dreaming up ancestors

 

This Road is Going Somewhere. Digital collage using vintage portraits. 

 
 

When I was a little girl, I used to dream of my grandmother’s house,

of discovering a secret set of stairs, or a ladder into the attic, which led to a series of rooms full of old things— trunks packed with dresses and hats and boxes spilling forth old letters and photos. In my dreams, the hours stretched out in which I was free to explore, trying on the old clothes, deciphering handwritten letters on crumbling paper. When my grandmother died and the house was sold, the dreams intensified. Many nights I would be back in her home, and though it was no longer her home, I could still find the way to my secret rooms, where all the ephemera of the past remained, untouched since the last time I visited.

When my paternal grandparents died, more recently, my father shared a set of black and white family photos with me, photos I hadn’t before seen, of people I never met. It’s hard to describe how hard I fell in love with these unknown people— staring at their grainy, indistinct faces— these people who are strangers to me and yet connected to me somehow. I knew immediately upon seeing the photos that I wanted to make art with them, but I didn't know exactly how or why. Slowly, my desire to make art from portraits of ancestors morphed into an idea for collaborating on a book with my sister, who (fortunately for me) happens to be a writer. 

 

If We Had Wings. Digital collage with vintage photos. 

 
 
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Art journal entry with poem about mitochondrial DNA. 

As I began working on this current ancestor project, I was reminded again of my recurrent dream and of my old journals in which I pasted collaged photos of the line of maternal ancestors in my family and wrote poems about mitochondrial DNA. I was truthfully obsessed for a few years with mitochondrial DNA and how it is passed via the maternal line. It gives me chills thinking about this unbroken line of women, a part of whom I carry inside me.

 

It turns out, I have always craved knowing these fuzzy ancestors, bringing them into focus, knowing what their lives were like from the inside, what they hoped for in life, who they loved, what they dreamed about at night.

 
 

Art journal cover circa 2005.

I feel such a strange fondness for these people I’ve never met, whose lives quite likely raw and difficult. Based on the little that I know about my family history, life for my forebears sounds like a multi-chaptered struggle for survival. From stories that I’ve heard from relatives about more recent family events, I imagine these were people who were hard in the places I am soft, especially in terms of how children were raised. And while it’s harder to overlook the harsh parenting styles of the more recent generations in my family, it’s easier with these mystery ancestors. In one photo, my great-grandmother Muriel is sitting with her children. While the children look well-nourished, Muriel’s arms are rail-thin. I don’t know many details about my grandfather’s childhood, other than that they lived in Arkansas during the Depression. And I know my grandfather died with a closet packed to the brim with coats and jackets to make up for having spent his early years cold and without proper clothing. I don’t know what kind of a mother Muriel was, whether she was like me in any way, or what life felt like to her. Did she have the luxury of thinking about herself, about life? 

My wish for this project is that it is a love letter to these people, one that doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of their lives while giving some life, some spirit, some color back to them.

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