By Clarence Williams, Washington Post Staff Writer, Sunday, June 8, 2008
The Long Arc of an Artist's Life Took Form in
Charcoal and Paint
The desire to represent life through charcoal renderings and strokes of a paintbrush took seed
in Martina Davis as a young girl, when she would sit and sketch rose blossoms in her back yard
in Northeast Washington.
It flourished over the years as the free-spirited, strong-willed woman's career moved from
department store runways to advertising offices and from the Torpedo Factory to the Corcoran
Gallery of Art and Design.
Davis spent hours at museums across the District and studied the craft of traditional painters to
hone her talent until she eventually could earn a living as a painter for the past 25 years. She
loved to sit and talk with her daughter, Sharon Andrews, about all aspects of composition.
The complex, layered color combinations of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer inspired Davis
the most, particularly later in her career, when she took classes to learn his difficult technique,
To master the tedious style, Davis laid down colors on hard boards that took up to three days to
dry. She then added the next layer of color or chemicals to develop the proper effect. One small
piece could take up to three weeks to create scenes of people in action or sea gulls in flight.
"She loved a challenge, and she knew it wasn't going to be easy. But this was something that
had to be done to create the art," Andrews said. Davis, who died of pancreatic cancer May 28
at age 79, never lost her passion for art and for its ability to inspire her and others.
She was born in Windber, Pa., the daughter of a coal miner and mine inspector. Her family
moved to the District when she was 10. She graduated from St. Anthony's High School
(1947) and attended Catholic University, where she found encouragement to pursue her love of
Her life as an artist would have to wait, though, as marriage and family took the foreground. She
married in 1947 and moved to Florida but by 1955 had returned to Washington as a divorced
mother of one. She became a model for Woodward and Lothrop and other department stores
in the District and New York.
She and her daughter often went to the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran and spent
summer evenings listening to jazz and classical music at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre.
After remarrying in the late 1950s, to a member of the District's Chamber of Commerce, Davis
rubbed elbows with such visiting movie stars as Cary Grant and Sophia Loren. She also began
advertising sketch work as a layout artist for local department stores.
While creating ads for furniture stores in the early '60s, she met Al Davis, whom she married,
and her family was expanded to include two stepdaughters, Linda Davis Ritchie and Cheryl
Ritchie, now 62, recalled that when she was a teenager, her stepmother would show her
gigantic drafting tables and Ritchie would watch sketches come to life. The experience left an
impression so deep that, in her own retirement, she now dabbles in stained glass and acrylic.
"Her passion was evident. She was so good in so many mediums of art," Ritchie said.
Davis made painting a full-time reality, first as an instructor at the Corcoran School of Art in
1968 and later when she became one of the first artists to have a studio at the newly built
Torpedo Factory in the mid-1970s, her family said.The studio work became an important step
for her, and she was often commissioned for portrait work, sketches of pen or charcoal and still
lifes in watercolor, acrylic and oils.
When her husband, Al, became terminally ill with prostate cancer, Davis left the studio. But after
his death in 1978, she returned to her art. She added a skylight to the family's Falls Church
home, where she taught drawing classes, complete with men and women posing nude in her
Retired Air Force Col. Fran Martin met Davis in 1983 when she rented a room from the artist.
"The only stick of furniture in the living room was an easel," Martin said.
The two developed a lasting friendship based on a good sense of humor and common ground
of two determined women who "took no quarter" from anyone, Martin said.
"You could not know Martina without laughing. She could always put on a different perspective
and a happy perspective on almost anything that was going on," Martin said
Martina Davis, who had a lifelong passion for art, was one of the first artists to have a studio at
the newly built Torpedo Factory in the mid-1970s, her family said. She later taught drawing
classes in her home. (Family Photos)
Davis worked in pen, charcoal, watercolor, acrylic (above) and oils and also studied the
layered color combinations of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. (Family Photo - Family Photo)