One of the first in the series was Need Not Apply: In Memory of My Mother, Josephine Schiliro LaVilla. “I decided to do this piece about my mother,” LaVilla-Havelin explained. “In the 1930s, in Rochester, New York, she went to apply for a job at the telephone company. She was dressed professionally and she thought the interview went well. As she was leaving, she turned around to ask a question and saw her application going into the trash. Because she was Italian. That’s why she always made sure we knew we were as good as anyone else.” Need Not Apply was one of two pictures from this series that were included in The Art of Labor at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles in California in 2018.
Another piece shows a man lying in a coffin—but it’s not a funeral. The Carpenter Takes a Lunch Break: In memory of my grandfather, Joseph Schiliro is an affectionate memory. “My mother’s father, Joseph, lived with us after his wife, Lucia, died (I was named for her),” LaVilla-Havelin recalled. “He worked for the National Casket Company in Rochester. Every day at lunch time he would take a little nap in the casket.”
"It’s all memory,” LaVilla-Havelin said. “It’s honoring my parents who are gone and my grandfather. Seeing things that are a little odd and maybe a little spiritual.”
Her Grandfather Returned as a Bird, for Anita and Ty is one of those stories. “My eldest niece was living in Oregon and had her first child, Ty. When my father was dying, she came to see him with Ty but he was already unconscious. He passed away that night, and she didn’t know if he was aware she was there. When she got home, this bird began pecking and pecking and pecking on the sliding door to the deck, and just wouldn’t stop. She picked up Ty to show him the bird, and as soon as they got to the window, the bird stopped pecking and just stared and stared. When she put the baby down, the bird started pecking again. She picked up the baby, and it stopped again. She realized, ‘That was grandpa coming to see Ty.’ She noticed a piece of paper on the deck and it was a page from the Bible that said ‘If you believe in me, I will be there.’ We’re not a religious family, at least not the younger people, but this was …!”
Sometimes she herself is in the story. The Visitation, In Memory of My Father, Rocco LaVilla depicts hands on a steering wheel and a large antelope. LaVilla-Havelin said, “Jim and I were driving out to Big Bend National Park and this big antelope just stood in the street and stared at us, blocking the road. Jim said ‘Hi, Rocky’ to the antelope and it moved on. He said that was my father stopping to say hello.” (The Jim in this story is the poet Jim LaVilla-Havelin. Full disclosure: I have known the LaVilla-Havelins since the mid-1970s. Jim taught creative writing at my high school, and my sister and I attended their wedding.)
“It’s weird what you remember from your childhood,” LaVilla-Havelin said, referring to the piece Me at Three. She remembers being three years old, when she would walk into doors and sit down next to chairs. “I distinctly remember seeing two doors and trying to reason out that the lighter door was not the real one, so that way I wouldn’t bash into it. Of course, I bashed into it anyway.” The word ASTIGMATISM runs down the center of the piece.
“People don’t understand that embroidery can be art,” she said. Viewers are often surprised that she does all her stitching by hand, and that embroidery can be more than just a pretty decoration on a blouse or a tablecloth. To create an embroidered piece, she first draws on the fabric—linen or silk—with disappearing ink, before hand-stitching the embroidery. “Things change as I go, so there’s no difference to me than any other art form. You get inspired, you have blocks, it’s just like anything else. I just happen to love to hold it in my hand and have it be very meditative. I also like my hands to stay clean, and stitching is better for that than paint or clay. I do my thing, and if I don’t work, I go crazy.”
Looking back over her art work, LaVilla-Havelin noted, “I love color. Color is a big deal for me. I’ve done stuff that was in just blacks and grays. I did a series of bacteria at one point. It’s interesting to me how things just change. I’ve always been interested in science, in anatomy, that was a big focus of mine for several years—all those marine creatures. I never thought I could do people but then I got over the idea that they had to be drawn perfectly.” Her latest series is what she calls “odd self-portraits about things I’m going through, like brain fog.”
Today, Lucia and Jim LaVilla-Havelins live in Lytle, Texas, near San Antonio. Her distinguished career has included numerous solo and group exhibition, curating exhibitions, and directing galleries. In June 2019, LaVilla-Havelin will be participating in The State of Hand Stitch, an exhibition of work by eleven women artists from Texas who hand stitch at the University of Texas–San Antonio Main Gallery, where she worked closely with colleagues to plan the exhibition. After UTSA, the exhibition will travel to the Arnold Gallery in Mason, Texas, and then to the Georgetown Art Center in Georgetown, Texas.
Learn more about Lucia LaVilla-Havelin at her website. An interview with her by Linda Simone is scheduled to appear in the online magazine Nat. Brut in May 2019.