Brooks blogger Erin Williams talks to the artist.
Though we live our lives as individuals, the choices we make and the paths we choose are all shaped by the influences of those we let in our world. Our parents, future children and spouses, long lost friends, even politicians can shed light on the ways and means we decide to follow. For artist Maritza Davila, her life has been built like a sturdy home: Her parents laid the foundation, who raised her and her four sisters in her native Puerto Rico; was rounded out by other strong females like her daughter and aunt, and cemented through the examples and ideals of other friends, family, and students she met along the way.
Davila is a professor at the Memphis College of Art who specializes in printmaking, and has exhibited her work worldwide. Her latest exhibition, Ancestry and Identity: Prints by Maritza Davila, is framed as an altar that celebrates those she has looked up to the most. “Even though this work has been developed from a very personal point of view, they’re issues that we all deal with. They are family issues, love issues, honoring issues…they are not alien, and at least I hope they are not alien to the viewer,” she says. On the eve of its opening, we spoke with Davila about the values instilled in her by her father and mother, how she identifies as a Memphian, and what it means to have faith.
Your father built a career for himself as a musician - what did you learn from him that helped to shape your career as an artist?
I learned from him the respect of the craft, discipline, the love of continued learning. Both my parents were amazing people. My father finished the 8th grade. Then, 8th grade was like finishing high school – the education was that good. He proceeded to continue educating himself. I’ve always admired the love that he had for music and music history, and how he continued learning, by private tutors, the craft of the guitar. He never stopped learning.
The altar is built from the style you grew up around in your home. How were matters of faith handled when you were growing up?
[My father’s] faith was not a traditional faith. He was raised Catholic but he was involved with espiritualism. The kind of altar…it wasn’t just Catholic…it had water…candles, his favorite sayings. He used to go and sit down on the table with the other espiritists to call on in to the spirits.
When we were growing up, instead of taking us to the clinic, he took us to the espirista. We were prescribed a special bath and a special tea, and my father knew all about botany and he would go around the neighborhood picking up plants for the bath or for the tea or whatever.
There are photos in your altar, but they go beyond just being pictures for the viewer. What do some of them mean?
My daughter is the representation of the pure. I took this photograph when she was 16. And then I have my aunt, who is still alive – my only aunt from my father’s side who is still alive. She represents the living. And then I have Minerva Johnican, a very well-respected Memphis politician. She was a first in many ways. I have her in because when the Woman’s Foundation commissioned me to make a piece in her honor, I got to know her. She was an amazing woman – an amazing trailblazer. This is not my home, so I have to include someone like her. And then I have a dear friend of mine [and] I don’t know where she is. She was one of my dearest friends.
I have symbols that have to do with Indian heritage, I have symbols that have to do with African Heritage, and I have symbols that have to do with Catholicism.
How have these people helped you to come full circle?
These people have been important to me at different times in my life. My mother finished high school when we were growing up, and then she became a geriatric caretaker, and she was very well respected by the families of the patients she took care of. My mother was an amazing creative woman. She was the quintessential caretaker, and she was an amazing cook, and she was very giving and very proud of her four daughters. I see it in my mind how happy she was for us…she was always there for me.
Not to say that everything was perfect. My father was very temperamental…he was a man of his time. But there was a certain respect in the sense of what we did. He very early on realized the kinds of things I was interested in, and even though he wanted me to be a musician he realized that my talents lay in visual arts. His example Asof his dedication and discipline has been extremely influential in the way that I carry my craft. Being a teacher is not an accident to me; even though I didn’t see it at the time. Seeing how dedicated, how involved he was as a teacher, it was another great influence to me. Between my passion of being a visual artist, my other one is being a teacher.
And that carried on in to your life now in Memphis, where you’ve lived for over three decades. What do you enjoy about being here?
Being part of seeing how my students grow and how they find their own voice is a privilege to me. I loved Memphis because of the many things that I saw that I could relate where I came from – the cooking, the music, the distinctive identity that the South has that is hard to find in other places that I have been before. It’s pretty much home to me. It has allowed me to become who I am today. I wish that people can go in… and they can find a little bit of themselves in what I have to communicate about myself.
Ancestry and Identity: Prints by Maritza Davila is on view at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art until December 1.
As a compliment to Maritza’s thoughts on subject matter, here is a great video produced by Arts Memphis on the printmaker’s technique and methodology:
Maritza Davila, American (b. Puerto Rico), 1952
Gallo Mañanero (Morning Rooster), 2008
Screen print, polymer photogravure, chine collé
Collection of the artist