Born Detroit, MI, 1949 / A.A. Henry Ford Community College, Dearborn; Coursework in Ceramics, Wayne State University, Detroit / Lives in Hazel Park, MI
Lines! It all started with lines for Detroit artist Diana Alva. Before she could recite the alphabet, Alva’s artistic-minded father, Julian, had her filling page after page with lines, any kind of lines, whether or not they made sense or were part of a coherent drawing, just to get her used to the feel of a drawing instrument in her hand and the mental process of creating something. Her father’s ongoing instruction—often whimsical—throughout her childhood played a key role in the artist she would become. Later, while at Wayne State University, Alva became intrigued with the use of line in Japanese pottery decoration. Her subsequent work exhibits these influences, such as the line work that forms the basis of Bird, Nature, Forms (2016).
Raised in the shadow of the olde Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Alva grew up to combine her love of the earth with gardening, pushing and pulling the soil to form beds for her flowers, herbs and vegetables. It is the same organic pushing and pulling process she carries over into her pottery and painting technique: start with a basic idea, outline it with bold line work, refine and massage it as if creating a story or conversing with the pottery or painting in progress, then finish it with a full measure of life-giving color.
Alva pulls from this nature-centric mindset in many of her paintings. Wild Garden #32 (2014), for example, is a lush tropical garden of flowery delight that features a densely populated lower portion forming the base for a sparser outgrowth of flowers that have successfully supplanted that layer. These reach toward the blue skies above, which can be seen through the delicately placed and richly colored petals, leaves and stems.
With the bold line work being reminiscent of the lead cames of a stained glass window, this piece, as others in the Wild Garden series, such as Garden, Garden, Garden (2013), would make ideal adornments in a church, perhaps one called something like the Church of the Natural Sanctuary.
Alva’s paintings have found their way to such wide-ranging places as the movies (8 Mile, Spirits Dancing (2001)) and in collections like the Musée de la Création Franche in Bègles, France. And the Big Paintings show at the Factory in Highland Park in 2014, where she painted Cultural Balance (2014) in situ over four days.
Viewing Cultural Balance can be a haunting (and daunting, at 10’x12’) experience. Shapes, flora & fauna, pottery and objects seem to move in and out of the eye’s focus, creating a profusion of activity. Alva began the piece as a pure abstract, but at some point her affinity for Japanese pottery came into play. She reworked the piece with Mashiko—the centuries-old Japanese ceramics village devastated in the 2011 tsunami—in mind. Cultural Balance is an homage to all the efforts that made the village what it was, and to all cultures built up over the eons, acknowledging that their existence can be precarious. But in the painting the shards and stacks of pottery and shapes appear as defiant waves marching onward toward reconstruction.
The painting, in retrospect, could be seen as prelude to the personal tsunami of events and subsequent reconstruction that began for Alva four days after completing the piece, when she went to the doctor for a persistent back pain and received a diagnosis of bone cancer. Her battle with the condition has kept her from further work in clay and tile with her Detroit Clay Company for the time being, but as she will tell you, “It’s changed my way of being creative, but it hasn’t stopped me.” An example of one of Alva’s post-diagnosis & treatment paintings is the six-component integral piece Reconstruction Series (2018), in which she returned to the use of line as the basis but eschewed any nature motif, instead taking a cue from the four metal rods and screws the doctors inserted in her back to stabilize the affected discs. The piece could have turned out cold and mechanical but instead offers clues to coping for those similarly afflicted. And indeed, Alva undertook painting the series as a healing exercise, a way to stoke her subconscious with acceptance and positivity toward the hardware.
Working in her modest but ample home studio, she points to what might be her favorite piece: Working in the Studio (2018), a painting that evolved into a depiction of what she imagines her ideal studio would be, complete with kiln, potter’s wheel, space for painting and space for thinking—just a perfect place to let her unstoppable creativity burst forth.
Gary Freeman, July 2018
Copyright Essay’d 2018