Sunday, April 17, 2011

Trying on Some New Genes

These illustrations are by my great-grandmother Sarah.

"The Book of Grasses: An Illustrated Guide to the Common Grasses, and the Most Common of Rushes and Sedges"
Written by Mary Evans Franics, Illustrated by HH Knight, Arthur G. Eldredge, and Sarah Francis Dorrance
1912, Doubleday, Page and Company, Garden City, New York.

(1920 reprint has the author listed as Mary Francis Baker?)

This is the only photo that my mother has of Sarah.
I'm not sure what year this was taken, or of her age in the photo.

Bello has found a new spot to sleep while I am weaving.
Yes, he's a big boy!

Smaller components of a larger work in progress, wool and copper wire. Sarah's photo is pinned to the wall for inspiration.

I had an epiphanic moment about two weeks ago, and my thoughts have been consumed since by a desire to dig deep into family roots and to find answers that have been missing for years.

For weeks I have been lacking inspiration for a weaving project. I had been obsessed with the factory sculpture and a deadline for some sort of tapestry was looming. Each day that passed, anxiety built because I just couldn't come up with something new that would be different than what I had done in the past.

On a snowy April Fool's morning, due to school cancellation, I had the luxury to move at a slower-than-normal pace. I eventually sauntered out of bed and when I looked in the mirror I felt that I was looking at a stranger, though the face felt quite familiar. I thought I resembled someone who might have lived in the 1920's. Then it came to me that I was "looking" at my great-grandmother Sarah.

Sarah has always been somewhat of a mystery to me. We knew very little of her life and over the years have pieced together the tiniest tidbits of information. The family story is long and complex but I will try to explain in simplified form, and in a respectful manner, why we know so little of her.

Sarah is my maternal great-grandmother. She was the mother of my mother's father, whom I called Grampa Sam. Grampa Sam was only eighteen when his parents died. Sarah and my great-grandfather Henry's car was struck by a train in Plainfield, Connecticut, in 1924. Only a few months before, Sarah's sixteen year old daughter, Amy, had drown, and in 1912 her one-year-old baby Sarah had died. The eldest sibling, Joanna, lived until the early 1960's, never married or with child.

Over the years, Grampa Sam told my mother stories that he remembered of his mother, but they were few. When he was a sick child and quarantined, Sarah, who loved nature, found a way to sneak him out into the gardens. She was an artist: a painter and a jewelry designer who worked for Tiffany's of New York. Her father was a minister, and she had an intense interest in genealogy. She was on return from a genealogy conference in Boston, where she was a speaker, when Henry had just picked her up from the train station shortly before they collided with a train.

When my grandfather died in the mid 1990's, we went to Connecticut for his burial. At that time, we first met Merle, a distant cousin to Grampa Sam's father. Merle's family, as I understand, sort of watched over my grandfather after his parents died. During this brief visit, Merle gave me a simple tall, thin, clear handblown glass that Sarah had once kept her paintbrushes in, telling me that Sarah would want me to have it as I too was an artist.

I have held on to that glass for years. In fact, that morning I looked in the mirror and saw Sarah in my own face, I had just moments before taken one of my own paintbrushes out of Sarah's glass to use for a project.

The last time I tried to research Sarah was in the mid 1990's after my grandfather's passing. I wrote a letter to Tiffany's & Co. to see if they kept record of their designers. A response came back to me that a search would cost a few hundred dollars. I didn't have that kind of money and let it go. I always held onto, though, that my great grandmother was an artist and perhaps that is in part why I am as well. Maybe, I thought, it was in the family genes.

But I always felt a bit of a disconnect in that I really wasn't a painter. My mom is a painter, and my sister a jeweler, so that made sense, as I had always heard Sarah described as a painter and jewelry designer. But where was my connection?

Even though it seemed a longshot, I decided to do an internet search for info about my great-grandmother. I was surprised that her name did indeed show-up. She was listed as an illustrator for a book about grasses. Without hesitation, I ordered the 1912 book sight unseen and listed as "condition unknown."

I continued the search and to my surprise, once more, I found her in a 1904 New York Times article in the Modern Arts and Crafts section - Objects of Applied Arts by American and Foreign Artisans.

"An interesting vein is being worked in textiles by Mrs. Sarah Francis Dorrance, who is known for her quiet, tasteful work in basketry. She uses native grasses to weave designs on crash, and produces individual work of a gentle, unobtrusive kind."

A weaver. Sarah was a weaver.

I finally found my connection. Is this why I was so taken with weaving from the first moment I held a loom?

Everything changed for me in that moment. Inspiration returned at the thought of Sarah trying something new with her weaving. And from there, a flood of other questions. Did she spend time in New York? Where did she grow up? When was her birthday? Was she also a potter? Which artists did she admire? Did she weave tapestries? What is her ancestry?

My mother told me that she thought I looked like Sarah, though Grampa Sam used to say that I reminded him of his sister Amy who had drown and who he was very close to. Either way, I now have another connection in that I physically resemble my ancestors.

is this what it is like for someone who is adopted? To feel that desire to know their biological roots? To wonder who they look like, or why they have a certain unexplained habit or fondness for a particular art, music, or some other talent?

I have continued my search, and found a second NYT article from 1900 that mentions Sarah as showing her baskets in a show under the Arts and Crafts Guild of New York. I also hold dear the book of grasses that finally arrived in the mail. Each drawing a piece of my great-grandmother. I also find myself amused that she signs each of her drawings with her initials in a manner that resembles the chop signature that I use on my clay pieces.

The search continues, feeling a sudden passion for genealogy, as Sarah once had.

I will close with a quote from the introduction of the book, so beautifully and poetically written that it brought me to tears as I read it yesterday. I am not sure how exactly Mary Evans Francis is related, but I am sure that she must be, sharing the maiden name of my great-grandmother. I am filled with anticipation as I "climb" the family tree searching for answers.

"Grasses yield us the earliest intimations of spring, as a faint flush of green, in harmony with the soft colours of the April woods, tinges the brown hillsides before snows have ceased. The first grasses are more delicately coloured than are those of midsummer when the sun burns red and purple into the tiny flowers. The green spikelets of many spring grasses depend for colour upon their lightly poised anthers of lavender and gold."

"The Book of Grasses: An Illustrated Guide to the Common Grasses, and the Most Common of Rushes and Sedges" Written by Mary Evans Franics, Illustrated by HH Knight, Arthur G. Eldredge, and Sarah Francis Dorrance, 1912, Doubleday, Page and Company, Garden City, New York.

Update: The inscription in the book reads "To S.E.F.D." (Sarah Evans Francis Dorrance) So the new line of thought is that the author, Mary Evans Francis, is either a mother, aunt, or sister to my great-grandmother Sarah.


Owl Who Laughs said...

Your art has become your wings to soar back and forth across the fields of time. What a magical communication.

Bex said...

Just discovered you, your art, your blog, your town, and I wish I could move there. My dream was to be an artist like you but I never did. I am too old now, retired. My sister's name is Sarah Frances, we lived on Evans Road growing up, and my grandmother's name was Frances and was from Columbia Falls, Maine. I live in Salem, Mass. and feel so far from where I should really be... I will be back here to learn more about your world.


Thank you for finding my blog, Bex. What an interesting coincidence, regarding the name Sarah Frances.

No one is ever too old to follow their dreams.

When we first moved here a man in his eighties contacted me for art lessons. He said that if he made it to eighty he would take up painting! And he did!

It's anew year beginning, and a new moon...a great time to begin something new!