La Crosse Local

E. 282: Michael Martino | Artist

Listen to “E. 282: Michael Martino | Artist” on Spreaker.

Featured photo by Dylan Overhouse Productions

They had plastilina clay and I would make animals…my teacher noticed…got some recognition with it…always had an interest… (on picking up sculpture early).

We dive into our chat with local Artist, Michael Martino. We hear about his path to the arts, his extensive sculptural work (many of which you can see around the area) and we get into the intricacies of working in bronze, snow, sand, and wood while discussing why public art is so important.

We also touch on the Forward La Crosse campaign, which is a campaign encouraging the public input in updating the City of La Crosse’s Comprehensive Plan.

Check out his Mike at Artspire, Saturday June 11 during Chalkfest presented by the The La Crosse Arts Initiative sponsored by the La Crosse Society of Arts and Crafts.

Special thanks to our Podcast Sponsors!

Amy Gabay 00:00
This podcast is brought to you by People’s Food Co Op, a community owned grocery store in downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin and Rochester, Minnesota that promotes local farmers and producers through an emphasis on fresh, healthy, sustainable food. Anyone can shop, everyone is welcome. For more information, visit them online at This podcast is also brought to you by Trempealeau County Tourism. Whether your idea of fun is bicycling, hiking or canoeing, afterwards head into the heart of one of their welcoming communities to experience historic architecture, independent shops and locally owned dining establishments. Visit Trempealeau County Tourism online. Artspire is back with a full weekend of art at the Pump House Regional Arts Center. Enjoy live music from Cloud Cult, Bill Miller and B2wins, plus a fine art fair, interactive art projects, and visual and performing arts June 10th through 11th. Learn more at We dive into our chat with local Artist, Michael Martino. We hear about his path to the arts, his extensive sculptural work (many of which you can see around the area) and we get into the intricacies of working in bronze, snow, sand, and wood while discussing why public art is so important. We also touch on the Forward La Crosse campaign, which is a campaign encouraging the public input in updating the City of La Crosse’s Comprehensive Plan. You can find more conversation, food reviews, live music and events on our website I’m Amy.

Brent Hanifl 01:35
I’m Brent.

Amy Gabay 01:36
And this is La Crosse Local.

Mike Martino 01:39
My name is Mike Martino. I was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Ever since I was in kindergarten, I actually had an interest in sculpture. I started, they had like plasticine clay, and I would make animals and they were you know, more realistic kind of animals and that my teacher noticed. And there was a one particular, it was a Catholic school and there was Brother Neil would come in. And he’d noticed that too. And I don’t know, I guess I got you know, some recognition for it. And I just enjoyed playing with the clay. I know my aunt would babysit me so that they could set me down with a ball of clay. And I’d be good for three hours just sitting there playing, you know, so. So I always had an interest in that. And I enjoyed drawing I remember, like National Geographic magazine, I would draw from photographs of the big cats series that they had the lions and the leopards and that. And then later on when I was 12, 13, I had an interest in horses. I remember doing some sculptures of horses. At that time, I never understood the bronze part of it, I guess. And I would just do these clay sculptures and we tried to get them to be a little more permanent by coating them with like, some kind of a plastic coating or something. But I actually had a woman, a friend of my cousin’s who actually bought one of these things. And then later on when I was in college, and I was in the Chicago area, she had me come over to her condo and she wanted me to sign this thing and it had been bumped around. And of course with plaster lien, it’s not permanent. So it had taken a beating, but she wanted me to sign it anyways. So I wish I would understood more about the bronze casting process a lot sooner. So early on all through my life, I’ve always enjoyed it. My father was an artist, so I was encouraged and there was always you know, materials to work with and stuff. In high school, I took ceramics classes and art classes and that. And then I went to college and got a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree started at UW Parkside, in Kenosha, and then I finished up my degree in UW Milwaukee. Because I had learned sign painting from my father, I was able to do that for a living while I was trying to figure out how to make a living as an artist, as a sculptor. So it took me a while to figure that out. But I was painting signs back when it was all hands on. So I learned to use a brush and lay things out and then hand paint them and always enjoy working with my hands. So it was a good way to make a living and then like I said, I can keep working on my artwork at the same time, too.

Brent Hanifl 04:15
I’ve known of your work, you know, seen it around the La Crosse area where it looks like you’ve done maybe potentially hundreds of pieces around the nation, but for a bronze piece it just seems like a massive effort. What is the process like from start to finish? You know, I have an example like the boy, the skateboarder boy you know the wings that is around La Crosse.

Mike Martino 04:34
Sure. That was a little bit different. When it comes to like bronze. I probably haven’t done hundreds of pieces. Because like you say there’s a lot of work. Snow and sand and all that, yeah, probably hundreds. But the basic process, like say for the fledgling the sculpture downtown there on fourth. That was a different process from what I typically use. That was a last foam process. We’re actually carved the sculpture the figure in like pink dowel board, actually glued that up, and then carved it. And then actually went in and cut it into sections and cored out each section. And then each section was set into a sand mold. And then, so hot metal was poured into it, and as the hot metal hit that foam, it would take its place and just melt it out. So you kind of see how to vent holes and things like that for it. And then each piece was then, once it was in bronze, we’d finish it up and then welded together. Steve Richardson, who was passed away a while ago, he used to work for Mississippi Welders, he was the guy that actually welded it together for me, then I would do the grinding and finishing. And that’s kind of how I’ve done it. What I typically do now, because that was like my first large scale bronze sculpture that I did. After that, and then I hired my friend Tom Kuyoff who’s got a studio in Milwaukee, to do my moldmaking and get things cast and then the welding. And then I still do the finish grinding and finishing on the piece. So basically, what I try to do is do the stuff that I enjoy doing, which is the design and the sculpting in the clay. Once the molds are made, then I can work on the waxes to make sure I get what I want through the process. Then when the wax is die cast into bronze, then I can work on the bronze and again finish it to where I want it. And so that I have my hands on the part where it’s being finished. But on the grunt work, the welding and the mole making all that I hire that part out. And then I don’t have to have as much of the equipment in my studio. Each artist does it their own way. Some artists, they’ll actually start their own foundry just so they can cast their own stuff. And that’s not my thing.

Brent Hanifl 06:49
But you know, just looking at your work. And you know, I’ve known you for a while but I didn’t realize the kind of vast different materials that you get into, even looking at like some of your wood projects, which is definitely vastly different than what your, I guess your medium in terms of bronze. How did you get into those pieces? I’ve seen you do the snow, the sand, the wood.

Mike Martino 07:11
A variety of things. I’ve backed off the sand a little bit more now, like for about 10 years we did Sand on the Riverfront, that was a lot of fun in that. And sand is, it can be difficult because it’s kind of a fragile thing. And it’s a lot of work getting it packed, you know, and you’re out in the heat, you know doing it in that. So I prefer snow and snow, I’ve been doing it longer. It has to be cold, of course, then you can do a lot more than you can do with sand is what I think is the structure is more stable, you can hang things out more, you can under curve a lot more. Like you said with wood, there’s something about you know, the feel of the wood, the smell of the wood, when you’re carving it, some woods are harder than others, the grain that you see when you’re working with it. And as it kind of comes around and then finishing it and seeing that beautiful wood green exposed and that. I mean, there’s all different aspects of each material that I enjoy. I guess my favorite still is probably clay, and snow is a close second to that. The thing about snow is that you can do it, you can get a large piece done in like a couple of days and have something of monumental size. Still a lot of physical work, but it’s not a lot of process. Whatever venue you’re working at, they build the form and they pack it with snow. And when we get there, it’s ready to go we got this big chunk of snow, a typical size is like 10 foot by 10 foot by 10 foot cube. The snow is a more immediate, like we’re actually working on it together at the same time. There’s just something about you’re dealing with the weather, you’re out in the cold. So it just it feels like invigorating. Like I tell people, if they’ve ever done cross country skiing where you’re out in the cold, but you’re really physically active. It just feels really good to be out there, no matter how cold it is. Because you’re building up your own body heating that it’s kind of like that when you’re really carving a lot of snow off. It’s really invigorating. And then as you get down to the details and you’re kind of standing there and whittling it away. That’s when it can get cold. That’s when you have to have the right equipment, the right clothes and that kind of thing. You know, we’ve carved snow in New Zealand, in Italy a couple of times in Sweden. We just came back from Switzerland in December. We were you know in Colorado and Breckenridge and Aspen, Colorado and Maine in Portland and other you know, Falmouth and that kind of the southern cities there and then Michigan. So it’s you get to experience other countries or other states and then you get to meet other artists, because it’s kind of a performance art. You’re out there and they’re always going to ask questions about what you’re doing and how you do it. And that’s part of the gig. You know, it’s like that’s I enjoy that part of it, you know, we go back and forth and chat with people. And it’s just part of it. So kind of going back and forth between all these mediums and that, but like I said I enjoy different aspects of all of it.

Brent Hanifl 10:12
Yeah, it’s kind of interesting to hear about, you know, where this work is taking you travelwise. One thing locally, it’s just like you have a number of works around the area that just kind of always been about La Crosse, and maybe people don’t know that you’ve done them. They might even use it as a wayfaring part is, you know, if they’re out in some of the parks, why is public art important to you?

Mike Martino 10:33
I kind of got into it, I guess, I work well, with people. I guess I like the idea of making it a team effort. So when it comes to a public commission, I see it as I’m going to bring what I can to the team, and that usually somebody has an idea, or a person that they want to commemorate. And so I’m going to work with them to develop that idea. And try to make as good of a work of art as I can, but taking into account what they’re trying to achieve by the symbolism of it. For example, I did a sculpture for Carthage College. And it’s Abraham Lincoln, its like nine and a half feet tall. And then this other figure is John Hay, who was Lincoln’s personal secretary when he was president. They want to do a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and John Hay on a plaza in front of this building. And that was it. It was like, but for me, as an artist, it’s like, well, you know, you just want them just like what? To me, it needed something more of a backstory or some kind of symbolism as to why they’re there. So in researching Carthage College, well, it’s a teaching college, their emphasis is on the student. It’s not on research. And then, in researching Lincoln, you know, I found out these very gregarious, very enjoyed telling jokes, enjoyed talking to people. And looking into John Hay’s background, he was a graduate of Carthage, he eventually became a Secretary of State. And he was Lincoln’s personal secretary, so he was taking dictation. What I came up with was my own scenario, which I think was plausible that there could be a time where Lincoln was giving dictation to John Hay, and John Hay was busily writing everything down. And then Lincoln pauses and says, you know, that reminds me of some joke, or some political experience that he had with a person or something. And he gets very animated. And he’s telling this to John Hay, and here’s John, he really stops what he’s doing and really listens to what the President is saying. So here, he is a young guy, you know, with a political career ahead of him, learning from a master, you know, and gaining some wisdom there. And what I compared it to was, when you’re sitting in class, and you’re taking notes, and it’s like, this is going to be on the test, you just gonna, like, you know, you’re on automatic, like, okay, yeah. And you’re almost falling asleep. And then the teacher will say something like, you know, that reminds me when I was your age, I hitchhiked to Mexico, you know, something like that. And you think what you know, and you actually get a connection, it’s like, well, now, here’s something where I can relate to. And that’s probably what you remember from the class, even though you spit out the information on the test. And that’s what I was trying to kind of symbolize with the idea, that it’s not about just spitting out information back and forth between a teacher and a student. It’s a connection. It’s a visceral, emotional connection, there’s wisdom being passed on. And a really good teacher is a lot more than just somebody spitting out some information, and you regurgitating it. And so they liked that idea of that backstory, and that. So that’s the sculpture we ended up with was Lincoln standing there, and gesturing and actually smiling, which is not typical for sculptures of Lincoln. And then John Hay is eagerly leaning forward, he puts his pencil down, he’s kind of looking and leaning in and listening to Lincoln. So that, you know, that’s kind of the process, what I mean about getting involved with, you know, someone or an organization, developing it to where, you know, it’s a work of art. And it’s not just the portrait or something like that.

Brent Hanifl 14:17
You recently also participated in the Forward La Crosse campaign, which is basically trying to get public input in the planning process for the city of La Crosse. Why do you think you know, as an artist, it’s important for community members to participate in this planning process?

Mike Martino 14:33
Well, I mean, we’re all living here and we have a chance to creatively work together.Again, like I guess I like that idea of people coming together and working together to create, in this case, an environment, a city, a community, and how to make it the best that it can possibly be. Not like having some one person say, well, this is how it’s going to be, this is I’m going to create this town and it’s going to be named after me and It’s gonna be going all the way I like it. And if you don’t like it, you can leave. It’s, you know, it’s more like, what do you like about this community? What do you enjoy? What should we conserve? What should we work towards developing? How should we go about developing the future here? So all of that coming together, I mean, and it’s difficult because, again, it’s kind of a messy process, because you’ve got a lot of different inputs, a lot of different opinions. And that, but I think if everybody comes together with the idea that it’s not all about us individually, it’s about the community, and how will this develop towards a future where other future citizens, you know. The kids that are coming up now, how will they see it? How will they enjoy it? How will they grow in this environment, and that, so, then you got to take everything into account, you know, you got to take in not just the environment, but everything, you know, with the schools and the commercial aspects of it, and the tourism and, you know, visitors coming here, and whether they stay or not, you know, how are they treated, all of that becomes a part of it. So, I think it’s really important, and it’s really a creative process. That’s why I got involved.

Brent Hanifl 16:07
Definitely, I mean, it just seems like especially the arts, too, to be a part of that planning process is vitally important for people just thinking about your own work. You know, I’m sure people have seen your work around, where’s the best avenue for them to go to connect those pieces?

Mike Martino 16:22
There’s a brochure that I think is over at the Pump House. I think they still have it there. But there’s a brochure of public art in La Crosse. And so that might not have everything, but it’s got a lot of them. And it’s not just mine. It’s other people’s work. Like Elmer Peterson, who was here before me, and was a great friend and mentor that helped me when I first got to La Crosse in 1986. Him and his wife Carol are just great at being supportive, and helping us out, my wife and I. And yeah, that would be one way of doing it. Just you know, get that brochure, and you can follow it around and you could go to my website, And looking through there, you’d see some of the pieces that are around this area, you know, but you’d see some of the other ones too that are not, but I guess that’d be one way of doing it.

Amy Gabay 17:23
La Crosse Local Podcast is a production of River Travel Media. Do you have an interview idea you’d like to share with us? Message us on Facebook at La Crosse local. Find out more about us at and you can subscribe to the La Crosse Local Podcast on your favorite podcast app. If you like us, rate us five stars. We appreciate it.

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La Crosse Local is an arts, food, and entertainment podcast and publication for La Crosse County and its surrounding communities.

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