For many of the previous generations of farm families in South Jersey whose labor went into the land and whose income came out of it, Mary Sorbello’s story is routine, unremarkable, an ordinary expectation for the times. Mary expected it, and accepted it. Still does.
But while Sorbello carried on with the routine and the expected, she was hardly unremarkable or ordinary. It just took several decades for the rest of South Jersey to discover that.
Mary Nicolosi was born and grew up in a farmhouse in Mannington, Salem County 82 years ago, one of seven children in a family with Italian roots. The children were put to farm work the minute they were big enough.
“We three girls were born first, so we were doing the heavy lifting until the boys grew up,” Sorbello said. “And when they did, the boys didn’t want to do the work,” she chuckled. What a child wanted didn’t matter much, of course. “It was a farm. Everybody worked,” Sorbello pointed out.
But as consuming as farming is, it wasn’t enough for young Mary, and here is where she ventured out of the usual. At any chance presented, Mary would wander the fields, woods, streams and fence lines, reveling in nature and looking for “things.” She would bring those “things” back to the house and in short order, craft something pretty from them.
“My sister used to tell me I knew stuff,” Sorbello remembered. “And I guess I did.” She offered an example. “I would know there were arrowheads in the ground,” she said. “Nobody believed me but we’d be out in the field on the tractor and I’d yell, ‘Stop!’ to my sister who was driving and I’d get off and pick up an arrowhead. It’s like I knew where to look. She would tell me I always knew things like that.”
What she “knew” came from a love of nature, the land, her discoveries. “I love rocks, shells, stones, anything of nature: leaves, pieces of wood, pine cones.”
She loved them and she usually made something appealing from them. She’d use leftover paint to make flowers nod on a flat piece of wood, or carve a small animal she saw hiding somewhere within a weathered tree branch.
Sorbello said she wasn’t trying to make art. She was easing her “itchy fingers.” The fingers, it seemed, had work besides the farm to do.
“As a child I got a watercolor paint kit,” Sorbello recalled. “Sometimes I’d tell my mom my fingers itched when I was doing chores. I think she knew what I meant because she would tell me, ‘OK, go paint.’ And I’d go grab some daffodils and paint a picture of them.”
She remembers, too, realizing the importance of school, though her memory is mixed up with crayons. “I always knew things, somehow. I knew from a young age that education was important. But I remember I always wanted a new box of crayons and that’s why I liked school.”
There was a chance, she said, that a school art class would give students a box of crayons. They were not a priority to a family of nine working the land and Mary, the elementary student, figured school was her best bet for a new box.
As she grew up, her artistic talents were noticed and neighbors requested pieces she’d done, while local business owners asked her to design windows. She liked best the times she found to wander natural spaces and “find things.” Her “knowing” was apparently a facet of seeing forms and patterns in the large and small of nature that others did not.
For example, some time ago, “Someone brought me a lovely piece of driftwood,” Sorbello said. “I looked at it and I saw a python on top, right there on top.” She asked for a picture of a python to make sure of the colors and began to bring the python out with yellow and black pigments. It sits today on top of that driftwood, no longer hidden.
Sorbello’s early understanding of the importance of school kept her in classes until graduation. “I was the only child to finish high school,” she said. Even more impressive, prior to graduation Sorbello was offered a $10,000 scholarship to the prestigious Moore School of Art in Philadelphia. $10,000 was a huge amount of money.
It is at this juncture that, looking back, one would have to say Sorbello’s obvious path toward a life in professional art was stymied. Her parents said, “No.”
“My school advisor begged my parents, ‘Please, please, you have to let her go (to Moore).’ But they didn’t believe a woman should go out and work. To leave the house and work. They said I had to help the family and they needed me on the farm.” It was the custom, the expected, and Sorbello stayed home.
“I just accepted it,” she said. “I loved the farm. I love Mother Nature and animals. I knew I would be a farm wife and that’s what I wanted if I couldn’t be an artist.”
Mary married the man she fell in love with at a dance and moved with Rosario Sorbello, a Swedesboro farmer, to Mullica Hill where they made a living farming the land and raised six daughters.
One day, pregnant with her first child, Sorbello wanted a maternity girdle. “It was $28,” she said. “It might as well have been $128.” Her husband told her, “Why don’t you open a stand”, and Mary did. She opened the farmer’s stand on Rt. 77 now known as Sorbello Girls in 1962 “with just some boxes of vegetables and fruit and an umbrella. It’s grown bigger every year since,” she said, pleased at the success of the business she founded.
Her path into art may have been blocked by now-antiquated customs, but Sorbello’s desire to satisfy her “itchy fingers” was not. “My whole married life I did art things, even if I had to dig clay out of the irrigation pond. I’d use an exacto knife to carve wood and old paint to paint the carving. I’d make things and just keep them or give away to family, friends.
“I always had to keep busy, to create. I love beauty and I see nature as beauty. My fingers are always itching for work and I don’t mean dishes.”
There is something bright, inventively creative about Sorbello’s various art pieces. She works in many media, depending on what’s at hand or what she finds in nature, or if a camera is handy. She is a folk artist, if a genre is needed, yet her works often transcend category.
Her art has a homespun feel. A hidden story seems to underlie every piece and often, her title tells it. A lush garden of flowers is titled ‘Under the Sea’ and then you see it. These are no flowers but a school of fish and fancy corals, bubbles rising from the pearlescent ocean sand. All made of shells and Cape May diamonds Sorbello found.
When she was 70, Sorbello finally gave in to the urgings of a fan base of friends and family and entered her first art show, the Gloucester County Senior Art Show, run every year by the Senior Corps Program. (Upcoming show is July 18 at Rowan University.)
The art that since Sorbello’s childhood collected praise and interest from people who saw it, now collects ribbons from the judges every year she has entered the show. It astounds her.
“I always felt (my work) wasn’t real art. I was embarrassed to enter,” she confessed. “I don’t see myself as making art. When I won four ribbons the first year I was so excited. Just the idea someone thought I had talent, that they liked what I did.”
The Senior Art Show, amateur division, attracts about 120 artists each year, said Judy Hall, who volunteers as coordinator of the event. “We have some who are beginners and we have people who are tremendous.” She pointed out that entries are judged by professionals, artists and teachers, and entrants are in a “very professional” environment.
Helen Antonucci, Executive Director of the Senior Corps program, is familiar with Sorbello’s work and calls her “very talented. She really is. Her sculpturing is most unusual for a woman. It’s very rare for a woman to enter sculpturing in the art show. But the judges don’t know the gender of the artist.”
Sorbello has taken ribbons several times for her sculptures, including a first place blue for a carving of two beach plovers sitting on driftwood.
Sorbello, a widow since Rosario’s death in November just before their 60th anniversary, looked back on her years. “I’ve had a good life. I’ve done everything I wanted to do.”
She also passed to her daughters a mindset of expectations upending those the young Mary accepted. All six children not only finished high school, they went on to college and professional careers and have taught their children the value of education and following their talents.
But Sorbello has not, not quite, broken through the early lesson that decreed a woman cannot leave to follow a dream. She talked about her pieces, her enjoyment in creating, her need to busy itchy fingers. She mentioned her drive for expression of the forms and the stories she sees in the most common of nature’s castaways: beach stones, ocean shells, driftwood and dropped branches, the old jewelry collected and crafted into something novel and sparkling.
When asked, “Who is Mary?” a bewildered look crosses her face. “I don’t know. No one’s ever asked me. I never thought about it,” she said. “I’m someone who cares about the land, sees the beauty. I don’t know how to answer… I’m a mother,” she said. “A wife. A farmer.”
She does not describe herself, in addition, as an artist, despite a lifetime of proof for the description. That long-ago lesson did not hinder Mary Sorbello, but it stayed with her.
By Jean Redstone