A week after returning home from Paris, I packed up the car for a three week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. On route down, I spontaneously veered off track to see the Antietam National Battlefield, in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Getting to know the land and the echoes it carries is part of my creative practice, and I drove south filled with questions about how the history of the country would feel different, and be held differently, from the southern perspective, particularly in a period in our history when we (once again) seem to be growing increasingly divisive.
With 23,000 soldiers killed or wounded, Antietam was the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. Though the September 17, 1862 battle was supposedly not won by either side (the guide at the welcome center was emphatic about this), it was claimed as a Union victory and inspired Lincoln’s strategic Emancipation Proclamation.
I had just returned from Paris a few weeks before my trip to Virginia and hadn’t really begun to process my experience of the November 13 attacks (The Runner’s Glance in Paris). As I navigated the Antietam grounds, it felt right to be reminded of the deeper history of human violence, particularly as I prepared to enter the protected creative space at VCCA that would allow me to begin to translate my recent experiences through creative process.
After a few days of settling in and meeting the exceptional group of writers, composers, and artists at the residency, I set off to run the Monticello Holiday Classic 5k on the historic site where Thomas Jefferson built his home. I left on a frosty morning before dawn, arriving on the site as the sun was rising. Chatting up runners at local races is a great way to learn about a place, in addition to getting a tactile experience of the land. Since my days studying Art History at Skidmore College, I’d been curious about Thomas Jefferson, impressed with his inventions, progressive values, and commitment to creative enterprise, and disgusted by his lifelong racism and misogyny. I was eager to see how the complicated man would be represented at the national historic site.
In the early hours of the morning, runners warmed up through the hilltop gardens, preparing for the starting gun. The race itself was rough–the air chilled my lungs and the course was filled with twists and turns. Still, I placed 2nd in my age group, which earned me a free ticket for a guided tour of the main house.
Thankfully, our guide spoke about the darker side of Jefferson’s narrative and incorporated stories of the lives of a few of the many slaves who worked at Monticello during the President’s lifetime. The architecture, design of the garden and grounds, and the natural site are spectacular. As our tour concluded, the guide instructed us to head over to the fish pond (where fish had been kept in “storage” during Jefferson’s time) for the iconic reflection shot.As I continued to meander the grounds, I started thinking about classical models of architecture and design–how that application of proportion relative to the human body works, literally works, vibrating through the body with a balance of form, light, and negative space. At the same time, the authority signified by that very kind of structure points to the darker history of domination and oppression. I remain in awe of Monticello and fascinated by the contradictions it embodies. I’m holding in mind the more than 200 slaves that lived, worked, gave birth, and died in service of one man’s brilliant, complicated interpretation of classical and humanist ideals.
These are the kinds of contradictions that I try to hold onto when I return from a research exploration, and in the studio I attempt to build a mark-making vocabulary that can speak to multiple perceptions, in response to my experience of place.