While living with her aunt and uncle near Cardedu in the Sardinian countryside due to poor health, as a child Maria Lai traced bold sketches on the walls of their kitchen with charcoal from the fireplace. She entered school at nine and found it difficult to read and spell until a sensitive teacher (the poet and writer Salvatore Cambosu, who later became her mentor and a close friend) instructed her to read verse aloud and just follow the rhythm of utterances and silences. For Lai, born in 1919 and raised in an insular culture where the oral played a crucial role—especially in the social realms in which women’s voices dominated—it was the spoken word that bridged her gap between illiteracy and literacy.
As an artist, the articulation of language rested at the core of her practice. If the subject of Lai’s first pencil and ink drawings, exhibited in 1957 at the Galleria L’Obelisco in Rome (where she had moved in ’56), was Sardinian women silently at work, later she turned to stitches, fabric patches, and threads hanging loose from the surface of her works to create powerful “asemantic writings,” as poet and curator Mirella Bentivoglio defines them. In 1971, after a long withdrawal from the art scene, a show at the Galleria Schneider in Rome revealed a new direction: with the cycle of Telai (Looms) she deconstructed the framed canvas, creating sculptures where painting and weaving intertwined, through which the vital legacy of her “archaic” roots was translated into the vocabulary of contemporary art.
Other abstract compositions ensued, like the large Tele cucite (Sewn canvases), Lavagne (Blackboards), Geografie (Geographies), Lenzuoli (Sheets), in recursive cycles. Instead of the typewriter so commonly used by the concrete poets of her time, Lai chose the sewing machine to abstract her signs and “letters,” and to record their undecipherable, illegible twirls. She baked books out of bread and clay and sewed others from incipit to end on soft fabric or paper. When Lai was asked by the municipality of Ulassai, her birthplace, to create a war memorial, she proposed instead a “monument for the living”: Legarsi alla montagna (To Tie Oneself to the Mountain). In 1981, she seamed together the entire village by making a blue ribbon fashioned from jeans fabric run from house to house, all the way up to the top of the impending mountain, as in an ancient folk tale. This “social sculpture” was followed by other public actions and works in Aggius, Camerino, Orotelli, Siliqua, and Villasimius, as well as by new open air projects in Ulassai. In parallel, Lai collaborated with theater companies, ran workshops in schools, and voiced her story in artist books such as La barca di carta (The paper boat, Arte Duchamp, Cagliari, 1996), whose pages “strain to tie together the threads of a reasoning on making, reading and redefining art,” in the artist’s words. She died in 2013 in Cardedu.