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Meet Local Illustrator Retro Sorrento

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 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!

Connect with Retro Sorrento


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Justin Parkinson
"Don't point that gun at him, he's an unpaid intern."

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