Sunday, May 1, 2016

Story Portraits: A Visual Memoir

I have been working on a series of portraits based on old family photographs. In my last post I featured the screen print of my parents when they were first married. I am placing these portraits within a fantastic context-- sort of a magic realism-- that creates a mystery and gives some insight into the lives of the people in the photograph.  In my parents portrait they were encircled with the flames of young passion and a spiral at my mother's abdomen indicated the beginning of their childbearing years. The photograph of my paternal grandmother, above, is placed against a background that suggests her childhood home of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Of course the first thing you notice might be the skull and staring eyeball echoed in the sphere of a full moon. I call her "Baton Rouge Beauty"

I hung the painting as part of an installation with a root that I harvested from my garden last year.  I saved the root because it was so interesting. Not visible in this photo, the top part of the upturned root is beautifully whorled.  The two branches or trunks are also twisted around each other like the last verse of the old folk song Barbry Allen: the thorns growing from the heart of the buried Barbry Allen and the rose from the heart of sweet William "twined themselves in a true love's knot, the red rose round the briar." The portrait on the opposite side of the upturned root is my grandfather.  He holds a bundle of cigars in his hand, although someone mentioned that it also looks like dynamite.  I call this painting "The Appalachian Sorcerer" I happened across these whitewashed and weathered frames for the portraits which suggest the passage of time.  I like the mystery, the curiosity it stirs. Though the paintings are personal with very specific imagery, I am pleased when people interpret it and give it a back story of their own.  I like to hear what they think, to see how close they come to the story I am trying to tell.

So here is my grandparent's story: They met when my grandmother was a student in an elite girls school in Baton Rouge.  My grandfather was her teacher.  She was sixteen and he was twice her age when they married. It was a relationship that, although not unusual for the time, would have been illegal in most places today.  She was Catholic, from an urban, comfortable, warm Delta family and moved with her new husband to Appalachia in 1911.  He was from a family of Baptist schoolteachers and musicians in the mostly poor, rural and austere mountain culture of Western North Carolina.  She never really adapted to her home over the next seventy years of her life. She bore nine children and cared for many of her grandchildren at one time or another, including myself and my siblings.  She had a glass eye from an illness and, while she could be affectionate on occasion, she was a harsh, bitter woman. She was very outspoken about the ignorance and general backwardness of life in the mountains and told stories of her childhood that sounded like fairytales.  My grandfather was never without a cigar stub between his fingers and was as reticent as a cigar store Indian.  He was a slight, peaceful man and the undisputed head of the household.  He put a suit jacket on every day for the dinner my grandmother cooked for him.  He played the fiddle-- the "plinky-planky music" my grandmother hated as well as well as the classical sheet music pieces she played on the piano.  He was penniless and a poet and carved tiny wooden fiddles and banjos that my aunts later turned into brooches.