As a boy, Michael Martino remembers racing to the basement before attending school at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Kenosha, to see what his father, Palmer, was doing in his art studio. Most of the time, the elder Martino was using watercolors to capture glorious summer skies with thick and touchable clouds, autumn trees dazzling with fiery colors, or views of sunlit wooded paths before rushing off to work at SC Johnson in Racine.
“He was a full time commercial artist for Johnson Wax for 20 years doing label design, painting signs, designing floats for parades and whatever else needed to be done in the art department,” said Michael. “In his spare time, he sold artwork in a Racine restaurant, spent weekends lettering trucks in our driveway or going to art shows where he would show charcoal sketches. He always had things going on.”
In 1978, Palmer retired early to pursue his art career, but almost immediately, received a phone call to teach art briefly at Gateway Technical College after a teacher suffered a stroke. His plans to complete his art degree ended that day, as one week rolled into seven years before he stepped down for good.
Dad now checks on son’s work
At 90, it’s Palmer, still a member of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, who races to see what his 55-year-old son is creating in his La Crosse studio, and he couldn’t be more pleased.
“Mike has gone way beyond my commercial artwork, and I am impressed with all the things he has done,” he said. “Nothing has happened without divine guidance and the people who have opened doors for him.”
Today a successful bronze-commissioned sculptor and artist, Michael’s Catholic faith infuses his art as well as his daily life.
A recent sculpture titled “Inspiring Minds,” honoring the life of Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli, was dedicated last November at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill. A preacher, missionary and civic leader, in 1847 Fr. Mazzuchelli established a community of Dominican Sisters to help carry on his mission of preaching and teaching. Before he died in 1864, in Benton, in the Madison Diocese, he designed and built more than 20 churches, established parish communities and schools in more than 30 places.
The statue features three figures – Fr. Mazzuchelli, a Sinsinawa Dominican sister and a student – and a telescope.
“He was very interested in science and loved the outdoors and used a telescope to study the stars,” said Michael. “I designed this as I imagined him discussing the cosmos and relating it to God’s creations, and designed the sister in her habit – disciplined and focused on him and his presentation. She symbolizes his loving self-discipline and in the grass is a young student girl looking up at the stars. I had the idea that she was inspired and daydreaming about the cosmic feelings and Father’s passion for the stars and God.”
The design, which took more than a year to complete, held its roots in a simple ball of clay, similar to one from Michael’s childhood. While other children would play board games, watch television or read comic books, the youngster entertained himself by creating animals with clay, often looking to National Geographic magazine for ideas.
“Most of my life I have played with clay,” he admitted. “Literally, in kindergarten, I had a non-hardening plasticizing clay and made animals. I remember Br. Neil from Holy Rosary School who was very encouraging of my figures. When my aunt babysat me, she would set me down with a ball of clay and I was good for hours.”
His love for art carried on to high school where Michael took classes in ceramics. In 1977, he graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in sculpture from UW-Milwaukee. He married his wife Phyllis, a watercolorist, in 1988, and they have two sons, Tony, 19, and Nick, 18. While they are members of Holy Trinity Parish, Michael’s family attends Mass at the Newman Center to make the experience more relevant for their college-aged sons.
From painting signs to sculpting
For 20 years, Michael worked as a sign painter before branching out on his own as a full-time sculptor and artist.
“I wanted to do this as a career, but didn’t know how to make a living doing it,” he said. “But I loved to work with clay and hand carve wood, draw and paint and that turned into a career and got me from sitting behind a computer doing graphic art and being more hands on.”
Many of Michael’s designs are historical pieces and their existence borders on the “miraculous,” according to Palmer, who explains that much of his son’s commissioned work stems from divine intervention.
“He did this Lincoln statue for Carthage College in Kenosha and Lincoln was on the board of directors there in 1888,” explained Palmer. “He also did a sculpture of John Hay, a Carthage alumnus who later served as President Lincoln’s personal secretary and then became the U.S Secretary of State. Then a woman who serves on the board of directors at Carthage and owns the Chicago Water Taxis helped to get him commissioned to do the Navy Pier statue of the Captain of the Helm. If it weren’t for her, he wouldn’t have had a chance to do this. He has had one lucky break after another and people have gone out of their way to make it happen.”
Snow sculpting is hobby
Additionally, a passion and hobby for Michael is snow sculpting; he and teammates Tom Queoff and Mike Sponholtz have completed more than 100 sculptures around the world. The team took first place last winter at the national competition in Lake Geneva, and earned first place in 1997, and a bronze medal in Nagano, Japan for sculpting at the Winter Arts Festival the next year, which led to yet another honor, according to Palmer.
“He met this guy at the competition who owned these ski resorts in New Zealand and was able to spend two weeks there sculpting,” he said. “His career is filled with miracles like this.”
One of Michael’s dreams is to bring a religious snow-carving event to La Crosse. A few years ago, he sculpted an angel out of snow at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe to show staff what could be created.
“I think they liked it and I did plan to do a decade of the rosary with the kids from a Catholic youth group, but the weather wasn’t conducive to it,” he said. “Since that time, I got really busy, but I would like to get people doing snow sculptures with religious themes and maybe have a pathway to the church with luminaries in between.”
Through prayer, Michael has developed a mission of sorts for his artistic future, and is trying to live up to that goal.
“I want to be an excellent artist doing Christian themes in the best way that I can,” he said. “I do historical pieces, but I really enjoy doing religious art. In my spare time I do some woodcarvings for myself that express my own spiritual searching.”
Father is unofficial agent
While Palmer insists that it is divine guidance or the influence of others that has helped his son become a successful sculptor, Michael gives much of the credit to his mentor and father, who has become his unofficial agent.
“He has always been so supportive of everyone and if someone needs a job, my dad tries to make a connection by talking to everyone. And at 90, he acts as my agent, giving out my business cards and talking to people about my work,” said Michael, adding, “Sometimes he hits on someone who needs a project. He is very active and besides trying to help me build my business, will send me articles that he thinks will be relevant or interesting to us. He is a wonderful role model.”