Passersby at the intersection of John Street and Leigh Avenue in Princeton have been surprised to find themselves face to face with a visual feast for the eyes.
The inspiration behind Journey is about emerging and evolving, how we all are interconnected
A striking mural of a mighty tree silhouetted against a calming azure blue background, bursting with monarch butterflies, is the embodiment of beauty in an unlikely place, featured on the side of Lupita’s Groceries.
At first glance the image seems straightforward—and it can certainly be digested as simple eye candy—but it is so much more than that. The artist, Marlon Davila, had a lot of living to do before inspiration and purpose could coalesce, long before he even picked up a paintbrush.
Davila, who goes by the artistic name 7ovechild, said the piece, Journey, came to him organically as a result of his own life’s trajectory and the revelations that followed, where he could see his story as part of something greater.
“The inspiration behind Journey is about emerging and evolving, how we all are interconnected in some shape or form, but yet uniquely different,” he said. “The tree is a reminder to stay grounded, to connect to our roots, keep growing, and know when to let go.”
The butterflies can be interpreted as symbols of family, flight, or evolution. Each in the mural is unique when viewed up close yet each is a necessary part of the whole. This reflects the route Davila took which ultimately led him to where he is today, mindfully creating art for the community. Though he has circled back to his roots, his path was indirect.
“When I was a little kid, my aunts were teenagers, and I would help them pick out their outfits—I was just so good at it,” he says with a laugh. “I always thought fashion would be the road I was headed toward.”
After immersing himself in that world, he ultimately found himself majoring in Fashion Design at Mercer County College. Things changed when a professor noticed Davila’s eye for color and detail and suggested he take a painting class, an idea at which he initially balked.
“I never thought about painting, ever,” he said. “It was such a scary thought for me.”
It was only after deciding to follow that advice that Davila, who resides in Edison with his husband, Rich, discovered his true calling.
“I completely fell in love with it, so much that I switched majors,” he said. “I had an epiphany. It goes to show that if you really have a love for what you do, good stuff happens.”
Although this change in his life’s direction happened relatively recently—in 2013 when Davila was in his late 30s—it did not take long for his work to garner notice and praise. Today, he has a supportive relationship with The Arts Council of Princeton and mentors a college student from Mercer County.
“I love to give back to younger people because I kind of feel that when I was their age, if I had someone like me, kind of like mentor me, I think I would have been doing this a long time ago,” Davila said. “Sometimes you just don’t know where to go. Sometimes you pick something you think is for you and it really isn’t because you don’t explore enough. I love the fact that I can mentor or be somewhat of an inspiration to the younger generation, especially minorities. I’m gay, living my life, and I’m doing what I love the most.”
It didn’t come easily, either. Davila’s mother Lilia was pregnant with him when she lived in her native Guatemala. She was abandoned by his biological father, prompting his aunt to usher them to America to live with her in Princeton, where Lilia lives to this day. When he was very little the family moved back to Guatemala for a time and—although he fondly remembers his late stepfather—he endured abuse within his family and lacked the security of putting down roots.
“I grew up in a Christian home, I was fearful of being rejected by loved ones, and hid my identity for many years,” he said. “This brought depression, self-hatred, and eventually led to drugs and alcohol as a means of escape. A move to Florida allowed me to start fresh and reinvent myself. I went back to school and came to terms with my sexuality.”
One day Davila had an epiphany about moving forward in a way that still reflected his past accurately. Out of that came the idea for 7ovechild, his artistic moniker.
“I gave myself that name because there’s such a stigma to being a love child,” Davila said. “I wanted to flip that around and show that ‘yeah, I am a love child, but you know what, I overcame that. Let me flip that around.’ So the number seven is a flipped-around ‘L’. I just ran with that. It somehow helped me in the studio to be just free and not [care] about anything but my art and being passionate about it—that’s all I cared about.”
A key to his success as an artist, Davila said, is to maintain that enthusiasm while giving oneself permission to make mistakes.
“In the beginning, I always aimed for perfection,” he said. “I learned there’s just no such thing as ‘perfect.’ Sometimes the biggest mistake can be the biggest [success]. There can be something magical in a mistake. I needed to figure out a way to get the ego out of the way, because in the studio there shouldn’t be any inhibitions; you have to be free.”
Although the work of an artist can often be an insular process, Davila has been raw and exposed while creating pieces meant for public spaces. Although this caused some initial anxiety, he said it didn’t take long before he found many positives to this part of the process, particularly in the relationships he has fostered with the students who volunteer to help him bring such large-scale projects to fruition.
“Art can be very personal,” he said. “When I would create my art in [my early days] I wouldn’t show anyone. I would be so afraid of being judged but I kind of grew out of that. Now, when I have these kids come out and help me, it inspires them to feel free and let loose. Art has also helped me just be a lot more comfortable with who I am in general, and hopefully that is also relatable to these kids that are up and coming— that it’s okay to be who you are, to explore that inner inspiration and creativity that we all have.”
Davila is now at work on two projects. One, 60%, is a vivid piece he is still tweaking that communicates the vulnerability of the human body and its place in nature. He said he thought it important to show an early version of it to 20 art students from the surrounding area before embarking on his other new work with them. They are currently assisting him with a new, yet-to-be-titled mural at the Bordentown City Beach along the Delaware River.
“We were teaching them about awareness of the river and how important it is to take care of Mother Earth and conserve the water and not pollute it,” he said. “60% relates back to that because it focuses on how the human body is made up of 60-percent water.”
The students have contributed to this project on their own terms, handing in outside work to Davila who then incorporated it into the scheme of the mural.
“I created a sort of collage and that contributed to the story of this piece,” he said. “So now these kids can see that their little project turned into something big. Hopefully it can inspire them to be anything they want to be, that we can all do that [through something] if we put a lot of effort, love, and passion into it.”
Standing back from his work, Davila said he is gratified by the gifts he didn’t necessarily look for but which came to him through his artistic endeavors.
“The greatest impact is seeing the evolution of my work,” he said. “It’s just mind-boggling, like a dream come true. I love the fact that when I’m painting outdoors with a mural it’s very communicative. People in the neighborhood just stop by and start asking questions. Some of them are so fascinated that they stop by every day or once a week to see the progress. Kids are so fascinated with it. They ask ‘Can I paint a stroke or two?’ and of course I let them.”
Through the trying circumstances of COVID-19 and social distancing, Davila said his art has provided a saving grace for him in unexpected ways. This, he hopes, has reverberated through his community and provided a level of comfort and connectedness.
“As scary as everything has been, I’ve somehow managed to live a well-balanced life in the midst of chaos and that’s thanks to art,” he said. “The truth we can see through all of this is that art is definitely therapeutic. The biggest reward for me is being able to bring people together through harmony and inspire, because, truthfully, we are all creatives.”