One unseasonably warm winter day, I drove 30 miles north of Boston, Massachusetts up Route 93 to Lawrence, where I talked for hours with multimedia artist, Markus Sebastiano, about the power of art to bring people together in a hyper-divisive world.
We met in the parking lot, which was sandwiched between the swirling Merrimac River and a towering block of weathered red brick warehouses. Sebastiano took me inside and upstairs in a rickety freight elevator complete with accordion gate and slightly scary, pull-down metal guard. I could see the ropes and pulleys in the open shaft working hard to carry us up to his 3,000 square foot studio named The Blochaus Gallery.
Build a better world through eyes of a child
Sebastiano founded the gallery six years ago as an incubator space for a growing, vibrant artist community that includes writers, sculptors, fashion designers, photographers and graffiti artists. It’s also where he creates personal artwork, as well as commissions for international private and corporate commercial clients.
Case in point was the piece on gender equity SAP unveiled this year at the SXSW conference just in time for International Women’s Day. This life-size artwork/sculpture of a boy and girl boosting up another girl to help illuminate 3D letters spelling our “her” in the middle of the word “powherful,” reflected Sebastiano’s deepest beliefs and aspirations.
“We wanted a message that was inclusive, rather than divisive,” said Sebastiano. “Showing cooperation between children, who don’t have inherent biases, demonstrates in a feel-good way the power of mutual support that actually does happen. I took on this scope of work with SAP because I believe in the brand, which stands for helping people and doing good in the world.”
How art unites us
Perched on utilitarian metal stools amidst the industrialized yet futuristic space, we had a fascinating conversation about art, politics, gender bias, travel for purpose and much more. The surroundings were a delightfully creative chaos of funky, brightly painted furniture, wide tables brimming with spray cans of paint, walls festooned with whimsical wall murals, old-time fast food menu signage, and colorful artwork in various stages.
Sebastiano alternately described his style as contemporary art or vintage future. He creates pieces by layering vintage newspapers, photographs, resins, and spray paint. His translucent painting method produces a stunning liquid glass effect. He often incorporates 3D sculpture from acrylics, LED lighting, and other materials.
The more we talked about art and the corporate world, it became clear that Sebastiano’s mission aptly mirrored the city of Lawrence’s recent metamorphosis. Long past its heyday as a textile manufacturing hub in the 1800s, Lawrence is reinventing itself, converting long-vacant warehouses into freshly creative hot spots.
“Layering many different materials and adding more texture with resins and photos ─ it’s like the past fades away as we progressively build a better future on top of it,” said Sebastiano.
Schooled in equality
Sebastiano grew up in neighboring Methuen, with his parents and two sisters. He didn’t have much of an opportunity to study art at the Catholic High School he attended, or where he began college at UMASS Amherst. After taking a step back, he applied to UMASS Lowell, and earned his bachelor’s degree in Art.
“My family always taught me respect for everyone,” he said. “I also grew up building things with my hands, working in a metal fabricator shop with my dad that I’m still using. Experimenting in all these mediums, including painting and drawing, and then digital art in college, has helped me develop my style.”
We are all the same
Like his art, Sebastiano’s personal experiences are about bridging vastly different worlds. He’s biked 44 days across the United States. At one point he lived in a tent for a month in the jungle of a remote island in the West Indies. These days, he’s equally comfortable creating art for the mansions of well-heeled patrons, or fostering student interns from Lawrence High School.
“We all want the same things,” he said. “Artists can create this sense of unity, helping us accepting each other as individual human beings. Art is supposed to be disruptive, but we want to be disruptive in a good way.”
Innovation with purpose
When I caught up later with Alicia Tillman, chief marketing officer at SAP, she agreed that girls who are growing up and women already in careers shouldn’t be restrained or constrained by anything or anyone in society that has ever made them feel limited.
“This art celebrates the fact that we have a shared responsibility to lift females of all ages up, so they can fulfill their potential,” she said. “We want to inspire both women and men to feel and act on that responsibility. We are so excited to debut the first of several pieces that will be part of SAP’s ‘Gallery of Purpose’ during our activation at SXSW and in collaboration with an artist who shares our vision and purpose of helping the world run better and improving people’s lives.”
While all art is up to the viewer’s interpretation, the “Powerherful” piece of artwork sends an important message: by supporting women, we are supporting everyone.
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