I was awarded a 2017 Traveling Fellowship from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which is enabling me to dive into a project I have long wanted to do, and which is quickly proving to be a sprawling and fascinating research endeavor. Here is the description from their website:

Created in 1894 to encourage post-graduate work and travel, the Traveling Fellowships remain one of the most important and enduring gifts given to support alumni of the SMFA. Through independent work, exploration, and exhibition opportunities, these awards help launch individual careers.

In August, a jury composed of Lucas Cowan, Public Art Curator of the Rose Kennedy Conservancy in Boston; Amanda McDonald Crowley, cultural worker, curator and facilitator for the National Alliance for Media Art + Culture (NAMAC); and Dina Deitsch, the John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Interim Director at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University, awarded 10 fellowships from a pool of more than 200 applicants.

This is my original proposal for the Traveling Fellowship project and application:

Destinations: France, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, England, Scotland, Ireland

A page from Octavia Jones's 'Book of Relics', which includes pressed plant specimens from the places she visited in 1844

A page from Octavia Jones's 'Book of Relics', which includes pressed plant specimens from the places she visited in 1844

In 1844, my ancestor Calvin Jones traveled from Tennessee to Europe with his daughter Octavia. They each kept a journal, and Octavia also kept a “book of relics,” in which she pressed plant specimens from each of the locales they visited. My project will take these artifacts as the beginning of an investigation into place, memory, and the ways that souvenirs shape the experience of both. My work has enduringly pursued these themes, specifically through the places we inhabit, often using personal family history, homes, and artifacts as inspiration. The pieces emerge from the careful observation of the architecture built up and falling down around us and explores how we live within it: how we decorate, the repairs we make, the things we neglect, the shapes of a rug’s pattern. My work demands an intense immersion in spaces and places, and this process spurs a fascination with the myriad ways of remembering—journals, photographs, souvenirs, relics—and how these cues inflect and affect our memories. It is particularly interesting to have two very different takes on the same journey– that of an older man traveling with a lens towards business, farming, and economics, and the more innocent outlook of his young daughter.

My project aims to physically and imaginatively retrace the steps of Calvin and Octavia’s journey. Using their journals as my travel guide, I will revisit the sites they encountered 170 years ago, for example:

Baden Baden (Germany), 14th July

Winding up the mountain, at each angle a changing picture. The immense ruins, old trees stretching their broad arms through the broken wall, moss covered towers, banquet Hall, wine cellar, balcony, view. . . climbed the mountain, grand, romantic, each turn increased in sublimity.

How many of the buildings they wrote about still stand? Can I find the same plants that Octavia pressed into her book of relics? How will the filter of time, of contemporary media such as Instagram, and the lens of Octavia and Calvin’s interpretations affect the way I construct the meaning and memory of my own journey? Throughout my travels, I will make paintings, write a journal, and take photographs that enact a dialectic between my family’s history and the environmental, political and social changes that have occurred in the interim 170 years. I will make additional larger works based on the experience, and the result will be the creation of a new and updated archive of a journey.

This project could be very straight-forward: I could literally just go on the journey and retrace their steps, take pictures, pay attention to what moves me and the details I notice. Then I could make paintings from and about my experience. But there has been a nagging feeling that that isn’t and won’t be enough. It could be beautiful and moving just on it’s own, just at face value. These two people went on a journey through cities and countries that they did not know. They had experiences, they wrote journals and letters home about those experiences, they collected plant specimens and saved all their receipts. All of those artifacts were somehow saved so that I could read them 173 years later and decide that I would like to go on a trip like that. And now I have this amazing opportunity to do that: to go on a trip through several European countries to have new experiences and revisit their journey through a contemporary lens.

I can’t go blindly, though. Part of reading a diary from 173 years ago is the desire to contextualize it. You want to understand more than just the words on the page before you. You want to know what events were happening in the world at the time it was written; you want to know about the author’s situation that allowed him/her the luxury of a trip like this in 1844, and so you start reading more and doing research. And then once you start learning more things, you wonder what it means to recreate this trip 173 years later.

So that’s where I am right now. I am in the beginning stages of research. I am reading history books, I am reading letters and journals written by my ancestors, I am looking at old documents (receipts, ledgers, sketches). And simultaneously, as a painter, I am trying to figure out what kind of work I can and will make based on not only my trip, once I take it, but also the results of my current research. And how does the visual language I am using fit into this narrative? Maybe it doesn’t, and maybe I will figure out that I will need to make different work, but that’s all part of the process. I am excited to dive in, explore, experiment, and share as I go along.