Miriam Urizar Rittmeyer, an accomplished local public health doctor from Guatemala, decided to paint on a whim six years ago.
"I just decided I needed to express myself," she says with a smile. "One day I was missing home and wanted to do something different. I got some canvas and paint so I could paint what I was feeling."
Inspired by legendary artists like Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, Rittmeyer tried her hand at portraiture, infusing her compositions with a light touch of surrealism. Her paintings, which are currently on display at Hospice Savannah Art Gallery, reveal her raw talent as well as her deep interest in global issues.
In her first art exhibit, Rittmeyer exhibits 12 oil paintings, most of which are inspired by her memories of Guatemala. She focuses primarily on people, from indigenous Central American women to immigrants who are new to America, bringing a welcome international perspective to her work.
"There's so much poverty and so much beauty in the world," she muses. "There's so much hope."
She exhibits portraits of three generations of Highland Mayan women - dressed in signature Guatemalan shawls, blouses and headpieces that are unique to their particular village - and of a young Brazilian soccer player, but her work is strongest when it tells a story and takes a stand.
"Without a Voice" depicts a woman crouching in a white shroud, her fingers extending into the ground, like roots, as her mouth is symbolically taped shut. Rittmeyer decided to shine a light on the exploitation of women around the world after being moved by a photograph of a Balgladeshi woman paid a mere $3 a week to break up rocks in a quarry by hand.
"One American Dream" focuses on a Mexican family at a soccer game in Atlanta, their eyes shining with love and pride. Framed by a colorful flag, this portrait emphasizes the human side of immigration issues in the United States.
"It's one of the many American Dreams," Rittmeyer says of her painting. "For me, they represent the face of all the cultures that have come to America in search of a better life."
This self-taught artist is best known as the former executive director of Savannah Community Health Mission, where she provided medical care for Savannah's uninsured and underinsured for many years. Originally from Guatemala City, Rittmeyer earned her Ph.D. in nutrition and epidemiology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and her master's in public health from Johns Hopkins University. She also has a medical degree from Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala.
Rittmeyer's large-scale compositions are complemented by thoughtful color photographs by world traveler Devon Murphy. After graduating from Virginia Tech with a master's degree in Mechanical Engineering, he spent two years in Uganda teaching physics and mathematics for the U.S. Peace Corps. Over the years, Murphy has visited 23 countries, documenting a range of cultures around the world with his camera.
In "A Colorful Passport to the World," he emphasizes the remarkable beauty found in countries often identified with poverty and injustice, focusing his lens on children playing atop a rusted-out Volkswagen van in rural Africa and on graffiti spelling the world "LOVE" scrawled on a wall in Bethlehem.
In a series of stunning images, he underscores the beauty of emerald rice paddies in Vietnam and the splendor of the sun shining on a lone mountain peak in Nepal. This local math and science tutor captures the majesty of life around the world, glimpsed in fiery rituals and quiet moments.
Murphy's photographs seem to engage in a natural dialogue with Rittmeyer's paintings, sharing a common love of color as well as an appreciation of the traditions and contradictions that define life beyond the U.S. border.
Rittmeyer admits her growing passion for art has led her on a creative journey that has been both challenging and rewarding. Although she was nervous preparing for her first exhibit, she has been encouraged by the positive response to her work.
"I hope people see beyond the paint and think about the ideas behind the paintings," she says. "The social meaning is very important to me."