This 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.