Marie Lardino, seems like one of those gifted achievers who has sailed through life without a cloud. She is a small dynamo of energy, intellect, humour and quirkiness. It is only when you talk with her, that you discern the strength and discipline she must have applied as a young woman, not only to renounce her “first love” of art, but to work and study simultaneously, as a single mom.
Born in Uruguay, with a paternal grandfather of Italian descent, Marie’s family moved to Canada when she was 11. She spent her first two years bullied by her peers until she became proficient in the English language; an experience that marked her for life and which was compounded, at a much later date, by a run in with a college professor over a bad grade. As a direct consequence, she quit art college, found a job to pay the bills and only then began to realise the influence that both teachers and the educational environment can have on a young person’s mind and well-being. It was this that steered her towards a career in education.
Decision made, Marie returned to her studies and acquired a host of qualifications: she completed her post-secondary education at university, attained a Master’s Degree in Education and also an EdD candidacy. She worked for 12 years as a teacher within Canada’s education system before setting up her own academic school – begun in a church basement while on unpaid leave – and which has since become one of Toronto’s most acclaimed private schools. It took her 22 years to pay back her initial student loan of $45,000.
The school now runs at full capacity with 100 students from grades 1 through to 8. Called Voice Integrative School, it lays great emphasis on critical and analytical thinking: Students study the regular academic curriculum, but in addition learn life skills, study philosophy, take part in theatre and art programmes and hold debates on global issues. They are encouraged to question, seek answers and above all, believe in themselves.
A school, should, as Marie adamantly says: “embrace kids and empower them to go forward and achieve. It should feel like a second home; kids need to feel the sense of belonging in order for their own uniqueness to shine through. It’s about participation and engagement rather than rules and regulations. If the kids respect themselves, they will also respect others.” It goes without saying that the school has zero tolerance for bullies.
With many bursaries and scholarships available for parents unable to meet the fees, the school has, as Marie says, “evolved, grown and organically changed” since she first founded it. It now presides in one of the oldest historic buildings in Toronto, has a strong team of dedicated teachers and is firmly established.
In 2015, having realised her ambition of creating ‘a school with a difference’, Marie made the huge decision of taking early retirement. She appointed a Principal to assume her work load – taking a back stage role for herself – and headed to Florence in order to revive her dream of becoming an artist; where better than in the country where her ancestor’s roots are firmly planted.
Inspired by a photo taken of her daughter on a previous trip to Italy and which many people had noted bore a resemblance to Botticelli’s Muse, she came to Florence not just to paint, but to study the painting techniques practiced by Botticelli himself: from the mixing of powder pigments with egg and vinegar in order to make egg tempera paint to the building of a canvas from wood, gesso and rabbit glue and working with these mediums to make the painting simulate reality. As she says: “I wanted to learn about the kind of talent and skill that Botticelli would have had in order to create his timeless masterpieces. In order to find out and make a go at his seemingly impossible, time-consuming effort, I used my daughter’s photo, her said likeness to Botticelli’s Muse, as my inspiration.”
Fiorentina – 2015. Paint medium: Egg Tempera - mixed and prepared using ancient methods. At: ADA Academia D’Arte, Firenze. 12x18” wood canvas, glue, linen, and gesso. Teacher: Painter, Sonia De Franceschi.
Since then, Marie with her endless energy and innate curiosity, has attended a number of art courses throughout Europe in order to develop and improve her skills in various different techniques. Refusing the label of artist, she insists she is merely “following a calling” and picking up where she left off as a young and naïve student quitting art school because of a rogue teacher.
Dylan (son) - 2016. Oil. 10x10” linen canvas. Method: Alla Prima. At: Patrick Devonas’ Atelier Narasca. Surava, Switzerland.
The Bride - 2017. Medium: Oil 20x20” canvas. Method: Grisaille. At: Atelier Neo Medici, Villeneuve Sur Lot, France. Learned the Technique Mixed from realist painter Gregory Palizzari.
The Red or the Yellow - 2017. Medium. Oil 15x21” linen canvas. Method: Painting from the photo. Atelier Neo Medici, France.
What the art world lost, the education system gained. Even now, when she is in Toronto, Marie shares her newly found knowledge of painting and of the Italian renaissance with her school’s older students. “I take pride in the fact that my school continues to be a big believer in the arts, in the mysteries found in each of our stories and in the need for belonging”.
It was in fact, Marie’s own need to ‘belong’ which eventually led her to Cortona. On one of her Sunday’s off from studying in Florence, she decided on a day trip to the town and knew the instant she walked through the gate at via Roma that it was the place for her. “I went back to Florence, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. I hadn’t even seen the whole town, but I knew it was where I belonged.” She adds, “I know that sounds corny, but that very first day, was the day I knew Cortona was ‘it’ ”.
La Novizia – 2019. Medium: Oil. 18x23" - linen canvas. Method: Technique Mixed. Painting from the photo. Cortona, Italy.
Whether it was a call to home from her Italian origins or simply the strange magnetism that attracts so many people to Cortona, last year Marie succumbed and purchased a small town house. With an established base “just a train ticket away from Florence” she now dedicates her time between Toronto and Cortona, her school and her painting, living a reality that was put on hold for so many years. Ever the teacher, she says, “I feel honoured to be able to role model the importance of taking risks in life.”
It was indeed a big gamble for Marie to uproot herself and start learning new life skills at a time in life when most people are eager to settle down, but if happiness could be measured by one’s individual achievements, then this feisty, talented lady who has dedicated so much of her life to the nurturing of young minds – sometimes at a cost to her own wellbeing - definitely deserves to enjoy this latest chapter.
Marie at work