Steady tapping breaks the lunchtime stillness at Hilgartner Natural Stone Company.
Sebastian Martorana, a 33-year-old stone carver, chips away at a marble block using a miniature hammer and chisel he made for the job. His studio occupies a corner of this 150-year-old shop of installers, restorers and carvers located in a fast-disappearing industrial section of Baltimore’s Federal Hill.
White flecks fly. Like fallen snow, they merge with the layer of stone dust covering nearly every surface. Minus industrial equipment, this traditional workshop might have been transported from ancient Greece or Rome. Instead of some allegorical figure, however, Martorana applies his considerable skills to depicting an everyday object—his own work glove. It’s the second in a series.
“The first was a self-portrait,” explains Martorana, whose gentle manner, sturdy frame and practical work clothes suggest a modest self-image. Yet confidence and courage are required to sculpt stone in the grand tradition. Over the hundreds of hours it often takes to reshape the stone, there’s no going back. As the rough-hewn form emerges from a solid block, a sense of monumentality also takes shape in this three-dimensional still life portraying the hand of the artist.
“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” says Martorana, who studied art history and sculpture for a year in Florence, Italy. “I love Bernini’s work,” he adds, referring to the Baroque master. “But I’m not going to try to sculpt Apollo and Daphne. Anything I do is contemporary.”
His virtuoso sculptures pay lasting tribute to the currents of modern life. In his droll Icon series, the artist drapes pop-culture figures like Lego Man and Muppet Sam the Eagle in Greco-Roman garb. “I wanted to do figures that are part of our collective consciousness,” he observes, while noting, “Legos were probably the genesis of [my] becoming a sculptor—that and play dough.”
Impressions meticulously conveys the softness of a pillow in marble. It records the artist’s final memory of his deceased father-in-law—the place where his head last rested. Now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection, the piece was part of the Renwick Gallery’s 2012 landmark exhibition of new craft directions by 40 artists under age 40.
Martorana, who majored in illustration at Syracuse University, explains: “I’m trying to illustrate in three dimensions,” a practice he says dates back to the ancient world. “They were literally telling stories in the media of that time. They didn’t have comic books; they had stone sculpture.” He now teaches illustration at Maryland Institute College of Art’s Rinehart School of Sculpture in Baltimore, where he received an MFA degree.
Between college and graduate school, the aspiring sculptor apprenticed for four years at Manassas Granite & Marble, in the Virginia town where he grew up. “I wanted to learn how to use the material like a professional stone carver, so the craft side would be second nature,” he recalls.
As a graduate student, Martorana found a job at Hilgartner, where he continues to balance commercial and art works. Collaborating with other skilled stone workers, he has hand-carved thousands of letters on slate at Johns Hopkins University and on a limestone base for Winston Churchill’s statue in the U.S. Capitol; restored exterior stone at The Phillips Collection; and spearheaded the dimensional layout and carving for a grand spiral staircase at Polo Ralph Lauren’s flagship store in Greenwich, Connecticut.
At Hilgartner, the sculptor has access to a huge forklift, cranes, a bridge saw—and extra manpower. These come in handy when he moves or cuts heavy blocks of stone, like the 600-pound marble stair steps he has salvaged from demolition sites around Baltimore. For a public art project last summer, Martorana repurposed several as outdoor chess tables and benches, then returned them to the Barclay neighborhood from which they’d been reclaimed. The sculptor is pleased with this turnaround. “It’s the same use the steps had before: a place to get together, hang out and talk. It’s the history of chess and checkerboards too,” he points out. “Accessible and free, 100 percent of the time.”
Most of Baltimore’s renowned front stoops were made of Beaver Dam marble from quarries, now closed, in Cockeysville, Maryland. “It’s unique to the area. You can’t get it anymore,” the sculptor says of the white marble, which was also used on the Washington Monument. “It can be very hard, a real bear to carve.” Pausing for a moment, he considers, “There’s something beautiful in trying to do something hard, and trying to do it gracefully.”
Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Sebastian Martorana’s sculpture can be seen in “Rinehart’s Studio: Rough Stone to Living Marble” at The Walters Art Museum (thewalters.org) March 29 through August 30, and “Hand/Made” at MICA (fyi.mica.edu) through March 15. For more information, visit sebastian works.com. For sales and studio visits, email Debrah Dunner at email@example.com.