"A family tree is a device for tracing yourself back to better people than you are." -Herbert V. Prochum
Back in the 1930's, my Great Aunt Gladys (1893-1983) started writing letters to relatives, trying to trace the family lineage as far back as she could go. By the time she passed, she, along with other family members, had amassed a huge amount of history and more than a few pictures. My Dad and Uncle had also begun tracing, collecting their own histories and created an entire database, spanning 400+ years of births, deaths, famous relatives, and not so famous relatives. Our family has also had a knack for keeping and taking photos (especially my mom), documenting everything and anything, and keeping the photos safe over the decades.
Flash forward to the present, and although I had an already gigantic collection of photos, after my dad passed, I inherited another several hundred pictures. These span from anywhere in the 1870's, up to the early 2000's. I bought more binders than I have in my lifetime, and carefully organized and cataloged them all. My Dad always made sure I knew the family I came from, and now I'm taking the time to figure out more closely who these people are, and asking my Uncle whenever I can't find the answers on my own. Going through some of the written history and backstory I have on my Dad's side, Aunt Gladys had typed out some family tree quotes, as well as this poem, and was really struck by its words (I'm typing it out exactly as she had it typed):
And sometime when I have become
A quiet portraite on the wall
Will you my far descendant, stop
To think of me at all
Suppose your hands are shapped like mine
You have my nutmeg sence of fun-
Will there be one to tell you so
There, when my days are done
If you love books and fires and songs
And slipper moons on lilac skies
Toss me a look of shared delight
From those my own dark eyes;
For there is kinship in a spoken name,
And wine of life may yet be poured
By hands within a frame.
-By Miriam Clark Patter, In the Ladies Home Journal
Figure drawing had been a passion for me since 1999 when I walked into my first nude model drawing session, and spent the next several years honing the skill, learning both anatomy and proportion. But I wasn't bonded to the work in any way. Sure, drawing the human form is amazing and awesome, but I wanted to be emotionally connected to the lines, instead of merely putting them on paper.
For my Senior portfolio show in 2002, I used my 3 year old niece Noelle as the subject, capturing her personality and likeness in photographs, drawings, and paintings, the first time I actually felt a strong connection to my work.
From 2009-2012 I worked more with acrylic and oil paintings, using my friends kids in various fun expressions. They were great studies, but I wanted to turn my attention back to my own family, and away from such realistic drawing and thinking.
I've always loved modern work using geometric forms and abstraction, so I turned to blind contour drawing (drawing a figure from either memory or a photograph without looking at the paper), using my nephew and niece as subjects.
These blind contour drawings turned into unsuccessful attempts at acrylic paintings, so I turned my attention to more straight forward contour drawings using watercolor and a Micron pen. I started with self-portraits, and instantly loved the result.
With my treasure trove of family history, I have endless possibilities for subjects. Each picture I choose tells a story about where I've come from, and who my family members were. My Dad worked in watercolors, and my mom is an artist, so when I create a portrait I feel as though I'm not only honoring my family's heritage through the original photograph, I'm also showcasing the artistic tradition. I also have been cataloging the family tree online and looking more into my mom's side of the family.
I hope these inspire others to look into their heritage, and see what surprises, stories, and connections they can find to perhaps create a whole new understanding of how they got to be who they are today. The more you know about the "quiet portrait on the wall" of a person you never met, the more it may shape what the future generations of "you" will become.
"Every family tree has some sap."