…of My Ancestors

In my senior year of undergraduate studies at Alabama A & M University, a professor shared words that have had a rippling effect on my existence. She said in a smooth deep voice, “Son, hold your head up. Your success is inevitable. This Alabama red clay is rich with the blood of your ancestors.” I am certain she had no idea of the range of impact those words would have on multiple levels. Neither did I. This makes me take more consideration regarding any words that I share with those within the sphere of my influence.

For a period of time, during my undergrad years, I did not want to be from Alabama. I din’t want to be associated with Alabama, it’s history, or in my mind, it’s lack of culture and positive reputation. I wanted to be from anyplace else. It wasn’t until years later, when I would relocate to Chester, PA, just southwest of Philadelphia that I began to feel the place of my birth stir in my chest. After living there a while, I was finally ok to say I was from Alabama. Distance and perspective had stoked my appreciation. I moved back to Alabama when my children were still babies. I preferred to raise them in the south. Specifically on this hallowed ground, “rich with the blood of my ancestors.”

A few years ago, I walked with a foreman on a space that would become a major business destination. As we entered a covered area in this large warehouse, I felt the soft ground give beneath my feet. I look down to see the red earth that had not seen rain for the better part of a century. It was like walking on a bed of red talcum powder. I asked the foreman if I could take some. He produce a container and told me to take all I could. I did, along with some rusted machine parts. The two were inextricably related.

I had a long history with the red clay. It was my footprint, the pathway of my childhood. I hd experimented with dying fabrics with it, tinted wood, made clay pots, temporary sculptures, gourmet mud pies, eaten it, used it as a mud mask, let is squish up between my toes on a creek bank, had mud fights, and constructed homemade bricks.  This red clay that caked on our shoes, stained our clothes, and the bottoms of our feet took on a powerful significance relating to my story and ancestral unfolding.  

As a painter, the next question arose. Can I paint with this? Through a series of experiments and trials, I found that I could sculpt the unforgiving substance with water and brushes to build space on a flat surface. The clay responds very different from paints.  The permanence is supreme. The paper is dyed by the iron oxides present. The nature of red clay gives me a strange feeling that I’m painting with a living substance. Painting with red clay become less of me and more of us.

“We are linked by blood, and blood is memory without language.” Joyce Carol Oates 

Those words I accept as the foundational principle of truth that drives my work. It’s alive.  Iron oxide gives the clay its haunting red coloring. Iron is the essential element for blood production. Blood is the sacred force in man and beast – the ultimate sacrificial substance, representing life itself. Blood is a charged element that symbolically marks my work. Iron is present in blood and as oxides in the clay. Iron, also present in much of my work was used in building material, weapons, tools… and shackles. Iron serves as a viable conductor.

My ancestors spilled their lifeblood from the womb of my mothers to the altars of this southern space. All those years ago, that professor shared much more than inspirational words. She prophesied over me that day. My present creative exploration manifested organically. It honors the life/clay/blood connection to sacrificial power. Sacrifices activate the divine. The divine is the source of re-memberance, resurrection, redemption, and restoration. My art operates as a sacrament on those pillars,  an invocation to reconnect to the sanctity of life. I’m completing the circle on this miracle territory. This is blood work. 

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