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“Visions of Mary” reclaims and reimagines the Mother of God

Artist Ramona Martinez uses Mary’s image to promote comfort, inclusion, and justice

<p>The focal point of the exhibit was a large altar along the left wall, under a piece entitled “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”</p>

The focal point of the exhibit was a large altar along the left wall, under a piece entitled “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

When viewers ventured to the back of Second Street Gallery in Downtown Charlottesville, they found a small, dimly lit room just to the left. The room was filled with eyes, all belonging to a familiar face — the Virgin Mary. 

This room, the Dové Gallery, was home to an exhibit entitled “Visions of Mary” and was held from Dec. 2 until Sunday. Created by Charlottesville artist and musician Ramona Martinez, the exhibit was a collection of iconography that seeks to serve as “an invitation for every visitor, regardless of faith, to sit with the love of the Virgin Mary.” 

The gallery featured 12 pieces, all of which depicted either Mary or a related figure. Most of the pieces were prints made from linocut — a technique that involves carving a sheet of linoleum, adding ink to the surface and printing it onto paper or fabric. 

Martinez explained that the medium is relevant to the message of the exhibition because it represents accessibility to religion. 

“Printmaking, unlike painting, is really accessible for people to own,” Martinez said. “Icons historically have been something that only wealthy people were able to commission or existed only in church. And so the idea that you could have easily reproducible but still beautiful and meaningful icons that people can obtain is important to me.” 

The focal point of the exhibit was a large altar along the left wall, under a piece entitled “Our Lady of Guadalupe.” The artwork depicts Mary, eyes downcast, encircled by the questions “Am I not here? I, who am your mother?” 

The altar was adorned with paper roses, prayer candles and photos of various saints. In front of the altar stood a pew for audiences to sit, simulating the look and feel of a real church. 

Most of the other pieces depicted the mother of Jesus in various situations. One print, “Miraculous Medal,” shows the Virgin Mary surrounded by constellations. Another, “Nativity,” sees the Virgin Mary looking over Jesus in the manger after his birth. 

Not surprisingly, Martinez’s religious background served as the main inspiration for the exhibit. While the artist was raised Episcopalian, she stopped going to church in her late childhood. However, her relationship with religion was revived after seeing the work of religious leaders in the counter-protests of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The rally saw hundreds of white supremacists protesting the removal of the Lee statue in Charlottesville, leading to violence that ultimately culminated in the death of Charlottesville citizen Heather Heyer Aug. 12, 2017. 

“I had seen priests marching in the streets and using their bodies to protect protesters,” Martinez said. “I think that it really made me see Christianity in a different way, in a way that really was a means of trying to, from their lens, rebuild the kingdom of God on earth — by which we mean, bring justice and equity.” 

This relationship between religion and activism was apparent in “Visions of Mary.” A piece entitled “Our Lady of Anti-fascism” — the only painting in the collection — depicted Mary as a protective figure of anti-fascist advocates. 

“Ultimately, I think anti-fascism is based in love and this vision, you know, of a society where there is no authoritarianism,” Martinez said. “I felt like the people who were and who are doing that work deserve a vision of Mary that is for them, and for everyone.”

The painting is rife with references to anti-fascism and related political movements. The halo encircling Mary’s head is a symbol of the Iron Front, an anti-Nazi organization that operated in 1930’s Germany. Various other features of the piece — the black and red color scheme, her black face covering and the roses that lay at her feet — also have anti-fascist associations. 

Perhaps the most important feature of the piece is Mary’s position. She stands with her arms open, welcoming all who seek refuge — accentuating Martinez’s vision of Mary as a protector. 

The artist reflected on the exhibit’s universality and its ability to offer comfort to audiences.

“I guess what I'm really proud of is that the exhibit was an open container, like a vessel — like Mary is — for people to fill with what they needed. And so people were able to come and find some peace or some connection or meaning, whatever that looks like to them,” Martinez said.

Now that the exhibition has closed, Martinez plans on turning her prints into a deck of oracle cards. She also fronts Honky Tonk band Ramona & the Holy Smokes, who can be found at venues across Charlottesville.

Ramona’s work can be found on her Instagram @by_ramona_martinez, and on her website www.ramonamartinez.net

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