This season always signals the end of one year and the beginning of the next and generally sets me to thinking about pasts and futures, thinking about their connection and how it affects my life and work. One way to examine the past is to delve into genealogy, something that I began doing in earnest several years ago and continue on a regular basis, especially at this time of the year. It has provided a background, a basis for being and a connection with my environment that I often felt was missing as I grew up.
I will talk a little bit about it with family members, trying to pass on my findings, but have gotten so used to glassy-eyed looks of disinterest that I now seldom bring it up in conversation. Not everyone wants to look back and I can respect that. For me, however, it has been essential to my own progress forward, providing me with perspective and a sense of being. I wrote a bit about this several years ago on this blog, documenting a relative’s pitiable existence and how it relates to my work. I think it says as much about how I define my purpose as an artist as well as anything I have written before or since.
I woke up much too early this morning. Deep darkness and quiet but my mind racing. Oddly enough I found myself thinking of a person I had come across in my explorations in my personal genealogy. It was a cousin several generations back, someone who lived in the late 1800′s in rural northern Pennsylvania. The name was one of those you often come across in genealogy, one with few hints as to the life they led. Few traces of their existence at all.
At the time, it piqued my curiosity for some reason I couldn’t identify. He was simply a son of the brother of one of my great-great grandparents. As I said, you run across these people by the droves in genealogy, people who show up then disappear in the mist of history, many dying at a young age. But this one had something that made me want to look further. I could find nothing but a mention in an early census record then nothing. No family of any sort. No military service. No land or property. No listings in the cemeteries around where he lived. I searched all the local records available to me and finally came across one lone record. One mention of this name at the right time in the right place, a decade or so from when I lost sight of them.
It was a census record and this person was now in their late 30′s. It was one line with no other family members, one of many in a long list that stretched over two pages. I had seen this before. Maybe this was a jail or a prison. I had other family members in my tree who, when the census rolled around, were incarcerated and showed up for those years as prisoners. So I went to the beginning of the list and there was my answer.
It wasn’t a prison. Well, not in name. It was the County Home. This person was either insane or mentally or physically handicapped and was living out their life in a home when they could or would no longer be cared for by family. It struck me at the time that this was someone who lived and experienced as we all do and who has probably not been thought of in many, many decades. If ever.
This all came back to me in a flash as I laid there in the dark this morning. I began to think of what I do and, as is often the case when I find myself wide awake in the dark at 3:30 AM, began to question why I do it and what purpose it serves in this world. Is there any value other than pretty pictures to hang on a wall? How does my work pertain to someone like my relative who lived and died in obscurity?
In my work, the red tree is the most prominent symbol used. I see myself as the red tree when I look at these paintings and see it as a way of calling attention to the simple fact that I exist in this world. I think that may be what others see as well– a symbol of their own existence and uniqueness in the world.
If I am a red tree, isn’t everyone a red tree in some way? Isn’t my distant cousin living in a rural county home, alone and apart from family, a red tree as well? What was his uniqueness, his exceptionalism? He had something, I’m sure. We all do.
And it came to me then, as I laid in the blackness. Maybe the red tree isn’t about my own uniqueness. Maybe it was about recognizing the uniqueness of others and seeing ourselves in them, recognizing that we all have special qualities to celebrate. Maybe that is the real purpose in what I do. Perhaps this realization that everyone has an exceptionalism that deserves recognition and celebration is the reason that I find it so hard to shake the red tree from my vocabulary of imagery.
Don’t we all deserve to be a red tree, in someone’s eyes?
There was more in the spinning gears this morning but I want to leave it at that for now. It’s 5:30 AM and the day awaits…