Tracy Martin never set out to start a citywide Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival for Birmingham. In November of 2003, she created an art installation at Bare Hands Gallery in the style of the altars constructed in Mexico for Dia de Muertos: a time when family and friends gather to celebrate and remember late loved ones. The holiday often includes building private altars honoring the deceased. Tracy’s altar honored her late father, renowned photographer James “Spider” Martin, whose iconic photographs of the Selma marches and other demonstrations helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. People from around the city showed up to pay their respects to Spider Martin, and many brought altars of their own for their loved ones. Participants asked Tracy and Bare Hands owner Wendy Jarvis if they would host a Dia de los Muertos festival for Birmingham the following year. They did, and years later, the tradition is still going strong. As Tracy strives to maintain the festival, now held in Pepper Place Entertainment District, she also continues to preserve her father’s legacy and prioritizes making more art of her own. We are honored to introduce this week’s FACE of Birmingham, Tracy Martin.
How did Birmingham’s Day of the Dead Festival evolve into what it is today?
The first event was cathartic for so many people. It was meaningful, creative and such a celebratory community thing, so people came to Wendy Jarvis asking if we would do it again. And it just kind of took off and took on a life of its own.
You and Wendy were very intentional about involving the local Mexican community in the organization of this event. Discuss why this is important.
We wanted it to be as authentic as possible. We knew we were a bunch of gringos. It couldn’t be important if we didn’t do right by the culture, and it wasn’t going to continue in my hands or any other white person’s hands — if we weren’t going to do it as authentically as we could possibly do it. To do something as authentic and true as possible is the best tribute to the culture.
How did you educate the public about the true meaning of Day of the Dead?
We had to go through years of explaining that it has nothing to do with Halloween. It’s close to it on the calendar, but it’s not about goblins and ghouls and all that. It’s like All Saints and All Souls Day. The purpose is to not forget the people who’ve left us by honoring and celebrating their lives. You’ll always be here as long as you’re not forgotten, and I just think that’s the most beautiful thing that any of us can do for the people we loved and admired and also our fur people.
What impact has the festival had on you as an artist?
My dad’s unexpected death and the process of getting his civil rights work settled and secured took such a toll [on me]. For many years, the festival was all that my art and I had. It is where I found solace — those were soulfully cathartic and creative years. I made a lot of art and built many installations. These were the times that got me through my grief. My role today is still to recreate the featured altar that started the festival — my father’s!
What work have you been doing to preserve your father’s legacy?
A few years after my dad died, I started looking for that perfect repository to preserve and protect his 1965 Selma March Archive: one of the most historically significant documents of the Selma marches. My goal was to preserve all the precious film that my father exposed as he documented the pivotal events of the marches through the lens of a 25-year-old gung-ho but naive photojournalist on a life-changing assignment. I also want to secure his legacy in the process. It has been a bit daunting and more than a decade’s worth of obsession out of daughterly duty.
At the end of 2014, the Briscoe Center For American History in Austin, TX, acquired the Spider Martin Collection just in time for the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma-to-Montgomery March.
In Selma, AL, on March 7, 2015, the first African American President of the United States of America walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with a throng of other marchers in commemoration and homage to those many people who made it all possible for Barack Obama to become elected leader of the free world. For me, of course, it was such a bittersweet thing to witness without my father and, at the same time, an extraordinarily beautiful and profound moment to which he contributed. He was a witness and a participant, and it could not have been a more poignant moment in my life!
What legacy does your father’s work leave behind?
I feel Spider’s Selma photographs will always be relevant because the more things change, the more things stay the same. Unfortunately, this is too true regarding racism, sexism, voter suppression, police brutality, mass incarceration, immigration and all forms of discrimination and injustice. This is why I am trying to ensure they get exposed to as many generations as possible.
John Lewis said, “Spider left, through the power of his camera and with a quick eye, images that will educate and sensitize unborn generations.” That is my hope for my dad’s work: that it is seen by masses of people and that it engages and moves them to discourse and dialogue, inspiring them to get involved in the political system, to register to vote and to not take for granted our most important right and privilege but to use it as our power and our voice to make change.
How would you describe your own artwork?
I’m a maker. I do stuff with my hands. I build stuff. I do ceramic work. I weld. Sculpture is primarily what I do.
My studio is at my home in Blount County out in the country on Straight Mountain. It has been under renovations that include an additional larger space with giant windows and garage doors that I can throw open on both ends when the weather’s good, which is such an awesome way to work!
What are some of your favorite places to go and things to do in Birmingham?
There’s just so much going on in Birmingham right now. I adore it. There are so many interesting, creative, artistic people. There’s Sidewalk Film Festival, and I like the Alabama Theatre and the Lyric. And Sloss has always been one of my favorite places.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
My father said that his father told him, “If you can get along with people, you can get along in life.”
Name three things you can’t live without.
Lip balm, my RIDGID power tools and socks
See more inspiring Birmingham FACES here!