By Jeremy Hallock These days, Viola Delgado is an artistic inspiration in Dallas-Fort Worth. But since she was just a kid living in South Texas near Corpus Christi, she knew she wanted to be an artist. "My mom was really the first one to give me my tools to become an artist," she says. In the mid-1950s, her mother was a stick figure artist and made coloring books out of flour bag material commonly used to make dresses and shirts. Even then she was coloring outside the lines.
From there she never stopped drawing and painting, but went through somewhat of a dry spell in high school and college. Thinking that being an artist wasn't a real possibility, she has a background in psychology. "No one advised me that I could actually do something with it," she says.
After working for years as a migrant recruiter for DISD, Delgado left her career in 1986 to focus on being an artist. She had no grants or previous success, which made it quite a gamble. She has been single all her life and recalls years of living on sweetbread and cigarettes. Sometimes her electricity or gas were shut off for long periods of time.
Delgado has an interesting creative process that leans on her background in psychology. She never sketches on the canvas, instead just painting what she sees in her head. "In my head I already see where everything needs to go," she explains. Most artists would find this remarkable, but it's natural to Delgado. Staring at a person or a tree will trigger images in her head, but Delgado doesn't want to simply replicate them with a representational painting.
"My brain is like a ticker-tape machine," she explains. Her mind is constantly flooded with images, even in dreams. Some of these visuals demand to be on canvas more than others. This artistic awareness is unquestionably a gift, but sometimes it can tug on her attention when she is painting or trying to put together a series of work for, say, the retrospective that recently filled the Latino Cultural Center. "Art is an everyday, 24-hour thing for me," she says. "It's line, it's concept, it's tangible, it's texture, it's color."
Conversation is also a key element of Delgado's work. She is one of the most agreeable people with whom to sit-down and have a long conversation. Glancing around a coffee shop, she sees people sitting together, but looking at their phones or laptops more than talking to each other. She has no disdain for technology, but laments its inescapable effects on daily life. Delgado thrives on the conversations between viewers and her paintings.
With paintings based on images that flood her mind, she often doesn't know what the narrative is. "I like the fact that people have the answers," Delgado says. "I paint more for the viewer. Perhaps there's something I need from them." She mentions a painting with a woman, a table and a chair. Her focus was on a red box sitting on the table, but someone looked at it and said the woman was preparing to leave. In the next painting of that series, the woman is actually leaving. "How did that person know that?" she wonders.
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Sometimes Delgado knows what she's doing, but not necessarily at first. For over 20 years she painted a woman and had no idea who she was. But then she eventually realized it was a lady that lived next door to her when she was a kid, someone she hadn't seen in over 50 years. An anachronism in the mid-20th century, the woman still cooked on a wooden stove and had an outhouse. When Delgado's family bought a TV, this neighbor would tell her to pull her dress down and hide her legs when a man appeared on screen. Unaccustomed to the technology, the neighbor assumed that if she was looking at a man in a box he must have been looking right back at her. Much of Delgado's work contains stories like this one.
In other paintings, Delgado intentionally leaves her work open to interpretation. It may seem like social commentary to paint faceless women, but to her mind, she is simply leaving it up to the viewer to decide who these people are. "It has an identity once you put a face to it," she says. Perhaps these ticker-tape people are grandmothers, sisters or old friends.
Delgado would not describe her current financial status as stable, but recently she has had some big successes. In addition to a recent retrospective at the Latino Cultural Arts Center, she has painted murals at elementary schools, has permanent installations at two DART stops and one at the DFW airport. The piece at the airport is nearest and dearest to her heart. She thinks of the countless people who have looked at it and considered what it means. The blue hands on the piece represent the hands of blue-collar workers, her father's in particular. She has had family she barely knows call her from its location.
More than any other piece, Delgado refers to that when talking about her legacy. But it is also a lightning rod for all her tenets as an artist. There is certainly a dialogue between this work of art and its viewers. She consciously knew whom the piece was for, but it still came from an image on the ticker-tape machine. She didn't realize it until someone pointed it out, but this work of art has eight hands, eight swirls and eight points. When she was installing the piece, the gate number was yet to be determined. But, as fate would have it, Delgado's piece sits in terminal D at gate 8.