Direct Quote: Grief’s Gift

Austin artist
Jen Reel
Melba Martinez received a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies in theater, film and performance.

Melba Martinez has spent most of her life in the theater. She’s won numerous awards as both an actor and director, received a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies in theater, film and performance arts, and spent 22 years teaching and directing at St. Edward’s Mary Moody Northen Theatre in Austin. The last nine of those years she served as the department chair. But the death of her niece over a decade ago sent Martinez into a deep depression that eventually led her to change course and become a painter of roses.

“It was 2003. [My niece] was 22, a car accident. It was the first person in our family [to die prematurely], and I have 11 brothers and sisters. There are 22 grandkids in the family. It shocked us. I don’t know if you’ve ever grieved really hard, but it’s weird how it takes you. It’s like everything is a struggle. Combing your hair or finding your shoe is really hard. Running a department and parenting were really hard. When I returned from the funeral, I started to think about the show I was directing at the time, and I really felt like the show would have a shelf life. But it would be over, and although we would have videos and photos, it would never be alive again. I just couldn’t shake this deep sadness. Luckily my friends who were painters said, ‘You have to get out of the house. Come over and paint with us.’ I remember it was a Friday night.

“It ended up being therapy for me. I was surprised that I felt a little bit better. I painted an abstract and I called it ‘Woman With a Broken Heart.’ I took it home that night and put it outside by my trash can. I didn’t think I would keep it. I just thought it was therapy. The next day my daughter came over with the painting in her hands and she said, ‘Look what I just found outside, Momma!’ I told her I had painted it, and she was shocked. She said, ‘You painted this? Why are you throwing it away? Can I keep it? It’s so beautiful! What do you call it?’ I just told her, ‘It’s called ‘Inside a Rose.

“I changed the name on the spot because I had just given her a big lecture. She was struggling with her grief and was missing a lot of classes. I was telling her we had to keep going. I didn’t want to share that I was in the same deep, sad place by [calling the painting] ‘A Woman with a Broken Heart.’ And she said to me, ‘Mom you should keep painting roses. They’ve followed you all your life!’ I thought, ‘I can’t paint roses. That’s Georgia O’ Keeffe. That would be kind of hard.’

“But then I started trying and I got obsessed with it. [Roses] have followed me all my life. The reason I’m in Austin is because I was the lead role in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo. I was 29 at the time. We bought our first house because my daughter loved the little rose bushes out front. I went to Saint Rose Catholic Church in Wyoming, where I’m from. I have about 10 friends whose names have Rose in [them]. I could go on.

“I have painted 768 canvases so far. I don’t really do much promotion. Mostly I have commissions through word-of-mouth and repeat buyers. Some people have me paint for their husbands or wives that died. Some people have told me they actually take their rose with them wherever they go, even on vacation. To me it’s the idea of union with your mind, body and soul and the evolution that you have to see yourself as a rose that will bloom and know that everybody’s at a different state.”

Jen Reel was an Observer intern before joining the staff in July 2010, first as Web Editor, and most recently as Multimedia Editor.

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Published at 9:00 am CST
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