Marita Dingus, Artist
A creative tour de force, Marita Dingus infuses every aspect of her life with her aesthetic. From the art she makes to her clothes, home, and even her chicken coop, everything Marita touches bears her artistic signature. So much so, that she is one of the rare living artists whose clothing and home furnishings have been exhibited in a museum.
To create her sculptures, Marita uses what many would consider trash, and what she refers to as “discarded material”—scraps of fabric, fragments of glass, coils of wire, and anything broken or no longer useful, like an empty soda can, ruined clock, or lost key. In her hands, these bits and pieces are transformed into sculptures: baskets, fences, faces, figures, and dolls. Along with their beauty, many of her sculptures carry the profound sadness of generations of injustices borne by people of African descent.
A Seattle native, Marita holds a BFA from Temple University in Philadelphia and an MFA from San Jose State. She has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and her work has been exhibited in museums and galleries all over the world, such as the Seattle Art Museum, National Portrait Gallery in D.C., and Stenersen Museum in Norway. After more than twenty years of representation by Francine Seders Gallery in Seattle, which is closing this year, Marita’s artwork will now be represented by Traver Gallery and her jewelry by Facèré Jewelry Art Gallery. To see more images of Marita’s work, visit her website at MaritaDingus.com.
Marita talked with Constellation617 about her childhood experiences with making art, how she developed her unique style, and projects she’s working on. The interview took place on February 18, 2014, in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle.
C617: How did you become an artist?
Marita Dingus: It goes back to being really little. I always drew, so I can even go back to two or three years old. My dad worked for Boeing, and he used to bring home all this paper that Boeing would throw in the trash. He knew that if you just flipped it over, it was a nice clean white piece of paper. We always had tablets of paper, so we were always drawing.
I decided to take it seriously and to the next level when my sister Margaret stopped making paper dolls for me and I had to make my own. That was first grade. She had drawn a mustache with a felt-tip marker on my doll. It was one of these vinyl plastic Shirley Temple or Susie Sunshine dolls. And she drew on it with a felt-tip marker! That mustache was not going nowhere.
I was mortified, just a wreck. She got in trouble, and she looked at me and said, “I’m never making another paper doll for you again.” And I thought, uh-oh. My dad said, “Make your own paper dolls.” And I started drawing my own paper dolls. I found out that even though I was young I was pretty good at drawing them. Necessity is the mother of invention. I got good at drawing and just continued from there.
I remember something else because of Ron Hall. He’s an African-American artist. Incredible, really good. He said he looked at comic books and comic strips and would copy them. I remembered that there was this old-fashioned comic strip—even people my age don’t remember it because it was obscure. It was called Mr. Abernathy. He was an old, funny-looking, short man and had young secretaries that he used to chase around the desk. His young secretaries looked like the Jetsons—like Judy—nice little shapely women, and some of my paper dolls were The Jetsons and The Flintsones. So, bottom line, Mr. Abernathy comic strips always had these nice little curvy women running around. As a little girl, I didn’t have Barbie dolls, so looking at that comic strip is how I decided what a paper doll shape should look like. And I had forgotten that! For all these years.
I drew all throughout elementary school. In about fourth grade, I had a very nice nun. I drew a picture of Mother Mary holding Jesus and the nun was just, “Ah!” and she mimeographed it and handed it out for everyone else to color. [Laughs.]
C617: I know you have an MFA. Did you study art as an undergraduate, too?
Marita Dingus: Yes, undergraduate and graduate school. At an early age, I knew I was going to be an artist. My parents, unlike a lot of artists I know, saw being an artist as something valid. An artist friend told me she had to keep her major in college a secret from her family because she was the first generation in her family to go to college. And you don’t waste a good college education on an art degree, right? You become a nurse or a nuclear physicist, but you don’t become an artist with a college degree. So she had to keep it undercover.
Maybe because I wasn’t the first generation to go to college—my father and his father had gone to college—when I announced that I was going to be an artist, no one said anything like, “Don’t waste the degree on art,” or “You can’t be an artist.” I found out that in my father’s family, he and his sisters all drew, and my grandmother was a music instructor. My grandfather was in something like the Department of Agriculture. They went to historic black colleges. So when I said I was going to be an artist, no one blinked an eye.
C617: When you were growing up, did you have role models or mentors?
Marita Dingus: Not really. I was raised Catholic, and when we went to church every Sunday, my only solace was staring at all the wonderful statues in the church. My mother, being devout, had statues all over the house. We still have a lot of the statues around. She actually had a shrine of statues on the mantel. Now the mantel has all these African sculptures, but when I was growing up, there was Saint Patrick, Saint Theresa, Saint Mary, Saint Anne, Saint Monica, Saint Anthony, Saint Martin. So I’ve always found solace in art—not because we went to art museums. I have no memory of going to art museums as a child. But we did go to church, and Catholic churches were full of art. The art in the Catholic churches made me happy because it gave me something to stare at and daydream about when I was being bored to tears with all this doctrine.
So I always found art to be comforting. All those Catholic images, I loved them.
C617: How did you develop your unique style of art?
Marita Dingus: That would go back to high school. The consciousness happened when I was high school, 1972-74, which was the time of the Black Power movement and the Black Panther party. My sister had married someone who was into black studies. He had started the black student union in Bellingham, or something like that. So, she had married a black activist and he brought blackness and black consciousness to our family. He saw me doing all these wonderful drawings of white folk and he said, “Why are you drawing white folks? Don’t you know what color you are? You’re black. You need to be drawing pictures of black folks.” And that made sense.
So I started drawing pictures of black people. I would get National Geographic magazines, books of Africa and African art, and Jet magazine. I started drawing pictures of black people. This was in high school.
When I got to college, all the models in drawing class were white. Although when I went to school in Philly, we did have one black model, and I liked that. With all the white models, I couldn’t draw pictures of black people anymore. So I started cutting off their heads! [Laughs.] I forgot that! There was an artist named Pearlstein. He was out of California, I think. He used to do these huge drawings of naked people, but he never painted their heads. He was always cropping them, so you’d just get breasts and torsos. I saw that and thought, that’s the solution.
I didn’t exactly do drawings of people with their heads cut off—but I would frame it and crop. It actually made for some very interesting compositions, because when you crop, you don’t have the negative space. You zoom in on just a part of a person. You can get wonderful compositions by cropping instead of trying to get the whole figure on the page.
After I graduated, I spent a month in Morocco and my African consciousness came up again I started drawing from African books and magazines again. I was trying to get my own identity and concentrate on black culture.
I took two years off before applying to graduate schools. I had this pitiful portfolio of images of black people. When I look back at that portfolio, I think, Lord! [She shakes her head and laughs.] I got rejected at all these graduate schools, but San Jose said, “Why don’t you come down and do a semester, and then we’ll review you again.” I said, “What a deal. Sure.” So, I went down there and brought all the junk I’d gathered off the freeway while working for the Department of Ecology the previous two years.
I started collaging fabric and this junk from the freeways onto huge drawings of African people. I submitted it as a new portfolio to get into graduate school, and they loved it. They said, “This is great.” So I had been able to make the leap between drawing and this kind of flat sculpture. One of my graduate advisors said, “Gosh, they want to come off the wall.” And that’s all I needed. I said, “You’re right.” So instead of being attached to a wall, I started building the sculptures.
C617: I’ve heard you use the term “discarded” for the recycled materials you use.
Marita Dingus: I like “discarded” because I see a correlation with my ideology. The materials represent discarded people, and people of color historically have been used and discarded. You don’t discard people. They have value.
C617: When you first started putting those objects on your paintings, were you thinking of that idea of discarded people already?
Marita Dingus: I was. I was thinking about black people. I was thinking about African people. I had just left Morocco after living in Rome. They’re both beautiful places, but they’re pretty different, one being European and the other African. So I was thinking about how people with brown complexions always seem to be poorer than people with white complexions. And people of color, people who are brown, are robbed. People came to their countries, took all their resources, and left them poor. They enslaved them. So I was thinking about that. And I was working for the Department of Ecology, picking up discarded materials. Then, my parents are products of the Depression; they never threw away anything, so that again fed into the ideology of not wasting anything.
C617: When did you start making and designing your own clothes?
Marita Dingus: I always made my own clothes. Our mother used to make our clothes. She sewed, and my father’s mother sewed, so our grandmother would make us clothes. Then my mother started letting me make my dolls’ clothes in about third grade. I think I started making my own clothes in fifth grade.
C617: Did you use patterns?
Marita Dingus: I was using patterns at the time and I think I stopped using patterns in high school because I had enough experience that I could just do it. Also, if you’re using stretch fabric, you don’t need patterns. Patterns are for when you need darts and things, but if you’re using fabric that stretches, you don’t need darts.
C617: I saw in a video of your studio that you have this old black Singer sewing machine. Is that what you use?
Marita Dingus: I have six of them. I had one initially when my son’s father and I got married. He got it for me for a wedding present. That was in the ’70s. I told him I wanted an old sewing machine. I don’t like the new touch and sews. I wanted what my mother had because that’s what I was used to. He bought it for me, and I want to say it was maybe a 1952 sewing machine. I loved it.
Then I bought a second one in the eighties for two hundred dollars, and then the sewing machine man let it slip out that he was going to thrift stores and buying them for fifty dollars and turning around and selling them. So I started going to thrift stores, and every time I saw one I would buy it. Right now I have six, and they are all within ten years of each other. The sewing machine man said that model was the best that Singer made and will sew through anything, and it does. It will sew through leather, copper, aluminum cans.
C617: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between the sorrow and injustice that inspires some of your work and its brightness and adornment?
Marita Dingus: For about ten years my work focused on the institution of slavery, the three hundred years of it. That’s some pretty serious, somber, sad subject matter. Even now, I think people of African descent still have a hard time because of our black skin. You don’t escape it. And people still have difficulty dealing with the fact that you are black. We’ve made wonderful strides, but it’s still an issue. Racism is still alive and kicking. That would be the somber part. You have to work harder and misfortunes occur, whether it’s denial in employment or not getting an opportunity to go to school or a teacher ignores you in class or kids make fun of you. These things are still happening, even though it’s 2014. You can still hear stories that are very similar to stories told a hundred years ago. So, the faces are somber.
The playfulness comes from the optimism and the need to continue to move forward. You can’t let it bury you. You need to try to prosper even under the most dire circumstances. You need to continue to move forward.
C617: Having been to your home, it’s striking how everything on your property bears your artistic touch. Your aesthetic is everywhere and it’s obvious that it’s not done for other people to see; it’s just how you live. How did you have the confidence to make everything yourself?
Marita Dingus: My father had that quality. He used to make everything. He was a mechanical engineer at Boeing. His people also had that, and maybe my mother’s people too. My mother made quilts and dresses. My father, though, was very unorthodox, and his father was extremely unorthodox. My mother used to tell stories about his father and how he was such an odd man. It would be the middle of summer and he would come into town in his horse and buggy and this huge overcoat. Everybody thought he was a little odd.
I think a lot of my eccentricity comes from my father. My mother was much more, “Let’s not look too unusual.” But my father, he had no compunction. He would put together cars—he had a car that he cut in half and put a truck bed on the back. He had a welding rig and a machine shop. He made the strangest things and I grew up worshiping my father. So if he could make strange things, by golly, I could. And if I made something, he would just praise it to no end. The discovery is part of the fun.
C617: What new projects are you working on? Where will you be showing your work now that Francine Seders Gallery is closing?
Marita Dingus: Traver Gallery is going to represent my sculpture, and Facèré is going to represent my jewelry. I’m making a special line of jewelry for Facèré, which takes a little more time, because the gallery sells high-end jewelry. So it’s exciting for me that I can slow it down and take more time.
Even with Traver, I’m trying to take more time with my art so I can move to the next level. And then, there is the show at the Northwest African American Museum, which is up until May.
C617: How does that feel to have your personal items on display in the Northwest African American Museum?
Marita Dingus: It’s kind of funny because I’m not dead. I’m alive! But it’s fine. My mother would have gotten a kick out of it.
Visit Marita Dingus’ website at MaritaDingus.com.
Watch an interview with Marita Dingus in her studio and home, where she discusses her artwork and artistic influences. The video includes shots of an installation at the Northwest African American Museum and an interview with its curator Vicki Halper. The video was created by Stefanie Malone for KCTS Television.