SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. — Diala Estela, 4th Fighter Wing key spouse mentor, placed third out of 35 exhibits April 3, at the Visual Art Exchange in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Estala’s sculpture, titled “Marry Me,” was a dress made from 130 plastic bottles to symbolize the spouses of active-duty service members based on her personal experience as an artist and military spouse.
“My dress represents how I see military spouses and myself as one,” Estela said. “Many times we can have a hard time keeping our identities, finding our purpose and seeing our self-worth when we’re constantly moving. Sometimes we feel see-through just like the plastic bottles, but like them, we are also flexible and deceptively strong.”
Estela cut, molded and tinted each bottle by hand, then riveted each piece in place to create the dress’ light blue, translucent figure. Each bottle was collected from the Airman and Family Readiness Center – recycling not only the material but the emotions tied to the bottles into a piece of art.
“Sometimes we get focused on how the military lifestyle affects us and we forget how important our commitment to our spouse is to their way of life,” Estela said. “My commitment to my husband is everything. It’s to mend all the pieces together; myself, my family and military life. This role is more important than some people realize, and sometimes it gets tough. When it gets tough, I’ve found the A & FRC to be really helpful. I’ve heard a lot of success stories since I’ve been here, and the bottles represent all of this, from the trying times and turmoil to the successes of coming together as one military family.”
Arianne Henry-Kroll, 4th FW key spouse mentor said The bottles consolidate to form a fine piece of art with a great meaning.
“She took something that was ‘trash’ and recycled it into something creative, beautiful and deceptively durable,” Henry-Kroll said. “I think that’s how I feel about spouses, we’re strong and beautiful. When we move, we recycle what we’ve already experienced and borrow things from the people who are at the next location. You take all the resources you can and create something that can stand the test of time. That is what her dress says to me.”
Estela said crafting the dress allowed her to reflect on her journey as an artist and military spouse.
She found joy in art at an early age and knew that’s where her dreams lay. She received two bachelor’s degrees in psychology and fine arts specializing in sculpture and photography from the University of Montevallo, Alabama, and a master’s degree in art education specializing in art therapy from Florida State University.
“In college you think you know who you are,” Estela said. “I was successful there. A lot of my stuff was displayed at the school I attended. I’ve always been an artist. I can draw, paint, I can do whatever, but when I was first introduced to metal sculpting I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I found my passion in the fire and flames that manipulated the steel I worked with.”
She focused on large scale sculptures, which required a well-ventilated workspace. The material, equipment and final products were heavy and costly to move. None of these qualities lend themselves to a lifestyle which requires moving every couple of years.
She married a young second lieutenant after college and shortly thereafter turned down her dream job as an art therapist at a juvenile detention center in Florida in order to move with her husband.
Several years, moves and children later, the family arrived at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Estela said throughout that journey she wasn’t able to continue pursuing her dreams.
“I volunteered and found ways to keep my inner artist active, but I wasn’t able to return to metal sculptures,” Estela said. “It took me a long time to find my way again. I thought to myself, ‘What can I do? I like to recycle in my art, let’s use plastic. It looks like glass and there are so many things I can do with it.’”
In February 2015, Estela found out about an upcoming art competition and decided she would like to participate. She prepared bottles for the sculpture, but she had no idea how to construct her dress and the deadline was rapidly approaching.
“I was frustrated,” Estela said. “I had all these pieces and I knew what I wanted to do, I just wasn’t sure how to do it. My husband was very supportive and he told me that he knew I was a great artist and I’d figure something out, but if I didn’t there would always be another show to look forward to. I was just walking past the pieces a while later and the idea of riveting them together like shingles hit me. I’d used this process before when I was metal sculpting.”
In about a week, she created a plan and used the bottles she’d prepared to complete her sculpture in the nick of time – just three days before the competition deadline.
Weeks later, Estela said she’s pleased with the dress and the recognition she’s received and now intends to turn her single sculpture into a collection of as many as six dresses to represent different aspects of military life and what it takes to be a military spouse.
“You could throw my dress around and it wouldn’t break,” Estela said. “You can hear it crunch and it bounces right back. Spouses are the same way. We’re strong, and we find a way to keep our households together along the way.”