We had the good fortune of connecting with Maria Valentina Sheets and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Maria Valentina, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
In many ways, “risk” is the spice of life. Not enough and life has no flavor. Too much and you end up spiraling out of control. I spent a chunk of my early career trying to find that balance. As a young craftsman, I worked for other companies in my field of conservation/glass arts, surrounded by artists as we learned from each other. It was critical to have learned the basics but there were managers there writing their own “Manifesto’s” of operation. Everywhere you go, even among groups of artists, there will be people mandating operations, not open to changes. Having inspiration and mentorship is important to an artist but finding you are a a cog in a wheel can be toxic as well. In my time there, I felt I was either bending painfully to fit or involved in self destructive behaviors to protest. On a trip to New York to deliver a job, I read Agnes Martin’s biography, and learned that even hard working female minimalists like Agnes Martin did not always fit into the boys club in New York. It wasn’t until I took the risk of leaving the company and going out on my own that I found my way of doing things had their own marketable value. I also started working on weekends or at odd times of the day or nights and found that not only did I work more, but I enjoyed it. I found that “risk” could also be taken in choice of “content”. It wasn’t until I started pursuing my own narratives, which did not fit into “safe” genre’s of art, that my passion took hold of the work and proved to people that I had something unique to say. Once I channeled my “risk” onto my glass painting, the satisfaction in my life improved dramatically. That is not to say I turned away commissions that would give me some basic income assistance, but that I added my own pieces to the mix at all times and in some way, made the “bread and butter” pieces serve to fund my own work. I find my own “risks” are bits of autobiography that inspire another artist to find their own way.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Like many artists, I started out on the kitchen table, expanded to a room or two of the house, then the garage and finally, I have a large studio where one part is conservation studio and the other is glass painting/building. But my career has a complex arch. As a kid in the 70’s, I spent my first decade in a Russian Orthodox Church in San Francisco, California. My grandmother, great aunt, and great Uncle, a Russian Orthodox Priest had lived in the upstairs for over 35 years. They took care of the church and the occupants of a home for widows of the war across the street that the church was technically built for. So it was there I grew an appreciation, and maybe a bit of suspicion, for the splendor and ceremony of the liturgical arts. My parents were swept up in the political/social activities of the local hippie generation and left me and my younger brother to be raised by my elder family members. My uncle was also a talented artist and iconographer but because I was a female child, did not allow me to actually “touch” the art supplies, only to watch. This did not keep me from handling them nor the liturgical artifacts and as a little girl, I often would sneak behind the iconostasis where the beautiful hand-painted icons were proudly displayed and handle the art and artifacts to my childish content. After my mother passed away from AIDS in 1985, I was eventually separated from my brother and lived with a variety of relatives in different states. Not an easy thing to experience, but music, art and poetry were always how I coped with the chaos. I received a Bachelors’ in Graphic arts from a “suitcase”college in Oklahoma, working 4 – 6 jobs at any one time. I had no living parents or financial support from family so I did what it took…bartending, waiting, figure drawing modeling, lab assistant, florist, graphic arts, etc. After graduating in the early 90’s, my first job was as a floor manager at the largest branch of Texas Art Supply in Houston in the arts district of Montrose. It was there I congregated professionally and socially with many talented creative peers. I met the proprietors of big art supply companies like Old Holland Oil paints, Golden Acrylic etc and was allowed to sample many different mediums for free. Based on my early realism in painting, many of the local conservators (who supply shopped at Texas Arts) told me I should pursue that field and so I started researching and found my first internship in Dallas, Texas in the mid 90’s. After my bench training and internship, I started as an art conservator of objects, mostly in glass and porcelain but also painting, bone, stone, pottery, plastic, wax and a wide variety of mixed media. I was fortunate to be trained by and work with dozens of other talented artists and conservators from two different conservation firms. Eventually, I received the peer-reviewed Professional Associates Status with the American Institute for Conservation in 2002 soon followed by a Masters of Art/Humanities at the University of Texas, Dallas’ Institute for Museum Studies program started by Dr. Rick Brettell, reknown museum curator, critic, author and professor. I started my own art conservation business in 2005, Maria Valentina Sheets Art Conservation Inc. where I was privileged to serve some of the most prestigious art collections and museums in the world including the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Samurai Museum, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and the Ross Perot Collection. I led the fire recovery for the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas, Texas from 2005-2019 and this introduced me to the discipline of treating fire damaged stained and painted liturgical glass windows. I received training from professional Orthodox iconographer, Irene Omer and glass painting from Jim Berberich with the Stained Glass Association of America to better hone my skills and understand the traditions. In 2019 I started Maria Sheets Glassworks in Evergreen, Colorado where I am contracted to treat historic stained glass, as well as create my own kiln-fired glass paintings. Right now I am honored to be in the middle of working with Scottish Stained Glass on the TULSA Vernon AME restoration project which includes a window narrating 100 years of the history of the church and it’s surviving through the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. My own work, (can be viewed at www.mariasheetsglassworks.com). If you look at early paintings of my work, well before I was introduced to stained glass, I would research/cut/collage images together and paint them. My instructors would often beg me to release from this format but I resisted, finding it tiltilating to play with the confines of the space in this way, sort of using every bit of space in a puzzle like manner. I needed the process to surprise me. It led me to my field of art conservation where I found myself puzzling together broken pieces of plates or objects in the process of repair. And then even later to when I started working with stained glass as a painting substrate. My career path and artistic paths have been fortuitously intuitive in this way.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Since we live on a mountain with a great view, near hiking, many come here to get away from the city and just take that in and let us cook for them. But I will offer to teach them how to make their own glass painting or small window, fused jewelry etc. I also will take some of my art conservator/artist friends to Kirkland Museum which not only has a great collection of artifacts from mid-century but has the actual artists studio attached and is close to the Denver Museum of Art. We take them to many scenic small towns locally like Georgetown, Idaho Springs, or Pine on way to Deckers corner for a bit of shopping.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There are several realms of support I have received. Art conservation and glass art itself, even architecturally is very succeptible to markets and with 911, 2008, and now Covid, I have been lucky that my life partner Frank Parra has been there to support my progress and never bats an eye at my decisions. I have a great network of mentors and professional conservators as friends. Jamie Rigsby, senior art conservator, is a long time, good friend I bounce everything on as far as conservation goes. In the world of glass arts, I have Kathy Barnard, De Carter Ray, David Kittrell, Jim Berberich who are senior glass artists who offer professional support and give perspectives to how to survive the long run as an artist. And of course, I give shout outs to my all my instructors of the past who noticed and encouraged. Painter Steve Rosser in undergrad school in Oklahoma. Greg Metz and John Pomara, at UT Dallas for grad school. And finally, the glass houses I work with, like Martin Faith of Scottish Stained glass who continue to throw work my way and let me do a good chunk of the designing.
Image credit to Maria Valentina Sheets