something out of it. If I’m writing something in English, only English-speaking viewership will be able to understand what I’m doing.”
Clearly, there is no lack of understanding of the depth of Martorana’s portfolio. It includes significant projects for the U.S. Federal Reserve and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as well as exhibitions in galleries and museums. Notably, his sculpture, “Impressions,” was featured in the exhibition “40 Under 40: Craft Futures” at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum over a decade ago, when he was still in his 20s. The piece is now part of the Museum’s permanent collection. “To have any artwork in that collection in those buildings is certainly very, very surreal,” he said. “That show was an incredible experience and definitely opened opportunities.”
You can say that one of the doors it opened was the Academy Art Museum’s. But as pleased as they are to include his work, he is equally enthused about AAM. Their motto of ‘Where Art is for Everyone’ resonates strongly with him. “It’s really easy to say but a lot harder to do. In recent years, many museums have moved to this model. But it’s harder for a smaller private museum to have free entry for everyone all the time. I took it for granted to be able to go to D.C. and walk into places that were completely free. The Academy Museum is doing that same thing, and it’s a real rarity that I hope people appreciate and take advantage of because it’s just not as common as you think.”
So go check out Sebastian Martorana: Public/Private. See how Martorana infuses life into the cold and unyielding medium of marble. Don’t be surprised if what you ultimately find is a glimpse of humanity and the connections binding us. And if Martorana has ignited your artistic spark, then take advantage of another ember he’s giving you. As you leave the gallery, by the door, there is a paint bucket, ‘Free Samples,’ the sign says. Reach in, take home a piece of marble, and tell your own story.
Sebastian Martorana: Public/Private running through March 24, 2024, at Academy Art Museum, 106 South Street, Easton, Md. Admission is Free.