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Mixed Media

Style and Substance

The organic career of Alicia Marván

Alicia Marván in her Buffalo studio.

Alicia Marván in her Buffalo studio.

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By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

Alicia Marván’s interdisciplinary approach to art is a study in contrasts. Immersed in social practice, or the connection of a project to the social context in which it’s created, her work is also grounded by the human form. “I cannot steer away from my deep love towards physicality (of the human body, materials and environments),” she writes in an artist’s statement.

Marván (MFA ’16) has always been intrigued by the material world and was encouraged to explore it by her parents. Her father was an engineer and her mother, who taught psychology, was an avid gardener and traveler. The family home, she recalls, was always full of artists, teachers and designers, and she began experimenting with photography, dance and other media at an early age. 

The Mexico City native moved to San Diego at age 20 (she’s now 40), and then eventually headed to New York City, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in dance and performance art from SUNY Empire State College. She travels often, having shown her work in more than 100 exhibitions throughout North America, South America, Europe and South Africa. In 2006, she founded the Guapamacátaro Center for Art and Ecology, an interdisciplinary retreat in rural Mexico that supports projects focused on local, sustainable development. While in search of graduate programs, she met several UB art faculty at a 2012 group show in Ontario, Canada. Among them was Millie Chen, who helped sell her on UB and, eventually, became one of her MFA advisers. 

Marván’s site-specific installations and performances use dance, textiles, found natural objects, food, music and other means to explore flashpoints in the human condition: memory and history, life and death. “I see beauty and pain intertwined,” she says, whether it’s the narrative of her mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis several years ago or the environmentally destructive legacy of Mexico’s gold mines. “I believe art is a powerful tool for transcending human struggle,” she adds. 

Nothing of Marván’s work can be called typical, but it has followed some common threads. In two art performances, “Beacon” and “Vita Mina,” both from 2013, she drifts slowly through the post-industrial ruins of Buffalo’s grain elevators and the spooky Dos Estrellas gold and silver mine in central Mexico, respectively. At each site, she wraps herself and the buildings’ rough-hewed beams in boldly colored, draped fabrics. For a 2012 Canadian installation, “A Seed, Inside a Heart, Inside a Dress, Inside a Grave, Inside a Shelter, Inside Water,” she made a shelter constructed with water-soluble fabric and a “live” dress out of landscaping fabric with pockets filled with soil and milkweed seeds (the main food of monarch butterflies, which migrate annually from eastern Canada to Mexico and symbolize the dead in Mexican folklore). After wearing the seeded garment in a performance, Marván left it outdoors, revisiting it a year later to discover what had sprouted. 

At UB, Marván’s work focused on technology-assisted design, including woven and sculptural forms made with 3-D printing, laser cutting and robotics. Her latest project is decidedly lower tech. She launched Alicia Marván Atelier, a boutique fashion line, last year “for Buffalo women, for Buffalo weather.” 

“I’m still getting used to the cold up here,” she laughs, days before Atelier’s debut show and pop-up shop in December. The skirts, tops and dresses in her small but growing collection, which she sews by hand at a lone sewing machine in a sparsely furnished downtown art studio, are made of thick, organic fabrics in neutral colors. Often seamless or without fasteners, the pieces wind around the body to create warm, figure-friendly ensembles. 

While Marván plans to enter a PhD program to study fiber science and design, she says the fashion line is a “dream project” that combines several of her loves: the drape and texture of natural fabrics, human connections and community, and exploring the body in relation to its movement through natural and manmade spaces. And, as she figures it, what could be a better juxtaposition than Buffalo winters and haute couture?