A few weeks ago I wrote on my blog about working in the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Cincinnati. Thanks to some very dear friends I was able to get photos of the mosaic I completes during that summer. Andre and Sherrie Ballard of Ballard Architecture and Design went to the museum and located the mosaics in the basement. A special thanks to Barbra Furr who volunteers in the museum that assisted in locating the mosaic for me after 27 years. The mosaics are 4 x 6. I t was my first time ever creating mosaic so the pieces are a little rough. I am hoping to find help in getting them removed from the basement were they are stored in the museum, college, or facilities in Ohio. There are very heavy. If anyone can assist in finding a home for these mosaic please contact me. Here are the two piece:
Slaves Escaping Across The Ohio River
A Black man on his Knees with all the invention we given to America in his hands
Working On The Underground Railroad
The Abolition movement in Cincinnati was fueled by The Friends of Society Quakers, American Anti-Slavery Society, and many other individual Ohioans that participated in the effort. Cincinnati has a rich of history with the underground railroad. The Freedom Center in Cincinnati has an in-depth collection of the artifact, exhibits, and history of the Underground Railroad . http://www.freedomcenter.org/
In researching all of the history I designed two mosaic that were 4’ x 6’. I had never created mosaic before. Prof. Cox purchased all the tools and supplies we needed. Our journey began that June of 1983 at the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. Mrs. Stowe lived in Cincinnati for 20 years. It was from that experience there that she wrote that book “ Uncle Tom’s Cabin” . The house sits on a bit of a hill. The first day we met at the house we parked in the back. The house had an airy silence to it. We were walking into history. As we enter the back door of the house it was more massive inside that I imagined. The decor was still held in time in the 1800’s.
We took a quick tour of the house. Some of her writing were incase in glass in the house. Pages from the manuscript Uncle Tom’s Cabin were also showcased in the house. While walking through the house I can only imagine her sitting at her writing-table while the fireplace blazed with heat. We headed down into the basement. There were cement and wooden walls in several small rooms. The biggest room would house a table to cut tiles and hand paint them. The other small room were dark and some what eerie. You had a feeling that you weren’t standing down there alone. We began sketching out our design the fist week of the project. Our design had to be approved by Prof. Cox before we would execute them.
My first design was of three slaves escaping across the Ohio River. They were hiding behind a tree looking across the river. I sketched a man in a boat with a light in the middle of the river beckoning them to wait for him to come on shore to rescue them. I wanted it to appear as of it was morning so that there was a sense of them hiding all night in the woods and running from bounty hunters.
The second piece depicted a black man on his knees with a clock and pyramids behind him. The clock was on 11:59pm. The three pyramids represented the rich history Africa contributed to America. The man was gazing up at the sky. He had the inventions that black people had given to America pouring of his hands. There were also formulas of science that drifted around the inventions. It was a radical piece that I wanted to show the contribution of African-American to American history all the way from our roots in African. I studied the patents that were given to black during the 1800’s.
We spent 10 weeks working in the basement of the house. There was a trap door in the ceiling from the room above. It must had been used to drop food and clothes, and letters down to the escaped slaves. The house had a history as one of the stops on the underground railroad from 1830’s – 1860’s. Creating the mosaic in the small space was very intense at times. Someday we felt so Closter phobic we had to go outside for air. Times slipped away in the basement. We arrived at 10 am in the morning. Before you knew it, it was 4 or 5pm.
I hand painted each tiles for the piece. I would paint the tiles then break into to smaller pieces. The piece began to weight over 50 – 75 lbs. from the weight of the grout and tiles. The first piece was complete within 5 weeks. I went back in and added detail to the tile to give shading and light. The second piece came together quicker. I had began to understand the relationship I had with the tiles creating mood and texture. Working in the rooms were slaves once hide for there lives in fear was a very spiritual experience. I was eager every day to work on the mosaic that would capture a small piece of their history.
On several rainy days when we were in the basement we could not go outside for air we explored the smaller darker rooms. One room had a deep tunnel that led under the house. Cincinnati has catacombs through the city. Exploring the tunnel we reached inside we found a handmade leather shoe that must have belong to a slave. I envision a slave must have lost the shoe while escaping quickly for freedom ( Sample shoe above). We also found a old view finder device. You could look through it and see slides or films. It was hidden in the tunnel next to the shoe. (Sample below) We gave the items to the curator of the house. The shoe had a story, life, and history of it own. As I held it I felt a connection with the slaves that was escaping to freedom. It was small black shoe with rips on the side. You can tell that the foot that wore it was bigger than the shoe. The foot that once wore the shoe was desperate for free ground to walk out with out chains. I could feel the fear that they must of felt in living for weeks and months in the wood or small rooms depending on the kindness of others. It made me appreciate my life and my freedom of choice even more. Their desperation for freedom was my muse for black art.
This experience was the closest thing I ever came to understand what our ancestors who were slaves went through. There was no window, no light, and deep silence in the basement. You did not know what time of day it was. It was a type of isolation that gave you time to think about what life really meant. It gave me time to dream about my life and put thing in place to make my dream come alive. It gave me respect for the past that I never had before so I could understand my own future. I create historical back art because I worked in those small slave rooms on the Underground Railroad. A piece of me was left in that room.
Maybe one day historians will find a small piece of tile I left being in a corner. Maybe they will find a small speck of paint I splashed accidental on the wall. I found my destiny below the floors that showcased the manuscript of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
My summer at the Harriet Beecher Stowe house was propelling me into a new freedom is creating a voice for the past. The slaves that passed through the house must of been greatly indebted to those who help them get to freedom. I am indebted to those slaves for making the journey. They touched my life through their struggle. I am sure some slaves were captured and taken back to their so-called masters. But at least they tried. They tried. The weeks I worked in the house unintentionally changed me. I grew up. My life started to make sense. I thank Prof. Cox for seeing in me that capability I had to achieve my goal in working at the house that summer. In many ways I was a slave to the world around me. I was set free. I will always have a piece of the Underground Railroad with me in every brush stroke I paint. I am still on that journey to telling the story of our struggles, joys, and pains. It took me 27 years to write about that experience. I escaped through the Harriet Beecher Stowe house to find who I am. My struggles and pain could never compared to those who lived and hid for freedom all their lives. For 10 weeks I was honored to have followed their footstep under a house in the basement on the Underground Railroad. Still away, still away to Jesus….