If you walk or drive by Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA), you can’t miss the work of local artist Marita Dingus. “Big Girl” easily fills the 30-foot-tall space in the front window, is made up of reclaimed materials and took Dingus a year to construct.
“I’m using materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill,” she said of the piece that will be on display until Oct. 2.
For “Big Girl,” she used many items including slides from 35mm film.
“I covered the slides and wrapped them and manipulated them and that’s what’s making up the arms and legs on the piece,” Dingus said. “The hands and the head and the feet are hot-tub covers. The plastic in a hot tub cover they don’t recycle it, so it goes into a landfill. My goal is to use things that aren’t recyclable yet.”
All the different parts come together to make a prodigious and intricate piece of art. A closer look at “Big Girl” reveals everyday objects. There’s an empty dental floss container, a pair of sunglasses and even the plastic rings used to hold canned drinks together in six packs. Several other dolls hang from the rafters at bima. Each is unique. Like “Big Girl,” they are all made of reclaimed materials given to Dingus. Christmas lights without the bulbs help make up their structure. In one you can see long strips of film. The dolls are wild, tangled and complex.
Dingus also has an Nkondi figure — a religious idol — on display at Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM) in the group exhibition bam Biennial 2016: Metalmorphosis, which runs until Feb. 5, 2017. She’s one of 49 artists with work on display. Nkondi figures originate in the Republic of the Congo and are used to assist people. Dingus’ seated Nkondi is about five feet tall, made of metal and has spiky elements and charms coming from it.
“The Congolese people used to make this piece about 200, 300 years ago. It was like a Judge Judy, meaning there would a priest assigned to the piece and when you were having a conflict, the people that were fighting would go in front of this priest who had this piece and this piece was an arbitrator. They would work out an agreement and then two people would nail this nail into the piece agreeing to do whatever,” Dingus said. “Of course, if they don’t do what they said they’re going to do, then they would have some bad luck. That’s the way it was initially used.”
She went on to say merchants would use Nkondis to deter thieves from stealing from them.
Dingus developed a specific aesthetic early in her career. Not only is it a window into her personality, it’s also a direct reflection of what’s important to her.
“You could say that I’m a feminist, environmentalist, Black artist because all those issues are for me,” Dingus said. “Black is first. Environment is second, feminism is third in terms of priority.”
All of the figures in her work are Black or people of color. With a few exceptions, they are always a woman. Dingus began using discarded materials while obtaining her M.F.A. at San Jose State University in the mid-1980s. At the time she was a single mother and her son Anthony was around 5 years old.
“When it came to art supplies, you had this choice. You buy food for you and your son, or you buy art supplies,” Dingus said. “To me, what little resources I had was going to go toward taking care of my son, and I figured one could make art out of anything.”
She wasn’t the only artist using plastics and metals. Dingus said at the time many in the San Francisco Bay area were using a lot of “found object art” because of the recent hippie movement.
Dingus has always considered herself a feminist. Her resolve in women’s rights was bolstered in art school because the students were mostly women, yet they weren’t reflected in the teaching staff.
“I feel women globally have to be far more resourceful than men. Especially globally because when you look at our situation globally and locally our incomes are always less if there’s even an income for what we do,” Dingus said. “We have to feed and make ends meet regardless. So this idea of being resourceful I think is a female thing because the way the world has allotted our place in it.”
Over the course of her career, Dingus has supported herself through teaching and selling her studio art.
“Maybe a total of about 10 years, I taught college at different points in my life. I’ve taught art in the schools for about 20 years,” said Dingus. “I’ve done adult workshops at the fine arts museum at Pratt.”
She’s also received numerous awards and grants, residencies and has completed installations in Seattle and San Jose, California.
Her talent first showed itself as a child making paper dolls and drawings. Dingus decided she was going to be an artist at a young age and her resolve didn’t waver.
Dingus grew up on a seven-acre farm in Auburn. After living in Texas and Georgia she returned for good in 2001 and resides in her childhood home with her husband. Dingus visits Seattle weekly and often appears at the shows of other artists. She greets her friends with a welcoming smile, hug and fresh eggs from her chickens.
In addition to creating art, Dingus makes jewelry and purses. Even in the face of criticism Dingus stays true to her style.
“Some people don’t like my art,” Dingus said. “They think it’s too messy, it’s too casual, it’s not formal enough, it’s not neat enough. It’s not painting. A lot of people like painting and they want their paintings done very neat and very clean and very precise. Those things aren’t me and they aren’t how I make art.”
Dingus said when people view her work she just wants them “to appreciate things that are different.”
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