The Last Will and Testament of Robert Hill - collage on 3 canvases (long!)

Terri

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This collage project has been keeping me busy since I got a printer recently! I couldn't get going until the new printer came.

A bit of background: last year, while still cleaning out stuff during my mom’s transition to assisted living, I came across a lot of old documents she saved over the years. One of them was this Will – and it made for some unsettling reading. As it turns out, one of my ancestors was a plantation owner in North Carolina, complete with many slaves. I had never heard anything about this, ever, and it’s not a pleasant thing to learn. Of course, I don’t bear any personal guilt in these modern times, and this all happened before the United States came into being – as the date shows, this was established under the Crown.

At any rate (and not to talk it to death), I worked through a lot of conflicting emotions over it. For me, the bottom line comes down to two points: 1) I really don’t like other people deciding what I will and will not know, and 2) I don’t believe that simply ignoring, or keeping silent over something disreputable or inconvenient in the family lore, makes one noble: if anything, it makes one more of an enabler to those who wish to re-write the past. So my response is just to shine light on it, and simply present it as it was written.

I used some of my favorite techniques to help establish a storytelling effort in my exploration of this. It’s all very personal and not particularly lighthearted, or maybe even the best execution. But it’s a square look at it, and its effects over time.

After realizing I'd never get all my images, plus the text, onto a single manageable canvas, I decided to break it up into 3 separate canvases, and use design items to tie them together visually.

Here they are, all lined up on the wall as a finished piece:

Group shot final edited.jpg



Top canvas is 18x24". Here is a closeup, where the text is more visible:

Canvas One final resized.jpg


I covered most of the canvas with an old map of North Carolina. I printed out the beginning of the text of the Will with an old style font, then used Distress Inks to "age" the document before laying it over the map.

Underneath what I started calling the "slave cutouts," are three pages of actual Slave Schedules of Halifax County, N.C., circa 1860 - about 100 years AFTER my ancestor's Will was written. (These Schedules list the slave owner's name, and the ages and sex of each owned slaves by check mark. These documents were microfiched copies available to the public for free downloads.) I placed a slave cutout over each one.

The cutouts themselves are representative of some of the names mentioned in the Will. The text excerpts I glued below each one were given the same aged treatment with the Distress Inks. The clothing or headwear on each cutout is from a photo of a dictionary definition of the word "slave." I printed that definition out on waterslide paper, so I could twist and fold that text to fit each cutout. (Waterslide paper acts like a faux photo emulsion lift/transfer.)

Here's a closeup of one:

closeup 3 Dealse.jpg




The middle canvas is 10x20" and here's a closeup:

Canvas 2 Final 1 resized.jpg


I used heavy-bodied acrylic paint for background texture. (The images are from my family albums, various generations of Hill descendants. I chose to turn the middle one into a negative image.) On the left side is an actual cross-section design of a slave ship I found under Creative Commons. I printed it out and made an image transfer of it using clear ConTact paper, so the background shows through. (If you ever review the conditions of these ships during the Middle Passage, be forewarned that they are disturbing.)

The last canvas is also 10x20". A closeup:

Canvas 3 Final 1 resized.jpg


I used more of the heavy bodied acrylic paint here. The kids are my siblings and me, innocent of the past but certainly its beneficiaries.

I made a couple more clear image transfers of the cross on either side at the bottom, and glued the final words from the text of the Will.

To try to make it visually cohesive throughout, the margins were all painted the same dark blue, and each side contains strips of more text from the Will. The small images in the margins are botanical plates of indigo - an inland crop that required lots of labor. The textile industry as a whole helped not only the Crown, but the colonists and later the first citizens of what became the USA. Of course, I wanted the teardrops from the first canvas to travel throughout the piece as a visual metaphor, as well as to tie it together.

Whew! That was a lot. Thanks for looking and slogging through all this. :) All comments are welcome and appreciated.
 
Thank you, Jennie! ❤️ Yeah, I'm a little long-winded. ;)
My mother's family has secrets they've buried. So I do understand a bit about how you feel. Will never discover them. And my other Grandmother went from opera singer to bordello owner and wife of a gold searcher. Was about 30 when someone let that slip out.
 
My mother's family has secrets they've buried. So I do understand a bit about how you feel. Will never discover them. And my other Grandmother went from opera singer to bordello owner and wife of a gold searcher. Was about 30 when someone let that slip out.
That's some intrigue, Jennie! Family secrets....at least you did hear someone let it slip. ;)
 
I'm adding some close-up shots from a suggestion that this collage is hard to read online. :LOL:

The main text on the top canvas:

closeup 9 Will text.jpg



Detail from the tub image:

closeup 6 resized.jpg



And the two instances of the image transfers using the clear ConTact paper: the slave ship and then one of the crosses at the very bottom:

closeup Slave ship.jpg



closeup 7 cross IT.jpg



Thanks for looking! :)
 
Wow...I remember you telling me a bit about this and how ill it all made you feel. Now I understand! Looking at the will and how it's worded brings nausea to my stomach and dread in me. A sinking, horrible feeling. I think you are brave to make this artwork because it is SUCH a sensitive issue, and for a white person to make such a thing can be interpreted in a bad light if it isn't met with a lot of understanding. I have empathy and am glad that you are well aware that you benefitted from your ancestors because you did.

The wording...wow. It's almost surreal. I mean, it is. You hear about people being bought and sold, but we don't hear this part about being willed away, their heirs and "forever." Jesus. It's so fucked up and ...there are no words.

I don't think there is a worse family secret to live with. It's the one that spurs all the white guilt and defensiveness, etc. It can make people behave in odd ways and bury their racism (usually). I have so many feelings right now. I can't imagine how difficult it was to find this out or to make this work. Like I said, it's brave. ♥️

I think about my father, who always complained about how he was "screwed" out of the land that his mother's side inherited from William Penn--a slave owner (even though he fought against it later). I'd always say to him, "too bad!" We had to work for everything we had, like anybody else. Oh, woe is me, as if he was "entitled" to benefit from such a thing. But happenstance made it so it went to his half-brother, and we never saw anything of that estate. I'd rather scrape and scrounge than know I was privileged from something like that. It's all so difficult to live with. My dad, a Depression kid, didn't care because he was so piss-poor and jealous of people who had more than him. I understand it, but I didn't like him for most of his worldviews.

As far as how you made this, it's hella intriguing and aesthetic. I love the colors, and I especially love the top panel with the "slave cutouts." All the panels work well together. I love how personal it is. It's very powerful and certainly has a strong impact! May I ask if your mom has seen it?
 
Thank you so much, Ayin. ❤️ It's amazing to hear about your own family's ancestral goings-on, all the way back Mr. Penn!! My own parents were Depression-era kids, too, and this bad time in the US took away a lot of wealth from a lot of people. We've had a strange, strange history as a country.

To answer: No, I've not shown this to my mom. I'm not certain what benefit there is from it. She may accept it as it's intended: a personal reaction to a closeted, fraught family history - or she could get upset seeing my use of the family photos in this way. It's not my intention to deliberately upset her. She's 96. She answered every question I had, once I waved this document about, wanting verification.

I don't feel particularly brave, so it's kind of you to say that. I felt queasy a few times while doing the research on the ships, the slave schedules and all that. This Will itself is a great example of a primary source, historically speaking. I tried to stay objective in its display.

Mostly, I tried to enjoy the creative process of assembling this thing. :) I liked designing the cutouts, the assemblage of everything, deciding on palettes that could flow together, using the waterslide paper, image transfers and all that - it was fun! And took a hella long time, to the point I wondered when I'd ever get to the end!
 
Very moving and sad Terri. Thanks for sharing. I think your decision to make this collage should help you to process all that is here.
 
Oh my! This is TERRIFIC!

Very well done- GREAT work!

For myself, the past is past- gone- I cannot do anything to change even a second of it, so all I can do is ignore it or accept it as what it is- the past. This work of yours is for you, not your Mother or anyone else in your family, but I can tell you this: That first piece up top would likely be accepted into exhibition on the subjects of US history, slavery or family/secrets. May want to look around for a Call to Artists for works into which this piece would fit, because this is powerful stuff here.
 
Very moving and sad Terri. Thanks for sharing. I think your decision to make this collage should help you to process all that is here.
Thank you, Anne. ❤️ You hit the nail on the head with your comments, and I'm glad you like it. :)
 
Oh my! This is TERRIFIC!

Very well done- GREAT work!

For myself, the past is past- gone- I cannot do anything to change even a second of it, so all I can do is ignore it or accept it as what it is- the past. This work of yours is for you, not your Mother or anyone else in your family, but I can tell you this: That first piece up top would likely be accepted into exhibition on the subjects of US history, slavery or family/secrets. May want to look around for a Call to Artists for works into which this piece would fit, because this is powerful stuff here.
Wow - that's some very high praise and I really appreciate it! Yes, the work is quite personal and I've given no thought about any serious exhibition. I do appreciate the document in its place in history. :) Thank you so much for the kind words!
 
What a pice and what a meaning.
A the little details, it is an amazing work of art.
As someone with a difficult family history too, I understand that dealing with it is difficult.
 
What a pice and what a meaning.
A the little details, it is an amazing work of art.
As someone with a difficult family history too, I understand that dealing with it is difficult.
Thank you so much, Flowercat. ❤️ Yes, some parts can be much more difficult than others, can't they? :)
 
This is a pretty fascinating and yes, disturbing, piece of personal history to have discovered! Well, it was what it was and what can we do now. IMO, it’s better to face these things and deal, rather than just pretend all is fine and dandy. Life isn’t usually very “lighthearted,” anyway. And so to believe that it should be, or insist on it (smiles and happiness and sunshine) seems like a kind of self-imposed censorship. So, no thanks.

I’m not saying that’s what YOU were thinking Terri, it’s just that word “lightheartedness” (and the name “Sambo” too, with all it’s associated racism) did a little triggering of my own. But it sounds like you DID actually work through a lot of your thoughts/feelings and at least enjoyed the process in getting from there to here, correct? By the way, it turned into a really interesting and thoughtful piece and I wonder….will you do more, or is this one and done?
 
I am also admiring of your bravery. It takes courage to not only examine these hidden family secrets but to use your art to bring them to light. We all have less-than-ideal past family secrets but it takes a different level of strength to take the personal and turn it to art.
I believe that this is what art is for- to tell stories. Some are more challenging than others. Thank you for sharing!
 
This is a pretty fascinating and yes, disturbing, piece of personal history to have discovered! Well, it was what it was and what can we do now. IMO, it’s better to face these things and deal, rather than just pretend all is fine and dandy. Life isn’t usually very “lighthearted,” anyway. And so to believe that it should be, or insist on it (smiles and happiness and sunshine) seems like a kind of self-imposed censorship. So, no thanks.

I’m not saying that’s what YOU were thinking Terri, it’s just that word “lightheartedness” (and the name “Sambo” too, with all it’s associated racism) did a little triggering of my own. But it sounds like you DID actually work through a lot of your thoughts/feelings and at least enjoyed the process in getting from there to here, correct? By the way, it turned into a really interesting and thoughtful piece and I wonder….will you do more, or is this one and done?
Thank you, Olive! To answer....I'm inclined to say right now this is a "one and done" kind of piece. It's three separate canvases so to me it feels like it's strung out a bit as it is. But - who knows? I may learn more that inspires a reaction. This one is a negative reaction, no doubt, with a lot of jabs, and I'm glad I got it out of my system in this way.

Yes, I really did enjoy the making of the piece and tried to focus on that, and maintain some semblance of objectivity. Don't know if I could ever get in the same headspace, if that makes sense. :)

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. ❤️
 
I am also admiring of your bravery. It takes courage to not only examine these hidden family secrets but to use your art to bring them to light. We all have less-than-ideal past family secrets but it takes a different level of strength to take the personal and turn it to art.
I believe that this is what art is for- to tell stories. Some are more challenging than others. Thank you for sharing!
Thank YOU, Bethany, for this lovely reply! ❤️ I was trying to use collage as a vehicle for the storytelling, since there is so much text involved, and that's the crux of it all.
 
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