Arts Accolade Artist Interview

Interview with an artist: Maria Saracino

Canadiana on exhibit  at the AOE Gallery: July 16 to Aug 17, 2015
Meet the artist: Sunday July 26, 2015


Artist Maria Saracino with her SÉLECTIONS 2014 People’s Choice winning sculpture entitled ‘Selfie’

Maria Saracino is an award winning figurative artist, born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario. Working as a graphic artist for 18 years, she honed her skills creating watercolour, acrylic and multi-media paintings as well as experimenting with textiles and sculpture. Maria discovered polymer clay in the mid 1990’s and the creative possibilities of figurative sculptures. During this time she has also developed a gift line that includes her limited edition Elves and Fairies as well as other unique seasonal items. Through her masterful use of polymer, resins and textiles, she is able to capture candid snapshots of life’s simple pleasures in her sculptures. She pulls the audience in by connecting with their own experiences. Maria’s original sculptures have been recognized by leading publications and have won several awards, been included in group and solo exhibits in Canada and the USA, and have been part of three museum exhibits in Canada.

Where does your passion for creating art and sculpture come from?

I always remember being fascinated with drawing and creating since I was a child. Actually, I can remember the actual moment when art became my passion – it was in grade one and the teacher asked us to draw what we had done during Spring Break. I drew my parents sitting on a picnic blanket along with my cousins and I playing on a hill in the background. I drew people smaller the further up the hill they were and I layered people throughout the drawing. I remember the teacher coming up from behind and making a big fuss over my drawing. That was the first time I heard the word “perspective”. From that moment, she labelled me the class artist. I was so proud and that label stuck right through high school. I don’t remember that teacher’s name, but I can picture her face. Perhaps one day we will connect and I can tell her she helped a shy little girl find her passion.

How did you discover polymer clay sculpture?

I have always drawn and painted, but I found it flat and I was continuously trying to find ways to create dimension. I worked in ceramics as well but for me, I was frustrated with the process especially with how it applied to the human form. In the mid 90’s my husband and I were burnt out from 18 years in the advertising business and we both wanted a change. I created some ceramic Father Christmas characters and won a spot in the Uniquely Ontario exhibit in Toronto and that propelled me into the designer gift market. In the meantime, someone introduced me to polymer clay. My first few pieces were very primitive, but I persisted. Lee Valley Tools saw me in a mall kiosk and asked me to create something for their Christmas catalogue, which they used in 1997. They gave me the transparencies which I submitted in a U.S. based international competition and won first place. I haven’t looked back since.

Did your previous career have an impact on your art?

Absolutely, I was a graphic designer and illustrator. Everything I did had to have balance. I’m obsessed with details. I also love the research behind what I’m doing. Even though the advertising industry is completely different today, I understand the importance of marketing yourself, entering competitions, showing your work and getting your name out there. The method may be different but the goals are the same.

Can you tell me more about your paintings? Do you still paint?

Yes, recently I painted a portrait of my grandchildren. My painting style can probably be referred to more as illustration. I’ve done some other work where I will use things from nature like tree branches to create dimension in the paintings, or I combine relief sculpture into the paintings.

Who inspires you?

I feel that I need my work to be human and realistic but in a light hearted and happy way. I want people to be able to relate their own experience to the sculpture and recognize that moment in time I have tried to capture. I love the hyper realistic work of Ron Mueck, like me, he uses clay and textiles, but his work tends to take a dark and depressed view of his subjects. I also love Joe Fafard’s work for his whimsy and portrayal of everyday life in the Prairies. But I relate the most to Norman Rockwell – his clean illustrative style tells a story. Whimsical, playful, funny, even when he explored serious topics you can still relate and recognize. His work is familiar to the audience and they can see themselves in the characters. Each one of his illustrations is so detailed so that every time you view it you will find something new. They feel like you are viewing a candid snapshot, a moment in time. This is what I strive for in my sculptures.

msaracino_6am Hockey Practice

6 a.m. Hockey Practice, Maria Saracino (2014) Polymer clay, textiles, wood and wire, 12 x 12 x 24”

What was your very first sculpture?

My very first sculpture was a primitive old world Santa with two children by his side. I had a braid of my hair that I had kept when I cut my hair short as a teenager and I used that to create the children’s hair. The coarseness of the hair was out of proportion with the size of the child. You would not recognize that piece as being from the same artist as my work today. But it’s been 20 years since I made that first piece.

How long does it take you to sculpt a piece?

I rarely start and finish one piece at a time. There are usually several pieces in various stages of completion, mostly because I like to step away several times during the process to re-evaluate and tweak or change things as I go along. An estimation would be 20 hours for a single character from start to finish. On average I make four to five compositions a month. Inspiration and energy comes in waves so there are weeks or months where I am spending 12-14 hours a day in my studio. Then there are other times where I average only 6 hours a day. A lot of time is also spent researching, looking for inspiring faces and mapping the composition.


Artist Maria Saracino in her studio.

Artist Maria Saracino in her studio.

Can you describe your process and practice?
I work every day, if I’m not sculpting I am creating patterns, sewing, creating wigs or hair pieces, sculpting shoes, looking online for a specific accessory and keeping up with the business side and social media. There are several ways and techniques for sculpting in polymer clay. The results vary from arts and crafts products to museum quality pieces. My method has developed over the last 20 years and through trial and error I have developed my own system. I like to create an armature base to the head and face in aluminum foil which has an expansion rate of less than 2%. This ensures I don’t get any cracks or fissures. How I condition my clay also minimizes the risk of air bubbles being trapped in the clay. Although I have done full body sculpts, I prefer to sculpt the body parts separately and assemble them after the clay has been cured. There is less chance of breakage this way. Once all the body parts are sculpted and detailed, I assemble and create the body armature. I cover this armature with a skin like fabric. Then it’s time for pattern making and sewing. The hands are the last thing that gets added and positioned. I usually let the piece sit overnight before signing my work just in case I make changes. I have this thing . . . Once I sign my work, no more changes can be made.

What do you want visitors to the AOE Gallery to experience at your show?

I like to work with themes. This exhibit is called Canadiana. I was part of a conversation about what it means to be Canadian, and certain images and situations came forward that are symbolic of our culture. In my research I found some great information about things that are Canadian or were initiated or developed here that few people might know about. These things are incorporated into the sculptures. Even quotes, like Pierre Burtons quote about how you can tell a real Canadian was the inspiration behind “Canoedelling”. A recent article in Readers Digest was the inspiration behind the reliefs of “Canadians of Influence”. I look at this collection with happiness and pride and am so pleased with the timing of the exhibit so close to Canada Day. More than anything, despite the political banter, I realize how fortunate we are as Canadians to live in this country.

Canoedelling Maria Saracino (2014) Polymer clay, textiles, wood and wire 24 x 11 x 6”

Canoedelling, Maria Saracino (2014) Polymer clay, textiles, wood and wire, 24 x 11 x 6”

How many exhibitions have you done?

I have been part of a three year exhibit called “Timeless Treasures” and a one year exhibit called “Presenza” at the Museum of History. I have been showcased in a Norman Rockwell exhibit in a Phoenix Arizona gallery.  I have also participated in several Ottawa group exhibits with Figure Works and the National Capital Network of Sculptors and recently had a very successful three week solo exhibit at the Orange Art Gallery.

Any advice for young emerging artists?
Persist and persevere. It’s not enough to have talent. Learn and understand the business side of things and put yourself out there.

More about the artist Maria Saracino