Artist Profile

This Fort Myers artist takes fashion from the runway to the canvas

Fort Myers-based creative Lia Martino reflects on fashion's influence in her whimsical art.

BY March 1, 2023
Fort Myers based artist Lia Martino
Lia Martino dabbles in various mediums, ranging from acrylic to charcoal to raw pigments, for works that often feature moody, black-and-white palettes punctuated by pops of color. (Photo by Kelly Jones)

Fort Myers artist Lia Martino seamlessly skates from career-high to career-high. She’s balanced walking runways alongside Naomi Campbell and posing for Calvin Klein while taking painting classes in Europe and placing her artwork in Chico’s corporate offices and stores. And, the 55-year-old multihyphenate is not slowing down anytime soon. She keeps the pace, posing for commercial shoots locally and worldwide—but only when she’s not in her studio cranking out her energetic paintings and drawings that recall the glam, angular sketches made by fashion designers.

Though she depicts various subjects—from punchy abstracts inspired by 20th-century American painter Robert Motherwell to close-ups of enigmatic faces framed by dripping paint—her most popular works pull from one of fashion’s greatest staples: the black dress. “Every woman needs a good black dress,” she says, echoing the time-tested adage. Whether painted in acrylic, drawn in charcoal, or mixed with wax and ink, most of her dress works feature smudged lines, frantic edges and the trademark splashes of black found through her repertoire. “Sometimes, it’s just the outline of a dress I sketch in 20 minutes, and women are drawn to it. When men see the same piece, they see Batman,” she adds, with a shrug.

Growing up in rural Iowa, Lia Martino was drawn to art when a serendipitous moment at 16 shifted her creative energy to fashion. She was recruited to walk a Chanel fashion show at Saks Fifth Avenue in Denver after the luxury retailer’s team saw her track and field photos in a Colorado Springs newspaper, where her family lived at the time. At 19, she moved to California and signed with LA Model Management. The timing was right—the agency was expanding, and the ’90s supermodel era was just around the corner.

Lia’s dedication to her modeling career—which included working with major fashion houses, such as Armani and Escada—paid off in bigger ways than she’d expected. Her rigorous travel schedule exposed her to art in some of the world’s cultural capitals. In between gigs, she’d visit as many museums as she could. In New York City, she immersed herself in museums that ran the gamut of art history and often skipped town to Washington D.C.’s National Portrait Gallery or the Library of Congress. (“I have a book fetish, too,” she confesses.) She kept up the pastime as she began spending more time in Europe. “Even if I was living in Milan or Germany, I’d take off weekends from casting jobs and travel,” she says.

In between exploring churches in Barcelona and wandering Paris’ maze-like Louvre, Rome pulled her in like a magnet. “Rome was one of my favorite places for everything—museums, food, music, culture,” she says. “I felt most at home there.” She wistfully recalls an exhibition of Salvador Dalí and Picasso in the Eternal City’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna. She was shocked to walk into galleries full of female nudes. “I was a naive little farm girl,” she says. “It was life-changing for me. It empowered me. It was arrestingly beautiful. It told me that there are no rules to what can be painted; that there are no rules in art.”

She began using her weekends in Rome to take art classes, too, where she was introduced to Old World techniques, including grinding raw pigments to make her own paint. “That’s where I learned most of my art,” Lia says. “I didn’t speak Italian, so I was seriously hands-on trying to figure out methods from the artists I was working under. I got so excited about painting. I’d think, ‘I don’t need to do that Armani campaign; I’m just gonna stay in Rome instead.’”

Lia Martino set up makeshift studios wherever she lived, squeezing in time to create after fashion shows. “I’d buy rolls of canvas, and I’d stuff them in my suitcase,” she says. “And I always had pigment and paints with me. If I didn’t have materials to work on, I’d paint on the backs of curtains.” The logistics could have been daunting—especially since Lia’s always worked on a large scale, with her preferred size clocking in around 8-by-10 feet. She would request to stay in the most spacious rooms available to fit her hefty canvases and learned not to be precious when packing the pieces. “When I’d reveal them at home, I liked the folds, the creases—a little bit of the pigment would stain,” she says. “I liked that my pieces weren’t so perfect.”

She landed on the idea of depicting the ubiquitous little black dress while watching Naomi Campbell spin during shows. “It’s embedded in my brain,” she says. “Being on the runway, that’s all I’d see: a beautiful woman in beautiful short black dresses or flowy, long black dresses.” She began the series in Europe and hasn’t stopped since—even after moving to Fort Myers 14 years ago so that her son could live closer to her family in Lee County. Her works, in mediums ranging from house paint to the raw pigments she ground back in Rome, are often done in moody black-and-white palettes punctuated by pops of scarlet. She coaxes the dramatic shapes and visceral brushstrokes that she favors into the silhouettes and pleats of black dresses that read all at once edgy and buoyant.

Dresses follow her throughout her career, starting with the simple, black Chanel she modeled at Saks as a teenager, long before she took commissions. “Good art triggers a memory,” she says. She pauses, reflecting on her time dashing from catwalks to canvases: “Especially, happy memories.” 

Pictured Above:

The Dress, mixed media on canvas, 60×48,

Walk Like 3 Men are Behind You; pencil, pastels and coffee on paper


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