Maria Lai

1919 – 2013

Photo by Daniela Zedda

The contemporary artist who was Sardinia’s past, present and future

Maria Lai was born in 1919 in Ulassai, a small village perched on mountain terrain in eastern Sardinia. Due to poor health during her childhood, Maria used to find herself in complete isolation for long periods at times, which leads her to the world of drawing. She goes on to study Latin and opens her eyes to poems in Cagliari where she discovers “the value of the rhythm of the words that lead to silence” under the wings of master Salvatore Cambosu who later becomes her life long friend.

Maria Lai

Maria Lai
1919 – 2013

A True Fighter of Her Times

Maria enrols at the School of Rome in 1939 where she meets master sculptors who understand and support Maria’s artistic senses. During the WWII in 1943, Maria decides to leave Rome and moves to Venice to attend the Academy of Fine Arts and continues to study sculpture but Venetian academic environment and the society of the 30s and 40s in Italy were so male chauvinist and fascist that they were showing major difficulties accepting women in the art world. In 1945, daring Maria goes back to Sardinia on a lifeboat from the port of Naples to Cagliari where she teaches women at The Technical Institute until 1949. She remains on the island for about 10 years and during this time Maria and her brother get almost kidnapped by bandits who later end up taking most of her brothers’ lives.

Bandit photo by European Nomad

The Fame and Poetic Crisis

Salvatore Cambosu by Maria Lai, 1952

Salvatore Cambosu, 1952

The flour (La Farina), 1952 by Maria Lai

The flour (La Farina), 1952

Woman in dress (Donna in costume),1955 by Maria Lai

Woman in dress (Donna in costume), 1955

She returns to Rome in 1954 and in 1957 her first pencil drawings exhibition opens at the Galleria l’Obelisco (The Obelisk Gallery), the most vibrant cultural hub of the city at the time run by the hottest art dealer and journalist Irene Brin and her enthusiastic art collector husband Gaspero del Corso. After a successful show and receiving significant recognitions in Rome and Sardinia, in 1961, Maria suddenly decides to withdraw from the art world for the next ten years in silence despite the constant requests from her great admirer Marcello Venturoli who first curated Maria’s show at Galleria l’Obelisco. Instead, for all of the 60s in fact, she cultivates a friendship and collaboration with the writer Giuseppe Dessi, a fellow Sardinian and her neighbour in Rome and contemplates in her world of art rediscovering the importance of being Sardinian origin and traditions, myths and legends the native land brings.

A Period of Silence that lasts 10 years

Photo by Pierluigi Dessì

The Comeback, Looms and Sewn Books

Maria comes back in 1971 and exhibits her first frame works at Schneider Gallery in Rome curated by none other than Marcello Venturoli. Maria’s works are focused on the tradition elements of Sardinia using reinterpretation of in particular the loom what is considered to be the richest form of story telling in rural women of Sardinia since the ancient times. Maria now begins a prolific period of her life and starts to exhibit in museums and galleries including the group show at the Venice Biennale in 1977. Maria’s works are characterised by sewn books at this point, perhaps a natural progression after working with looms that tell tales of stories.

8th September 1981, Ulassai

A collaboration with Su Marmuri

Darling Maria donates her drawings to the women’s textile cooperation called Su Marmuri in Ulassai, the first one in its kind in Sardinia and continues to support and work with people of Ulassai collaborating on textile project.

Ulassai, Now the Open-Air Museum

Maria emphasises her focus on the cycle of geographies and spaces in the 80’s and devotes herself to the site-specific environmental interventions throughout 90’s in Sardinia and cities around Italy including her territorial pieces in Ulassai; collaboration project The Wash House, 1982 – 1989, The Road of Sewn Goats, 1992 and The Road of the Rite, 1993 and town of Ulassai gradually becomes an open-air museum where there are arts breathing in every corner.

Boarding on a Paper Boat, 1993 at Atelier Sul Mare, Sicily

In Sicily, the magnificent open air sculpture park Fiumara d’Arte invites Maria to create a room installation for its art hotel Atelier Sul Mare alongside 19 other renowned artists where she names her room Boarding on a Paper Boat in 1993.

Olive Oil Museum of Sabina

During 1999 – 2001, Maria works as one of the brainchild behind the unique Olive Oil Museum of Sabina (Museo Dell’olio della Sabina) in Italy where they hold a series of truly original vision of artworks by contemporary master sculptors dedicated to a typical agricultural product, olive oil; the gold of this land. You can watch the interview of Maria working on her piece, The Tree of the Poet (L’albero del Poeta) for the museum and see the world that Maria envisioned.

Maria Lai’s Art Station (Stazione dell’Arte)

In 2006, Maria donates a massive collection of the most significant works of her life and inaugurates the Museum of Contemporary Art, Stazione dell’Arte (Art Station) in an old rail way station in her birth town Ulassai. Fearless Maria worked and participated in art activities continuously till she was 94 when she passed away on the 13th April in 2013. She is buried in her beloved hometown Ulassai where her inspirations always originated.

As I research and find more about Maria, I started to have many questions that I wanted to ask her, there was an urge of feeling in my stomach wishing I would have known about her when she was still alive. Yet I still feel fortunate enough to catch her breaths through all of magnificent works and the legacy she has shared with us. You can visit Maria Lai’s Ulassai and get to know her rhythm of life and soon you will be able to enjoy the silence of your own.