Ancestors
A series of oil paintings on canvas by Rebecca Wilkinson

 

A series of paintings entitled, Ancestors, was conceived during a two-week workshop in 1995, with Chinese painter Hung Liu at Anderson Ranch. The first painting of this series, completed while still in Snowmass, depicted a pair of unsavory relatives, a great aunt and a great, great grandmother standing on the stairs of their front porch in 1936.  As a child I remembered dark stories involving moon shining, the Clan and poisonings for insurance money that had revolved around this great “maiden” aunt and her sister.  Perhaps for that reason I had never felt much of a connection to my own forbearers, until my father began writing a book about growing up during the Depression.

  About the same time I became interested in the Asian concept of ancestors, which defies our Western notion of individualism. Eastern philosophy regards each individual as one regards an individual wave in the ocean: inseparable from the waves that come before or from those that come after. As Americans we rarely question the notion of the “self made man”, which to people of the East, seems preposterous.  They see themselves as standing on the shoulders of their ancestors and view their own achievements accordingly.    Consequently, it seemed inevitable that I must confront the good and the bad characters in my own ancestry, which is what brought me to Hung Lu. 

Fourteen additional canvases followed over the next six years, all based on old sepia photographs that had surfaced when news spread among distant relatives that my father was writing a book about his childhood.  Some are over a hundred years old, shot before the advent of color photography. The one ancestor with whom I felt a great affinity was my grandmother, Anna, who emigrated from Moravia as a small child in 1895.  Cast in epic proportions in my father’s stories, she is the true heroine, struggling to keep her family together and fed through the Depression. 

Freed from the constraints of local color, the black and white photographs provided great range for my imagination.  I used my own colors to bring life into this company of souls staring out at me from their grindingly hard lives in the early part of the Twentieth Century.  Vibrant earth tones reference their closeness to the land and I suggest their character using insights from my father’s stories.  Despite their veracity as actual people, their distance from me is revealed in the passages of thin washes that flow through the backgrounds like metaphors for the passing of time.

 

 

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