The recently completed mural on a 40-foot shipping container along the shore of the Delaware River in Bordentown is the beginning of a work in progress.
Princeton artist Marlon Davila completed his third and largest area mural in early July as the first phase of a D&R Greenway project that will connect area residents to the water — as both symbol and source of recreation.
The symbolism is reflected in Davila’s interest in creating art influenced by nature, romanticism, and surrealism.
Davila says such recurring themes in his work reflect spiritual seeking and the influence of the subconscious mind. He explores life journeys of individuals seen from both the long view and day-to-day living. He values all of life’s experiences including joy and pain.
“At a young age of seven, I had a firsthand experience with death when my baby brother passed away unexpectedly from a serious viral disease. He was only five days old,” Davila says.
In one of his online portfolios, he writes: “This left me really traumatized and fearful of losing any more loved ones in my life.”
But, he continues, over the past couple years he has come to realize that we are all eternal beings and that endings are not our destiny. “We just transition into different paths in our lives,” he says.
Davila decided to pursue a career in art more than a decade ago, but his journey there began before he was born. He was conceived after his biological father had kidnapped his young mother.
Through the efforts of his grandmother, his mother was rescued, and her family helped her move from their hometown in Guatemala to Princeton, where she could live with an aunt.
Davila was born in 1974 at the old Princeton Medical Center on Witherspoon Street. He and his mom lived in Princeton for about one year before returning to Guatemala.
His mom fell in love and married the man who became Davila’s stepfather, but their happiness was short-lived.
After discovering that Davila had been sexually abused by a step uncle, they moved back to Princeton when he was eight years old. His stepfather worked at Princeton University as a janitor and also worked part-time as a mechanic.
After high school Davila took a job at a pharmacy and as a security guard. When he was 19 he discovered he had gay leanings and because of his religious upbringing feared that he would literally go to hell when he died. “For many years, I struggled with drinking,” he says, recalling “a dark time.”
One day, in a moment of introspection, he heard an inner voice that told him he was loved and there was nothing wrong with his sexual orientation. He describes that event as a spiritual experience that marked a turning point in his life, renewed his sense of self-worth, and inspired him to pursue a creative career.
He moved to Florida, where he studied fashion design at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and later worked at the Boca Raton Resort Hotel in the party and events department setting up props, lighting, and bonfires.
He had no intention of moving back to New Jersey until he received a call from a family member informing him that his mother was very sick. He moved back in 2005 and landed a job at Princeton University as a library special collections assistant.
He also enrolled at Mercer County Community College to study graphic design. “I knew nothing about painting then,” he says. “But my teacher saw something in me and encouraged me to take a painting class.”
Davila enrolled in a course, discovered that he loved painting, and switched his major to fine arts. He graduated with honors and was awarded the Jack Harris Memorial Scholarship. He further honed his love of painting by attending “Art Escape Italy,” a workshop held in the province of Lucca and led by Norwegian oil painter Henrik Uldalen.
Davila continued working at the university while painting in his free time. When his work was shown in an exhibit sponsored by the university’s Center for Collaborative History, Davila entered a self-portrait, a likeness of his face surrounded by images, among them, a tiger, a Buddha figure, the number 1111, and a skull.
“I believe in the power of symbols,” he says. “Tiger is my spirit animal. A tiger roams on its own. It moves to the beat of his own drum. I’ve never been persuaded to do what everyone else does.” The number 1111 reflects the frequency with which the number appeared to him on clocks or other devices during that period of his life. The Buddha represents his meditation practice, and the skull is a reminder that we don’t live in this form forever but for a limited time.
This mural is Davila’s first foray outside of Mercer County.
His first is located on the corner of John Street and Leigh Avenue, “Journey.” The other is an untitled mural in the office building of Axiom Healthcare Strategies on Hulfish Street in Princeton.
The new mural on a container storing kayaks and canoes for future water use was inspired by first and second-generation high school students from the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund youth program FUTURO. About 30 high school juniors from Trenton, Princeton, and Lawrence were involved early on in the process of planning the mural.
The collaboration between D&R Greenway and LALDEF was orchestrated by Nadeem Demian, who worked a year-long fellowship with D&R Greenway since last July.
The community conservation fellow took charge of the project and moved forward with the connection with LALDEF by setting up workshops for the students and mural artist to interact.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the students were able to meet with Davila and D&R Greenway once in person. The children were presented with information about the Delaware River and its resources.
The water activities and educational programs for which the D&R Greenway repurposed the shipping container and watercraft were discussed as ways of bringing people closer to the natural environment.
Students were asked to create artwork that described their interpretation of the river and sharing awareness about its environmental resources.
Along with the one in-person meeting, two virtual meetings were held over Zoom in April and May.
“Once the kids submitted their projects, I went ahead and I printed them out and I cut them out individually,” Davila said. “So I basically started out as, ‘OK, this is their drawings and I’m going to create a collage.’”
Getting the students deeply involved with the outcome of the mural was a task Demian took very seriously, patiently working with LALDEF in coordinating through the pandemic. He saw the mural as an opportunity to increase the access to green spaces for the Latinx community.
The kayaks and canoes in the container are part of a new D&R Greenway education project supported by a $20,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia and developed in collaboration with City of Bordentown and LALDEF.
Project coordinators say that since no other kayak or canoe livery existed near Bordentown, Bordentown Beach provided an advantageous place for the new fleet. The watercraft will allow for up to 18 people out on the water at once.
The grant funding purchased the watercraft and shipping container and hired the mural artist.
Looking towards the end of the pandemic, D&R Greenway intends to use its funding to hire teachers for their educational program from local organizations, one being the SPLASH Steamboat Floating Classroom.
For more information on the D&R Greenway and its Bordentown Kayak and Canoe project, visit www.drgreenway.org.
Nicole Viviano, Lynn Robbins, and Dan Aubrey contributed reporting.