Delita Martin keeps family’s oral traditions alive with her artworks

African American artist honors women ancestors by keeping their stories alive. She's a featured artist in the "State of The Art" exhibition at the Mint Museum Uptown.

Growing up in Conroy, Texas, Delita Martin would spend hours listening to her grandmother spin tales of her women ancestors.

Delita Martin
Delita Martin

“I was fascinated with how these women lived, what they were like. They became real for me. She just brought history to life,” Martin said of her grandmother, Texanna Williams.

Today, Martin carries on that oral tradition through her art. She layers printmaking, drawing, collage and painting techniques to create colorful images of African American women who are the foundation of the community.

“These women are a combination of every woman I grew up with as a child,” Martin said. Women like Miss Ada across the street who sat at her window, keeping watch. Miss Brunette who sold little pecan pies for $1.

“All of these women appear in my work because their stories are just as important as the first woman on the Supreme Court,” she said.

Martin was selected from hundreds of artists around the country to have her work included in “State of the Art,” an exhibition curated in 2014 by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and currently on display at The Mint Museum Uptown.

She is in town for several workshops and will host a free discussion and post-talk reception today from 6 p.m.-8 p.m. at The Mint Uptown. Martin talked with Qcitymetro about what drives her narratives. Parts of that conversation are printed here, edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Certain images show up throughout your bodies of work— bowls, Mason jars, birds. How do these images factor into your stories?

My grandmother would keep things like Mason jars, Folger coffee cans, buttons, perfume bottles, safety pins — she called them her knick knacks. And she would have a story for every single thing in those jars, and every so often she would go through those jars and tell me stories. I never got tired of them.

I didn’t realize until I was older, when I looked at my work, that these objects had started appearing. I realized this was a visual language for me. These objects became associated with people, places, and things.

My grandmother loved birds, always had birds — parrots  — she would let them out to fly around the house. Birds became my symbol for the human spirit.

Q. You talk about narrative impulses. Can you explain what you mean using “The Bearer” — the featured work in the exhibit — as an example?

“The Bearer” is part of the “I Come From Women Who Could Fly” series — an important body of work for me. I’ve always felt connected to my work, but I wanted to create a body of work that was really, really personal. And the first piece in the series was about my grandmother.

The bowls (in the piece) talk about the womb — the woman as a vessel. We carry our history; we are surrounded by vessels that nourish life.

Q. Why no men subjects? 

Untitled 2 from "Night Women" series
Untitled 2 from “Night Women” series

I had a very positive relationship with my father, my grandfather, my uncles — and they were all very much storytellers.  I’m not going to say that I won’t ever tell their stories because I’m sure that I will. It’s just not time.

When I work in the studio, I like to work as intuitively as possible. I am pretty much a vessel, a conduit for the work to come through me and it just hasn’t happened yet.

Q. Your latest body of work is titled “Night Women.” What is your narrative theme there? 

I wanted to talk about the spiritual side of women. The color blue  — most of the series is monochromatic with varying shades of blue —  is about a space: a space of prayer, a space of meditation, the time that our mamas set aside to pray for us. I was interested in what happens in that space, how we as women transition into spiritual beings, how we become that “other.”

I wanted the women to be as fantastic as the spirituality within them, so I adorned them with beautiful hairstyles and elaborate clothing.

Q. What will you talk about Thursday night?

I’ll be talking about what I love to do and why I do it. I want to provide some insight into who these women are and why they’re important to me, and hopefully, people will be able to make a connection with the work. And when that happens, I know that I’ve done my job. … We may not have the same experience, but because of the symbols that I use in the work, I feel there’s a universal connection that happens there. … A dialogue starts to happen that crosses all types of boundaries and, at that point, I feel like I’ve told their stories; I’ve done what I was supposed to do.

About Delita Martin
Martin, 44,  was born in Conroy, Texas, and graduated with an Masters of Fine Art in 2009 from Purdue University. She is married to Cedric Martin and has a 13-year-old son, Caleb. Click here to view more images from Martin.

"Abstraction: Kiowa By Design" by Teri Greeves
“Abstraction: Kiowa By Design” by Teri Greeves

More “State of The Art” events
State of the Art features 75 works of art drawn from every region of the United States. On exhibit through Sep. 3.

NexGen Design Lab: Delita Martin, Saturday, 1 – 3 p.m. Free for teens 14-18 with NexGen registration;

Lecture: Bob Trotman: June 14, 6 – 8 p.m., includes a post-talk reception. Free
Educators’ Workshop: Bob Trotman, June 15, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
NexGen Design Lab: Bob Trotman, June 17, 1 – 4 p.m.  Free for teens with NexGen registration;

Lecture: Eyakem Gullet: July 19, 6 – 8 p.m., includes a post-talk reception. Free
Adult Workshop: Eyakem Gullet, July 20, 6 – 8 p.m.  Free
NexGen Design Lab: Eyakem Gullet, July 22, 1– 4 p.m. Free for teens with NexGen registration;

Lecture: Jeff Whetstone: August 9, 6 – 8 p.m., includes a post-talk reception. Free
Educators’ Workshop: Jeff Whetstone, August 10, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
NexGen Design Lab: Jeff Whetstone, August 12, 1 – 4 p.m. Free for teens with NexGen registration;

More from QCity Metro