Whenever I see something that was obviously once loved and beautiful, like an old house, I can’t help but try to imagine what it would have been like in its prime. The paint no longer peeling, the closest neighboring structures disappearing, the power lines fading away, the street turning to brick…or stone…or dirt, the general noise of modern life fading away, the people who were walking around inside of it–living their lives in an entirely different world.
Maybe I’m in an especially nostalgic mood at the moment, because we recently received the title search of our new farm. It is basically a summary of who owned the property and how they acquired it, in our case, ever since 1870. I actually sat down one Sunday morning with my coffee and read the entire document from cover to cover. The pages are old–touched and signed by people now long gone. I found it a fascinating read–from the death of Nicholas Devereux in 1870, who left the property to one Mary Patterson, where it first entered title-search documentation, to the purchase by Benjamin and Laura Cole in 2015. I couldn’t help but think about how, maybe, someday someone will read this same document and wonder a little bit about who I was during my time as owner of their property. This has always been sort of a thing for me. I’m fascinated by the history of places familiar to me. The idea of seeing them as they were meant to be–the mansion no longer crumbling and chopped up into 8 government-subsidized apartments, the huge, old commercial buildings no longer vacant, the decaying architecture pristine and new… You see, the town I live in–the same town I grew up in–is dying. Olean was once a beautiful, growing city. To hear my parents or grandparents talk about the glory days of booming business, stately victorian homes, and community spirit makes me wish I could visit that strange, foreign land, even just for a day. To experience firsthand the history of a place that I’m so familiar with…it has that glorious twinge of fantasy that draws me in to all art that moves me.
So that brings me to what you’re looking at in this post. The black and white portrait on the left was taken in 1855 by Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond, a British doctor at the Surrey County Asylum. He named his work “Woman Holding a Dead Bird, Surrey County Asylum”. How did I come across this picture? First, let me rewind for a second…as I’ve mentioned, I like to reimagine reality with a slight twist of fantasy in most of my work. Recently, I’ve been looking into incorporating pieces of old artwork in my pictures to create something entirely new from them. Legally, an artist’s copyright is good for a term of life plus 70 years. After that, it passes into public domain and can be used freely. Dr. Diamond passed in 1886, and this image, along with other similar portraits of women at the asylum are now freely available in the National Gallery of Art. I was drawn to this woman’s picture for some reason…I liked her odd expression, but I had questions…What was her name?–she went down in history as “woman holding a dead bird”–(kind of a downer-way to be remembered) which also begs the question: what’s the story with the bird? Why is she living in an asylum, anyway? I wanted her to have a more complete story. Being in the public domain as she was, I decided to reimagine her place in history.
She now lives in this reimagined portrait, “How to Paint the Sky”, with a new story. In my rendition of her portrait, she is a spunky, old woman who loves birds so much that she sits outside all day and paints the ones she can catch, her favorite color yellow. Her story has a touch of whimsy and, like mythological figures, she has a “thing” that easily brings her to your mind. Cupid was responsible for love, Helios moved the sun, and Zeus caused the thunder and lightning. Perhaps now, every time you see a yellow bird, you can think of the lady who so lovingly painted it’s feathers. I hope she would approve of the artistic license I took in creating a new story for her. Even if she detested yellow, and her favorite scarf was actually green, rather than red, I think she’d appreciate the fact that she lives on through time. The same way I get a tiny, weird kick out of knowing that my name will be forever documented with my farm. People will be reminded that I existed, even if they don’t know my whole, true story.