The Quest for Mrs. Claus by Dawn Deme

It is my pleasure to introduce my guest writer, Dawn Deme, leader, editor and video producer at Villagers Media Productions in Toronto.

On October 30,  2018, I found myself sitting in the Ottawa studio of Maria Saracino, working, at long-last, on a commission to create Mother Christmas, an artistic and visual partner to Santa, the one that has sat on my Yule time mantle for the past 21 years.

It was lovely in the early hours of meeting Maria to encounter an artist/ kindred spirit, complete with a magical wonder-filled studio,  almost what one imagines Santa’s workshop to be like. In Maria’s case, it is clear that amongst many beloved subjects, she has a special heart for visages of earned wisdom. AKA old people whose excellent lives have marked them with a strange wrinkled beauty and power.

Exactly why we love Santa.

And Maria’s studio, along with her recent book (The History of Father Christmas), dazzle with new original-by-Maria imagery and new insight into this ancient man of empathy and action.

So why do we need a Mother Christmas?

Father Christmas, all by himself, has been more than enough to bring annual winter joy and wonder to billions, and over centuries. He did start out as Bishop Nicholas of Myra (270-343 AD) and therefore, as a celibate Catholic priest, would not have had a wife.

As I looked around at all the beauty of Maria’s creations, I nevertheless felt more than a little foolish. It would take me weeks to confess this expedition to friends and family. Why this obsession? Why go to so much trouble?

It all began 21 years ago, November, 1997. My husband Steven and I, video and TV producers, had just moved into our new (and present) home-with-studio. We wandered into the annual Toronto One-of-a- Kind show and there, promptly, met artist Jan Nicholson of Port Stanley, the now-retired creator of heirloom Santa dolls. One Santa jumped out at us and home he came, to preside over the mantle every Christmas since. He was our talisman of new beginnings. At the end of that first Christmas, and from then on, we tucked little messages (highlights of this Christmas, hopes and dreams for the coming year) into his red suit lining before packing him away for another year. Father Santa has been at the core of our Christmas psyche all this time.

And from the beginning, this niggling question: should there be a Mrs.?

“We will be back to commission Mother Christmas,” we said to Jan Nicholson in 1997. But, by the time we resurfaced, Jan was retired and politely told us we will have to look elsewhere.

Our video production company specializes in social justice and world religion history; projects that often take us into the creative underground for years at a time. Only at Christmas do we park our work and have time to think about something else. Like: who is Mother Christmas? I am a born researcher and over the years found myself more and more compelled by the research highways and byways of my question.

How Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus is one big story. Soon one is reading about how, despite the early Church’s determination to erase all traces of pre-Christian beliefs and gods and goddesses, Santa’s characteristics, by the 1300s, included  several mystical attributes of the ancient gods: in particular, being all-knowing, able to fly, and go down chimneys. In other words, in mythic mind, we need Santa and we change him according to how this need changes, often including reclaiming the very ancient capacities of the pre-Christian gods. Especially the science and art of gift-giving. Gifts, according to the old ways, are best-given anonymously, invisibly, silently, without expectation of reward or return. Gift giving must also be specific to the recipient. Just what they need, what they are ready for.

Nicholas, the story goes, worried about the fate of three young sisters too poor to have dowries and therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Bishop Nicholas took portions of his own inheritance and turned them into balls of gold (precursors of the little globes of glass and metal we hang on our Christmas trees today) and, late at night, threw them through the family’s windows, thus saving the day for the three sisters. There are many stories about Nicholas and his determinations to see need and intervene, quietly, without fanfare.

Over the years, I found a few artists who specialize in creating heirloom Santas and sometimes Mrs. Santa. But Mrs. Santa was never right. She would be the happy (and usually very young), fat peasant serving cookies. Or, like the Empress of ancient Russia, dressed in jewels and ermine. Or she would look too placid or too smug or just too subordinate.

I discovered there are old traditions about Mrs. Christmas, also originating in pre-Christianity, like that of Nicholas, and amalgamating with the beliefs of the new religion. Old traditions that are still alive today. About women of spirit who did good, knew how to fly and go down chimneys. These antecedents crept into Christian culture and showed up with similar stories and differing names.  Befana in Italy. Babushka in Russia. Lucia in Sweden, Holda, Germany. Perchta, Austria.

Befana in Italy is one of these stories. According to legend, she was an old woman in the time of Jesus’ birth. She turns Joseph and pregnant Mary away from her pristine Inn, thinking the imminent birth would be too messy. Then, the three men of the desert, the wise men carrying gifts, come by, informing her of her mistake. Befana (shortening of Epiphany which means encountering the Divine, celebrated by Christians on January 6)  goes perpetually and fruitlessly on her flying broom in search of the Baby Jesus, treating well-behaved children wherever she goes. She was a Rome-based Christmas legend until, thanks to the bombastic determinations of one Benito Mussolini, leader of Italy’s Fascist Party (1922-43), she became the famous replacement for Santa Claus throughout Italy. Mussolini outlawed Santa as too American and elevated Befana into a national Mother Christmas. Today, utterly removed from relations to her erstwhile fascist promoter, Befana, the Christmas Witch, remains more important than Santa to Italians all over the world.

What then should Mother Christmas be for me? In late October 2018, I was guided to the website of Maria Saracino. Two things came together all at once. Her array of Santas were dazzling, filled with artistry and sensitivity. But it was her visualization of Canadian Catholic Saint Marguerite d’Youville that stopped me in my tracks. Maria had been asked by the Marguerite d’Youvile Elementary Catholic School in Ottawa to create a wall mural that would meld her own artistry with that of all the students in the school.  The installation would include hundreds of painted Marguerite-related symbols produced by the school’s children and under Maria’s tutelage. At the centre is Maria’s three-dimensional portrait of Saint Marguerite.

Marguerite’s face simply blew me away. This is her! This is what I am looking for.

I wrote Maria on a Sunday afternoon, October 28,  and said I would like to meet her. She offered October 30 plus several dates over the month of November. Only October 30 was free for me. That would be in be two days! I think we were both a little unnerved.

My thoughts about Mother Christmas, icon of feminine compassion, companion to Father Christmas, and developing in my mind over two decades, had suddenly crystallized, thanks to Maria’s Marguerite. And they continue. Perhaps you have read the Wikipedia  on Marguerite. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie-Marguerite_d%27Youville                  Note Pope John XXIII called her “Mother of Universal Charity.” AKA Mother Christmas?Much I did not know is included in this Wiki piece, including her marriage to a no-doubt-sexy bootlegger! ​But, I did know about her early days as a young widow, founding an organization of women to take care of the poor, especially children and women, eventually starting one hospital,  and then, as her community (known alternately as Sisters of Charity and the Grey Sisters) continued, founding  hundreds of hospitals and schools all over North America.

Over my lifetime, I have thought a lot about religious women founders, especially in Canada. We have produced many hours of these histories and current initiatives for TV.  Few know that, without the efforts of these women, we might never have achieved the level of health care and education for all we have today. I call it Organized Compassion. In this post-modern era, ​ the term Organized Religion can produce many a frown. Not so with our nuns, our founders of organized compassion. And we mourn their loss as their final generations are now disappearing, along with their visible presence of social caring.

Perhaps you have heard of Youville Centre for pregnant teens  in the Sandy Hill area of Ottawa (http://www.youvillecentre.org/​), ​ founded by  ​B​etty Kinsellla, Grey Sister (she passed away last summer). My company had an opportunity to film her and her new center many years ago. Never forgot her.​​

Now I can imagine a new installation from Maria Saracino that again salutes Marguerite, this magnificent woman of compassion. This one would include contributions from all the young mothers who have successfully begun their families at Youville Centre under Marguerite’s heavenly gaze?​

Also a long time ago, in another life, I produced a significant magazine article on Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, each place setting representing an important woman in history. Can you imagine a Mother Christmas dinner party, representing great women of compassion and courage? Marguerite would be there. Many religious women founders would be.

And so my story ends and also continues. Maria’s Mother Christmas arrived here a few days ago and now resides on the Christmas mantle until at least Valentine’s Day.  We have at last found her. And, in Maria, an artistic soulmate.

Take a look. Her Mother Christmas is magnificent. Everything we had wished for.

Santa needed her to be there. We all do.

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Posted in Art, Art Awards, Art Dolls, art exhibits, Art shows, Artists, Christmas Elf, Marguerite D'Youville, Mother Christmas, Mrs. Claus, sculpture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Studio News

Here’s something new from my studio . . . 15 very special little Elves.
I’ve hand-sculpted the face of each one-of-a-kind Elf. They are dressed in dark green striped leggings and t-shirt and green suede shorts, overalls, skirt or tunic. Their outfits are finished with a beautiful embroidered trim. Their little red velvet hats are trimmed with recycled fur and a vintage brass bell.

This collection is a collaboration with Denis Bastien who is the owner, designer and “Dad” of the Leeann Doll. http://www.leeann.ca

Denis has allowed me to use the vinyl ball-jointed doll bodies he designed, to create this series of elves. The collection is a test for the possible introduction of a new artist’s limited-edition series in the future. The ball-jointed bodies allow for a full range of realistic movement; head, wrist and feet turns and tilts, even torso turns. Each little Elf is $75.

The collection will be available at the Wall Candy Art Expo on Thursday, November 8th or by getting in touch with me via email at maria@saracino.ca

Posted in Art, Art Awards, Art Dolls, art exhibits, Art shows, Artists, Christmas, Christmas Elf, Elf, Elves, Figurative Art, Maria Saracino, Orange Art Gallery, ottawa, Ottawa 150, polymer clay, Santa's Elf, sculpey, Sculpting Workshops, Uncategorized, Workshops, Workshops | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

October Magic

I love October. The weather has cooled down but it’s not too cold – just perfect sweater weather. Even though the days are getting shorter, the vibrant colours of fall are in full development and it feels like everything and everyone is busy getting ready for something. There’s is a lot to be thankful for in October. For me, my studio is a disaster of activity – but all in a positive way. Being an artist is often a vulnerable path, but I’m very grateful that I am able to pursue my creative passion and share it with you.

IMG_2785I can’t talk about October without talking about Halloween. It’s right up there with Christmas as one of my favourite holidays. This is the month I get to show you my sculpted witches – but not the ghoulish horror movie witches. My witches are  kindred spirits, intuitive witches that many women can relate to. They represent nurturing, the healing power and spirituality in women. Mature, experienced, but beware, when needed, strong, intimidating and defiant.

I get a lot of questions about my sculpting techniques, especially with more realistic faces like the witches. Although I IMG_2768like and use Super Sculpey quite a bit, when I sculpt more realistic faces like the witches I usually use Living Doll. Both polymer clay products are made by Polyform Products and are similar in many ways, but it’s the differences in the products that makes more realistic sculpting techniques work better for me. For example, Living Doll is a little firmer so it holds it’s shape better and doesn’t soften and distort while I’m sculpting and holding it in my hand for longer periods of time. It also holds up to the pressure I use pouncing and dragging my tools across the surface of the face creating fewer little pillings. The other important difference is that with Living Doll you get fewer, or no “white moons”, a problem most polymer clay artists struggle with. White moons are little white spots or IMG_2781lines that show up in baked clay, especially the flesh tones. Caused by trapped air or moisture that you may have inadvertently introduced in the kneading and conditioning process, or even from the humidity and moisture in the air. Living Doll also comes in a range of skin colours which gives me a choice of base skin tones to start with and when I add colour to the wet clay, the colour doesn’t drag and collect as easily.

Let’s get back to witches now. . . Just in case you are not sure if you are a witch or not, here are a few guidelines that were posted during the 1693 Salem Witch Trials to help them determine if you were a witch. One offensive and you would be marked a witch. A couple of offences and you would be burned at the stake. While you’re reading this I’m going to go check on the expiry date on my skim milk. 

  1. You are a female.
  2. You are poor and cannot support yourself financially.
  3. You are rich and financially independent.
  4. You have one or more female friends.
  5. You had an argument with another female.
  6. You are very old.
  7. You are very young.
  8. You are a midwife.
  9. You are married and have too many children.
  10. You are married and have too few or no children.
  11. You exhibit stubborn, strange or forward behaviour.
  12. You have a birthmark or mole.
  13. You have green eyes.
  14. Butter or milk has spoiled in your possession.
  15. You had a premonition.
  16. You planted more than one type of seed in the field.
  17. You wore your hair in braids.
  18. You built a fire on the Sabbath

 

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NEW Art Workshops

I hope you’ve had a great summer and are enjoying the last few days of August. Before you know it we will be settling into our routines and planning ahead for cooler weather, holidays and if you are like me – creative overdrive.

As promised I’m releasing the dates for my in-studio workshops this fall. You don’t need any experience – all my workshops are easy to follow with step by step instructions, and just in case you forget a step, I provide you with a PDF tutorial to review and refer to after the class.

This year I’m introducing a new one-and-a-half-day workshop, “The Angels”. You will create a beautiful heirloom flowing angel that you can display on a pedestal base or as a tree topper. In addition to sculpting the angel’s head, hands and upper torso in polymer clay, we will also be creating beautiful embossed wings and flowing robes in natural fibres of cottons and silks. This figurative sculpture will become a family heirloom for generations to come.

Back by popular demand – “My Little Elf”! This adorable little 14” character is bendable, poseable and is a fun addition to your holiday traditions. You will start and finish this project in my one-day workshop and you will absolutely fall in love with your Little Elf.

These two workshops are $150 per person. This includes all supplies, as well as lunch, coffee and snacks. We will be using Super Sculpey and Living Doll polymer clays, textiles and natural fibres for costuming. Class size is limited. Book your spot in one of these workshops at https://saracinocollection.com/collections/intermediate-classes

I’ve also added one date only for “Sculpt a Bust” where you can make a witch, a Santa or any other character you choose. This is a detailed two-day workshop. Check out the details on my website at http://www.saracinocollection.com

If you live outside my area or prefer to work on a project at your own pace, you also have the option of taking the course online in the form of a PDF tutorial. Email me for more info at maria@saracino.ca

Don’t forget – my mini three hour workshops are also available for private bookings either in-studio or at your home. Workshops are only $50 per person and include all the supplies. Best of all, if you organize a group of 6 people, your class is free. This is a great idea for an adult birthday party, social evening or paint nite alternative. Pictured here is my Potted Elf.

For more information or booking one of my workshops, visit http://www.saracinocollection.com or email me at maria@saracino.ca

Hope to see you soon . . . keep creating!

Posted in Art, Art Awards, Art Dolls, art exhibits, Art shows, Artists, Christmas, Figurative Art, Halloween, Maria Saracino, Orange Art Gallery, ottawa, Ottawa 150, polymer clay, sculpey, Sculpting Workshops, Uncategorized, Witches, Workshops, Workshops | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sculpting a Figure – Blog Series at www.Sculpey.com

This month I’m writing blog posts for the Polyform Products website and facebook page. Here’s the second post in the Figurative Sculpture series on body proportions. “Like” their page and you’ll get updates, new product news and mini tutorials. Enjoy!
https://www.sculpey.com/create/sculpting-a-figure-body-proportions/

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Sculpey Blog Post

I am happy to announce that I am the feature blogger for the Polyform Products website at http://www.sculpey.com

Each month they highlight one of the Design Squad members and July is my month. Check it out – there will be a new blog post every thursday this month.

Here’s a direct link at https://www.sculpey.com/create/figurative-sculptures-and-proportion/?platform=hootsuite
Sign up for the newsletter and you will get great product info as well as some little tutorials and tips and tricks to make your art even better.
Happy creating!

Posted in Art, Art Awards, Art Dolls, art exhibits, Art shows, Figurative Art, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Birthday Celebrations

Celebrating the day of your birth is a pagan tradition that dates back hundreds of years. Actually it was the Germans who are credited with starting the tradition of children’s birthday parties in the 1700s. They put candles on tortes for “kinderfeste,” one for each year of life, along with some extras to signify upcoming years. Historically, Christians didn’t celebrate birthdays because they believed evil spirits lurked on special days. I have one very superstitious friend who still downplays her birthday milestones fearing the celebration might attract bad luck. Another friend used to find a reason to mark every birthday with a party, lots of photos, music and dancing. Looking back it was a way for her to pack lots of living into a life cut short, way too soon. For me, it’s a bit of both. Intimate celebrations for regular birthdays and creative bashes to mark the milestones, and without a doubt, it’s definitely more fun to plan something special for someone else than to be on the receiving end.

Sometimes birthdays come with some personal emotional baggage – I remember turning 50 was a tough birthday for me – even though I was the same person the day before as the day after, it felt like I was stepping into some imaginary portal, leaving my youth behind forever. Turning 60 was a lot more fun. I’ve accepted my age and I enjoy the senior discounts that go with it. Being in my 60’s has also earned me the right  to speak my mind and call out BS when I hear it. The most interesting benefit of growing older is that you lose a lot of your insecurities and gain a sense of urgency in accomplishing goals or checking off bucket list items.

As an artist, I observe and take mental notes of how people behave in different situations. Birthdays are a great source of inspiration. “Another Birthday” is a sculpture I did a few years ago based on a scene I witnessed with a family member. I tried to capture a little annoyance on the birthday girl’s face. Everyone made a fuss over her but the story I imagined was that all she really wanted was a quiet evening with a glass of sherry and a good book.

Another Birthday is now part of a private collection. It was sculpted in Living Doll Polymer Clay. The body is constructed from wood, wire and textiles. The hat, cake, dish and fork are made from Super Sculpey.

Posted in Art, Art Awards, Art Dolls, art exhibits, Art shows, Artists, Figurative Art, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment