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"Philadelphia Freedom: Two of Paring Knives” 2010
82"h x 74.5"w. #388. Peace Cozy #33.
Began sketches 3-21-10, began painting 4-10-10. Finished art quilt 6-4-10.
Whole cloth painting on fabric. Beginning drawing and colors with airbrush, then airpen writing with fabric paint. Machine crazy grid quilted. One row of hand sewing inside edge of border, using perle cotton. One Green Temple Buddha Boy bead, one Pink Buddha Girl bead. One Peace Cozy appliqué.
Statement: This piece is the next in my Kitchen Tarot series, in the 56 minor card quilts (after finishing the 22 major card quilts in 2008). I randomly drew the Two of Swords card as the piece to work on next, and in my Kitchen Tarot, Swords are Paring Knives. But besides the Kitchen Tarot continuing theme, this piece’s purpose was, from the start, to tell about the nine enslaved Africans illegally kept by President and Mrs Washington in the President’s House in Philadelphia, during the over six years of Washington’s residence there. These nine were: Austin, Christopher Sheels, Giles, Hercules, Joe Richardson (also called Postilion Joe), Moll, Oney Judge, Paris, and Richmond.
Philadelphia was the temporary capital of the country, while the District of Columbia was being built. The decision to teach the public about Pres. Washington illegally holding slaves in Philadelphia happened only recently, as the City physically unearthed the foundation of the President’s House, and found clear foundation rocks of a slave quarters connected to it - right beside the Liberty Bell and the new Liberty Center, which is nearing completion now. A citizen’s group called ATAC, Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, put pressure on the National Park Service to create an educational monument about these slaves, to honor them and to set historic records straight. A very inclusive article about the history of Washington and his enslaved Africans at the President’s House, is found at http://avengingtheancestors.com/releases/r4.htm.
Pennsylvania in 1780 had enacted the Gradual Abolition Act, which included freeing slaves brought into the state, after they held residency for six months. To prevent losing his slaves, President Washington made sure that they were taken out of state every six months, so that technically, they couldn’t achieve their freedom. PA law stated that this was an unfair, illegal practice, but because Washington was the President, the state looked the other way, and his slaves remained enslaved. Washington justified his breaking of the law, by saying that he was a Virginian, only visiting during his Presidency, and that therefore his slaves were under Virginia law. This was not true, and he knew it.
After making many, many sketches, to try to figure out how to depict this situation in my piece, I settled on the idea of the slaves flying up, out of a bird cage, which was also Martha Washington’s hoop skirt, which was also the Liberty Bell, which was an early symbol of abolition groups. During one of my Turtle Art Camps, in April, 2010, I freehand drew this imagery on my large white cloth, as an airbrush demonstration for my students, and made a sketch of it afterwards, to document what I had settled on. (I really do prefer making up my imagery as I go, while I use my airbrush to draw a piece’s composition.) You can see a lot of photos of me airbrushing my 82 x 72" image freehand, in pictures taken by my Turtle Art Camp students (Masha Boasso, Kathy Zieben, and Bonnie Zieben), to study how I developed this painting.
Besides the nine birds, who are the enslaved Africans held by the Washingtons in Philadelphia, I added a tenth bird, hovering right above the Washingtons, and this bird became President Obama. I had wanted to include him in the image all along, as right now, he and President Washington bracket the succession of Presidents of our country. White, slave-holding president and black free president. I wanted to include Obama as a bird facing the nine birds fleeing the President’s House. (They did not actually escape en-mass, but this is my fantasy. Actually two slaves did make it to freedom from this group.) Pres. Washington signed into law the Fugitive Slave act in 1793, which would include justifying his sending people to other states, to try to bring back his escaped slaves later. His escaped former slaves Oney Judge and Hercules managed to avoid being kidnapped and returned to Washington.
To tie this theme in with the Kitchen Tarot Two of Paring Knives (my deck’s version of Swords) I put paring knives into the hands of George and Martha W, and placed them at a menacing angle, so that they are this time seen as weapons, instead of as tools, which I usually would show the paring knives as. I wanted to depict the Washingtons as a real threat to the escaping slaves. As for interpreting the Two of Swords, one definition I found said “the focus here is on making decisions, and moving ahead without fear or doubt. Align yourself with supportive friends, and allow them to help you. You will have success in your endeavors but some obstacles will remain.” I feel this definition fits well with the concept of the slaves’ desire and need to escape their bondage by the Washingtons.
After coloring in all the forms in my painting with my airbrush, I began to do the many-weeks work of airpen journal writing on this piece. First I told some of the stories of this historical situation, often using research papers by Edward Lawler Jr, whose essays are found at www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse. Lawler is the leading historian on this topic in the world. One paper I found most useful and recorded most of, was his article “Slavery by the Numbers,” which gave a very fact filled history of not only this particular situation, but also of the history of slavery within Pennsylvania during this time period. I am very grateful to Mr. Lawler for his permission to use his research so extensively in my own writing on this piece.
As May 4th drew near, I started reporting on this piece about the Kent State massacre, which happened 40 years ago. On the Michael Moore website I found a streaming video of a Truth and Reconciliation hearings event taking place live in Kent, Ohio, over two days. I was able to watch live testimonies of many people who had been in Kent when the killing of four students and wounding of 12 others happened, as students protested the escalation of the War in Vietnam into Cambodia in 1970. Because I was at KSU that weekend, visiting my brother, this matter is part of my own history and very important to my life.
I had been a Kent State student when I was a new freshman in 1968, joining SDS, taking part in lots of protests there. Then I’d dropped out and gotten married. A year and a half later, I was newly pregnant, and stranded at KSU the weekend of the killings, because no one on campus was allowed to leave. My first husband and I got out two days before the killings happened, and my fears of the tear gas hurting my baby were allayed. When I heard about the murders, I instantly wondered if I would have been very involved in those protests, if I hadn’t dropped out to get married.
After writing on this piece about the Kent State killings, I went on to report on the Jackson State murders, which happened ten days after Kent State, which we heard very little about. This time it was black students being fired on with live bullets, just like at Kent, and it seems a very racist collective reaction, that this incident, equally tragic, got very little notice historically
Then I found two more similar situations to Kent and Jackson State: the Orangeburg massacre, two years before, and the Greensboro killings in 1979. In all four instances, live bullets were used against US citizens protesting injustices.
I decided to add stories about this March-to-May’s protests in Bangkok and the rest of Thailand, and about last year’s election protests in Iran, since these also involved brutalities and murders of protesters by governments. I have a friend whose daughter was unable to come home from Burma, through the Bangkok airport, with her two year old son, for several weeks, as the Thai protests continued and the airport was shut down. (Jessie and River are safely home now.)
I struggled to make logical connections between these six modern historic group murder situations and the President’s House slave story. Even though Washington’s slaves were not murdered, I feel that their situation is another case of the System doing irreparable damage to a powerless group of Americans. And in all these cases, no one of the perpetrators was ever brought to justice for their crimes.
I included lyrics to Bob Marley songs on this piece, especially from “One Love” and “We Don’t Need No More Trouble.”
As in the making of all of my time-capsule-esque pieces, I wove in stories from my own life and the news of current events, so that this piece is anchored in the context of the time during which I was making it. Besides documenting the histories of the Washington enslaved Africans and brutalities to protesters in history, I told personal and current events stories about:
The earthquake in Tibet (4-13); the volcano erupting in Iceland (4-14); Obama signing the new law on same-sex and unmarried couples’ rights for visitation and medical decisions (4-16); Earth Day and Eva’s half-birthday at 5 and a half (4-22); Eva’s first ever visit here without her parents for three days (4- 24 to 26); the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and subsequent oil spill (4-20); Pres. Obama’s graduation speech at Ann Arbor, MI (5-1?); the Kentucky Derby - with “my horse” Super Saver winning (5-1); Obama’s first visit to the oil spill (5-2); Mama Wanda’s surprise 80th birthday party (5-8); Sherry Weiser’s death in my family (5-8); David Cameron became UK Prime Minister (5-11); I sent in my passport renewal paperwork, so I can go to England in August (5-12); my walking partner Jerry Snodgrass turned 72 (5-14); progress of our Save Christmas Run Swimming Pool efforts to raise money to keep our city pool open (throughout this piece’s making); airports shut down all over Europe, due to the Icelandic volcano’s ash (5-16); Rita and I attended the FAVA quilt show opening in Oberlin (5-16); Iran finally cut a deal on Uranium enrichment for medical use only (5-17); YouTube turned 5 (5-17); Jude Townsend took a 2-day class from me here (5-18 and 19); our garage door repair (water-retention from painting my Obama and my family mural caused weight stress problems)(5-21); Eva graduated from preschool (5-28); actors Gary Coleman and Dennis Hopper died (5-28 and 29, respectively); Gretchen’s grandmother on her father’s side died (5-29); I wrote more Bob Marley lyrics in Martha W’s hair (5-29).
After quilting this large painting and adding some final writings in the new border, I finally used the rubber stamp made and given to me by Michelle Flamer, the curator for the President’s House exhibition (for which I was making this piece.) Michelle had seen my piece when it was only a painting with a little bit of writing on it, when we were at the opening of the Obama “Journey of Hope” exhibition in Wilberforce, OH, at the National Afro-American Museum on April 17 (that story is written about here, too.) And Michelle decided to send me a rubber stamp she had made years ago, because seeing my interpretation of the enslaved Africans as birds flying away had reminded her of the song “I’ll Fly Away” and of her stamp about it. The stamp is of the words “Fly away!”
Because I hadn’t written on most of the faces on this piece, I decided now, after everything was really “done,” that I would use the stamp on the larger faces of Obama and the Washingtons, as well as on Martha’s ankle and her skirt hem’s corner. I’d never used a stamp on a finished quilt before, but felt this was important to just do it anyway. I used fabric paint, brushing it onto a small plate, and then pressed the stamp into the thin layer of paint. The first time I used it on a face on the quilt, I mistakenly used it upside-down on Obama’s face. I panicked at first, but then decided that the message would be a secret code for the slaves: a covert urging to them to escape! So I left it that way (as if I could change it!), and went on to use the stamp right-side-up on the Washingtons’ faces. I used red paint for the stamp’s “fly away” words, so it would show up well, and also be seen with a sense of urgency by anyone viewing it.
I am so grateful to Michelle Flamer, for giving me her wonderful stamp, which she had made herself. She told me that she had made it for a Juneteenth celebration gift card. Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger gave a speech in Galveston, TX, letting enslaved Africans in Texas know about Pres. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had freed all slaves in the South on Jan. 1, 1863. Read about Juneteenth at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juneteenth.
This holiday, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, is celebrated by many African Americans, and is a legal holiday in 36 states today.
As I finish writing this statement, the Gulf Coast oil spill is over six weeks old, and BP has finally succeeded in controlling part of the gushing oil leaking out of its exploded well head. But a huge amount of oil is expected to continue to leak out before the gusher, which began on April 20, will be really stopped. Meanwhile, the combination of leaked oil and chemical dispersants has created horrific “oil plumes” that go deep into the gulf waters, and environmental damage far into the future will most likely destroy a lot of our plant and animal life in both water and shore ecosystems. I fear extensive damage to the whole Earth’s life balance is being made. I think my next piece will address the oil spill in depth. What we need is a huge healing - and that is true of the historic problems made by slavery and racism, too. Like this oil spill, slavery made insufferable damage to our human family and its psyche, from that time forward, worldwide.
May true healing come out of our knowledge of and discussions of Washington’s slavery at the President’s House.
- Susan Shie, June 7, 2010, Wooster, Ohio
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