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.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Peace Lily
(component of a current sculpture that has since been painted-over to be a more subtle statement....see photo below)

MX Missile (a.k.a. Peacekeeper)
by Shanna Wheelock
in progress

"window books" for MX Missile sculpture
(in progress)

People live their lives within the comfort of their routines and then one day, unexpectedly, something happens in an instant that forever changes life as they have come to know it. When I am witness to these cataclysms, I find myself thanking the universe repeatedly for the bounty of my life.

The past few days in the studio have been an intense time of reflection. What I have noticed is that every part of our lives seems to be like this. We are on a path and we think we know where that path will lead. We make decisions based on the expected final outcome. No matter how much one feels prepared, it is only an illusion.

Even the most minute of decisions seems to be out of our hands. Driving down a road you expect to continue in a straight line on your own side. Then a chipmunk scurries from the dirt onto the tar and you have to turn the wheel, tapping the brake and temporarily slowing as you do so. Moments later a truck runs a stop sign and your vehicle just misses clipping the back side of that vehicle. If you had been one second further down the road, you would have crashed.

Even if only slightly, one-second of slowing-down is a diversion from the intended path. Or was the intended path to not crash? What is the consequence of the sum of these tiny diversions?

This past week has been emotionally-charged as I have witnessed those around me experience painful upheavals and grief. As removed as I may be, in the whole scope of things, I feel their pain on what is a comparatively miniscule level.

Sometimes, after the dust settles and we catch our breath again, we can see that beauty unfolds from the pain. Perhaps other lives are granted from one's loss. Perhaps a person's story inspires another to do great things. Perhaps the end of a relationship sets a person back on the path they were once on and thought maybe to never return.

Times like these, I am so grateful for the gift of being an artist, for having the outlet to express my innermost emotions. I am grateful that I have an awareness of the power of art and that no matter how horrible things may seem all around me, that in the moment, in that metaphysical space, all feels alright, focused, tunneled, and safe.

I end this blog today feeling like there is so much more to say, but I feel pulled to be in the studio. My inner-voice is pleading to manifest through symbols in wax, clay and paint.

It's best I go when called.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Maine is Still a "Wicked Good" State!

Detail from current sculpture that is in progress (completion expected this month!)
by Shanna Wheelock

That there is REAL snow!
April Fool's Day 2011 Nor'Easter
"The morning after"

Maine has been in the news a lot lately. I know what you are thinking....that snowstorm on April Fool's Day must have been a joke. But no, it wasn't. The state was pretty much enveloped by the white stuff and our school, like many others, was closed. Yes indeed, a snow day in April.

Sadly, the other media attention that Maine has been getting is not a joke either (oh how I wish it was!!!)

By only 38% of the vote, Paul LePage was elected governor of our state. He took office three months ago and since that time has continued to stir controversy with his demeaning language and archaic "roll-back-the-progress" approach.

I am proud to live in Maine, an environmental gem of a state, full of pride, hard workers, and a rich history in the arts. Even with all the hoopla that folks are seeing in the national news, I hope they remember that Maine is more than this one person on a power-trip who is seemingly trying to tear us down.

I have lived here all my life except for one year in the south. The one year that I spent away from my birth-state, I longed to return. Luckily, my California-blooded, philosopher/poet-husband was on-board with the move northeast. No regrets, and we count our blessings everyday to live in a place that is so majestically beautiful.

Here are some of Maine's highlights:

, fields, lakes, rivers, forests, ocean, desert, bogs, islands.....Hiking, fishing, skiing, kayaking, camping....museums, galleries, theaters, live music.....spring, summer, fall, and art festivals, county fairs....fine dining and "wicked good" (malls or quaint downtowns)....

And most importantly...a diverse and interesting mix of people who openly share their cultures and passions.

Maine lures people from all types of backgrounds. The inspiration found in the natural environment, as well as osmosis from being around other cool folks, brings us here and keeps us here.

Our state boasts an impressive list of artists, both past and present. Visit the Portland Museum of Art, Farnsworth Art museum, or any number of galleries to view historical master works and work by the up-and-comers.

To name just a few of the visual artists who have found inspiration in Maine:

Andrew Wyeth, Neil Welliver, Marseden Hartley, Louise Nevelson, Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, Fairfield Porter, and Georgia O'Keeffe.

If you want to view some of the contemporary works by artists who are creating here, visit the PMA biennial this spring. I am especially excited to see the work of two artists in this exhibit whom I admire: my former sculpture professor from USM, Michael Shaughnessy, and my current mentor in my MFA program at Heartwood College of Art, Kim Bernard.

And now let me tell you why I am so damn proud, more so than ever, to be an artist in Maine.

When LePage took it upon himself to remove Judy Taylor's mural about the labor history in Maine from the Department of Labor, artists spoke-up, loudly!

I am grateful to Natasha Mayers and Robert Shetterly for helping to organize the movement to return the mural to its intended home, for bridging the arts community with other workplace and cultural organizations, for working tirelessly to "right" LePage's wrongdoing, and for inspiring so many others to have a voice and to fight for what they believe in.

LePage has attacked on several fronts, but this time he picked a fight with the wrong group of folks. Most people who know artists know of their intelligence, ability to conjure creative solutions, intense passion, heightened sense of ethics, justice, pride, and empathy for humanity. Top this off with resiliency and a steadfast streak of tenacity...and you have a recipe for a movement that can, and will, put our state back on course.

Like so many other places in our world right now, Maine people are rising-up to preserve dignity and pride; in the workplace, in the home, in our souls. It's a battle worth fighting, and we won't give up!

Press-Conference and Rally to Return the Labor Mural
Monday, April 4, 2011, 12:00 p.m. noon
Hall of Flags, State House, Augusta, Maine
for an impressive list of speakers go to:

Labor Mural official website
Draw-a-thon Blog
Maine's Majority Website