Digital Originals

Meet Local Illustrator Retro Sorrento

Maria Vallese is an illustrator and fine artist living in the Utica area. Maria, a 2010 gradutate of Rochester Institute…

Maria Vallese is an illustrator and fine artist living in the Utica area. Maria, a 2010 gradutate of Rochester Institute of Technology, with a B.F.A. in Illustration, has slowly built a reputation as one of the areas premiere illustrators and designers as Retro Sorrento.

With a retro-vintage color pallet and aesthetic, she specializes in saturated imagery that expresses a nostalgic look at the atmosphere and personality of an enviornment or portrait. Maria works mostly in oil and colored pencil, but also specializes in digital painting and design.

Her work can be viewed in several galleries throughout the Utica, NY and surrounding area.

Where are you from?
I grew up in the East Utica area and attended high school in Frankfort. I moved out of the area for four years to attend college at Rochester Institute of Technology, and brought what I learned back home with me!

Can you explain all the things you do in detail? What type of work can people find from you?
I create illustrations of buildings, city scenes and landscapes – both traditional paintings and drawings and digital work. My work is intentionally slightly distorted and has more saturated colors than exist in real life. My intention is to show my scenery on a deeper level rather than something that is purely representational. I also create full color caricatures of pop culture icons. I’m always up for commission or freelance work and recently I have been creating caricature logos for local businesses, and some illustrated maps.

In addition to my illustration work I also design and make crochet jewelry. I design these pieces from sketch to finished product. The crochet jewelry is lightweight, colorful and embellished with beading.

How did you become Retro Sorrento?
I started Retro Sorrento in 2009 on Etsy, with exclusively handmade items to make some extra money in college. Sorrento is a nickname from high school, and I’ve been addicted to retro-vintage finds for as long as I can remember. When I realized how easily the two words went together, I knew I had the perfect name to reflect my work. Soon after I opened my shop on Etsy, I decided to try out some small craft shows in the Rochester area with some friends who were selling zines. When I moved back to the Utica area I became a part of the Indie Garage Sale and began selling my artwork along with my handmade jewelry – realizing it all fit so well together. IGS really got the ball rolling for me, I began to focus more on improving my product and presentation and made contacts with many local creatives. I currently participate in around 15 shows a year throughout Upstate, and sell at a few local galleries.


Who are your inspirations creatively?
I could give you a huge list! My main inspirations are Bernie Fuches, Edward Hopper, Sterling Hundley, C.F. Payne, Gustav Klimt and Van Gogh. I also look at a lot of Fillmore Posters, read a lot of graphic novels, and listen to a lot of music.

At what age did you realize you wanted to do this for a living?
I always took my artwork very seriously. I took classes at MWPAI growing up, and took every studio class available in high school. I would say around 9th or 10th grade I had essentially made the decision, that no matter how fantastic my grades were in other subjects, art was the one thing I couldn’t NOT do for the rest of my life. I went back and forth between fashion design and illustration as a college major, and finally chose illustration because of my love for painting and representational work.

At what age did you realize you COULD do this for a living?
I think I’m still discovering that every day. It really hit me Christmas time two years ago, when I just about doubled my sales from the year before. Every year my goals get bigger, and when I reach them, or at least come close, it inspires me for the next round. Being confident that you can do something creative for a living can be a struggle, to combat this I find it good to be in close contact with other creative people who inspire you and you can be honest with. Those are the people who are going to pick you up on the days your feeling down or tell you when you’re doing something that isn’t your best.

Can you walk us through the process of an illustration from concept to completion?
I spend a lot of time sketching and brainstorming with lists and color combinations. I probably spend more time preparing to start a piece than it takes me to finish one. After I’ve come up with an idea, I do several sketches of what I want the composition to look like, as many as it takes to get it right. I then either transfer my sketch over to a final paper/canvas or scan it into the computer. I work in several different mediums and the subject matter of the piece really dictates how I will work.

Where do you go in the area to find creativity and inspiration?
I love to go to coffee shops and just listen with my sketchbook in hand. Early in the morning when I have nothing else planned is my favorite time. We have so many fantastic locally owned coffee shops, with such interesting people hanging out in them!

What is your favorite piece of work you’ve ever created?
My favorite piece is my “Yellow Apartment” painting, which came from a sketch and photo taken on a trip to NYC the year before I graduated from college. The painting has really saturated colors, which aren’t necessarily realistic, but to me represented how the place and my experience felt. It’s an older painting, but it really opened my eyes to a lot of things about my artwork and style.


What’s it like being a local vendor in this area?
Being a vendor has been very rewarding. I’ve met so many great friends through my handmade vending – artists, soap makers, jewelry makers, etc. It’s such a great community of people willing to help each other out and give advice. I always get really excited when a big show is coming up, it’s like a family reunion at this point! I also LOVE my customers, especially those who keep coming back. They help me feel confident in my product and I love to hear what they’ve done with the things I’ve made.

How important has the internet been to growing your audience locally?
I’m just starting to see the full potential of my online presence. It’s a great resource to keep people informed about where I’ll be vending, what my new products are, and where they can find my products in the mean time. I’ve also found it to be a great resource for connecting and finding out information – I participate in several online groups that talk regularly about business advice, creative topics, and vending. The internet is a really great connector, it’s amazing that I can send someone a huge file while I’m hours away, and don’t actually have to worry about dropping it off to them anymore!

Where can people find your work?
Currently you can find my work on my Etsy store, at Signature 81 in New Hartford, Broad Street Gallery in Hamilton, and at various craft shows and gallery shows throughout the area.

What does made in Utica mean to you? 
I think Made in Utica represents the creativity and innovation of the amazingly talented people in the area, along with the great businesses, restaurants, and shopping we have here. Made in Utica reminds us and shows the rest of Upstate NY what we have to offer here in Utica.

Best Place to eat?
Cafe Del Buono, Bennu

Best to Drink?
The Tram for a cup of coffee and some poetry, and The Dev or Nail Creek for a good brew.

Best to shop?
Indie Garage Sale and Signature 81, I can do all my gift purchases at both of these places, and find something unique for myself too!

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Digital Originals

My mentee is eleven years old. He is my friend. And he changed my life.

Last year right around this time I was feeling like something was missing from my life. The holidays were over…

The following is a guest blog by #madeinutica friend Rachel Hayes.

Last year right around this time I was feeling like something was missing from my life. The holidays were over and I was left in a funk. I wanted to do something that made me feel like I was making an impact. So I did what any other 25 year old would do, I asked Google what I could do.

I ended up finding the New York State Mentoring Program. I decided to fill out an application. Turns out The Rome City School district was starting to implement this program within a month. I got the green light from work, went to a training program and was on my way to becoming a mentor!

The story I want to share with you today is how this Mentoring Program that I stumbled across at eleven o’clock one night, and applied without giving it much thought, has changed my life.

The beginning of the program the mentors and mentees did a lot of group activities so our Site Coordinator could determine who worked well together and pair us up. We had a few weeks of group activities before paring. The day of pairing came and our Site Coordinator went through one by one and paired us with our mentees. Slowly the group of mentees was getting smaller and smaller and I still wasn’t matched! I remember thinking that under no circumstance did I want this little boy who was one of the two left. He was rambunctious and didn’t seem to follow any directions. And what would you know, of course I was paired with him. I remember thinking that this was a mistake. I wanted to ask “why him?” I remember thinking that I didn’t think we would work well together. We would have nothing in common. I was worried to say the least.

The weeks to follow, I decided to put my negative thoughts aside and embrace this match. What else was I to do? I didn’t want to seem like this evil person who disliked this little boy I hardly knew. But that’s how I felt. To my surprise, my mentee and I began to really connect. He loves to talk. I also love to talk. We talked about tv shows, movies and video games. He loves to play Jenga. I love to play Jenga. He loves space. I love space. We spent a lot of time talking about time in space and black holes. I had just watched Interstellar so of course I was an expert on the subject.

 By the end of the program, my mentee and I were besties.

We clicked in a way that I really never imagined we could. We had our good and bad days but him and I really bonded throughout the remaining school year. I didn’t want it to be over! Everyone had told me that they could see a change in him from the beginning of the program. I didn’t want to show it, but I was so excited. I felt like I had really done something important.

My original plan was at the start of the new school year, I would transfer to the Utica City School district. I wanted to be a little closer to work and home. But when I found out that we had the option to stay at our school and be paired up with our same mentee if they decided to join the program again, I jumped at the opportunity with hopes that we could be paired again in the upcoming school year. Little did I know that the re-districting that Rome was going through would cause him to be transferred to a different Elementary school.

Fast forward to the new school year, and I started the program again. To my disappointment, my mentee was not in the program. I decided not to ask about him. I was really upset but I couldn’t let that distract me from the students this year. I didn’t know where he was or how he was doing. I had hoped that he would remember me and this experience.

We are currently in the pairing stage again. This year, I really didn’t feel much of a connection with any of the students but I was hoping that would change once we were individually paired up.

What happened next was the best “bad news” I ever received.

I got a phone call from my Site Coordinator last week that changed everything. My mentee wasn’t doing well in his new program or at his new school. His new Site Coordinator tried to pair him up with someone before the rest of the group so he could get additional one on one time. When she mentioned this to him prior to mentoring he was very excited. When he arrived to mentoring that day, he looked around for his mentor and he repeatedly asked “Where is she? Where is she?” His new mentor re-introduced herself as his new mentor and he replied to the room, “That is NOT my mentor. I want my mentor!” He was talking about me! He was excited because he thought I was going to be there. I don’t think my heart has ever been as full as it was when I heard this story. Choked up with tears in my eyes, I let my Site Coordinator know that I would do ANYTHING that they needed from me.

Yesterday we were paired up again! We spent an hour catching up. When he first arrived to the program, he was upset. There was a lot of adjusting he was going though and it just wasn’t a good day. It took a few minutes to get him to calm down but we managed. I am not saying I am a child whisper by any means, but I managed to get him smiling by the end. That smile warmed my heart and made everything worth it. He is my mentee again and we will back to meeting once a week until the end of the school year!

I went into this program thinking that I would be able to make an impact on someone. Little did I know that this program would have such an impact on me. I don’t think my mentee will ever know what he has done for me. I have become a better listener and developed more patience since meeting him. I have learned to put aside whatever I am going through to put him first every time we meet. Also, I have learned about countless mythical creatures that I can’t call to or else they will wreak havoc on my life and haunt my house.

My mentee is eleven years old. He wants to be an inventor when he grows up. His favorite tv show is Doctor Who. He one of the smartest kids I know. He is my friend. And he changed my life.

There are New York State Mentoring programs in both the Rome and Utica School districts. Mentors need to complete fingerprinting and a background check along with a training program before they are able to be place into a program. The program is held once a week for an hour. Visit the website for more information and to apply. They are always looking for new people. Let some little boy or girl change your life as well!


Questions about mentoring? Slide into Rachel’s DMs @raehayes_

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Digital Originals

Top 10 of 2017

I think we can all agree that 2017 was a pretty crazy year. Politically, culturally, socially, both across the country...

I think we can all agree that 2017 was a pretty crazy year. Politically, culturally, socially, both across the country and even here in our tiny #madeinutica bubble. We’ve grown in some areas, changed in others but we’ve had some fun too. We know that all of you are the reason we keep pushing the boundaries, brainstorming, cultivating and spreading the good news of Utica – so thank you.

Here’s a list of 2017 Top 10 Made In Utica moments but more importantly, what they’ve taught us.

1. The 2nd Annual Everything

2017 brought the 2nd Annual Utica Day, 2nd Annual Passport Release Party and the 2nd Annual Downtown Getdown.

  • Utica Day at MVCC upgraded to a bigger venue and beat our 2016 attendance – plus the return of our panel.
  • Passport Party moved to Franklin Square with live music once again, and kicked off the Franklin Square Film Series. Plus an awesome Super Mario theme to match our 2017 Passport design.
  • Downtown Getdown once again took place in Bagg’s Square, Franklin Square and the Brewery District. This time we added Crossfit, a Zagster partnership, kids activities, all local bands in the alley, a pop up shop and a big party at Nail Creek. Plus we raised $200 for the Midtown Utica Community Center!

Look out for the 3rd Annual Everything this coming year.

Lesson: Complacency is boring. Success just means you have to do things bigger and better than last time.

2. Getting Gibbz

I’ve been a fan of Gibbz from Brooklyn, NY since 2014. So when we planned our first music fest, the 2016 Downtown Getdown, we knew needed him. But – Made In Utica was poor. We threw the festival together in a month with little help and just enough budget to cover essentials (we even had to get a porta-potty sponsor). It was a no-go.

One year later in summer of 2017, it was our goal to get Gibbz to Utica for the return of the Downtown Getdown. We had already proven ourselves and we had some great partners. Especially because of AmeriCU and Rust2Green, we were finally able to make our Gibbz dream come true.

It was so cool to be able to bring one of my favorite artists to my favorite city!

Lesson: Don’t give up. Keep asking.

3. Yoga in the Square

We totally have to give props to Bite Bakery | Cafe for this one. Promoting events with them has been a dream. Yoga in the Square happened twice a month, all summer long, and you all came out to enjoy a peaceful (and free!) Saturday class with Sara Miller Yoga. Even on the coldest of mornings, it gave our hearts warmth to see all you yogis show up to support.

Lesson: Push boundaries of doing new things in old places.

4. 25,000 Strong

We’re at just about 25,000 uses of #madeinutica on Instagram of products, art, events, history, friends and food. 35,000 impressions a week. 7,500 followers. Whoa, what a community.

Lesson: If you build it, they will come.

5. Big Business for Passport Designers

Remember how cool our 2016 Passport was? It was unique for us because it was designed by two very talented local women. Sarah of The Adirondack Ink designed the interior pages, and Maria of Retro Sorrento designed the cover. It has been so amazing to watch these two artists grow, especially in the last year.

We first worked with The Adirondack Ink back in 2015 for our Homegrown Gift Boxes. Her business has simply blown up since then. 2017 has shown incredible success with her Ink & Drink classes, holiday decorations, wedding designs, her first pop-up and so much more. And this coming year, Sarah will be devoting her time to take The Adirondack Ink to the next level.

How much love can we possibly show for Maria Vallese? She’s been a favorite of ours since the very beginning of this little website. In addition to the Passport, she’s also worked on other custom projects for us including the Utica Coloring Book. We’re so thrilled for her most recent work with Saranac Brewery – she’s been busy in 2017 creating amazing illustrations to adorn your favorite brewery’s bottles.

We are so incredibly proud of these two artists who we’ve worked with for so long, and to see the success they’ve had. The future is bright for you both!

Lesson: Work with us.

6. Discover

One big change we’ve made is the way we promote and share events with you. We halted our Weekly Round Up mid-year to produce our site calendar, highlighting carefully curated events in our area. Plus we’ve seen incredible growth and use of our Facebook Events Group, which is user-generated and supported.

Lesson: Roll with the punches and keep finding better ways to distribute information. 

7. Five Films, Four Trailers

Our Franklin Square Film Series came back in a big way this year. We brought five movies and four new Made In Utica trailers (check them out on Facebook). We worked incredibly hard to keep you all coming downtown, enjoying movies with us and our partners Bite Bakery | Cafe and Nomad Cinema.

Lesson: We won’t lie, making these trailers was often tedious – but you have to give the people what they want. You asked for more, we provided.

8. Getting Funky with Levitt AMP

We had the privilege of sponsoring the Levitt AMP Utica Music Series week when Sophistafunk came to town. What a show and great experience in Downtown Utica. Levitt AMP is free, fun and good for the community. We can’t wait for more next year!

Lesson: If Michelle Truett asks you to do anything, say yes.

9. 52 Weeks, 52 Uticasts

Another year of a brand new episode of the Uticast every week. Let’s give local nobody/showrunner Sam the credit he deserves, for sticking it out through sickness, holidays, politics and more to produce new content weekly. Plus props to Sam and Kevin for adding the lovely Heather Waz to the show this year!

No shame in sharing my own episode with you:

Lesson: It’s a lot harder than it looks to put on a weekly anything.

10. Genesis Award

A really cool moment for me this year was being named a Striving for Success honoree from the Genesis Group and I have no doubt it is because of Made In Utica. My speech (!) went something along the lines of- “Thanks to my parents for teaching me to work hard… blah blah… thanks Justin Parkinson for letting me do whatever I want with Made In Utica… blah blah… Do It For Utica.”

But in all seriousness, I have grown a lot because of Made In Utica, personally and professionally. It’s also great to see Made In Utica getting some recognition for all the hard work we do.

Lesson: Do what you love and it will be worth it.

Honorable Mention – #WoodstockLives

The morning of the Passport Release party in Franklin Square, I woke up with a to-do list a mile long. But scratch that – our Made In Utica mascot, Justin’s beloved pup Woodstock, was very sick. Bringing Woodstock to see Dr. Gabby at the Beaver Meadow Veterinary Clinic was the best thing to do. Emergency surgery while we were setting up the party, and by the afternoon we got the good word that #WoodstockLives.

#woodstocklives. Cancer free. dr.gabby says so. @uticast #madeinutica

A post shared by Made In Utica (@madeinutica) on

Lesson: Have faith and a good vet.

As we close out 2017, Made In Utica wishes you all lots of peace and love. We’re looking forward to a new year and we can’t wait to show you some of the tricks we have up our sleeves. Happy New Year!

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Digital Originals

Pick Your Teddy Bear Toss Bear

One of our favorite Holiday events is the New York Sash Teddy Bear Toss and we’re here to give you advice…

One of our favorite Holiday events is the New York Sash Teddy Bear Toss and we’re here to give you advice on Picking Your Bears!


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Digital Originals

Peek inside the Zuhaus

A little peek inside the Zuhaus – Utica Aud’s, errr… Adirondack Bank Center’s most elite VIP Suite. I recently visited…

A little peek inside the Zuhaus – Utica Aud’s, errr… Adirondack Bank Center’s most elite VIP Suite. I recently visited the suite to promote the upcoming New York Sash Teddy Bear Toss with Utica College Hockey. The Zuhaus is just one of many new improvements to our beloved Auditorium, but this suite is nothing of Aud days gone by.

The Zuhaus is the epitome of luxury for watching hockey in Downtown Utica.

Of course, there’s rows of comfortable, padded “arena” seating. Two different living room setups with multiple couches and tables. Local artwork adorn the walls, two private bathrooms and a catering buffet area. Full hospitality service and a very colorful light-up bar.


Fun Fact: Out of 4,000 cans sold a game, 3,500 are Utica Comets-branded Labatt Blue.

Want to watch a game from the Zuhaus, or any of the new VIP Suites? Good luck… you’ve got to know someone who knows someone who can get you on a waiting list. The suites are booked for the season through Partners and Sponsors for both Comets and Pioneers games. Time to call in those favors!

However… you COULD sit in a suite for the Teddy Bear Toss… with 19 friends.

One of our favorite holiday events, the 13th annual New York Sash Teddy Bear Toss is Saturday, December 9th for Utica College Pioneer Men’s Hockey vs. Neumann University. When Utica scores their first goal, fans throw their teddy bear donations onto the ice. All toys will be collected and donated to local children this coming holiday season.

All you have to do watch the game from a suite is enter the New York Sash VIP Giveaway. Get a free ride from Impressions Limosuine, free food and access to an Adirondack Bank Center suite with service. $4,500 value – So enter here!

And Zuhaus or no Zuhaus, we hope to see you out at the Adirondack Bank Center supporting local hockey real soon.

Thanks New York Sash for the video!

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