Baltimore sculptor aims to rescue marble steps

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Sebastian Martorana is a stoop storyteller in the finest tradition of Baltimore's stoop storytellers.

The sculptor, a transplant to the city who recognized immediately the cultural meaning of rowhouse marble steps, tells the story of trying to rescue many of those steps from demolition.

"These steps are a savable part of Baltimore history," said Martorana, whose work has been chosen for display in the prestigious "40 under 40: Craft Futures" at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington that opened Friday.

"Did you ever see a woman scrubbing concrete steps?" asks the 31-year-old sculptor. "Did you ever see anyone care as much for their marble steps as Baltimore cares for its?"

His reverence for Baltimore's tradition of marble front steps can be seen in the work chosen for the exhibition — the piece is carved from a marble landing he rescued from a pile of building debris in Druid Hill Park.

In some area of the city, steps are disappearing, block by block, as redevelopment projects move forward and builders replace the marble with concrete, Martorana said. Martorana has been trying to rescue them but for the most part has encountered frustration. He has petitioned developers, looped in city housing officials and gone to community meetings. Put the steps back on the new buildings, he said. Or leave them, and I will take them.

"I emailed. I wrote letters. I went to community meetings. I did all the things a concerned citizen should do," said the defiant sculptor.

One of the demolition contractors promised in an email to Martorana this spring that the steps were being saved from a project in Barclay. But he doesn't know where they are. He has seen broken remains at redevelopment sites but says he was warned by officials at another contracting company that if he tried to salvage them, he would be prosecuted for theft.

"Each stair weighs about 800 pounds. I don't want to put my friends at risk, but there are only so many steps a guy like me can steal," he said, admitting to making a couple of nighttime runs with his pickup truck.

Reached Friday, a project manager from one of the contracting firms he corresponded with, Telesis, sounded an optimistic note about saving the marble. (See sidebar, "Another step.") Attempts to reach officials from P&J Contracting, another demolition firm he attempted to negotiate with, were unsuccessful.

The city's polished marble steps, as much a part of Baltimore as crabs and Natty Boh, are being replaced in some quarters with cinder blocks and concrete. The sculptor points to examples outside the South Baltimore stonecutter shop where he works.

Baltimore's steps generally came from quarries in Baltimore County. Most of the marble for the Washington Monument in D.C. came from those quarries, too.

Marble was actually cheaper than concrete 100 years ago, Martorana said, so it made sense to use it.

"It is inherently better sitting on marble than it is on concrete. It gives back the heat of the sun," said Martorana, who has a set of these steps outside his rowhouse in Station North, off North Avenue. He sits there on plenty of evenings, watching the children play and talking to neighbors. He plans to watch his own child, due later this summer, from those steps.

"I understand it is cheaper to rebuild [houses] than to renovate," he said. "But [saving the steps and putting them back on the houses] would be a way to keep the character of the neighborhood, a way to preserve a portion of it. I just kept saying, 'You can do this! We can do this!' It is just sad that it isn't being done."

It is an irony that part of what Martorana is asked to do for Hilgartner Natural Stone Co. is to restore marble steps. Though most of his time is spent restoring statuary and cornices for churches, cemeteries or old buildings, Martorana has used some of the rescued marble steps to pay tribute to his adopted city.

"White Plastic Bag Memorial," a piece commissioned for Artscape in 2008 and executed in marble from a Baltimore step, looks for all the world like a plastic bag, caught on a rusting piece of rebar and blowing in the wind. He calls it "Baltimore's flag," and it is carved from a marble step, and is so realistic that you swear you could snatch it off (and recycle it) without a second thought.

For the Renwick show, curator Nicholas Bell chose a deeply personal piece by Martorana. He carved the marble landing he found in Druid Hill Park to resemble a bed pillow, with the impression of a sleeping head still visible. Called "Impressions," it is a tribute to his father-in-law, whom he helped to care for in his last days.

"It's critical when looking at craft not only to consider those quietly working in their studios, but also the craftsman on the street whose hands shape our everyday world," said Bell. "The fact that he goes home at night to turn abandoned rowhouse stoops into these striking sculptures is a bonus — another remarkable layer in this young man's work and a boon for Baltimore."

After graduating from Syracuse University, where he focused on illustration, Martorana had what might best be called a conversion experience while studying in Italy, and he switched to sculpture.

"I feel like I am still an illustrator," the Virginia native said, "I am just doing it in three dimensions."

He went on to earn a master's degree in sculpture from the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he still teaches.

Martorana works on his own projects in the back corner of Hilgartner Natural Stone, surrounded by enormous machines and workmen cutting huge slabs of stone with wet saws. It is a successful symbiosis. He does the artistic restoration the company is asked to do, and there are machines and manpower for his own projects that he would never have on his own.

His is a dusty world, covered in white. Around him is the statuary he helps repair. Angels and saints are ghostly clients, waiting for him to restore a hand or a crucifix broken in a storm. Outside in the summer heat, pieces of stone are stacked everywhere, upright, like plates in a dish drainer. You can find the steps he has rescued out there, too.

At this moment, he is finishing his latest creative project. He is carving a portion of one of the marble steps he rescued. He is shaping it into a concrete block — the dreaded replacement material of his beloved steps.

"Once they are gone, the city will never get them back."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

Sebastian Martorana

Sebastian Martorana, a sculptor and illustrator, grew up in Manassas, Va., and received his BFA in illustration from Syracuse University. He also studied sculpture there and during a semester in Italy. After graduating, he became a full-time apprentice in a stone shop outside Washington restoring memorials before coming to Baltimore to earn his MFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Rinehart School of Sculpture.

Martorana founded Atlantic Custom Carving LLC. His current studio is part of the stonecutter shop at Hilgartner Natural Stone Co. in South Baltimore, where he works on commission carving and restoring stone, as well as his own sculptures. He is also an adjunct professor in the Illustration department at MICA.

If you go

"40 under 40: Craft Futures" features 40 artists born since 1972, the year the host gallery established its decorative arts program, and offers examples of the evolving notion of "craft" within traditional media, such as ceramics and metalwork, sculpture, industrial design, installation art, fashion and even mathematics. The exhibit is open through Feb. 3 at Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street N.W. Admission is free. For details, go to americanart.si.edu/renwick/

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