By Jesse Butcher
Delita Martin is an artist currently based in Huffman, Texas. She received a BFA in drawing from Texas Southern University and a MFA in printmaking from Purdue University. Formally a member of the fine arts faculty at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Martin is currently works as a full-time artist in her studio, Black Box Press. Working from Oral traditions, vintage and family photographs as a source of inspiration; Martin’s work explores the power of the narrative impulse. Her process of layering various printmaking, drawing, sewing, collaging, and painting techniques allow her to create portraits that fuses the real and the fantastic. In her work, she combines signs and symbols to create a visual language. By fusing this visual language with oral storytelling, she offers other identities and other narratives for women of color. Martin’s work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally. Most recently Martin’s work was included in the State of the Arts: Discovering American Art Now. An exhibition that included 101 artists from around the United States. She was also included in International Review of African American Art as one16 African American artists to watch who are gaining national and international attention in 2015. More information about the artist you can be found at www.blackboxpressstudio.com.
Number: Your current practice places an emphasis on genealogical research. Was that always an impetus for your studio practice or has that developed over time? Did you always know you would work as a visual artist?
Delita Martin: Yes, I have always known that I would become an artist. By the time I was 5 I had already decided on this career path. I wasn’t really sure what that meant, particularly as a young art. I just knew I wanted to create and my family encouraged me to do so. When my parents would introduce me to people they would always add that I was going to be an artist when I grew up, so it never really occurred to me to have a “plan B” or to consider that being an artist wasn’t a possibility.
There is definitely a strong emphasis on genealogy in my work. I grew up in a very close family and we were taught to value and preserve our family history. I was quite fascinated with the stories my grandmother, grandfather, parents, aunt and uncle would tell. I saw them as paintings and I was in awe of how they could paint with words. So it was natural to bring this into my own work.
Can you describe the pre-production element of your process? That aspect can sometimes be more laborious than the viewer realizes.
I tend to work in series and each series may deal with a particular subject or idea. This is of course developed through research. This research might mean introducing a new process, understanding a particular concept or even looking at the work of other artist who have addressed or posed the same questions in their own works. Another element to creating is being able to speak and write about your work. So I spend a lot of time writing and having critiques with friend and other artists about not only my work but about things that are happening in the art world in general. Sometimes I think the viewer thinks that artist go straight to the canvas and the work is done. I would say to them that a work of art is a conversation or an idea that is developed.
In your letterpress work language and text is prominent. How do you discern when the language/text is complete or finished and ready to be born into the public eye?
I use language and text as both visual and contextual layers in my work. Like many of the other elements in my work I have to spend time with them. For example, I may use a pattern on dress for one of my portraits. More than likely there is something that I need that pattern to say. I have to decide if this is coming across in the work, so I will hang the work in the studio or sit it to the side, If it say what it need to say or if it works I will leave it or it may be that I feel it needs to be changed. I will then change the pattern to text. This not only adds a different “visual feel” but the text itself is used to create a “mental picture” and offer some written context for the work.
Can you walk us through an ordinary day in your studio practice? Or perhaps a less ordinary one when beginning a project as large as the “Plate Installation”?
I’m usually in the studio starting around 7:30 a.m. I’m a total morning person. If I’m just starting a project I will pull out research materials and work on sketches and jot down note and ideas that I want to address in the work. My studio is completely covered in random notes and thought. You can find statements and phrases written on the walls and tables. I also listen to lectures, poetry and artist talks as I work. Once I feel I’m in a good place to start, I will prepare my paper and get to work. I usually work until around 4:30pm.
I really approached the plate installation in much the same way. I think the real difference was what I considered the “field research”, finding the plates. It was very important that the plates had a history. I wasn’t interested in buying “New” plates. I wanted something that already had story attached to them. I was able to get plates from some of the women included in the installation, which was amazing. other plates came from second hand stores, garage sales and the like.
What have you been inspired by lately (books, films, records, nature, naps, etc.)?
I think for the last 2 years literature has had the biggest influence on my work. I have been looking a magical realism in both literature and visual arts. a few writers I’ve been reading are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, N.K. Jemisin, Nikky Finney, Octavia Butler NNedi Okorafor. Jamaica Kincaid, and Tiphanie Yanique.