by Sandra Marshall
Maria Saracino is a bold and energetic artist. She is community-minded and generous, brimming with project ideas. Her artistic accomplishments are many and inspiring. She is also a calm but energizing teacher of her craft. Her abilities as a character sculptor are admired everywhere that it is on display and her work is in high demand.
Maria was born in Ottawa of an Italian immigrant family, one of the first to reside in The Glebe. In 1962 she started kindergarten although she did not yet speak English. She was shy and introverted- even self-conscious of her dark hair among so many blondes and redheads. But Grade One was a blossoming for her, when her teacher became enthralled by Maria’s drawing of a family picnic- astounded by the fact that Maria’s people were drawn in perspective with the children growing progressively smaller the further away they were in the scene. This was a life-changing moment for Maria as her teacher admired her work and invited others to acknowledge it. She was no longer invisible and became known as the class artist, the go-to person for classroom art projects, an identity that followed her into high school.
She dreamed of becoming an artist, but her parents saw little value there for her. For her immigrant parents, life was about survival and an artist’s life didn’t make sense to them. As a result, she went to Carleton University with a major in Political Science, which was not a good fit for her. The only course that she truly enjoyed was Art History. One other bright spot was that Maria met her husband Leo there and because of him, she found herself working as an artist. In marketing and sales, he found her a few jobs designing and creating illustrations for restaurant menus, then ads for the travel and bridal market. Although she had no formal training, she had the gift of visualisation. Maria took classes and workshops whenever she could and began to work closely with the graphics department of the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. She learned typesetting with a darkroom wet processor and was hand-drawing the graphics before technology changed the industry.
After 18 years in the advertising business, both Maria and Leo were burned out. Technology had exploded and they had to decide whether to invest in new equipment and training or move on to a second career. Leo made a lateral move in sales but encouraged Maria to follow her dream of becoming a full-time artist. This was about the time that she first discovered polymer clay. In 1995 polymer clay was relatively new as an art medium. Over the years, Maria had taken painting and drawing courses, print making and even dabbled in some pottery, but discovering polymer was an ah-ha moment for her. The 3-dimensional aspect of creating figures enthralled her and allowed her to incorporate some of her other passions such as sewing fabrics. Another plus was that her techniques did not require any expensive equipment.
Some of Maria’s first pieces seem somewhat primitive to her, but soon her work improved to the point that people started to notice it. Her first big breakthrough was a special piece for the cover of Lee Valley Tools. That piece also won an American competition One of a Kind Classic. Maria was creating Doll Art at that time and subsequently won a DOTY, Doll Of The Year award which was like the Oscars of the Doll world. This award changed her career direction and led to the creation of limited editions for the seasonal Christmas market. This 10-year period was lucrative but also very stressful and required lots of travel, competitiveness and the legal battles of copyright theft. After 10 years, the fun had disappeared and once again Maria found herself burned out. At this point she took a few years off to regroup and rethink what she wanted to do.
What she recognized was that she feels best when creating – it gives her pleasure, satisfaction and sense of purpose. At that point she pivoted from doll artist to figurative artist. She wanted acceptance as a fine artist in the medium of polymer clay that was traditionally seen as a craft rather than an art form.
Maria has worked in watercolours, acrylics, portraiture, pen and ink -almost everything! But probably if she was not doing what she is now, her other passion is fashion design and sewing. She creates her own patterns and sews all the clothes and bodies of her character sculptures.
The Figureworks art show in 2013 was a pivotal moment for her. Winning 1st place in this competition opened the doors to representation by the Orange Art Gallery as well as other galleries over the years. “For me, this was the moment I stepped out of the craft and doll world into the fine art world.”
Her process in developing her expressive Norman Rockwell-esque characters starts with sculpting the head and face. From that Maria scales the character’s body proportions. The body is constructed of wood, wire and fabric. A two way stretch fabric is the final skin which she can augment and contour for the final shape. Next, she creates the costumes and hair. Finally, the hands and feet are sculpted and set in the appropriate position. During the body construction, if any props or a setting needs to be created, she starts this process as well and uses it to position the figure.
Her favourite part of the process is sculpting the head and face. “I try to capture an emotion or a sense of the moment in time. “ Sometimes it’s the tilt of the head or the position of the eyes. Subtle little details can make such a difference in the final work and the reaction by the audience. Her least favorite part is sculpting feet and shoes, for no reason other than it is tedious work and by that point she is anxious to see the piece finished.
Maria has always loved the work of American illustrator, Norman Rockwell and Quebec painter, John Der. They capture moments in time, like snapshots in your mind. Serious moments, humorous moments, everyday moments that evoke a sense of familiarity and nostalgia. “I hope to capture in sculpture what they did through their illustrations and paintings.”
Maria often works in series with a topic that appeals or interests her. Fathers and their children, Moments in Time, Seniors, Hockey, Circus Pieces, Drag Queens are just a few that she has explored. She enjoys portraiture and continues to take commissions for that work. It’s a little more stressful to her, but very satisfying especially when she receives an emotional response from the client.
Maria has other interests too. She teaches sculpting in polymer clay both at the Orange Art School, in-studio and online. But now with Covid19 she has more involved in creating online workshops. She is also teaching two new workshops in an international online conference called Art Connection Summit. You can learn more about it at www.artconnection.gallery or on her blog www.mariasaracino.com
As she has done, Maria believes you should follow your passion. Take as many classes or workshops as you can. Learn what other artists have to offer and from that, develop your own style. Never stop learning and developing. Put the hours and the work in and just keep creating art. Don’t get attached to your work, your new favorite piece will be the next thing you work on. Also, don’t wait for someone to notice you – develop a thick skin and keep putting your work out there, there’s room for everyone.
And last but not least, Maria Saracino is president of the National Capital Network of Sculptors and is helping to guide this diverse group of sculptors through the year of COVID19! You can see more of Maria’s work at
or check out the National Capital Network of Sculptors Online Gallery at https://sculptureottawa.ca/online-gallery-2/