His face was in the pine needles where he could smell all the tree, from roots deep in the damp earth to the moonlight blue branches, the highest tips swaying in the wind. The odors wrapped around him in a thin clear layer that sucked away the substance of his muscle and bone; his body became insubstantial…they would only see him as a shadow under the tree.
-Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
This project began with a gifted scrapbook of old family portraits and a waking dream vision of my grandfather on a beach being slowly covered with sand. This work has allowed me to enter into an intimate conversation with my Native American (Cherokee) and Anglo American ancestors who continue to live in the earth and stories they are a part of. Honoring the principle of limitations, I have chosen to deliberately restrict the number of images in these collages to four. Ancient Native artists honored the basic elements of Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water to derive form and truth in their ceramics. I have attempted to achieve the same by honoring this simplicity and communing with nature. The monochrome source images are all of relatives or imagined relatives (where no verified images could be found), and the color images generally present the landscapes where the pictured relatives lived. I have tried as best as possible to locate the original landscapes where the people lived and, often, where the source image was taken. Several of the landscapes provide the actual earth, fauna, and detritus from where the person’s home once stood. I have also attempted to incorporate references to Cherokee creation stories into many of these pieces. My process is ritual in nature and reflects my attempts to observe my ancestors’ spirits in the land that they have returned to. I have often incorporated rocks and mud in these images as a reference to the petroglyph art of Native North American peoples and the perennial desire to join one’s life force to the powerful, more abiding energy of the rock. The final collages have been digitally combined with minimal alteration.
The Cherokee Cutouts series is a deeply personal quest project that continues an exploration of using photographic print cutouts to evoke the presence of ancestral spirits in the land that they once inhabited and cared for. The animus of this ongoing project has been to use the photographic medium, which Barthes describes in Camera Lucida as ''never distinguished from its referent (from what it represents)'' to speak directly with ancestors whom time and social pressure attempted to hide. This project attempts to answer the question I have often been asked: "What are you?" My Cherokee ancestry, despite my distinctive physical features, was consciously hidden for generations in a likely effort to pass as fully white and retain full legal and social rights. Indeed, Native Americans in my home state of SC were denied state citizenship rights until the 1950s and had to subsist on sales of pottery, handcrafts, and odd jobs. The source images for this project are from the archives of the Cherokee museum in Cherokee, N.C. Many of them are from the great James Mooney ethnographic survey of the Cherokee in the 1890s. I have spent extensive time with these stunning portraits, intimately studying the contours, dress, and facial communication of the sitters. By studying what Barthes terms the Punctum (or unique details that bring an image alive), I have come to learn a little bit about who these people were. I have cut them out—removed them from the camera’s illusion of capturing time—and returned them to the flow of the land in the Qualla reservation in Cherokee, NC that they likely inhabited. The miniature cutouts of hands and busts represent the enduring presence of the Cherokee in the land; one must be still, lower one’s head to the ground, feel and smell the earth to experience this presence. I also have attempted to incorporate allusions to Cherokee creation stories into many of these pieces. I have selected mostly female subjects as a reference to the closest Cherokee ancestor that I have been able to definitively trace. She was a woman named Sallie given in marriage to a young German man who was part of a wagon train passing through western North Carolina. They returned to South Carolina and settled in Lancaster County, where I was raised and where many of my relatives continue to live.
This cutouts project developed as an evolution of my digital collage work with ancestor images and was created concurrently. These works have been informed by the earth/body art of Ana Mendieta and represent an effort to return to the “primary structures” advocated by the earth artists of the late 20th Century. While it is very easy to combine disparate images digitally, I have returned to a simpler, perhaps more pre-historical, process of combining craft (photographic prints) and nature. The physical act of returning the ancestor’s image to the earth is an attempt to jump around representation and say exactly what I mean: my ancestors are still alive in this land and here they are. Kara Walker and her caricatured silhouettes of antebellum cruelties also informed the process and presented the potential for deconstructing representation through alteration and re-contextualization. There is a sacred, ritual aspect to the creation of these images that draws on motifs found in Mexican Day of the Dead alter pieces and Mendieta’s early Silueta work. The name “Catawba cutouts” refers to the area of the Catawba River where most of the images were taken and to the Catawba Native Americans who have cared for the earth spirit for ages.
This series arose as a counter-point to the images I took in Catawba Cutouts of my grandmother’s hands. The monochrome image represents the hands of Mr. Henry Brooks, who was born into slavery in Green County, Ga. By extracting a cutout of Mr. Brook’s hands, I have selected to represent the primary means of his survival and the sole source of social value that was imposed upon him by the antebellum/Jim Crow power structure. For it was through the metonymy of “Field Hand” that slaves and sharecroppers were commonly labeled. I have attempted to restore his human value by visualizing his primary role in the Southern landscape that echoes through his descendants in our day. Using census records, I was able to track his likely residence to two locations in Green County, Ga. One of the locations where he once likely worked as a sharecropper is now partially flooded by lake Oconee. Another location was in the nearby community of Siloam. All of the cutout images were taken in and around both of these locations. It is my desire to honor the great struggle and spirit of this man by metaphorically returning him to the land that he cultivated, cared for, and knew intimately.