Circling the neighborhood this morning and contemplating the instability of knowing (do other people do this while dog walking?) I was reminded of this print I made in 2011 for the exchange portfolio 50 Places. The text is an original short story from a collection of five very short stories I wrote, printed, and bound in an earlier artist book titled Snapshot.
After being invited to participate in 50 Places, this story continued to revolve in my mind. With the invitation, I was asked to create a print about a state and I was assigned the place of South Carolina. Only at the time, I had no experience of South Carolina. Even now, while I live 20 minutes from the border of South Carolina, I still mainly associate it with trips to Costco.
Being asked to create an image, a narrative, about a place I had no real connection to lead me to think about all the stories in our life that we experience only indirectly. I thought of history, of genealogy and family narratives, the way that we so easily forget and confuse. What do we really know?
Copied below is my statement from 50 Places. It is a story that isn't quite right. It's a story I knew I didn't know. It was the story I had to tell at the time. Isn't that all there ever is to tell?
In the early 1800s, no one knows exactly when, Laborn Phillips and his wife Maria left North Carolina and traveled into the rugged terrain of the Appalachian Mountains in far southwestern Virginia. Together they became the first settlers of an area known as Turkey Foot. Maria was Cherokee and Laborn is said to have been of Welch origins. Some people report that Laborn stole Maria and that this is the reason for their flight into unsettled territory. Others attempt to offer the reassurance that he did not steal, but in fact traded for his wife.
In Turkey Foot, Laborn and Maria raised eight children. Their seventh child, born around 1845, known as Laborn Clark Phillips, was my paternal great-great grandfather. In 1903, Turkey Foot became a booming coal town known as Dante. The boom was short lived, but the lore that surrounds the subsequent six generations of the Phillips family is extensive and varied. Merchants or moonshiners, it depends on who you ask. Money, feuds, betrayals, bank crashes, and buildings with secret rooms; all of the elements of a good narrative are incorporated. Of course, a family history such as this is highly unstable. New stories continually emerge and old truths evolve in their amorphous existence.
A more recent story concerns a land feud from the 1990s. After using a Phillips’ family farm for a number of years, a neighboring family decided to claim the land as their own. I imagine that their relationship to this land created an identification with the property that led them to believe that it did, in fact, belong to them. Due to poor record keeping, this debate of ownership evolved into a 10-year court battle. After proving that the land did legally belong to the Phillips family, the neighbors were forced to relinquish their claim. They did not do so quietly. With a distinct audacity, they stole a metal horse from a shed on the Phillips farm. That horse now hangs above the front door of their doublewide trailer, directly across the street from its visible absence on the rusted metal building.
An interest in the interdependent relationship of place and identity, with a focus on the domestic space is at the core of my artistic practice. Both the constructs of place and identity stand at an intersection of myth and reality. Their existence depends upon a ritual maintenance that involves a continual process of relation and negation. The ability of our memory to continually reconfigure itself, always shifting the past in accordance with our present needs, creates a conflation of time, fact, and fiction that further contributes to the instability of knowing. Family lore claims that Laborn and Maria came from North Carolina, but for all I really know, it might could be South Carolina.
50 Places is a set of prints, known as an exchange portfolio, curated and organized by the wonderful Melanie Yazzie. 50 artists were invited to participate in this project. Each artist was assigned a state from The United States of America and asked to create a print that referenced this place by including the name of the state in either the titled or the image of the print. Each artist hand pulled an edition of 55 prints and wrote a statement to accompany their image. At a central location (Yazzie's house) these prints were collated into 55 portfolios, or sets, that contain one print from each artist. One portfolio was then sent to each of the 50 artists, and 5 portfolios were donated and accepted to various institutional art collections, including the collection of the Denver Art Museum in Denver, Colorado.