Silvia Sabaini: Reluctant Prodigy


By: Arlene Winkler





For most people, the term “late bloomer” would probably suffice. But just how late is “late”? A year? Five years? A decade?  After five decades, any self-respecting bud would have looked for another vine.  As for “bloomer,” the flowering of an artistic talent is hard to define; we only know it when we see it. 
That said, the emergence of this particular sculptor at age 65, has nothing to do with horticulture, nor would it be accurate to describe her talent as “dormant,” as in “sleeping beauty,” or metamorphosed, as in caterpillar to butterfly.  The 50-year gap between the 12-year-old that attended children’s classes at the Chicago Art Institute and the artist of today was not that organic.  From the first it was a crooked path—it started when her sister Caroline refused to attend art classes, and Silvia was sent in her stead. 
As one of five children in a working-class family, her view of the world was through the lens of a Catholic School education. Then she graduated and discovered a world full of other ideas about God, and love and beauty—which is enough to put anyone into a prolonged spiritual crisis.  In that light, it is not surprising that it took her so long to land in Asheville, where, if you throw a stick in any direction, it will hit someone who doesn’t know what hit them.
As I drive to her studio, I’m still looking for the right word. Then it strikes me that we cancelled this interview three different times, and in spite of the diminishing odds, it’s finally about to happen.  And that’s when it all becomes clear.  The word for Silvia Sabaini can’t be found in the dictionary, unless it’s a Yiddish dictionary.  The word is b’shert, and it means “fated” or “destined.” 
“You look like a friend!” she exclaims, when she sees me waiting outside her back door.   I make a mental note to ask her later what she meant. For  the moment I’m too busy taking it all in; the purple nail polish and gray hair, the exotic birds that call to her from their spotless cages, the way the light streams in the cut-throughs she’s made in the interior walls, illuminating the art-filled rooms.  The signs of pent-up talent are everywhere.
The first place I see it is in her kitchen, where an amazing ceramic backsplash wraps around three walls; a three-dimensional undersea vision, pushing its fins through the ocean flora, so full of life the clay it is formed from can barely contain its energy.  She shrugs it off as one of her early efforts, but her face lights up when she compares it to her other projects, a macramé here, a silkscreen there, mobiles, crewel embroidery. “With the clay, it’s different.”
It certainly is.
Inside her immaculate studio we are surrounded by portrait heads of various sizes, colors, and textures, hanging on the walls, sitting on tabletops. For the most part, their gaze is inward, but more than a few of them frown, glower, and smirk.
“I call this one “Necessity” she says softly, drawing my attention to the smug smile on a large, beautifully modeled head.  “You can tell she knows what a pain she is from the satisfied look on her face. “
“So this is a portrait of a woman you know and hate?”
She laughs, “They just live inside my head. I have no idea who they are until I see them.”
She is and is not in the style of Karen Caldecott and Susan O’Hara. In fact, except that her faces appear to be African, Silvia’s style harkens back to Etruscan, while her amazing facility reminds me of the late Vadim Bora.  Our joint visit to the Atelier Gallery only confirms that impression.  The works she has on display here cover the full range of her rapid development, from tentative exploration to sophisticated finesse.
“What must it be like, “I wonder, “How must it feel, to discover the artist in yourself?”
It started modestly enough, with an ad in one of the free newspapers, for weekly classes at a community center in Waynesville with a low fee that covered everything: clay, kiln, tools, glazes. Later she attended classes in Asheville, where she was strongly encouraged by more experienced ceramicists—people whose work she admired.   On their advice, she signed up for a class with Melisa Cadell, a well-known ceramic sculptor from Atlanta, but she was still fighting herself, and tried to back out before it took place.
But then she was offered a scholarship, and in her own words, “How could I say, I’m going to turn down your wonderful gift? So I went,  I watched her process, I got it.”
(Talk about b’shert!)
After that, the people that lived in her head began to make their appearance—and attract attention. By the time she was at it a full year, she was offered a gallery show in the River Arts district.  She thinks she was lucky.  I think luck is another way of saying, “it was meant to be.”   But by any name, it’s given her a new respect for the things she can’t control.
“I have a saying now,” she explains. “It’s never too late to ruin a project. Working with clay is a good life exercise in knowing how little control we have. With clay, things can fall apart … the fire has its own contribution… things happen inside the kiln that you can’t control.  When you’re finishing a piece, even if you get it to exceed your hopes, you can always drop it. 
“But in the long run, it’s mud.  It’s only dirt.  There’s no big investment there.  It’s all a gift. You see?  The texture, the way that it feels inside your hands, the thing it does on its own, it’s a miracle. It really brings you back down to Earth.  How can you do something with your hands like that and then justify what the rest of the world is doing?  How can you live your right life and justify the rest of the world ?”
Silvia Sabaini currently exhibits at Atelier Gallery at 24 North Lexington in Asheville, or you may visit her website at:

Arlene Winkler is a freelance writer, with an unabashed passion for the fine arts. A former ad agency president and enthusiastic participant of life on the New York fast track, she moved to Asheville in 2003 with her sculptor husband, Robert Winkler. A mother of three, a grandmother of four, she is dealing with her culture shock by studying the role of women in the “War between the States.”

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker