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Posts Tagged ‘Genealogy’

GC Myers Icon-Gilbert 2016This is the next step in the Icon series of paintings that I talked about a few days ago.  It’s an 18″ by 18″ canvas that I call Gilbert, going with the French pronunciation–  more jill-bear than gill-bert.  There’s a reason for that.

I had mentioned using this Icon series showing plain folks leading simple and uncelebrated lives in the pose and style of religious icon paintings.  But because these are personal pieces for me (by that I mean that these paintings are being done for me alone at this point) I decide to try to channel the spirit  of an ancestor into these pieces.  Kind of like the spirit portraits that famed folk portraitist William Matthew Prior did in the  19th century, where he would  paint a portrait of a dead person’s supposed spirit which of course didn’t look anything like their actual physical form.

I’m not claiming to be painting spirits here.  I don’t have that ability or the proper amount of belief to even attempt that.  But from doing genealogy I have come across figures that stand out for me, people that sometimes make me proud and sometimes make me not so proud.  Both have an attraction for me because as I stated  in the post about Frank the Icon,  I believe we are all capable of being both gods and monsters and every family has its fair share of both.  I thought it would be interesting to do  a take on those folks, good and bad, in the iconic form.

Gilbert is based on my great-grandfather, Gilbert Perry, a renowned lumberman of the early Adirondacks.  I have never seen a picture of him nor do I know much of him on a personal level.  He died nearly 25 years before I was born and was born in 1855.  But using old newspaper accounts and historic records I have been able to piece together a life that was based on life in the forests of the Adirondacks.  He went out his own at age 17 and immediately had a contract and a crew of workers to bring in a large number of logs in the burgeoning logging business of the late 19th century.

This was a time when the work was all by hand and the transport was all by horse sleds or by river.  The accounts of some of the river drives are pretty amazing.  Itw as time when being a cowboy or a logger were the most exciting jobs in the land. I read an account from the Atlantic magazine of that time that detailed a day in one of his camps.  Fascinating stuff.

He was  well known and did well in the Adirondack lumber world, at one point employing over 350 men and owning more than 50 teams of horses.  Born of French-Canadian descent, he brought many French-Canadian loggers and their families into this country.  That’s where the jill-bear comes from.  His nickname was Jib.

I wrote last year of going to North Lake in the Adirondacks where several of his logging camps had been located and standing on a dam that he had first built there in the 1890’s.  It was great to be in that space and air, not so unchanged as of yet from his time.  The sheer quietness of the place and the light of the sky off the lake made me think of how he must have felt in his early days, axe in hand and a huge task before him.  I think he was probably a happy man in that moment.

There’s more I could tell but it’s probably not that interesting to anyone outside my family.  And even many of them have eyes that glaze over when I do speak of it.  I will spare you that but his is how I choose to see my great-grandfather.

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GC Myers- Reaching to Time sm

I was checking the stats for my blog this morning.  One of them is a list of most viewed posts from the prior day.  I saw the title for one and it didn’t ring a bell so I checked it out, finding that it related in a way to a post from earlier in the week when I wrote about an unusual character in my wife’s ancestry.  As I said, it’s wonderful running across great stories from one’s family history.  But on the flip side, when you come across a story that is tragic or just sad it sticks with you in a different way.  I thought I’d rerun this post from back in 2010 because in the last few paragraphs the story relates to how I view my Red Tree:

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 why 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?

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flying-angel-3This is basically a rerun of a story that I first posted back in 2009.  I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy doing genealogical research, digging back through layers of history, trying to put together a sometimes very complicated puzzle to reveal certain connections.  Sometimes it can be relatively boring, going through generations without finding a visible compelling story.  But once in a while you stumble on an ancestor with heroic traits and an exciting story to tell.  Or one who is a scoundrel who makes you wish you hadn’t found out so much about them.  But one of the great pleasures I take in doing this is coming across the life stories of ancestors that are just plain good tales.

One such is from my wife’s family, the story of the lady they called the Flying Angel.  Her maiden name was Magdalena Dircksen Volckertsen and she was born in New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) in the 1630’s, her father a builder of the earliest homes there for the Dutch West Indies Company.

Her first husband ( not in my wife’s family line) was a privateer for the Dutch West Indies Company.  That is to say, he was a pirate hired by the company to attack foreign ships and competitors in the area.  Called “Captain Caper” for his daring, he was killed in an Indian attack that was the beginning of the Indian Wars of 1655.  Magadalena was left a young widow with an infant child.

Two years later she married Herman Hendricksen Rosenkrance, called “Herman the Portuguese.”  The name came not from his nationality ( he was from Norway) but from his service as a mercenary for the Dutch company in Brazil where they forced their way into sugar growing areas controlled by the Portuguese.  Finally forcibly repelled from Brazil, Herman and his cohorts were sent to New Amsterdam to engage the Indians there.  Herman stayed on as a settler, supposedly running a tavern of low repute called the Flying Angel, the origin of Magdalena’s nickname.

Magdalena had quite the temper.  On her wedding day to Herman, after downing multiple beers, she was walking with her sister just above what is now Wall Street in NYC when she passed and insulted the fire warden.  What was termed a street riot broke out and several weeks later  she was yellow-carded by Peter Stuyvesant, meaning she was expelled from the settlement, sent back to Holland where she and Herman bided their time for two years until they were finally allowed to come back, provided they did not open a tavern or sell spirits.

The following years were a series of adventures involving Indian Wars  (one that had Herman being captured and staked out in the sun before he was able to escape), various  legal troubles, some involving Magadalena throwing beer in the faces of a number of  men, stabbings and accusations of selling liquor to the native Indian population.  They ended up living up the Hudson, near Kingston, where Magdalena lived into her 90’s.

It’s rumored that in her later years, she would chase Indians from her property by running out at them, yelling and shaking a large goiter on her neck at them.  How could she not live past 90?

It’s just an interesting footnote in our history and the early settlement of NY, one that you don’t hear much about.  I’m always excited when I come across such stories, especially when there is a small personal connection.  Magadalena and Herman would be my wive’s 8th generation grandparents.

I’m not sure how proud she is…

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In different hours, a man represents each of several of his ancestors, as if there were seven or eight of us rolled up in each man’s skin, — seven or eight ancestors at least, — and they constitute the variety of notes for that new piece of music which his life is.
―Ralph Waldo Emerson

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GC Myers- Family Lines smThis is another newer painting that is headed to Erie for my show, Into the Common Ground,  in December at the Kada Gallery.  This 30′ by 40″ canvas is titled Family Lines with the Red Tree serving as the symbol of a family tree and the Red Chair acting as an offspring of it.  The broken segments of the winding path leading up to it represent for me the often arduous task of finding your connection to this tree while the light of the sky represents ultimate discovery and illumination.

I’ve often felt as though I had little definition of myself or my connection to the world through my ancestors.  My work as an artist has helped change this in many ways, giving me a portal for displaying who I am or  at least aspire to be in definition.  But my connection to my ancestors was always vague and hidden away beyond my knowledge.  I wondered who they were, what their stories held  and what traits they fed forward  through time to me.  I began to study my genealogy, hoping to discover some form of connection with the past that might help me better understand who I was in the present.  To discover what worlds the winding path that led to my own life traveled through.

It’s been a wonderful process that has given me greater connection with the past and with the history of this country and with those countries that gave birth to my ancestors.  Naturally, I am always drawn to the grand stories that are uncovered, the heroic and celebrated ancestors that I find myself hoping have somehow contributed some of their positive traits to my DNA.  But I am equally intrigued and touched by the simple and sometimes tragic tales that are uncovered.

I had earlier written of a great grand uncle who had lived his whole life in a county home for the infirmed. He was described in the censuses during his life as “feeble-minded” and he was unceremoniously buried  in an unmarked grave there at the county home.  I recently came across his death certificate and they listed him as a lifelong sufferer of epilepsy.  It made the story even more tragic in that this was perhaps a person who had a condition that would be treatable today.

I think of this person quite often.  His story is as much a part of that tree as those of  its more celebrated members.  It may not be the most beautiful leaf on the branch but it is there.  As Emerson says, we represent in some form a number of our ancestors and whose to say what part this ancestor plays in that piece of new music that is my life.

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GC Myers- April 2014This is a new painting, a still untitled 12″ by 12″ canvas. Normally when I look at such a piece I see in it something hopeful, forward looking toward a distant horizon.  Destiny bound.  But while I was looking at this piece, absorbing it and trying to take in its feeling, something I had read at some point came to mind.  I can’t remember who said it but the gist of it was that you can’t connect the dots of destiny by looking forward– you can only connect them by looking backwards.

In other words, you can’t plan your destiny.  But you can see how you arrived where you are.

This idea of connecting the dots by looking backwards was no stranger to me.  That was the central appeal of  genealogy for me, being able to find the trail that brought us to where we are at this moment.  To see that path in some sort of view that takes what might be very mundane lives when seen individually and places them in a grand and sweeping perspective.  Doing this made me feel connected with my humanity, able to see that I was not some sort of alienated being  but was a part of that sweeping vision.  Would I be a noteworthy part?  That I could not tell.

As it was said, you can’t plan your destiny.

So looking at this piece with this thought in mind, I no longer see it forward looking.  I view it as the perspective of someone who has turned around on the trail and is looking back at from where they came.  And there’s a certain synchronicity in this.  The sun and the water represent our evolutionary beginnings and the path, our trail though the ages.

Strangely, it doesn’t lose any of its hopefulness by taking on this perspective.  In fact, I now find it comforting from this perspective, that I have a purpose and responsibility as the recipient of a task that must be carried forward, at least for my short stint here on the trail.

The dots are connected and now I can look ahead…

 

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GC Myers-  Time of Peace smThis 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.

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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…

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I’ve always been a fan of graveyards, a fact that I’ve proclaimed here in the past.  The monuments and tombstones are an unceasing source of fascination, both in the data provided and the design of the stones. 

 So you can imagine how happy I was to stumble across a relative who also has a great tombstone.  Such is the case with this particular stone, one that marks the grave of my tenth great grandmother on Martha’s Vineyard.  Died in 1726 at the age of 83.  Her name was Hephzibah Doggett who was married to John Eddey.

Hephzibah Doggett.  Got to love that name.

   Before I started venturing into genealogy a few years back I had no idea of any family before the last two or three generations, and even then the history was sketchy at best.  On my mother’s side, it was almost non-existent.  So, to turn previously unturned pages in the family history is exciting and gives a new perspective on how we arrived at this place.  It also provides an opportunity to imagine how the thoughts and mind of a person like Hephzipah relate to your own, to wonder if their eyes saw things in a way that I could understand.

Of course, I will never know the answers to such questions but at least I know that she existed and has left a wonderful monument as her marker on time.

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