Update! – Working On The Underground Railroad

sw18c 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:


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Slaves Escaping Across The Ohio River


Black man on his Knees with all the invention  we given to America in his hands

Working On The Underground Railroad

stowe%20house%20frontThe 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 sw18c 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.

sw18dWe 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.

OldShoeOn 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 imagesCA4C724Owith 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.

ugrr_1860My 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….



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