Family Histories

 

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about the Family Histories series.

Family Histories

I am intrigued by the idea of visual documentation being the only remnant of an existence:  

    the subjective lens, pen, or brush 

    the bias of the eye

    fleeting memory

    attention on some details, not others -- the "why" of that

    interpretation

My father and his family lost the land they had farmed in Eastern Europe for fourteen generations. Pictures and featherbeds were all they were able to take with them when they escaped in a horse-drawn wagon across a frozen portion of the Baltic Sea in 1944. My mother's family homesteaded in "Indian Country" in western Oklahoma.  I have a tattered photograph of her father holding her as a baby on the dusty, wooden porch in the 1930s, no electricity or running water.  In the early 2000s I bought a photo album in an antique store for fifty dollars: someone's entire family history, and I have depicted these people in forty-seven paintings.

As autumn and winter approach, the featherbeds keep the next generations warm. The pictures tell us who we are.  One strand of these family history paintings strives to sort out my own footing, my genetic backdrop.  Another strand explores how my family's pictures look like everyone else's:  clothing and hairstyles, automobiles, forgotten great aunts, great-great uncles, and distant cousins.  As our elders die, they take most of their stories with them.  These works ask questions and attempt to find meaning in the visual fragments. 

The poignant, humbling stories surrounding my war refugee family inspired an entire series of paintings (and also a cycle of musical compositions I composed, performed and recorded with my ensemble Bug Toast).  When I exhibited these paintings, people asked if they could commission me to do paintings about their family histories.  Then, I found the family photo album in the antique store. In it, we see a young girl grow into a woman who starts her own family.  Parents and grandparents are present, grow old, then no longer appear in photos. Annual family reunions and important events like weddings and graduations. People age before our eyes.  I feel that I know these people.  I often remove them from their original settings (a snowy mountain cabin becomes a beach house, for example), and I usually add birds.  My wife has often commented, "It would so interesting if someone from that family came to one of your shows and said, 'Hey, that's my Great Aunt Mo-Anne!'"